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Archive for April 2011

Six Metric Tons and What Do You Get?

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No one can quite explain why Los Alamos Lab would need to store six metric tons of plutonium in its new building, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR), a six billion dollar project proposed for Northern New Mexico.
That’s more pork, says Greg Mello, than has ever been spent in this state except when to build the Interstate freeway here. Greg is the director of the Los Alamos Study Group which is now suing the Lab for the spiraling costs of its latest project.
Asked what all this plutonium is for, Scott Kovacs of another nuclear activist group, NukeWatch, smiled ironically when he said, “The scientists just like to have a little plutonium around to play with.”
But, six metric tons? That’s 13,200 pounds of the most toxic substance known to man — a substance created by men, incidentally. According to Helen Caldicott, a microgram ingested is enough to give you cancer.
No wonder Lab spokesman are even less willing to use the “p”-word — much less explain the reason why it intends to hold all this precious metal on the site. At a March 10 presentation to update the public about progress on the new installation, Steve Fong referered to the stuff as “nuclear materials” until questioned by Robert Chavez, a young Pueblo man who has been working on the Lab’s impact on Native American communities downwind. Only then did Fong admit that the material was plutonium, but in so many words failed to clarify why it was there.
The CMRR’s mission is sinister enough. It is being built so that the Lab can take on the task once performed by Rocky Flats in Colorado – the manufacture of plutonium pits, which are the triggers (also called “primaries”) of thermonuclear bombs.
Pits weigh in at 12 pounds each. Six metric tons, therefore, is enough for over 1000 pits. The new facility will allow the Lab to make 50 to 80 pits a year, so that’s more than a lifetime supply to have on hand.
What on earth for? We have more than 10,000 pits in storage in Amarillo, Texas, at the Pantex plant. A recent (2007) study by the Jason’s, a group  of retired nuclear physicists, showed that pits may be expected to last at least 100 years. These pits are less than 60 years old. The Department of Energy is certainly planning ahead.
But if the DOE were doing its homework, it would have planned to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the time those pits are damaged by age. The U.S. (and the Soviet Union) both signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970, making a commitment to eliminate our nuclear arsenals as quickly as possible. To be fair, the number of weapons in the United States has been significantly reduced, from 70,000 at the height of the Cold War, to less than 10,000 today, still enough to blow up the entire planet many times over. The Russians have about the same amount, or a little more.
The New START Treaty, while not making radical changes in either arsenal, will lead to further reductions in the number of weapons on alert; it does not require that these weapons be dismantled.
Nuclear disarmament, if such it can be called, is moving at a snail’s pace; but it was thought to be moving forward nevertheless. Didn’t President Obama make a thrilling speech in Prague in 2009, vowing to end nuclear weapons? Or was that a dream I had?
It seems inconceivable that in a global environment urgent to lessen the growing danger of nuclear proliferation, this country would consider it necessary or even advisable to make new nuclear weapons. Yet it appears that that’s what is in the works. Why else have 13,200 pounds of plutonium sitting around? It’s not as if you can just pile up boxes or kegs of this stuff in some old garage at the Lab. Plutonium is fissile. You have to make sure it doesn’t heat itself up and then, um, explode. Such an explosio that would make mincemeat of that expensive new facility in which it is going to be housed, and make the city of Los Alamos a shadow of its former self. Santa Fe, southeast of Los Alamos, would receive plenty of fallout. All this without a war…
Those tons of plutonium will be stored in stainless steel kegs in a secured vault bolted to the ground with fans and a sprinkler system to keep it cool.
That’s a technical feat in itself and costs lots of money. Or so it was initially proposed. Now that there are worries that the high costs of this facility might signal its cancellation, LANL is proposing to eliminate these safety systems entirely.
When things get tight, as they are today, safety is the first thing to go.
Meanwhile the question remains: Why six metric tons of plutonium at the Lab? It’s not as if that’s the Lab’s entire supply of plutonium. There’s plenty more stored all over LANL. Some of it is in the canyon that feeds into the Rio Grande, but that doesn’t exactly count as supply.
Nationally, there’s no shortage of plutonium. Greg Mello estimates that there is 90,000 tons of this horrible stuff in weapons and storage sites all over the country.
And we’re stuck with it. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. In human terms, that’s pretty much forever.
Six metric tons is clearly enough to numb the most brilliant of brains.

Written by stephaniehiller

April 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm