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Saturday, April 23, 2005  
Plutonium may have big future at Livermore lab

By: Ian Hoffman
Published In: Oakland Tribune

Feds' plans to increase nuclear weapons work could double inventory

While eliminating a controversial plutonium separation project, federal officials are proposing an expansion of nuclear weapons work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, including experiments on casting the cores of H-bombs.

If approved by the nation's chief weapons executive, over the next decade the lab could as much as double its plutonium inventory to 1.5 tons, enough in theory to make hundreds of nuclear weapons.

The lab also plans to double the plutonium that workers in a single room may handle to more than 80 pounds so scientists can proceed with multiple projects simultaneously.

According to a new study of Livermore's environmental impacts for the next decade, to be officially released next week, amajor reason for enlarging plutonium storage at Livermore is building an experimental production line for casting plutonium pits. These hollow, usually oblong shells about the size of a softball, when wrapped in high explosive and plugged with detonators, serve as the miniature A-bombs that touch off modern thermonuclear weapons.

Arms-control and environmental activists portrayed the added plutonium work as risky for the health and security of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a worst-case accident of a fire sweeping through an entire room fully stocked with plutonium at Livermore's Superblock, the government's calculations predict one chance in 10 that a single person out of the Bay's 7 million population would get cancer attributable to the fire.

Marylia Kelley, head of the Livermore-based watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs, suspects that's an understatement of the risk from a plutonium increase, including that posed by terrorists and nearby earthquake faults.

"Where they've chosen to work the bugs out of the technology for a bomb factory is a highly populated area riddled with earthquake faults. It's crazy. If you tried, you could not find a more inappropriate location."

Arms-control groups and good-government watchdogs have pressed two U.S. energy secretaries to empty Livermore of its plutonium, arguing among other things that the close proximity of homes makes it impossible for security forces to use heavy weapons in defending the lab.

"We believe plutonium cannot be made safe at Livermore," Kelley said. But she praised the National Nuclear Security Administration for scrapping plans to use exotic lasers to separate plutonium.

NNSA officials studied the proposal more closely and found it was unnecessary in light of a glut of plutonium in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

By eliminating laser isotopic separation, the NNSA cut by a third the amount of plutonium that workers might handle at any given time and cut the cancer risk from an accident at the Superblock facility almost in half.

"We have a lower waste projection and a lower radiological risk to workers," said Tom Grim, NNSA's leader for the study.

More than 9,000 people commented on the government's proposals, most of them highly critical of the plans in its 18-pound, four-volume study.

"I think the general public understands that the NNSA is looking after homeland security and is improving security not only for them and their families but also the world," he said.

The study will be available by the end of next week at the Livermore and Tracy public libraries, in the lab reading room off Greenville Road and on the Web at

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