Disposal of Warhead Plutonium Awaits Federal Study of Options

Article excerpt

AS Pentagon officials grapple with the hazards of unexploded bombs and land mines, the Department of Energy is trying to decide how to dispose of over 10,000 pounds of one of the most powerful explosives on earth - plutonium.

The radioactive substance the department uses to make atomic bombs poses massive security and environmental risks. Only ten pounds are needed to make a crude atomic bomb, and plutonium remains radioactive for 24,000 years.

The Energy Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying the problem, but a final disposal plan is not expected until 1996. Congressional critics say the department's progress has been "torpid, at best" and are demanding that the Clinton administration address plutonium disposal immediately.

"Excess weapons plutonium, particularly in the former Soviet states, is a national security problem for the United States of utmost concern," Senator J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana said during Senate hearings on the issue last month. "Stringent safeguards are needed to make sure that none of this material falls into the wrong hands."

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary said in an interview that no final decision will be made until a legally mandated study of the environmental impact of plutonium disposal is completed in March 1995. …