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"Forget the Rest" blog


For Immediate Release May 14, 1997
Greg Mello & Todd Macon

LANL Plan to Detonate Plutonium Poses Risks to Region


The Study Group today announced results of their analysis of the effects of an accidental plutonium explosion at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  The accident scenario we examined leads to widespread plutonium contamination, economic impact, and fatal cancers.  The postulated accident results from the planned use of plutonium in above-ground experimental detonations at LANL's so-called "hydrotesting" facilities -- DARHT (the Dual-Axis Hydrotest Facility, now under construction) and/or PHERMEX (an older facility with the same purpose, already in use).

"What has not been adequately recognized up to now is that these activities could have economic fallout prior to any accident," says the Study Group's Mello, the engineer who conducted the analysis.  The threat of accident alone -- realistic, given the history of accidents at LANL, Rocky Flats, and elsewhere -- could affect the attractiveness of our region as a tourism, business, and residential destination."

The accident analyzed is unlikely but possible.  In 1970, long before the current planned "shots," LANL itself undertook an analysis of what could happen.  What the Lab found was disturbing enough to cause LANL (then LASL), to "reevaluate" the need for the program (the 1970 technical memo is available upon request).  LANL and DOE recently updated the earlier analysis, using better methodology, but the details are in a classified section of the DARHT Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has also been evaluating the risk and hazard from such an accident.  Statements from LANL that this accident is not "credible" are belied by all this study, as well as by common sense.

This accident is only one scenario, however, among many.  LANL is embarked on a dramatic increase in its storage, transportation, processing, fabrication, and explosive testing of plutonium and plutonium weapon components that greatly increase the variety and likelihood of possible accidents.  We believe that, in addition to routine nuclear waste production and increased worker exposures, accidents, small or large, are not at all unlikely in the long run.  Rocky Flats, which conducted some of these activities in the past, was subject to hundreds of fires.

LANL has recently been the subject of scathing safety reviews by DOE and internal investigators following serious accidents.  The Study Group suggests that these investigation results support aspects of what is known as "normal accident theory," which postulates that organizational and sociological factors place an upper limit on the safety that can be achieved by real institutions that use complex and dangerous technologies, especially in a democratic society.

The radiological doses and deposition patterns ("fallout") were calculating using nuclear accident software obtained from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).  They generally agree with the analysis published by the DOE in the DARHT EIS, and with other authors.

The attached broadside, published today in the Santa Fe Reporter, summarizes the salient points of the analysis; further details are available upon request.

It should be noted that the complexities of terrain, wind variations, and mode of release mock attempts to predict doses and fallout patterns exactly.  Real plumes are not so predictable.  The effects of an entire population inhaling plutonium are likewise not fully known.  The dose effect relationship used is the standard one; it assumes no shielding from buildings, on the one hand -- and that everyone is a nonsmoking adult, on the other.  Smokers are extremely vulnerable to plutonium inhalation, perhaps 200 times more so than nonsmokers.  There may also be other especially vulnerable groups, for whom plutonium inhalation is particularly carcinogenic.

Not discussed by the DOE's analysis is the possibility that, in the event of an accident, high levels of plutonium deposition could render portions of LANL itself unusable, including the plutonium facilities at TA-55.

Today's results focus on possible economic, environmental, and public health impacts of one aspect of DOE's planned increase in nuclear weapons activities.  The Study Group, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and dozens of other groups filed suit in Washington on May 2 to force DOE to examine alternatives to its massive new nuclear weapons program, slated to cost $40 billion over the next ten years -- more than the Department spent, on average, during the Cold War on comparable activities.  All told, the nation has spent $4 trillion on nuclear weapons, according to an authoritative ongoing study at the Brookings Institution.

The DARHT facility is one of six existing, under construction, or planned hydrotest facilities, three of which have, or would, use plutonium.  The DOE is now upgrading all of its existing facilities simultaneously in a capital program with a price tag of roughly $1 billion -- an example of the gross waste and excessive environmental impact that led to the current litigation.  Some of these facilities -- such as the second axis of DARHT -- are considered redundant by many even within the weapons community, as written opinions shared with the Study Group show.

The planned plutonium hydrotests will involve not only weapons-grade plutonium but also a special isotope, called Pu-242, which will enable the United States to test exact copies of proposed or current weapons designs with unprecedented accuracy.  This will enable U.S. nuclear designers to design and certify new warhead designs in the absence of nuclear testing, now banned by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  These high-priced tools, unaffordable in Russia and technically inaccessible in China, will enable the U.S. to extend its technological lead in nuclear weapons technology -- and, in the process, gravely undermine the recently-signed CTBT.

"We think the DOE should rethink its wasteful, dangerous, and redundant hydrotesting program.  Scientists love data, but the plutonium explosions are not really essential for existing weapons.  The program should be made transparent, and the need for each facility and each plutonium shot debated in open, public forums before undertaking such a dangerous activity," concluded Mello.

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