Groups Urge Nuclear Arms Control By Limiting Production of Materials

Key U.S. Manufacturing Facilities Now Shut, Need Costly Repairs

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

A coalition of environmental, antinuclear and arms-control groups plans to press the Bush administration for a superpower treaty limiting production of materials for new nuclear weapons instead of reviving moribund U.S. weapons plants or building costly new ones.

The groups hope to capitalize on a unique circumstance: All U.S. production plants for plutonium, tritium and highly enriched uranium, three key ingredients of nuclear arms, are shut down and need extensive repairs before they can renew operation.

The Department of Energy (IDOE), which administers weapons production, says up to $52 billion will be needed over the next 20 years for new and upgraded weapons production facilities, plus $119 [?] billion to clean up toxic wastes at existing plants. On Friday, Raymond R. Berube, deputy assistant energy secretary for environment, told the House Armed Services Committee, "It's a strong possibility these costs will go higher." The administration likely will be forced to make controversial cuts in other programs to pay this tab.

Proponents of constraints on tritium or plutonium in all production say postponing, if not canceling, new plants could save billions of dollars. They also claim such constraints could end the arms race by forcing a drastic cut in the amount of munitions each side can build.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are long-lived radioactive elements that sustain the chain reaction of a nuclear weapon's explosion. Tritium, a gas, is used to boost a weapon's explosive force, or yield; it decays at a rate of about 5.5 percent annually and, thus, must be replaced regularly to keep a nuclear arsenal fully operational.

Opponents of production constraints, including senior administration officials, maintain they would hamper U.S. nuclear deterrence, or could not be adequately monitored.

But John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control lobby here, said, "It is the coming hot issue for environmental and arms-control groups. There is a convergence of the necessity to deal with the production problems, a desire for new arms limitations and the need to divert funds to clean up old [nuclear] wastes."

Representatives of 12 organizations, including Public Citizen, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Policy Institute, last week wrote Congress to oppose the administration's January bid for $100 million to begin building two new reactors for tritium production next year.

The groups called for an independent scientific study of the need for new reactors and the potential consequences of U.S.-Soviet production constraints or nuclear arms reductions.

Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), who has chaired numerous hearings by the Governmental Affairs Committee on nuclear materials, in an interview supports a U.S.-Soviet accord limiting tritium or plutonium production.

"I don't know that I would tie it to our nuclear weapons plant problems," Glenn said, adding that new plants may be needed before such an accord can be reached. But he said he supports including production constraints in any strategic arms treaty as a guard against clandestine weapons production and storage.

U.S. negotiators vigorously pursued an international shutdown of production plants for plutonium and highly enriched uranium from 1957 to 1970, arguing at one point that "a disarmament program aimed at eliminating the threat of nuclear war would be incomprehensible if . . . states were permitted to continue an unrestrained race by enlarging their stocks of fissionable material."

But the Soviets spurned the idea, noting that the United States had excess capacity to produce fissionable materials and a much larger stockpile than Moscow. It subsequently faded from the American agenda when improved photoreconnaissance satellites made it possible to count, and therefore directly constrain, nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines.

"While important, production controls seemed a secondary objective compared with the limits on warheads themselves and the weapons systems we thought could be the most destabilizing," said Spurgeon Keeny, a former U.S. official who now directs the private Arms Control Association here.

The last expression of Soviet interest came in 1982, when then foreign minister Andrei Gromyko told the United Nations that "one of the initial stages" in a disarmament program could be "cessation of the production of fissionable materials."

But proponents have been emboldened recently by indications the Soviets also have nuclear materials production problems. Los Alamos National Laboratory reported last June that "Soviet military production reactors are old, obsolete and unsafe. They will be shut down, soon."

Some U.S. intelligence analysts believe the Soviets can produce needed quantities of tritium and plutonium in civilian reactors, however, and some analysts say construction of a new military plant in the Ural Mountains began last year.

Many congressional officials predict that political pressure to limit production facilities and destroy used nuclear materials, widely regarded by experts in the field as inextricably linked, will sharply increase during the final stages of negotiation on any accord to scrap thousands of strategic weapons.

"I think this [warhead destruction] is something we're eventually going to have to do," said Roy Woodruff, a physicist who directs treaty monitoring work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where warheads are designed.

He and others note that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) assailed the intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty last year partly because it allowed both sides to reuse the tritium and plutonium from hundreds of discarded weapons in new munitions. Moderates such as Glenn also complained about the provision.

Senior Reagan administration officials responded at the time that destroying warheads makes little sense without production controls, an argument that critics say could backfire by fueling interest in both.

The most popular idea is to declare a formal, two-year moratoriun on plutonium production, followed by a treaty banning production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

The idea was endorsed last year by eight major public-interest groups and by Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member; former Central Intelligence Agency director William E. Colby; Gerard Smith, former chief of the U.S. team that negotiated the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1); Paul C. Warnke, a former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and Jerome Weisner, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The proposal would halt DOE plans to begin building a new $1.2 billion factory next year at Idaho Falls, Idaho, that would use a sophisticated laser to purify plutonium stocks from military reactor operations, and operate for about 10 years after a 1995 startup.

It would also halt DOE plans for a $1 billion modernization of an inactive factory for highly enriched uranium at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Military stocks of uranium could also be modified to fuel civilian reactors at an estimated savings of $40 billion, according to Princeton physicist Frank von Hippel.

"Such a pause would provide a chance for our nation to stop and consider carefully the need for a new multibillion-dollar investment in our nuclear weapons materials production complex," the proponents argued in an open letter to Congress.

DOE officials acknowledge that sufficient plutonium is available at storage sites in South Carolina, Texas and Ohio, as well as in outmoded U.S. weapons, for use in thousands of new arms, minimizing the immediate impact of a production cutoff on U.S. security.

They also acknowledge that plutonium factories produce a readily identifiable plume of heated air, easing the task of monitoring a U.S.-Soviet accord.

But officials worry that dropping the new plant could eventually cause a plutonium shortage, limiting flexibility of U.S. weapons designers. They claim the problem would be especially severe if no accord is reached to slash existing weapons, freeing large stocks of plutonium for reuse.

J. Carson Mark, a former director of the theoretical division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has proposed a similar cutoff of tritium production.

Mark argues that under such a cutoff, the gradual decay of tritium in existing weapons would create a "built-in deadline" for negotiated strategic weapons reductions. Up to half of the 25,000 warheads in U.S. and Soviet arsenals would have to be retired, according to an estimate by the Nuclear Control Institute here.

The proposal would halt efforts to restart three aging reactors at Savannah River, S.C., and construct up to five new reactors there and in Idaho.

Tritium is stored in gas or liquid storage tanks, or in fuel elements at DOE facilities in South Carolina, Texas and Ohio. Periodically, the gas is bottled under high pressure, and the small bottles are loaded into thousands of nuclear weapons around the country.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that the military has at least a two-year tritium supply. DOE officials say they have sufficient stocks to forestall a crisis until late next year. The agency has said it will indefinitely continue to sell small quantities of tritium for commercial use.

NRDC and the Federation of American Scientists have endorsed the plutonium ban but opposed the tritium cutoff on grounds that it might not affect U.S. and Soviet weapons equally. Livermore scientists also say the ban could be circumvented by designing weapons that use little or no tritium, or by clandestinely producing a small but militarily significant stock in nuclear reactors operated for civilian power or aboard ships.

Linton F. Brooks, a National Security Council staff member, criticized the idea as "a technical solution to a political problem," noting that it would force a reduction in nuclear arms that might not benefit national security.