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Fisson Future: Typically offbeat moments from "Plutonium Circus."



The nuclear standoff is over, but the waste lingers on in director George Whittenburg's 'Plutonium Circus'

By Richard von Busack

I KNOW THAT readers must be feeling all hollowed out by the recent passing of ex-veep Spiro T. Agnew. Going to see The Plutonium Circus, nattering nabob of negativity George Whittenburg Ratliff's short but to-the-point documentary about the legacy of nuclear waste, is a great way of celebrating the ideals for which Agnew stood.

Filmed entirely in Amarillo, Texas, The Plutonium Circus focuses on the Pantex Plant, the Department of Energy's facility for the assembly of nuclear weapons. Now that the show's over, the facility is unscrewing the bombs it once assembled and storing the components away for when we might need them again--for Cold War II or whatever.

The DOE is strategically stacking the plutonium over the top of the Ogalalla aquifer, the giant underground reservoir that irrigates most of the Plains states, America's bread-and-beef basket. Pray that Pantex doesn't hire any butterfingers like Homer Simpson. The plutonium isn't going to be safe until about the year 25,996, so the company is obviously in Amarillo for the long haul.

Ratliff interviews the very confident-looking public-relations officer of Pantex, former Mr. Amarillo Kevin Knapp, who stands by the company's safety record, and visits local citizens who wish Pantex would go far, far away, perhaps to Oklahoma.

Also performing for Ratliff's camera are noted wealthy eccentrics Stanley Marsh 3 (the artist celebrated for the Cadillac Ranch art project in Amarillo), and Charles Johnson III, an objets d'art collector and world traveler. The two attest to the documentary's claim that Amarillo has always been a world center for screwballs--even back to the time of the Comanches (the constant winds howling through the Panhandle are suggested as the reason).

Amarillo looks like it would be a great place to live except for the lymphoma clusters. Ratliff might be accused of making the locals appear to be fools, except he is one (a local, not a fool). Despite the levity, Ratliff makes his main case strongly: that Pantex kept its plutonium trafficking a secret until the 1970s, and that the same civic boosters who are trying to put a human face on Pantex by allowing tours and so forth (life copies art as tots frisk on decommissioned nuclear missiles as if they were horsey rides) are trying to lobby for even more deadly radioactive chemicals in their back yards.

Plutonium Circus is billed with the natural, perhaps even inevitable, companion piece Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 farrago about the end of the world.


The Plutonium Circus (Unrated; 73 min.), a documentary by George Whittenburg Ratliff.

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From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of Metro

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