Nukes disassembled faster

WASHINGTON – Technicians have been dismantling nuclear warheads much faster than had been expected, taking apart 50 percent more warheads during the last eight months than in all of the previous year, the Energy Department says.

“It’s good news from a global nuclear safety standpoint. There will be fewer nuclear weapons in the world,” said Thomas D’Agostino, head of the department’s nuclear weapons program.

D’Agostino said the number of warheads is classified, but he said he had set a goal of increasing the number of dismantlements this fiscal year by 50 percent. “We achieved that goal about four months early,” he said Wednesday.

By the end of this fiscal year in September D’Agostino expects to have doubled the number of dismantlements compared with the previous year.

While the government won’t provide any numbers, the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is believed to be dismantling thousands of excess warheads, beyond the nearly 6,000 warheads that are either deployed in weapons or are in an active reserve stockpile.

Under a 2002 agreement with Russia, the United States is committed to reducing the number of deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012.

“As a result of the increased dismantlements and reductions, today’s stockpile is one-quarter of its size than at the end of the Cold War,” the nuclear security agency said in a draft of a statement to be issued today.

D’Agostino said that the government now expects to finish taking apart all of the excess Cold War-era weapons by 2023, nine years ahead of the previous schedule.

The weapons’ plutonium is physically separated from its conventional explosive at the DOE’s Pantex plant, a 16,000-acre facility on the Texas high plains 17 miles northeast of Amarillo. The nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia provide technical assistance. Some uranium components are worked on at the Y-17 complex near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The process of dismantling a warhead can take anywhere from hours to several months, depending on the weapons, says D’Agostino. Many of the warheads date to the 1950s and have fewer safety measures, so dismantlement takes longer, he said.

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