The nationʼs only nuclear assembly and disassembly plant sits at the center of the nuclear enterprise.
“All roads lead to Pantex,” reads the sign displayed in the administration building of the nation’s only nuclear assembly and disassembly plant. Beneath the bold declaration lies a large map of the United States showing how every laboratory, site, and plant within the nuclear security enterprise feeds both in and out of the Pantex Plant.
“When I think of the saying, ‘All roads lead to Pantex,’ it reminds me of how Pantex fits into the enterprise,” says Pantex Site Manager Colby Yeary. “Pantex is the final assembly point for our nation’s nuclear weapons, and therefore it is the last stop in the supply chain prior to providing the assets to the Department of Defense” (DOD).
Located about 30 miles east of Amarillo, Texas, the remote 30-square-mile site has supported national security since World War II, when it was built to produce conventional bombs and artillery shells for the war effort. Now the plant serves as the primary assembly, disassembly, retrofit, and life-extension center for America’s nuclear weapons.
“Either all weapons come here, or all weapons leave here and go back to the Department of Defense,” says Jeff Yarbrough, the former Pantex site manager who moved to a position at Y-12 in October 2022. Stressing the interdependence of the various locations, he adds, “That interface is strong.”
Yeary agrees, saying, “I often think of Pantex as the anchor leg in a track relay of National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) sites. Without the many contributions from the other NNSA sites and DOD partners, Pantex would not be able to deliver our mission.”
Thousands of weapons have been assembled, disassembled, and modified at the plant, which grew in importance after the government consolidated nuclear weapons facilities in 1975. Pantex is also responsible for high-explosives manufacturing and testing along with interim storage and surveillance of plutonium pits, the key components of nuclear weapons.
Yarbrough says you can ask any of the plant’s more than 4,200 employees and they will tell you why the facility exists. “What we’re about here is global security for our nation and our allies,” says Monty Cates, Pantex senior director for high explosives. “We’re protecting the world. That’s what we do here. And that’s not inconsequential.”
Spotlighting security and safety
Due to the nature of this mission, the plant places a high emphasis on security. Only carefully vetted visitors are allowed to visit the remotely located site, where buildings are spread far and wide across grassy plains. Omnipresent armed security officers, concrete and steel barricades, and razor wire surround the facilities. Pantex is also home to carefully engineered concrete bunkers where nuclear weapons production operations take place. These bunkers are covered with an engineered system of small rocks and materials; in the unlikely event of a high-explosives accident, these “Gravel Gerties” contain the explosion. Throughout the plant, facilities have been constructed with safety and security in mind.
Safety and security are also the focus for the plant’s security police officers. “When you think about all the quantities of material that we have on site, you have to have a best-in-class security force because nobody else deals with what we deal with: the combination of weapons, nuclear material, and high explosives,” Yarbrough says. “Nobody deals with the stages of nuclear weapons that we deal with. Considering just the sheer amount of material, the decisions, processes and the scale of the work that we do, you have to have the best security force possible.”
Another aspect of safety and security is the extensive training Pantex employees undergo and the plant’s highly regimented procedures, as Deputy Site Manager Kenny Steward explains. “Production technicians will go through three to four months of general site training before we ever put them into training for a weapons program.”
All of the work done at Pantex is documented in detail. “We take almost all of our knowledge and capture that into written step-by-step procedures, and that’s very different from most all the other sites,” Yarbrough says. “We need to do that here. You want that discipline. You want that repetitiveness when working on explosive weapons.”
Operating much like a small city, Pantex has its own fire and medical departments; maintains its own water-treatment, sewage, and steam-generating plants; and produces its own well water. Five wind turbines, each more than 400 feet tall, generate more than 60 percent of the plant’s annual power needs. An on-site facility produces concrete, and the plant conducts extensive wildlife and environmental monitoring.
Pantex exists independently from nearby cities. Its largest neighbor is Amarillo, which houses about 250,000 citizens, most of whom fully support Pantex as one of the area’s primary employers. Local residents express few concerns about the nuclear materials stored at the plant. Yarbrough points out the benefits of being located in a highly patriotic part of the United States, where people value hard work, commitment, and service to the country. “We have great community, business, and educational support,” he says.
Pantex’s positive relationship with the community is integral to its ongoing success, but what is even more important is the way the plant collaborates with other laboratories, plants, and sites in the nuclear enterprise. Pantex works daily with three national laboratories: Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. “The labs do the primary science, physics, engineering, and chemistry to develop the material requirements, the systems requirements, and component requirements for nuclear weapons, and then we take those requirements and figure out how to make those into a production system,” Cates says.
Yeary stresses the importance of that daily communication and collaboration. “Our missions have differences, but the relationship is symbiotic in many aspects of what we provide our nation,” he says.
Yarbrough also emphasizes the importance of this relationship, pointing out, “Every day, any work we do is going to be within the design requirements that the national labs set for us. Also, we have to get the approval of those design labs for our processes, and for the work that we do on site. We don’t do anything without some level of review and approval by the design agencies.”
Information also flows from Pantex to the national laboratories, according to Yarbrough. “Parts that we take off nuclear weapons, we’ll do testing on them and we’ll send that data and that information to the laboratories, or in some cases, we will actually send the full part or the component back to the lab and to other plants as well. The work we do feeds a lot of the information back to the national labs, so they can make determinations on how the stockpile is performing and how those lab directors will certify the stockpile.”
Arlan Swihart, a Los Alamos weapons systems safety analyst, is based full-time at the Pantex Plant, along with other personnel from Los Alamos, Sandia, and Livermore labs. “The way it works is that Los Alamos develops a design for weapons and comes up with all the criteria that the weapon must meet, and Pantex is ultimately charged with implementing the Los Alamos design.” Swihart says the design agency personnel have a good relationship with the Pantex staff. “We tell them what they need to do and the specifications they need to do it, but exactly how they do it is up to them.”
Darrell Schmidt is the Pantex production liaison from the Los Alamos Weapon Systems Engineering Division. “It’s really invaluable to be co-located,” Schmidt says, noting that he sometimes must travel to Los Alamos, which he calls “the mother ship,” but most of his time is spent at the Pantex Plant. “We are the eyes and ears for the Lab on site and to help our associates back home,” he explains. “We work together on a lot of overlapping issues related to quality and testing materials, as well as any corrections or improvements needed.”
Steward says this close working relationship can avoid challenges that have occurred in the past, such as when the W84 nuclear warhead required hiring people with smaller hands and dexterity to carry out assembly work. “It does a designer no good to design a part that either can’t be manufactured or can’t be assembled. What happens if we can’t get a tool in there to extract a screw or to tighten a bolt in a certain direction or to make an electrical connection? And so as they are designing, they’re keeping in mind the design for manufacturing, assembly, and disassembly.”
In addition to this daily interaction, Sandia National Laboratories has an on-site facility at the Pantex Plant. “As we build things or disassemble something, Sandia tests it, which simulates some aspects of the weapon system, and then they’ll send it back to us and we’ll disassemble that testbed, and we’ll start the whole process over again,” Yarbrough says.
The collaboration also extends beyond the national laboratories. “Because we are routinely shipping material back and forth with all the other sites, we have to have daily coordination, ship schedules, testing schedules, and you’re having daily meetings within a product or program realization team," Yarbrough continues. "We might have a conference call today on a certain weapons system that would include all the sites. You know, logistically, when can you deliver this, when will I have that? When do I get the data that I need? When do I get the product? So, that goes on daily. The logistics of the entire nuclear security enterprise take that daily communication.”
Gearing up for growth
Communication has taken on even greater importance recently at Pantex because the plant is facing a larger workload than it has in decades. Numerous weapons systems are simultaneously undergoing retirements and refreshments. To accommodate this work, the plant has begun focusing on modernizing its infrastructure and constructing new buildings. “Many of those facilities were 1940s- or 1950s-era facilities and to be able to reconstruct and then eventually move into a new high explosive science and engineering facility will give us a more modernized footprint,” Steward says. “We’re also currently constructing the advanced fabrication facilities so we can look at additive manufacturing and 3D printing of components, and we have other facilities on the books to replace.”
New production technicians are being hired along with support people, engineers, security officers, maintenance workers, and more. “It is difficult to do the amount of work we’re currently doing, and then increase our output on certain programs by 100 percent from year to year while we’re upgrading our facilities and hiring and training new people. It’s a big challenge, but we like that challenge,” Yarbrough says. He points out that meeting that challenge represents a crucial part of the success of the nuclear security enterprise as a whole. “Every site within the enterprise has pride in what it does, and everybody thinks that theirs is the most important part. We like to say we’re at the end of the supply chain and because of that, we have to integrate everything that all those other labs, sites, and plants do. We integrate all of the parts into a final package under the auspices of our three national laboratories. The product that leaves our site goes directly to the military and it is the most tangible thing that the nuclear security enterprise produces.”
Cates agrees, saying that every lab, site, and plant has a crucial role to play. “We can’t deliver nuclear weapons to the hands of the military without support from Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Y-12, Savannah River, Kansas City, the Nevada National Security Site, our headquarters folks on site and in Washington D.C.,” he says. “That’s why it’s called an enterprise. There’s a little over 50,000 people that are engaged in this mission and it takes everyone to make that happen.”
He pauses, then continues. “That’s what gets me up in the morning, makes me excited to come to work, to make that long drive into the sunrise in the morning on those cold days. It’s because I know what we do here is important, not only for our nation, but the world.” ★