The Pantex Plant, a component of the Albuquerque Operations of the United States Department of Energy, is located in southeastern Carson County between U.S. Highway 60 and State Highway 293 seventeen miles northeast of Amarillo. The government established an army ordnance plant at the 16,000-acre site in 1942 to produce bombs and shells for the armed forces during World War II. A post office was established in November 1944 for the plant employees who lived in government housing nearby. The plant remained in operation until the war ended in August 1945, and the employees subsequently dispersed. In 1949 the War Assets Administration sold the plant for one dollar to Texas Technological College for use in agricultural research and experimentation, but the government retained the right to repossess the facility under a national-security clause. The Atomic Energy Commission reclaimed 10,000 acres in 1951 and converted the plant to the production of chemical explosives and nuclear weapons.
Throughout the next two decades the resident population of Pantex fluctuated; it was 958 in 1966 and 205 in 1970. The post office remained in operation until 1969, when it became a rural branch of the Amarillo post office. Pantex became the sole plant for weapons disassembly/modification work in 1965 and for warhead construction by 1975.
The Pantex Plant, administered by the Department of Energy (DOE), assembled nuclear and thermonuclear warheads from components manufactured at other facilities and was the site of pacifist demonstrations. A 1988 DOE report rated Pantex the second most hazardous of its sixteen weapons plants and laboratories. Other unfavorable environmental reports were filed. In 1988 cleanup was under way for exposed asbestos and other substances. Underground storage tanks that leaked gasoline and an unlined pit used to dump solvents and other toxic substances were slated for cleanup. Carson County residents stated that there had been little pressure on Pantex to protect the environment because it was Amarillo's largest employer, having 2,700 employees.
Pantex assembled its last nuclear weapon in 1991. After the end of the Cold War and the conclusion of an arms reduction agreement with Russia (June 1992), the Pantex Plant was to disassemble thousands of warheads each year. The plan to store 110,000 pounds of plutonium in bunkers at Pantex was of concern to nearby residents who feared that the Ogallala Aquifer, which is used for irrigation throughout the Panhandle and supplies almost 40 percent of Amarillo's water, might become contaminated.
In 1993 the facility began weekly tours of declassified sections to visitors. In 1994 missing maintenance records and a series of safety system failures caused a lengthy shutdown. Pantex disassembled 12,514 warheads from October 1986 through September 1996. By that year the plant had a stockpile of 9,000 plutonium pits and a growth rate of 1,200 pits a year. By late 1996 the DOE proposed an increase in the plant's plutonium storage from a total of 12,000 pits to 20,000 pits, making Pantex the designated plutonium storage facility for the United States. Pantex was also slated as the site for the strategic reserve of plutonium for possible future use. These announcements generally had community support, but some local residents and state officials, including the Texas Attorney General's office, expressed concerns that the Panhandle would be unfairly burdened as the nation's dumping ground for surplus plutonium.
In 2000 the DOE created a semiautonomous agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, as an overseer of the Nuclear Weapons Complex, including Pantex. On February 1, 2001, BWXT Pantex, an independent consortium of BWX Technologies, Honeywell, and Bechtel, was awarded the contract for Pantex management and plant operations. Though environmental studies had found no evidence of plutonium contamination in the early 2000s, traces of high explosives and heavy metals had been found in area soil and the Ogallala Aquifer.
In 2006 Pantex had annual funding of $513 million and employed approximately 3,500 personnel. This included a large paramilitary force team for security at the plant. Of the total 16,000 acres covered by the facility, 6,000 of those acres were leased from Texas Tech University as a security buffer zone. The extensive infrastructure of Pantex includes some 700 buildings, 67 miles of fences, and 55 miles of paved roads.