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WHAT SHOULD THE U.S. DO WITH OLD N-WARHEADS?

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Beating swords into plowshares, the biblical imagery of changing from war to peace, turns out to be more difficult in a nuclear age than anyone imagined. The swords - in this case nuclear bombs - are proving a perplexing burden. They can't be made into anything else.

Nobody wants the nuclear devices. Many are being dismantled as part of a treaty with Russia, but that still leaves the highly radioactive plutonium that made up the warheads.The United States has about 100 tons of weapons grade plutonium. Only half is needed by the federal government for use in nuclear bombs. That leaves 50 tons - enough to make 10,000 N-bombs at 10 pounds each - to be gotten rid of.

But the plutonium cannot simply be junked. It is dangerously radioactive. And it must be guarded against theft by would-be terrorists who could use the material to make their own primitive nuclear bombs.

The trouble is that nobody wants it. The plutonium is stored at only a few sites. The largest is the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas. Pantex has the job of dismantling nuclear weapons. The material is stored in 6,000 so-called "plutonium igloos" on Pantex land. And more is piling up.

Texas officials have protested the growing storage of plutonium, and the U.S. Energy Department has promised to limit the storage there. Where should it go instead? A recent proposal to store the plutonium at abandoned military installations apparently was in answer to the Texas complaints.

But no other state wants it, either, whether at military installations or elsewhere. For example, suggestions of storing nuclear waste in Utah or Nevada have provoked sharp rejections over the years. And plutonium is more hazardous than most nuclear waste.

Other, more populated states have even more compelling arguments for not wanting plutonium in their neighborhoods.

Most of the nation's non-plutonium nuclear waste is presently held at 29 temporary sites around the nation. But many of the containers are rusting and threatening to release radioactivity. Inspection teams are trying to assess the extent of the problem.

No matter what they find, the plutonium and other wastes must be kept somewhere. Simply to argue, "Not in my back yard" does not solve the problem.

The plutonium could be used in commercial reactors to make electricity. However, the only reactors capable to using plutonium for fuel are scheduled to be closed.

The plutonium is there. But if it can't be kept at the plant taking the warheads apart and can't be sent anywhere else and can't be used as fuel - what is to be done with it? The U.S. Energy Department would dearly love an asnwer.