WASHINGTON — The shutdown of the U.S. nuclear reprocessing plant at Rocky Flats, Colo., for safety reasons late last year is proving to be a major snag in working out a joint U.S.-Soviet accord to ban further production of fissionable materials such as uranium and plutonium.
Pentagon officials say that unless the Rocky Flats facility can be reopened soon, the United States will be unable to reprocess enough weapons-grade materials from used warheads to meet current demands for new or replacement missiles.
Currently, the United States obtains all its weapons-grade uranium and plutonium by reprocessing old materials. America stopped producing uranium in 1964. It halted plutonium production in 1968, and it may not start again for another decade.
Ironically, the situation is being exacerbated by U.S.-Soviet success in hammering out a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which the two sides are expected to sign sometime in the next few months.
Under that treaty, the United States will retire about 4,200 warheads--fully a third of its strategic weapons arsenal. And it probably will withdraw another 4,500 short-range warheads, bombs and shells from Europe by the end of the century.
Some of these weapons simply will be stored for possible future deployment. Others will be destroyed. Even so, essentially all the nuclear fissionable materials in them could be recovered and reprocessed for use in new weapons--if the United States had the facilities.
But the shutdown of Rocky Flats--which had been America's only plutonium-production plant--has left Washington without any capacity to salvage that material.
And current stocks of uranium are so low that the Pentagon has been pushing for a new billion-dollar facility to provide fuel for reactors that power naval vessels.
The United States is behind the Soviet Union in stockpiling supplies of nuclear weapons materials. Pentagon officials say the United States could be short of uranium by the end of this year. "We're right at the ragged edge," a senior Pentagon official says.
U.S. strategists say that the low level of U.S. inventories--combined with overflow stockpiles in the Soviet Union--was a major reason that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev proposed the overall ban on further production of fissionable materials in 1988.
The Soviets balked at a similar idea when the United States proposed it in 1965. Then, Washington cooled on the notion in 1981, when the Reagan Administration began its big military buildup. Two years ago, Gorbachev publicly resurrected the idea.
"Gorbachev knew that we were short, and he knew we were about to ask for a new uranium production facility when he proposed the . . . freeze," a U.S. official says. While America is running short, he adds, "the Soviets have more . . . than they know what to do with."
But Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, a Stanford University nuclear physicist, argues that with the United States no longer producing these materials anyway, a joint production ban would benefit Washington more than Moscow. "Only the Soviets would be stopped by a ban," he says. (Reprocessing of materials from retired weapons would not be forbidden.)
Moreover, while the Bush Administration opposes the idea of a freeze, there is considerable support in Congress for such a move.
Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, argues that stopping production of nuclear weapons materials is a natural complement to arms reduction efforts.
It "goes to the source . . . as a way to bring an end to the nuclear arms race," Fascell says.
To be sure, even if the Rocky Flats plant were reopened soon, the Bush Administration would still have serious qualms about the Soviet proposal for a ban on further production of fissionable materials.
Senior Administration strategists argue that even apart from the reprocessing issue, it is too early in the arms-control negotiations--and in the reduction of overall tensions as well--for them to take such a step without jeopardizing the nation's security.
A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that once the START treaty is signed, the United States should recover about 18.5 tons of plutonium and 92.5 tons of enriched uranium from the weapons that the START pact would require America to discard.
The Soviets, who would be forced to withdraw even more nuclear weapons, could recover at least as much and probably more, according to the report.
The new U.S. defense budget will require the President to submit a comprehensive technical report on the national security implications of any ban on fissionable material production--including prospects for monitoring the dismantling of warheads in the future.
Meanwhile, Administration officials concede that no matter how U.S.-Soviet negotiations go, there is currently no prospect that the Rocky Flats facility will be revived soon. Indeed, some analysts say the safety situation there is so bad that the plant may never reopen at all.