Pantex Plant, Amarillo
On the high plains of the Texas Panhandle is America’s only facility where atomic weapons are manufactured, disassembled, and undergo maintenance. While the exact number of nuclear weapons “in process” here varies over time (and it’s classified), it’s estimated that 300 to 400 nuclear weapons are here at any given time. Pantex is also the biggest storage location for radioactive “pits” the fissionable cores of nuclear weapons, usually made of plutonium. You don’t want to even think of what might happen in case of a major accident here.
The Pantex Plant was constructed as a munitions plant in World War II and its isolated location was no accident; accidental explosions were frequent hazards back then. After World War II, the United States needed a facility to construct nuclear weapons, and Pantex offered the isolation required. In 1951 the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) began construction of nuclear weapons here. Additional buildings and facilities were rapidly constructed, and today Pantex covers over 9,000 acres with employment of approximately 2,400 persons. There are 47 miles of roads connecting the different buildings and other facilities.
About one third of the Pantex Plant is devoted to the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons. While production of new nuclear warheads stopped several years ago, nuclear weapons require regular maintenance because some fissionable materials (like tritium) have short half-lives and the radiation from fissionable materials will eventually destroy the integrated circuits in the weapons’ control electronics. Such maintenance requires the weapons to be disassembled and then reassembled. This “refurbishing” takes up the bulk of Pantex’s budget and personnel. Pantex has numerous facilities devoted to different stages of the assembly/disassembly process.
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Pantex also tests randomly selected nuclear weapons from America’s active nuclear weapons stockpile. Various components are removed from the selected weapons and tested to determine the reliability and operational life of those components.
Nuclear weapons are “triggered” by conventional explosives which compress fissionable material (such as plutonium) into a critical mass. The reliability of such explosives is vital to the operation of nuclear weapons, and Pantex conducts active research into high-energy conventional explosives. This is probably some of the most highly classified activity at Pantex.
The fissionable material in a nuclear weapon is called a “pit.” As the number of nuclear arms has been reduced, the number of pits has increased since weapons-grade fissionable material can’t be used for peaceful purposes, such as in nuclear reactors. About the only thing that can be done with a pit is to store it in special facilities. Since the closure of the Rocky Flats facility in Colorado (see COLORADO section), Pantex has become the main storage facility for pits. Over 10,000 pits are stored here, even though the facility is described as being for “interim” storage. Since there is no other location capable of storing even a fraction of the pits found at Pantex, it’s likely the storage of pits here will be more permanent than interim.
What’s There: Pantex is divided into several different “zones,” and each zone is devoted to a different function or task. Zone 4 is the weapons staging area; weapons arriving at or being shipped from Pantex are located here. Zone 10 is where the “pits” of disassembled nuclear weapons are stored. Zone 11 is devoted to something called “experimental explosive development.” Zone 12 is where nuclear weapons are actually assembled or disassembled, zone 13 is a wastewater treatment facility, and zone 16 is devoted to administrative and managerial tasks at Pantex.
Getting a Look Inside: As you might expect, there are absolutely no public tours or other public admittance to Pantex. The facility is heavily guarded and you may be questioned by security personnel if you are parked near the facility.
Pantex does receive visits from VIPs, such as nuclear scientists and members of Congress. But even they have to complete a training course before going on their escorted tours. According to Pantex’s official literature, some of the topics covered in the course are “emergency management,” “hazard communication,” “explosive safety,” and, of course, “radiation training.”
Getting There: The Pantex Plant is 27 miles northeast of Amarillo; it is bounded on the north by Highway FM 293, on the east by Highway FM 2373, and on the west by Highway FM683.