Reading Room

Citizen Watch Newsletter February 1999


More Plutonium Found in Park: Lab Says No Action Needed

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' February 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Three times, soil samples have been collected from a city park near Livermore Lab and tested for plutonium.

Three times, the test results have come back positive. High levels of plutonium have been found - in the loose dirt in the park, along a baseball diamond that sits between the park and the adjacent elementary school and in a picnic area nearby.

And, three times, Lab officials have rushed to assert that there is no harm to human health or the environment from the plutonium, and that no cleanup or follow up action is warranted.

Plutonium is a man-made, radioactive metal used to create the atomic explosion that is at the core of a modern nuclear weapon. Plutonium 239, the bomb-grade isotope found in the park, has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years. A material's hazardous life is generally calculated to be 10 times its half-life. Thus, plutonium is, in human terms, forever. The Lab has around 880 pounds of it on hand, enough for nearly 100 modern nuclear weapons.

There is no safe level of plutonium exposure. A microscopic particle, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases.

A problem is discovered

Plutonium pollution was first discovered in Big Trees Park when the EPA analyzed a single dirt sample there. The EPA also took one sample each from two other Livermore parks. The agency expected all three to be at "background," and to use them as a comparison for known plutonium contamination at the Lab.

All 3 samples came up dirty, and the one from Big Trees Park contained the highest level of plutonium. Big Trees is about one-half mile west of Livermore Lab.

EPA uses a "background" range (representing global fallout levels from nuclear testing) of .001 to .01 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil. The initial sample taken from Big Trees Park measured .164, between 16 and 160 times "background."

Amidst pressure from Tri-Valley CAREs and others, the Lab conducted a limited number of soil tests at Big Trees Park in 1995. Those test results turned up even higher levels of plutonium, including a finding of 1.02 picocuries per gram, up to 1,000 times higher than attributable to global fallout. The highest levels of plutonium were found in the top two inches of dirt in the park.

The EPA's "screening level" for plutonium in residential soil is 2.5 picocuries per gram. So, while elevated levels of plutonium have been found atop park soils in which children run, dig and play, the community has no regulatory mechanism to enforce cleanup. And, we still have questions about how the plutonium traveled to the parks and what the potential might be that other, undiscovered, "hot spots" are lurking within the community.

Health agencies come to town

Because the Lab is on the EPA's list of worst contaminated sites in the nation (the Superfund), the federal ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry) came to town to conduct a public health assessment. Working through a cooperative agreement, the California Department of Health Services and ATSDR together set up a "site team" to guide their assessment (which includes Tri-Valley CAREs' Stephanie Ericson), held public meetings and undertook to write a health consultation on plutonium in Livermore.

We shared our files with the agencies. In addition to data on plutonium in the parks, we had information about plutonium accidents at the Lab, including several where the radioactive metal had been washed down Lab drains and carried to the city sewage treatment plant. In a 1967 accident, the Lab estimated it sent a half-gram of plutonium to the sewage plant. >From '67 until the early '70s that plutonium-laden sludge was given to unknowing residents to use as fertilizer in their lawns and gardens.

The draft plutonium health consultation, released in 1998, discussed the sludge problem, pointing out that the Lab may have systematically underestimated the amount of plutonium in the sludge by failing to analyze the solids where it would likely concentrate. The consult also covered the plutonium pollution in Big Trees Park. Whether the health agencies will make final recommendations, and what those recommendations will be is the subject of a crucial public meeting on February 17. Your voice is needed. (See Citizen's Alerts on page 3.)

A third round of soil tests

Last year, again under pressure, Livermore Lab decided to undertake another, more thorough, series of soil tests at Big Trees Park. The sampling goal was two-fold: to find out whether there was more plutonium and to shed some light on how it got there.

Wind, water and contaminated sludge formed the three basic theories on how the plutonium got to the park. Airborne emissions from the Lab (due to accidents and/or routine operations) could have transported it there. If this is so, it is likely that other "hot spots" exist around Livermore. A second possibility is via the creek that cuts through the Lab before going past the park. Plutonium may have entered the creek as storm run-off and been tracked by kids and machines up into the park. Third, the Lab hypothesized, plutonium contaminated sludge could have been used on the ornamental trees when they were planted in the early 1970s. This was repeatedly denied by the sewage treatment plant and the parks district.

The results

Late last month, Livermore Lab released the sampling results. High levels of plutonium were found at numerous sites in the park, near (but not in) the creek, along the ball field and by a little grassy hill between the park and the sidewalk. Somewhat elevated levels of plutonium were also found behind an apartment complex between the Lab and the park. The highest concentration of plutonium found was .774 picocuries per gram, up to 700 times "background," but below the EPA's screening level. Once again, most of the plutonium was found in the top two inches of dirt.

The Lab took samples in tree wells. No plutonium was found in samples about twenty inches deep, around the roots. So, the city was correct, and no contaminated sludge was used in their planting. The Lab took samples in the historic creek bed, covered over when the park was created and the creek was rechanneled. Again, no findings. The way the plutonium is distributed suggests that it may have traveled by air to the park. The hottest spots somewhat follow a line from the Lab's plutonium facility to the park, and in some cases, but not all, the highest concentrations fall out about forty inches or so away from the trees - which may have "captured" the airborne plutonium particles that then washed down when it rained.

Livermore Lab, however, is aggressively pushing a new sludge theory: Namely that an unknown resident had an unknown amount of contaminated sludge which he or she put around the trees at an unknown time after they were planted, for an assumed reason - to be helpful. The closer one looks at the Lab's "evidence" the more unlikely it seems. For example, the Lab found lower concentrations of other metals than you would expect to find if sewer sludge had been put on the trees. The Lab theorizes that the other metals washed away. One could go on. It's all possible, but not likely. In fact, the motivation seems political, not scientific. The Lab appears unwilling to consider that the pollution source may be the still-active plutonium facility and not a single, discrete occurrence from the distant past.

Recommendations

1. Sampling should be done of other likely "hot spots," including east of the Lab where plutonium has been found in off site air monitors. Samples should be analyzed for particle size to help determine the amounts of plutonium escaping through the filtering system. (More on filter problems in an upcoming issue.)

2. "Hot spots" should be cleaned up. There is no excuse for the Lab leaving elevated levels of plutonium in a park.

3. The Lab should institute changes in its filter maintenance and operational procedures in the plutonium facility to help minimize further releases.

4. The plutonium facility should rapidly be phased out of operation.

5. The California Dept. of Health Services should head up an investigation into where the contaminated sludge ended up. The Lab should pay for sampling on demand for any area residents who think they may have gotten plutonium-laden sludge for their home use.

(Please attend a public meeting on Wednesday, February 17 at 6 PM. The meeting will be held at the Marriott Hotel at 2600 Bishop Dr. in San Ramon, and is sponsored by ATSDR, the federal health agency. IF YOU CANNOT ATTEND, SEND YOUR COMMENTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS TO: Paul Charp, mail stop E-56, ATSDR, 1600 Clifton Rd. NE, Atlanta, GA 30333. Paul's phone is (404) 639-6004. His email is PAC4@cdc.gov)


Green Scissors '99 Released

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' February 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Nuclear pork like the National Ignition Facility, money-losing timber sales and harmful, big water projects are among the federal programs targeted by "Green Scissors '99: Cutting Wasteful and Environmentally Harmful Spending." The product of a unique coalition of progressive environmental groups and conservative taxpayer organizations, Green Scissors '99 argues that $50.7 billion could be saved by cutting 72 federal programs.

The report recommends saving taxpayers $251.6 million by canceling DOE's noncompetitive contract to "recycle" radioactive metals and other atomic weapons and nuclear power wastes into consumer products. Further, the really big-ticket savings in Green Scissors '99 come from canceling programs like the NIF, which would save $5 billion, not to mention its decontamination and cleanup costs.

The full report can be found at www.taxpayer.net. The NIF recommendation, from page 23 of the report, is reprinted below. Please copy and circulate it to others.

>From "Green Scissors '99: Cutting Wasteful and Environmentally Harmful Spending"

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is a Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons project being constructed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California. NIF would use laser fusion technology to blast a fuel pellet of radioactive tritium and deuterium in hopes of igniting a thermonuclear explosion in a reactor vessel ignition. NIF's cost estimates have doubled since 1994 and are continuing to rise. Current expected construction estimates are $1.2 billion with another $3.8 billion in operating costs over 30 years. NIF will produce radioactive waste and threaten efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.

Green Scissors Proposal

The NIF should be canceled and construction terminated. Relying on existing facilities rather than expensive new ones would save the taxpayer more than $5 billion over the 30 year lifetime of the project.

Current Status

NIF is a rapidly expanding "black hole" for tax dollars. In 1998, Congress appropriated NIF $393.2 million for FY99, including $291.2 million for construction and another $102 million drawn from a separate inertial fusion line item. The project had received $229.1 million in FY98, up from $191 million in FY97. In 1997 an unrecorded waste dump was discovered beneath the NIF construction site. DOE was subsequently ordered by Federal court to prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for NIF.

Project Hurts Taxpayers

  • NIF is extremely expensive. NIF is the single most costly element of DOE's nuclear weapons program (called Stockpile Stewardship), although its value to stewardship of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is dubious at best.
  • Billions of taxpayer dollars are being thrown at an experimental program. Experts at DOE's own laboratories rate NIF's chances of achieving ignition at less than 10 percent.
  • Taxpayer dollars are being wasted as NIF offers no commercial use. The future of laser fusion as an energy source is highly speculative. A commercially viable fusion demonstration plant will not be possible for at least three to four decades, if ever.

Project Hurts the Environment

  • NIF will create radioactive waste. Its fuel contains radioactive tritium and even its "routine" operation creates contamination. Due to a lawsuit brought by 39 plaintiff organizations, in 1998 the government declassified formerly secret documents outlining plans to use uranium, plutonium and lithium hydride in NIF experiments. This would increase environmental risks.
  • The site needs cleanup, not more waste. Livermore Lab is already a Superfund site. FY99 cleanup funding for the entire site will total a mere five percent of the NIF budget.
  • NIF undermines efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. By providing a means for nuclear weapons designers to continue their research and development in the absence of underground testing, NIF fosters nuclear weapons advancement. Controversy exists as to whether NIF violates the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The National Ignition Facility and the Test Ban Treaty

by Hisham Zerriffi
from Tri-Valley CAREs' February 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The laser-fusion National Ignition Facility may violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear explosions, according to a letter to be delivered to the University of California Regents on February 18th.

The letter asks the Regents, who manage the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where the facility is being constructed, to declare a halt to work on NIF while questions surrounding its legality are resolved internationally.

A non-profit institute based in Takoma Park Maryland, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), initiated the letter and it was signed by over one hundred organizations and individuals. The letter will be presented to the Regents by the members of Tri-Valley CAREs and Hisham Zerriffi, a Project Scientist at IEER, among others.

In addition to raising legal questions, the letter also expresses concern over the role NIF could play in the future development of new nuclear weapons, including pure fusion weapons which would not require plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium.

A report by IEER, Dangerous Thermonuclear Quest: The Potential of Explosive Fusion Research for the Development of Pure Fusion Weapons, released in July of 1998 outlines the technical basis for the arguments made in the letter.

As a final note, the letter asks the Regents to use the halt in construction of NIF as a prime opportunity to initiate a wide-ranging debate over the appropriateness of the University of California engaging in nuclear weapons research.

Tri-Valley CAREs members are invited to address the Regents during the public comment session, beginning at 1 PM [note time change] on February 18 at the UCSF - Laurel Heights campus in San Francisco. That evening, Hisham will join us at the Tri-Valley CAREs meeting, 7:30 PM in Livermore. See the Citizen's Alerts at left for more information. Copies of the letter will be available at both events.


Citizen's Alerts

Wednesday, February 17
Public meeting on Plutonium and the Livermore Public Health Assessment
6 - 9:30 PM, Marriott Hotel, Contra Costa Ballroom
2600 Bishop Dr., San Ramon
(925) 443-7148 for details

This public meeting is sponsored by the federal health agency ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) in Atlanta. Its purpose is to hear from the "site team" and the pubic regarding the continual discoveries of plutonium in Livermore's Big Trees Park (and elsewhere) as well as the plutonium-laden sludge that was given out to area residents in the '60s and '70s to use as soil conditioner in lawns and gardens. Please see p. 1 for details and Tri-Valley CAREs recommendations. If you want to see your public health officials take any action whatsoever, this is perhaps your last chance to be heard. Please attend. If you are unable to attend, please express your questions, concerns and recommendations for action to:

Paul Charp, ATSDR,
1600 Clifton Rd., NE, Mail Stop E-56,
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: (404) 639-6004
Email: Pac4@cdc.gov


Thursday, February 18
UC Regents meeting
1 PM [note new time], Public Comment session
UCSF - Laurel Heights Campus
3333 California St., SF
(925) 443-7148 for details

Join other Tri-Valley CAREs members, U.C. alumnae and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research to present the Regents with a letter asking that construction of the National Ignition Facility at Livermore Lab be stopped while questions regarding its illegality under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are resolved. Please see article at right for details. Bring a short statement to read (under 3 minutes) during the public comment session. The Regents manage Livermore Lab for the DOE.

Thursday, February 18
Tri-Valley CAREs meets
7:30 - 9:30 PM, Livermore Library
1000 So. Livermore Ave.
(925) 443-7148 for details

This promises to be a very important meeting, and your participation is welcomed. We will discuss next steps regarding plutonium pollution in Livermore, and "debrief" our morning action at the U.C. Regents meeting. Our special guest will be Hisham Zerriffi, Project Scientist from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Tacoma Park, MD. Bring your ideas-and your friends. Together we will create a more peaceful and just world in 1999.

Thursday, March 4
Our mailing party
7 - 9:30 PM, Tri-Valley CAREs' office
2582 Old First St., Livermore
(925) 443-7148

Please note our new date. Due to ongoing problems with slow delivery by the Post Office, we will be producing our newsletter one week earlier each month. Therefore, our mailing party will now be held on the first Thursday of the month. We will supply drinks and snacks. Can you bring some fingers to help affix labels?

ONGOING
Visit us at our new office
Check out our Research Library
and Reading Room 9:30 AM - 4:30 PM, Mon - Fri
2582 Old First St., Livermore
(925) 443-7148 for details, directions

Our new space in downtown Livermore makes us-and all our documents and reports-more accessible to you, our members and friends. Come by and say hello.

SUBCRITICAL NUCLEAR TEST ALERT

As we prepare to go to press, DOE has just announced it will conduct an underground "subcritical" nuclear test tomorrow, Feb. 9 at the Nevada Test Site. The test is code-named "Clarinet," and it was designed here at Livermore Lab. The parts were then transported to the test site.

The test is slated to detonate 3 nuclear "packages" (that's the DOE's term), containing 145 grams of high explosives and 170 grams of plutonium.

Call or write DOE today. You may use the letter and email link to DOE on our web site (over in the Action Alerts Section) if you wish.

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