Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

Plutonium Pits, Pantex & the Ogallala Aquifer

by Mavis Belisle, Director, The Peace Farm, Panhandle Greens

In the past couple of weeks, I've been called from my work several times by the sounds of geese migrating south. In the open skies of the Texas Panhandle, I've seen as many as seven separate flocks of ducks, geese, cranes or other migrating birds in the air at one time, some flying high toward the coast, some circling lower for a feeding stop among the region's grain fields and playa lakes before traveling on. I watch them from the Peace Farm, and environmental and disarmament organization located across the highway from Pantex, the nation's assembly and disassembly plant for nuclear weapons, and now the interim storage facility for plutonium pits removed from those weapons.

The Legacy

Pantex, like most other Department of Energy (DOE) facilities, is a Superfund site. It opened soon after Pearl Harbor as a convention ammunitions plant for World War II, closed briefly after the war, and reopened in the early 1950s with a new mission: assembling nuclear weapons and maintaining those in the US stockpile.

Pantex took parts manufactured at other DOE facilities (highly enriched uranium components from Oak Ridge, plutonium pits from Rocky Flats, tritium parts from Savannah River, non-nuclear parts from several other facilities), added the high explosives, and sent the assembled weapons on to their deployment sites.

... the high explosives and some other parts, often contaminated with depleted uranium and chemicals used in the manufacturing process, were burned in the open air at Pantex, the smoke rising high above the grain fields and grazing cattle around the plant.

As weapons were "retired" and replaced by newer, more effective models, they were disassembled at Pantex. The parts were returned to their point of origin in the weapons complex, and the high explosives and some other parts, often contaminated with depleted uranium and chemicals used in the manufacturing process, were burned in the open air at Pantex, the smoke rising high above the grain fields and grazing cattle around the plant.

The plant was also responsible for maintenance of the nuclear weapons, and they were cycled through for inspection, replacement of the tritium, and upgrades when available. The decades of this work have left areas of the plant contaminated with depleted uranium, and, more critically, have contaminated the playas and groundwater with a variety of heavy metals and industrial chemicals, including TCE, high explosives, and hexavalent chromium.

The plant sits over the Ogallala aquifer, a large, freshwater aquifer that lies under parts of eight states, including the grain-producing Great Plains. For this area of the Texas Panhandle, there are no other sources of drinking water. Water from the single river, the Canadian is too saline, and must be mixed with Ogallala water to be drinkable. The other sources of water, the playas, hold water briefly after rains, but are dry most of the time. Between the surface and the Ogallala are, in some places, "perched" aquifers that hold limited amounts of water, and it is these perched aquifers that now show contamination. In many places, however, less than 100 feet separates the aquifers, and the most recent studies are showing traces of high explosives in the Ogallala itself. The contamination of the playas is also important, because they are the primary source of recharge for the aquifer.

The Picture Today

The end of the Cold War found the Department of Energy complex in disarray, with vast quantities of dangerous radioactive and mixed wastes in unsafe storage, aging plants that could not be operated safely, either for workers or the environment, and the inability to bring new facilities into operation because of costs and safety factors. Rocky Flats was totally shut down. For Pantex, this meant there was no longer a place to return the pits when they were removed from weapons. As dismantlement increased the number of pits and the nation stood divided on what to do with all the plutonium, it became necessary to designate Pantex as an "interim" storage facility.

No one knows how "interim" is to be defined. There are factions who want the plutonium converted for use as a fuel for nuclear reactors, those who want it held for future use in weapons should the arms race be renewed, and those who argue for any of a variety of disposal options. None of the choices is good, and the decision will not be easy, technically or politically.

In the meantime, pits continue to pile up at Pantex, in World War II era bunkers, in an area in which active weapons are also staged, and in which other chemicals and wastes are staged, waiting for use or disposal. The bunkers are on the primary landing approach for the Amarillo airport, about ten miles from the runway. The airport, because it was formerly a SAC base, is used not only for commercial and general aviation, but training for a variety of military aircraft, practicing takeoffs and landings there. A crash could have disastrous consequences.

In permit applications now before the state regulatory agency, Pantex is expected to be allowed to increase its discharge to the playa lakes and to increase the volume of emissions from the open air burning. A very weak site treatment plan for mixed wastes has just been negotiated with the state.

On the Horizon

Most troubling of all, however, are prospects for the future. As DOE sites scramble for a shrinking amount of work, area economic interests are willing to take on any activity that will ensure a stable, if not growing, number of jobs. For Pantex, this almost certainly means some form of plutonium processing and possibly disposition.

It is already almost certain that the pits cannot be kept in their present form indefinitely, both because of deterioration and the risks of proliferation. It is already clear that it is not possible to assure the safety of the aquifer even with past and present operations. Plutonium processing, whether for use as fuel, in preparation for vitrification, or to a more stable and proliferation resistant form for continued storage, will dramatically increase the risk to the aquifer. It will also jeopardize the viability of the region's agricultural industry, one of the most productive in the nation for grain and beef cattle. The loss of agricultural resources here would be felt nationwide.

Decisions about the future of Pantex are important, not just for the region, but for all of us. They will impact how easy it is to begin the arms race again, or whether we will move toward a "plutonium economy." The quantity and quality of our food production resources are at risk with increased activity here. The natural resources deserve protection for their own intrinsic value. There are signs around the plant of the presence of the rare and beautiful swift fox, and an abundance of wildlife survives even amid the grazing and agriculture. And surely the world would be a poorer place if the passage of the migrating water fowl were threatened.

We can no longer depend on luck or grace or the expertise of generals and scientists to protect ourselves and the environment from nuclear folly. We-Greens and other environmentalists and other responsible inhabitants of the planet-must act to end nuclear activities, at Pantex and elsewhere, and do all we can to limit the consequences of decades of nuclear irresponsibility.

The Peace Farm, founded in 1986, is located on 20 acres across US 50 from the Pantex Plant. Formed to bring attention to the dangers of the nuclear arms race, and the environmental and safety risks of the Pantex Plant in particular, it seeks to service as an ecological model for nonviolent change. Since 1986, it has hosted one or more peace camps a year, and a variety of workshops and other educational activities in coalition with other environmental and social justice organizations.

For more information about the Peace Farm and its work, please contact us at HCR 2 Box 25, Panhandle, TX 79068, 806-335-1715,

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