In a sprawling compound of 323 buildings outside the dusty North Texas city of
Amarillo, technicians work under intense security and bomb-proof shielding dismantling
some of the deadliest weapons ever created by man.
The 1.9-million square
foot complex is home to Pantex, the company charged with taking apart and safely
storing outdated American nuclear warheads.
What is known about how a nuclear
weapon is dismantled mainly comes from this complex. Similar facilities in Britain
and France are more secretive and in Russia, considered by experts the most important
dismantlement operation, almost nothing is known.
How to dismantle a bomb -- the
U.S. case study
The U.S has been dismantling
weapons for as long as they have been making them, said Geoffrey Forden, a research
associate at MIT's Security Studies Program.
Robert Norris, a senior research
associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and his colleague Hans Kristensen
estimate that from 1945 to 1990, the United States produced some 70,000 nuclear
weapons at several sites. The Cold War saw the highest levels of production; in
1960 alone the country made 7,718 warheads. Of the 70,000 warheads, the country
has dismantled about 60,000, according to Norris and Kristensen.
The process is painstaking, according to Matthew Bunn,
senior research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
at Harvard University.
"One guy turns the screw and another guy says 'OK, I've turned
the screw,'" Bunn said.
Disassembly takes roughly one to
two weeks for an average warhead. The process takes place in one of 13 special
rooms known as "Gravel Gerties" -- rooms reinforced to endure explosions of up
to 250 kilograms of TNT. The facilities are also designed so that if a bomb detonated,
the arched dome would lift up and them settle back on the gertie, trapping much
of the radioactive material inside.
The first step is to remove the physics
package, which is the actual bomb -- the primary, plutonium bomb and the secondary,
which is the thermonuclear component, according to Forden.
The two are then
separated and the secondary is put into storage at the Y12 Plant in Oak Ridge,
Tenn., while the primary continues on at Pantex. The various layers need to be
removed, similar to a ball with a number of concentric layers.
ball is a plutonium sphere about the size of a grapefruit. The plutonium is melted
down to a couple of inches in diameter and the pit is placed into storage. Normally
the pit would be used for the next generation of weapons, but the United States
is not officially making any new bombs, according to Forden.
The United States intends to turn 7,000 of the 12,000
pits stored at Pantex into plutonium oxide, which when added to uranium oxide
can be used to create a mixed oxide fuel (MOX) and used to fuel nuclear reactors,
Norris said. The remaining 5,000 pits are a "strategic reserve" to replace any
active warheads in the United States' stockpile, according to the Bulletin of
the Atomic Scientists.
While the United States has pushed for nonproliferation
in other countries, its own weapons program, along with Russia's, accounts for
more than 85 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal, according to the Bulletin
of the Atomic Scientists.
The United States, however, continues to dismantle
its outdated nuclear warheads -- a stockpile that has shrunk since the end of
the Cold War.
Disarming a country
As delicate as the process of taking apart a single warhead is,
the international effort to dismantle an entire nation's weapons
program is a diplomatic and technological feat tackled by the
United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
1994 the IAEA officially declared that South Africa's nuclear program had been
dismantled -- a step taken by South Africa's government as a way of becoming more
acceptable to the international community. More recently, Libya announced that
it would dispose of its nuclear program as a way to improve its relationship with
A country's weapons program is considered fully dismantled when
the inventory on paperwork given to the IAEA matches the hardware
found, according to Forden.
Weapons are dismantled
when the parts have been separated and the plutonium pit has been safely removed
Russia has kept mum on the size of its arsenal and the whereabouts
of its disassembled nuclear materials, and some analysts have questioned the safety
of its program.
"It's an issue of secrecy and transparency. We don't want
anyone nosing around here and we'll take care of it ourselves thank you," Norris
said, referring to the Russians.
In Libya, known officially as the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,
officials announced in 2003 that the country would dismantle its secret weapons
"GSPLAJ believes that the arms race will neither serve its security
nor the region's security and contradicts [Libya's] great concern for a world
that enjoys peace and security," Libyan officials said in a statement.
African nation had previously been shunned by the West for its involvement in
the 1998 bombing of a PanAm plane above Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
Following IAEA inspections of Libya's nuclear facilities,
officials revealed that the country did not have a complete weapon.
we have seen is a program at a very initial state," IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei
said following the inspections.
With the help of the United States and Britain,
Libya signed on to a dismantlement program that included teams from the two superpowers
removing much of its weapons-grade material and dismantling it.
2004 much of Libya's materials, including uranium and other components-- some
developed in Pakistan's now infamous Khan Research Laboratories-- were in the
U.S. being studied, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.
then, Libya has agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to enter the country unannounced
for inspections of its atomic facilities.
In November 1991, an IAEA verification team in South Africa
found about 400 kg of weapons-grade enriched uranium at the government's Atomic
Energy Corporation Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center.
While the find lead to suspicions that South Africa may have
had a nuclear weapons program, the IAEA team did not find anything
to suggest that potentially dangerous components of the nuclear
weapons program remained, according to The Federation of American
In a speech before parliament in 1993, South African President
F.W. de Klerk publicly announced for the first time that South Africa had had
a nuclear program from 1974-1990, during which time it made six nuclear devices,
according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The program, according
to de Klerk, was intended to provide defense leverage in Southern Africa where
neighboring countries opposed South Africa's segregationist system of apartheid.
to South African officials, the country took apart its program in 1990 and a year
later signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In late 1994, the IAEA verified
that South Africa's weapons program had been dismantled.