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Wednesday, April 05, 2006  
Energy Department to Consolitate Plutonium

By: H. Josef Hebert
Published In: Associated Press, Washington Post

The Energy Department announced plans Wednesday to consolidate virtually all of the government's weapons research and development involving plutonium at a single site to enhance security.

The plan, which is part of a broader overhaul of the weapons program over the next two decades, calls for removing plutonium stocks now at the Livermore National Laboratory in California by 2014 and from all current facilities by 2022.

Plutonium is now kept at seven facilities within the government's weapons production and research complex, posing difficult and expensive security issues at some of them.

Community activists at Livermore have complained that the plutonium poses too high a risk at the government weapons lab, located in a heavily populated suburban area 40 miles from downtown San Francisco.

The actual amount of plutonium at the lab's "Superblock," where weapons research is conducted, is classified. The official inventory is 880 pounds, said Livermore spokesman David Schwoegler.

The radioactive material, which is deadly if inhaled or ingested, is used at Livermore for research into weapons components and the reliability of existing warheads. Schwoegler said "80 percent of the plutonium on site we don't need."

Thomas D'Agostino, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a House hearing that the department wants to create a central plutonium research center as part of the weapons complex overhaul.

"We will improve the security posture of our national laboratories by phasing out (plutonium) operations" at those facilities, he said.

Weapons research involving substantial amounts of plutonium is conducted at seven locations across the country, including the Livermore lab and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

D'Agostino said the Livermore and Los Alamos labs would continue to be centers for nuclear weapons design and development, but plutonium research and development "would be relocated to a single site" elsewhere.

No decision has been made on the location of the plutonium research facility. Department officials said it is envisioned the site also would include a new plant to manufacture plutonium "pits" ? the softball-size core of a nuclear weapon.

The NNSA, the semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department that oversees nuclear weapons research and production, has had difficulty getting some of the facilities to meet new, more stringent security requirements imposed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Energy Department officials have acknowledged that meeting some of those requirements will be extremely expensive and may not be possible at some of the sites, such as Livermore, if the plutonium remains there.

Peter Stockton, a former Energy Department official who is now an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, a private advocacy group, told the hearing that consolidation of weapons material should be completed faster than the Energy Department is planning.

Putting the material at fewer places would make it easier to defend and "could save the government billions of dollars ... while better protecting the public from nuclear terrorism," said Stockton.

An Energy Department senior advisory board recently recommended that all the government's sensitive nuclear materials ? highly enriched uranium and plutonium ? be consolidated by 2015.

D'Agostino said the department agreed with much of the board's recommendations, but not its recommendation on consolidation. Under the Energy plan, activities using highly enriched uranium would be conducted at the Y-12 weapons facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn.


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