Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
Plutonium And The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Past, Present And Future
Past, Present And Future
What The Public Should Know
Over the past five decades, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) has used large quantities of plutonium -- one of the most toxic substances ever created -- in its nuclear weapons design programs and related research. Because of contamination from many of its operations, the Lab is included on the "Superfund" list of the nation's most environmentally damaged sites. The workers and residents of the rapidly growing communities that surround the Lab have a right to know how plutonium use at LLNL may impact their lives.
Answers to the following questions are based on a new report, "Playing with Poison: Plutonium Use at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory," written by Peter M. Strauss for Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment).
WHAT IS PLUTONIUM?
Plutonium is a highly radioactive, man-made element produced in nuclear reactors. Its weapons-grade form (Pu-239) makes up the core or "primary" in modern nuclear bombs.
WHY IS PLUTONIUM DANGEROUS?
Plutonium is extremely poisonous. Serious medical problems or even death can result if a minute quantity enters the human body. Inhaled plutonium can remain in the lungs for 500 days; breathing in one ten-thousandth of a gram can cause cancer. In addition, radiation from plutonium can harm future generations by damaging a fetus developing inside a pregnant woman or causing genetic material to mutate.
HOW LONG IS PLUTONIUM DANGEROUS?
Bomb-grade plutonium has a half-life of about 24,000 years. This means its radioactivity decays by half in that period. Generally, scientists consider that a radioactive material's "hazardous life" is equal to 10 half-lives. Thus, plutonium is dangerous for close to a quarter million years -- longer than the recorded history of humanity.
WHAT IS PLUTONIUM USED FOR AT LAWRENCE LIVERMORE LAB?
Bomb designers rely on Plutonium-239 for its ability to generate an explosive chain reaction. LLNL's primary mission is nuclear weapons research, development and testing. As a result, for half a century, scientists and engineers at Lawrence Livermore have been engaged in a variety of projects involving plutonium, including developing manufacturing techniques, redesigning warheads, and conducting processing experiments. This work continues today.
HOW MUCH PLUTONIUM IS ON HAND AT LAWRENCE LIVERMORE LAB?
This information is classified ("top secret"), so the public cannot be certain. However, we do know from public documents that LLNL is authorized to keep 1,540 pounds of plutonium on site. This is enough plutonium to make approximately 150 nuclear bombs. Furthermore, a 1994 Department of Energy study disclosed that LLNL possessed 400 kilograms or 880 pounds of plutonium in its plutonium facility at that time. It is believed that LLNL has more plutonium on site at present.
WHY BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE LARGE QUANTITY OF PLUTONIUM AT LAWRENCE LIVERMORE LAB?
The physical and chemical properties of plutonium make it difficult to store safely. Workers at Livermore Lab face the greatest risks. If plutonium material is packed too closely together -- or comes into contact accidentally -- a spontaneous chain reaction (called a "criticality event") or even a nuclear explosion can result. High levels of radiation make plutonium difficult to handle. Plutonium chips and shavings from manufacturing processes can spontaneously burst into flame when exposed to air. Storage containers can burst from heat and pressure generated as plutonium decays.
Community members are also at risk. Plutonium gets into the surrounding environment by routine and unintentional releases from the Lab.
HOW CAN PLUTONIUM ESCAPE TO THE ENVIRONMENT?
There are many possible pathways. Plutonium could be released through fires, earthquakes or power failures that shut down safety equipment. Accidents -- or human intervention such as sabotage or a terrorist incident -- could lead to explosive and/or radioactive releases. Intruders could also try to steal nuclear materials for use in bombs or radiation weapons.
HAS PLUTONIUM EVER BEEN RELEASED FROM LAWRENCE LIVERMORE LAB?
Thirty releases of plutonium, uranium and other radioactive substances have been reported at LLNL since 1960. Fires, spills, filter failures, leaks, and criticality accidents have all occurred at the Lab. In addition, plutonium-contaminated sewage was regularly discharged to Livermore's Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facility, and plutonium-laced liquids have been poured onto the ground. Plutonium in unlined liquid waste pits leached into the soil, and some may have been swept into the atmosphere after evaporation. A 1996 report concluded that LLNL could not account for 5.5 kilograms (about 12 pounds) of plutonium, which may have been due to spills, releases, or measurement errors.
IS THERE A THREAT TO THE COMMUNITY?
Unfortunately, yes. Throughout LLNL's operating history, releases of plutonium have exposed workers and the public. The Lab has long been included on the federal government's National Priorities List ("Superfund") because of the threat of contamination to drinking water sources. Measurable levels of plutonium have been found off-site in locations including public parks. In the past, contaminated sludge was distributed to residents and the City of Livermore for use as fertilizer.
The full nature and extent of the potential health impacts of nuclear weapons-related activities at LLNL are not known. However, the limited research that has been done to date suggests there is good reason for concern. For example, California Department of Health Services studies have found higher than expected levels of malignant melanoma and brain cancer in area residents.
WHY IS MORE PLUTONIUM COMING TO LAWRENCE LIVERMORE LAB?
The Department of Energy has designated LLNL to process some of the plutonium-contaminated parts from the former Rocky Flats, Colorado, plant. Plutonium "pits" (cores) for nuclear weapons were manufactured at Rocky Flats until 1989, when the plant was closed due to the environmental threat it posed to the Denver-area residents.
LLNL is supposed to process the Rocky Flats plutonium in a hot furnace to separate out the plutonium from other materials present in the Rocky Flats parts, such as uranium and beryllium. LLNL then plans to ship the separated plutonium in an oxide form to the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plutonium that is still spiked with uranium, beryllium and other materials is supposed to go to a dump in New Mexico.
The containers slated to be used to transport these materials from Rocky Flats have not been certified as safe. And, if any problems develop in the shipment scheme, the Lab could become the plutonium's storage site for many years.
In addition, LLNL will receive plutonium from other Department of Energy sites for various research projects. Plutonium experiments may be conducted in the National Ignition Facility, a huge laser project designed to aid in testing and developing nuclear weapons.
IS THERE A WAY TO BETTER SAFEGUARD COMMUNITY HEALTH?
Community members and workers must be included in decisions made by LLNL about the past, present and future uses of plutonium at the Lab. Given the history of operations at Lawrence Livermore, the community has a right to hold the Lab accountable for past releases, to find out precisely how much plutonium has been released into the environment (and where it is), and to be compensated for any adverse impacts incurred by nuclear weapons related activities at LLNL. Following are some specific actions needed to deal with past problems at the Lab.
Problem 1: Inspectors from the Department of Energy's own Plutonium Vulnerability Assessment Team, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and other agencies have noted serious deficiencies in LLNL's plutonium operations. Over the years, many recommendations have been made by state and federal agencies.
Action: The public needs an up-to-date report on the status of all corrective actions at LLNL that have been recommended by various agencies, indicating which were actually implemented and which are still outstanding.
Problem 2: Through wastewater drains and other routes, plutonium from LLNL could have made its way into the San Francisco Bay.
Action: The amount of plutonium that has been discharged into the Bay as a result of LLNL operations must be determined and publicly reported.
Problem 3: Livermore Lab has been cited for locating an air monitor, which was supposed to measure air borne pollutants, behind a building. Further, many independent analysts believe that Livermore Lab's pollution sampling system is inadequate.
Action: Atmospheric sampling to better measure off-site plutonium releases and sewer monitoring to ensure that no additional plutonium is being pumped out of the Lab must be increased.
Problem 4: Plutonium has been found in Livermore City parks west of LLNL.
Action: More soil sampling is needed at parks and other public sites where plutonium contamination is known to have occurred. Samples should be analyzed for particle size to help determine the amounts of plutonium escaping through the filtering system in the plutonium facility at LLNL.
Problem 5: Plutonium-contaminated sludge was provided to Livermore residents in the 1960s and 1970s for use as a soil amendment, or fertilizer, in lawns and gardens.
Action: Free soil testing should be made available to Livermore residents.
Problem 6: Plutonium has been found in an off-site air monitor east of LLNL.
Action: Additional soil and air sampling should be conducted east of LLNL and in other locations where "hot spots" may lie undetected.
Problem 7: Plutonium is a dangerous substance, and its past, current and future uses at the Lab present both known and unknown risks.
Action: A compensation program should be created to address any adverse impacts suffered by workers and the community due to plutonium activities at Livermore Lab. The public must participate fully in making decisions that affect community health.
WHAT SHOULD BE THE FUTURE ROLE FOR PLUTONIUM AT LLNL?
An open debate is needed about the direction of all future work at Lawrence Livermore. With regard to plutonium, members of the public should press for initiatives to:
- Reevaluate the Department of Energy's policy of transporting plutonium back and forth across the nuclear weapons complex;
- Forgo risky, experimental plutonium activities at LLNL, such as the use of the Lab's furnace to "burn" plutonium parts from Rocky Flats;
- Bar new uses of plutonium at Livermore Lab, including its use in the National Ignition Facility;
- Phase out operation of the plutonium facility at Livermore Lab; and
- Determine whether any continued plutonium research at LLNL is truly in the interest of the Livermore community, the San Francisco Bay Area, the United States, or the world.
WHAT CAN COMMUNITY MEMBERS DO?
We invite you to attend the Town Meeting on plutonium and Livermore Lab. It will be held on February 21, 2002 at 7 PM at the Livermore Unitarian Church, located at 1893 North Vasco Road. The three sponsoring groups, listed below, have long-standing programs to safeguard public health and end nuclear weapons research at Lawrence Livermore Lab. We would welcome your participation in our activities.
Community members can also make a positive difference by staying informed, participating in public events when they occur, talking to friends and neighbors and in numerous other ways large and small. For example, if you would like to get some of your friends and neighbors together, we can provide a speaker for your "house party." And, if you have other ideas, just call us!
- Tri-Valley CAREs, (925) 443-7148
- Western States Legal Foundation, (510) 839-5877
- San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, (510) 845-8395
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