LANL - Plutonium Hydrotesting


What you see on this page was published as an advertisement in the Santa Fe Reporter.
Because it is a slightly older document the suggestions for citizen action are outdated.

Los Alamos Study Group Critical Issues Bulletin
May 14, 1997

Plutonium Explosions on a Mesa near You -
DARHT at Los Alamos


  • Cost: $253 million and climbing.
  • Use: Nuclear weapons testing.
  • When: Under construction.
  • Method:Flash X-ray photography of imploding nuclear weapons triggers (“pits”).
  • Political Fallout: Will be a “surrogate” nuclear testing facility (a “test site in a bottle”) undermining both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
  • Accident Scenario: An uncontained explosion resulting in a 540-foot mushroom cloud and plutonium plume menacing areas downwind.
We don’t want to raise undue alarm, but concern is appropriate. This accident is unlikely, but its consequences would be devastating. The mere existence of this program, prior to any accident, could hurt our economy.

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Involve Yourself!

• Write Senator Bingaman and ask for an open and independent review of a) DARHT’s second axis and b) the program of plutonium explosions.

• Ask him to cancel the Advanced Hydrotest Facility.

• Letters alone won’t stop this dangerous project. Add your creativity and solidarity to protest actions at Los Alamos this summer. It’s a good way to spend time with old friends and new, learn about the issues, and meet people. Call us at 505-982-7747!

• Help us recruit people to work against weapons of mass destruction and the structure of violence they embody against the world’s poor.

• This ad was expensive. Please help us cover the cost of this and future your contribution, no matter how small, will help tremendously.

Your silence will be taken as assent.
Please help us!


Just Testing?

The plutonium hydrotests (codenamed “Apaloosa”) planned for the DARHT facility would be the largest such explosions ever conduct ed in the United States. They would take place in double-walled steel spheres. Should an unconfined explosion occur prior to sealing the vessels, kilogram quantities of plutonium would be dispersed.

The typical result of a “small” unconfined plutonium explosion (10 kg of explosive, 2 kg of plutonium) is shown above. Explosions up to 200 kg of explosive are planned. In such an accident, radioactive fallout and respirable particles of plutonium could easily reach thousands of people and leave a permanent swath of contamination covering dozens of square miles. Fatal cancers and other health effects would occur; property values, tourism, and businesses could be severely impacted. Close-in areas might have to be abandoned for residential pur poses, and cleanup of highly-contaminated zones for even industrial purposes would be difficult, dangerous, uncertain, and expensive.

DARHT has two axes (hence the name). The second axis could be cancelled and $100 million saved, as some weapons scientists have proposed. Cancellation of plutonium tests would save tens of millions more. Astonishingly, design work has already begun on DARHT’s successor, the Advanced Hydrotest Facility, which could cost up to $1 billion. Neither facility is necessary and both have serious national security costs.

In 1970 These Experiments Were Considered Too Dangerous

Smaller, similar experiments were conducted at LANL in the 1960s. An internal LANL analysis describes the devastating impact on the community of Los Alamos in the event of an accident. It concludes: “The proposed continuation of the GMX-1 1 confinement experiments involving explosively driven plutonium-239 has been reevaluated in the light of recent experimental work and hazard analyses and the larger amounts of plutonium and high explosives that are anticipated compared to those that were originally planned. (Roland Jalbert to Dean Meyer, January 22, 1970, emphasis added.)

Technical Details

These results were obtained using a Gaussian plume model for nuclear accidents developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory called HOTSPOT 8.0. HOTSPOT codes have been calibrated against real plutonium explosions conducted at the Nevada Test Site decades ago. These HOTSPOT results agree with DOE calculations done specifically for DARHT, as well as those of other writers.

Land Contamination:

The EPA action level for plutonium contamination of residential areas is 0.1 microcuries per square meter. Properties which received greater deposition than this could have impaired utility and value for residential purposes. Impact on the region as a tourism, residential, and business destination could occur.

Committed Doses:

Given a wind of 1 meter/sec, a 2.0 rem dose will be committed to each non—smoking individual 19 km downwind from DARHT, under standard assumptions. Doses are higher nearer the accident, and less farther away. Of this dose, 1.26 rem is committed promptly, and the balance is from long term dust resuspension. There will be about 0.001 cancer deaths for each 2.0 rem committed to the population by plutonium; total deaths equal average dose per person in rems, times the number people divided by 2000.

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