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Thursday, December 01, 2005  
Enough Already

By: Nature Publishing Group
Published In: EDITORIALS NATURE|Vol 438|8

No convincing case has been made for increasing

the amount of plutonium held at a Californian lab.

The US Department of Energy is planning to double the

amount of plutonium that can be stored at the Lawrence

Livermore National Laboratory in California. Under new

rules announced last week, the nuclear-weapons lab can keep up to

1,400 kilograms, or enough for around 300 bombs.

Not surprisingly, antinuclear activists are up in arms about having

so much bomb-grade metal in such a heavily populated area. But

researchers who want the US nuclear-weapons laboratories to set a

good example for the rest of the world should be equally dismayed

at the plan.

Since 1992, the United States has maintained a moratorium on the

testing and development of new nuclear weapons. There?s no real

need for this research lab, which accommodates an outstanding

civilian research programme next to its weapons-related activity, to

be playing with this quantity of plutonium.

Livermore is expected to use some of the expanded inventory in

nuclear-weapons research, including experiments at the National

Ignition Facility (NIF), a massive laser facility that will recreate some

of the conditions inside nuclear weapons at detonation. The facility?s

original function was to perform such experiments on hydrogen

isotopes, rather than plutonium. Officials at the Department of

Energy never formally excluded the option of using plutonium in

the NIF, but a 1995 report prepared by scientists in the department?s

non-proliferation office warned that its use at the facility could be

seen as provocative by other nations.

The other main reason why Livermore wants to hold more plutonium, according to energy-department documents, is that it will

start to lay the groundwork for the renewed mass production of

plutonium pits, used in US nuclear weapons. Livermore will be

charged with developing new technologies for manufacturing the

pits, for use at a proposed industrial-sized production facility. But

questions remain over whether this facility is either necessary or

appropriate, and this year Congress declined to appropriate the

money needed to begin planning for its construction.

Most of Livermore?s new plutonium stocks would be shipped there

from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where

the Department of Energy?s track record in handling plutonium

does not inspire much confidence. According to a report released

on 29 November by the Institute for Energy and Environmental

Research, a watchdog group based near Washington DC, Los Alamos

has managed to lose between 300 kg and 600 kg of the material over

the years. The group suggests ?The laboratory is wasting

that much of it was dumped

indiscriminately in the desert its time researching

during the early days of the pit production for a

nuclear age, or was mislabelled facility that may never

when shipped off elsewhere for actually be built.?

long-term storage.

And Livermore has had its own problems with plutonium. In

January, its plutonium facility, where scientists work with the metal

under heavily controlled conditions, was shut down amid safety

concerns. Problems cited at the time included cracks in the building?s ventilation systems and poorly constructed ?hot boxes? for

handling the metal. The facility was allowed to reopen at a reduced

capacity last month.

In light of all this, Livermore?s plan to double its inventory of

plutonium is ill-advised. A case for plutonium experiments at the

NIF has not been made, even to review groups that have the security

clearance needed to assess it. And the laboratory is wasting its time

researching pit production for a facility that may never actually be

built. For a mixed-use scientific facility in a residential area, 700 kg

of plutonium is enough, already.

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