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"Forget the Rest" blog

By Barbara Ferry
The New Mexican
1/14/99

An anti-nuclear activist group claims Los Alamos National Laboratory is conducting secret plutonium explosions at LANL.  The Los Alamos Study Group of Santa Fe is raising questions about classified "subcritical" explosions that the group's director, Greg Mello, alleges have started up at LANL.

A Department of Energy spokesman in Albuquerque said he could not comment specifically on the experiments because they are classified.  But DOE spokesman Al Stotts said there are ongoing not new experiments at the lab that "use a variety of materials and high explosives to help understand the behavior of materials."  The activity "doesn't represent a safety hazard for employees, the public or the environment," Stotts said.

Critics have said subcritical tests violate the spirit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is intended to stop new designs of nuclear weapons.  Department of Energy officials say subcritical tests are needed to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Subcritical nuclear tests are used to test nuclear weapons components but stop short of actual nuclear explosions.  They have been conducted at the Nevada Test Site in an underground tunnel, most recently in September with the "Cimarron" test of a plutonium pit designed at LANL.  Plutonium pits are the cores of nuclear weapons.

But Mello believes subcritical explosions are being performed at LANL under the code name "Appaloosa" as well as in Nevada.  The LANL experiments, Mello said, involve detonating plutonium in a steel container. 

Plutonium is a radioactive metal that when compressed by explosives sets off a nuclear chain reaction.   "Blowing up plutonium is an intrinsically dangerous activity," Mello said.   Mello bases his claim that the lab has begun detonating plutonium on documents he received from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a five-member advisory panel that conducts inspections of LANL and other defense sites, and reports to the Department of Energy.  In a November letter to Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs Vic Reis the safety board raised concerns about a top-secret project that was scheduled to start at the lab.

Safety board chairman John Conway wrote that he was concerned "that because of inadequate planning, there may not be sufficient time or talent for effective reviews of safety prior to commencement of these startup activities."  Conway asked for a full report on the project.  Reis' response to Conway was classified but an unclassified cover letter refers to "confinement vessel integrity," and assures the board that the vessels are safe.

Mello interprets this to mean that the secret project questioned by the safety board refers to containment explosions.


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