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Thursday, December 01, 2005  
Nuclear lab gets OK to double plutonium

By: Keay Davidson
Published In: San Francisco Chronicle

U.S. Energy Dept. approves storage of 300 bombs' worth

The U.S. Department of Energy has decided to double the amount of radioactive plutonium that can be stored at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, enough for as many as 300 nuclear bombs, agency representatives said Wednesday.

Energy Department officials approved the increase less than five months after a scientific panel for the agency urged that virtually all the plutonium now stored at Livermore be removed from the growing city to a safer, more remote site, probably in a desert in a different state.

The change will allow plutonium from other nuclear sites, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to be shipped to Livermore for the lab's program of studying long-term decay of nuclear bomb parts and finding ways to maintain the bombs.

The government also decided to authorize Livermore scientists to use a superlaser to blast small quantities of plutonium and other nuclear bomb material to simulate nuclear explosions, something lab critics fear could release traces of the radioactive poison into the atmosphere. When the Energy Department sought congressional funding for the superlaser project a decade ago, it issued a report saying it had no plans to simulate such mini-nuclear bomb blasts. The laser, called the National Ignition Facility, is under construction.

The decisions infuriated Bay Area anti-nuclear activists, who fear that increased plutonium storage and bomb-component transport over busy roads to Livermore could increase the chances of a nuclear accident or terrorist attack that, in a worst-case scenario, could leave areas uninhabitable.

"If people in the Bay Area knew that they were being involuntarily drafted as human radiation experiments, they wouldn't like it," said Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland. "The research, development and testing of nuclear weapons is intrinsically the dirtiest business on Earth. Every facility which has historically been involved in those (nuclear) activities has created enormous environmental damage and hazards to public health."

The Energy Department decision "puts the entire San Francisco Bay Area at risk," said Loulena Miles, staff attorney at the Livermore-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment.

A spokeswoman for the lab said officials declined to comment and referred questions to the Energy Department.

Over the years, hundreds of pounds of plutonium have been stored and analyzed inside a storage building on the lab grounds, known as Building 332. The federal changes -- made public Tuesday by a quasi-independent Energy Department subsidiary, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration -- allow shipments to be greatly increased, but don't specify whether the new limits are short-term or permanent.

The lab is now authorized to store as much as 1,540 pounds of plutonium. An Energy Department official, John Belluardo, said the exact amount now at Livermore "is classified due to 9/11 security concerns." Tuesday's decision doubles the maximum permissible storage of plutonium to more than 3,080 pounds.

If extra plutonium is shipped to Livermore from Los Alamos and other weapons sites around the United States, it will be closely watched en route, Belluardo said.

"Plutonium shipments are closely monitored and transported by truck under very tight security protection," he said. "The nuclear material at the (Livermore) plutonium facility has always been stored in a safe and secure manner."

However, federal investigators issued a report in April 2004 criticizing safety standards at Livermore's Building 332. The inspectors from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board warned of the possibility of a plutonium fire -- in pulverized form, the substance is highly flammable -- that "could continue for days." In reply, lab officials have insisted they handle plutonium safely.

Exchanges between the lab and federal monitors have continued since the report. An Oct. 7 memo posted on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board's Web site said that over the last year, inspections indicated that safety-related procedures inside Building 332 "were less than adequate." Although Livermore employees have been taking "corrective actions" to meet the board's demands, "the effectiveness of the corrective actions remains uncertain," the memo said.

In a July 13 draft report, the Energy Department's six-member Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force recommended moving virtually all plutonium and other nuclear bomb materials such as highly enriched uranium out of Livermore to a remote lab.

The panel said the idea was to "substantially increase (nuclear weapons) complex efficiency, and reduce complex transportation, security and other operating costs, while limiting the number of complex sites and civilian communities contiguous to the complex sites that could be targets of terrorist attacks."

David Overskei, a plasma physicist who chaired the panel, said Wednesday that Los Alamos, which also does maintenance work on nuclear weapons, can't manage its workload. As a result, he said, he can understand why the Energy Department needs to ship extra plutonium to Livermore -- as long as the increased limits are temporary.

However, Overskei said that in the long run, nearly all nuclear bomb material including plutonium should be removed from Livermore and other labs near densely inhabited areas.

Besides the practical value of centering all plutonium work at a central lab, removing such material from inhabited areas "removes a collateral civilian threat to the community," he said.

The Energy Department's announcement of plans for the laser-blasting of plutonium reverses its original position.

Livermore began building the National Ignition Facility in the late 1990s. Christopher Paine, a longtime critic of the Energy Department who works at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Wednesday that a December 1995 document from the agency included a passage stating that laser experiments "will not make use of any fissile material" such as plutonium.

Paine said the main danger from vaporized plutonium is that it could be inhaled and lodged in people's lungs; its radioactive decay could trigger cancers.

The laser-blasting will require construction of a special containment chamber, Paine predicted, adding, "It's going to be very expensive."

E-mail Keay Davidson at

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