WASHINGTON — Even after the Senate has ratified the treaty that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev are scheduled to sign today banning ground-launched, medium-range nuclear missiles, the weapons' lethal components--the nuclear warheads--will live on.
The missiles, their engines and the flatbed trucks that carry them are slated for destruction or dismantlement, but the warheads are to be removed and may be recycled for use in other weapons. Their radioactive uranium, plutonium and tritium, which have decayed over time, will be enriched and become the guts of new nuclear weapons.
"Not destroying warheads as part of the agreement banning medium-range weapons is a definite omission," said Princeton University Prof. Frank von Hippel. "It's a vacuum begging to be filled."
Von Hippel is working with a group of Soviet scientists led by Gorbachev's influential science adviser, Yevgeny P. Velikhov, to devise schemes to verify the destruction of warheads under any future arms agreements. Velikhov is a vice chairman of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and the delegation of U.S. scientists is sponsored by the Federation of American Scientists' Fund.
Their work could be especially important if the superpowers can reach agreement on Reagan's and Gorbachev's goal of cutting in half the superpowers' massive arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons. The two leaders hope to use this week's summit to advance talks on the reduction of strategic arms.
New Nuclear Weapons
Without a ban on recycling the warheads from forbidden missiles into other weapons, the nuclear warheads that would be retired under a strategic arms treaty, like those of today's treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), could simply be used to arm new generations of nuclear weapons.
"If you have an INF agreement followed by a 50% reduction in strategic arms, the Pentagon is going to be awash in plutonium," said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear weapons expert with the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute. "That will give them wide flexibility to build new weapons not covered by either treaty, which can have the effect of undermining existing agreements."
The recycling process has helped allow the United States to maintain its stockpile of nuclear weapons in recent years, even though the nation has produced no new uranium since 1964 and has cut back drastically on its plutonium production since the 1970s.
The American and Soviet scientists have been meeting almost monthly since last February to explore the range of technologies by which nuclear warhead materials can be stripped of their destructive powers. Their progress has been hampered by the degree of secrecy that surrounds weapons designs on both sides, according to Jeremy Stone, the American project administrator.
Generally, experts say, the warheads' uranium and plutonium, their two principal elements, can be converted for use in nuclear reactors. Or it can be encased in glass and buried along with other high-level nuclear waste, dumped into the ocean or lofted into outer space.
Each of these solutions has problems of its own, however.
Ban on Commercial Use
Past administrations have prohibited the use of weapons-grade plutonium in commercial plants, for fear that the material could wind up in terrorists' hands. Disposing of the highly radioactive material in land, sea or space raises serious environmental concerns.
And merely requiring the destruction of existing warheads would not prevent the superpowers from producing more weapons-grade material to replace them, the American scientists engaged in the consultations with the Soviets concede.
"It doesn't make any sense unless you clamp shut the spigot that pours new nuclear materials into the pool," said Von Hippel. He and others have urged that the United States temporarily halt plans to restart uranium production and expand that of plutonium and begin negotiations with the Soviets for a permanent ban.
The Reagan Administration has rejected the proposal, arguing that the Soviets can now outproduce the United States in this area and that the planned expansion of the American nuclear arsenal requires expanded U.S. facilities.