Photo via Spectrum
In what's being hailed as an historic accord, Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev have agreed to scale back the number of nuclear weapons each country deploys by nearly a third--now, each side will cut their supply from 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,750 nukes. Which is a good, small step for nuclear nonproliferation. But of course it takes a skeptical environmentalist to rain on the parade--but come on, aren't you curious? Where's that massive pile of nukes going to go, anyways?Where US Nuclear Bombs Go to Die
The probable answer is pretty simple: nowhere. At least, not at first. As made clear by this month-old report from USA Today, there's a 15 year backlog for the nukes already in line to be disarmed--before any such accord adds a couple thousand more to the list.
Both the US and Russia have a slew of nuclear weapons (the US has 9,400, and Russia has 13,000), and the US had 4,200 that were ready for disposal before today--and those alone could take until 2024 to take care of. And the US's plans for accomplishing this will be a long a rocky one--here's how it looks so far.
How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
First, the nukes are sent to a storage site in Texas, where the plutonium pits (you know, the radioactive part that Doc Brown uses to send his DeLorean back in time) are extracted. This facility is currently overworked, and may face capacity shortages as soon as 5 years from now--which could clog up the process considerably.
It only gets worse from there. The current plan to dispose of the plutonium pits is to build a plant that would convert them into a form that could be processed into fuel in nuclear power reactors. But the plant hasn't even been built yet, and the estimated cost of doing so is $4 billion. And according to USA Today, a "$4.8 billion plant being built to do final processing of the plutonium into mixed oxide reactor fuel at the Savannah River (S.C.) nuclear weapons site isn't slated to be running until 2016."
And even though nuclear nonproliferation is one of his key goals, Obama has only added an additional $4 million in the budget towards US nuclear disarmament.
All that amounts to a lot of nuclear weapons with nowhere to go.
Don't Forget the Nuclear Waste
As if all that wasn't bad enough, the fact remains that the US has no concrete policy on disposing of nuclear waste. The proposed mega-storage site Yucca Mountain was shut down once and for all by Obama, and good news too--the EPA admitted that the site would likely leak radioactive waste into the surrounding area. So, we're left with a handful of 'temporary' nuclear storage sites around the country, many of which are simply on-site at the plant at which they were created. Many of these have been reported to be at or above capacity already.
Even if the process were somehow magically streamlined, and all of the nukes disarmed, the plutonium cores converted into energy, we'd still have a huge problem with where to put some 4,700 nukes worth of radioactive waste. And no good place to put it. They'd remain a threat to the environment, and a hazard to the health of people who live or work in the waste's proximity.
Now, it must be said that the symbolic properties of the agreement should be applauded--even if we lack the ability to get rid of the nuclear weapons immediately, the accord is a good step towards greater nuclear nonproliferation. But it's time for a more concrete policy on where all the radioactive materials are going to be kept, and how the environment--and our health--is going to be safeguarded from their impact.