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Wednesday, November 30, 2005  
Lab to double plutonium storage

By: Ian Hoffman, Staff Writer
Published In: Oakland Tribune

As expected, the nation's nuclear weapons chief has chosen to double storage and daily work limits for plutonium at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and begin firing the world's largest laser at targets closely mimicking H-bombs.

National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks, in a Nov. 22 letter released Tuesday, approved an environmental study that amounts to a 10-year blueprint for the nuclear weapons lab, with plans to boost its weapons research and add 500 employees to its work force.

Aspects of the plans are controversial and clash with broader, if slower movement by the federal government toward removal of plutonium from nuclear weapons sites such as Livermore that are surrounded by homes.

While several Bay Area businesses and construction unions supported an expansion of the lab's

core nuclear weapons work, people filed about 9,000 comments in opposition.

"This decision basically rolls over a whole community," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, a nuclear disarmament group that organized opposition to more weapons work at Livermore. "This basically says, 'Screw you.'"

This fall, advisers to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said continued work with weapons quantities of plutonium in facilities close to residential areas posed an intolerable safety and security risk. They recommended emptying the plutonium facility at Lawrence Livermore, known as Superblock, as well as similar facilities at Los Alamos lab.

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Earlier this month, key Senate and House lawmakers chided the Energy Department for failing to act more quickly on this consolidation of nuclear materials into a single, highly secure and remote center, a kind of desert fortress.

But Livermore officials worry the loss of plutonium work could mark the beginning of the end for the lab's bread-and-butter weapons research. And National Nuclear Security Administration officials say removing plutonium from Livermore now would frustrate national security needs.

Instead, Brooks has approved a doubling of the regulatory ceiling for plutonium storage to more than 3,000 pounds and a doubling of day-to-day work limits in two lab rooms to 88 pounds, enough for a half-dozen atomic bombs.

Among other things, Superblock contains experiments to watch for changes in weapons-grade plutonium as it ages, much as the metal does in real bombs, as well as research into new methods of building plutonium fission cores for weapons with less waste.

Federal officials say there also is a national security need to use standard nuclear weapons materials and shapes inside the National Ignition Facility, a stadium-size laser bringing 192 beams to bear on targets smaller than a sewing thimble.

When complete in late 2008, the giant laser and its close cousin in France are expected to be the world's only facilities capable of reaching the pressures and temperatures found in the centers of stars and detonating nuclear weapons.

The plans approved by NNSA and announced Tuesday clear Livermore scientists to fire the laser at targets of plutonium, lithium deuteride and highly enriched uranium, in tiny, gram quantities but configurations that approximate modern H-bombs.

Creating tiny thermonuclear explosions on such targets will release more energy and generate more radiation than more standard laser-fusion targets. But Livermore scientists say the weapons- relevant targets will allow them to tinker with the miniaturized designs and explore what kinds of changes can make bombs fail.

Contact Ian Hoffman at

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