Nuclear Swords Beaten Into Pits

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico -- They go in looking like bombs and come out looking like beer cans. Deadly beer cans.

Rattling around inside each can is a hockey puck-size disk of plutonium -- the lethal remains of a nuclear bomb.

The United States and other countries that for years stockpiled weapons of mass destruction are now having to figure out ways to destroy massive numbers of those weapons.

Congress is considering ratification of START II, which would reduce stockpiles in the former Soviet Union and the United States from an estimated 55,000 four years ago to about 3,500 nuclear weapons apiece by 2003.

The politics of reducing national arsenals are complex. But scientists say negotiations are far simpler than the technical challenge of dismantling.

"It is incredibly complicated to handle plutonium and package it for long-term storage. If too much gets too close together, it can spontaneously start a nuclear reaction,'' said Jim Toevs, who is in charge of nuclear materials disposition at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Last month, the lab and the U.S. Department of Energy invited reporters for a first-ever glimpse of the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System, or ARIES, a $30 million project to design and produce a machine for dismantling nuclear bombs.

"We've long said we handle plutonium from cradle to grave here. ARIES is the means by which we put these weapons to bed,'' said Joe Martz, a weapon component technology group leader at the lab.

Fifty years ago, Los Alamos researchers designed the world's first atomic weapon. Since then, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons have been designed, produced and maintained throughout the world.

U.S. components were built in different states and assembled into weapons at the Pantex plant in Texas. The plant's workers now are dismantling most of the estimated 20,000 nuclear warheads the United States had at the end of the Cold War in 1992.

Most of what was once a nuclear bomb is crushed beyond recognition to prevent national secrets about the weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. Gold and other precious materials are recycled and sold.

But the pits -- spherical sealed containers with plutonium inside at the heart of each weapon -- cause the most consternation.

"That's the big question: What do we do with all those pits?'' said Bart Flamm, an ARIES researcher at Los Alamos. In the 1980s, pits were sent to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver where the plutonium was leached out by acid in a process that produced unwieldy amounts of radioactive liquid waste.

For environmental and safety reasons, Rocky Flats was closed in 1989. Today, the pits are stored in World War II bunkers near Pantex with doors so thick and heavy they don't use locks because special equipment is needed to open them. Inside the pits, the plutonium is disintegrating.

Flamm is part of an elite team of 30 researchers who designed ARIES -- the all-in-one nuclear bomb disarming machine that can flip pits upside-down, pry open one end, and inject hydrogen gas.

The gas turns the plutonium into a powder that filters down into a crucible where it is melted into an ingot. The ingot is welded into a canister that is filled with helium, which keeps oxygen from touching the plutonium.

The entire process is completed within a large box. Workers standing outside the box use hermetically sealed gloves to reach inside.