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Congress pushes nuclear expansion despite accidents at weapons lab
Weapons watchdog says government’s position ‘increasingly hypocritical’ as US prepares to increase production of warheads in spite of safety and environmental concerns
Caty Enders in New York
theguardian.com, Monday 29 September 2014 16.26 EDT
In February, a 52-gallon drum containing radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production exploded at a storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Photograph: Department of Energy/AP
This month, the Department of Energy released its initial findings into one of the worst American nuclear accidents since the end of the cold war. On February 14, a 52-gallon drum containing radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production exploded at a storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico, exposing 22 workers to radioactivity and leading to the closure of the facility. In its preliminary briefing, the DOE recommended a 7,000-point checklist that must be met in order to reopen the facility and indicated that congressional support for the plan was strong, despite a price tag that would likely run into the billions of dollars.
The closing of the facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the nation’s only such repository, has caused a storage backup of radioactive materials at a time when Congress and the Department of Defense, together with New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), are gearing up to dramatically increase production of nuclear weapons cores to numbers not seen since the cold war. In a report to Congress last month, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) outlined specific recommendations for a nuclear production plan under which as many as 80 explosive plutonium cores – 3.5in spheres that trigger an atomic bomb – would be created per year by 2030.
The Los Alamos proposal, which aims to increase plutonium core production at the nuclear facility thirtyfold from 2013 levels, leaves various environmental, fiscal, and political questions unanswered. Los Alamos, which the CRS report cites as the only plausible place for the slated nuclear expansion, happens to have a staggeringly poor history of safeguarding war-grade nuclear materials. A federal study last month found the nuclear facility unprepared to respond to emergencies; environmental violations abound; and a former employee was recently sentenced to a year in federal prison for trying to sell nuclear secrets to the Venezuelan government.
The plan, which has already been quietly adopted in broad terms by the House and Senate armed services committees as part of the 2015 Defense Authorization Act, is expected to contribute an estimated $355bn for nuclear weapons development over the next decade. The spending would seem to stand in stark contrast to President Obama’s stated position on nuclear weapons.
Obama has previously indicated a strong commitment to cutting the nuclear stockpile from 5,113 warheads in 2009 to 1,500 by the year 2016. In a 2009 speech in Prague, cited by the Nobel committee as the primary reason for awarding him the peace prize, the president indicated that he would work to create a “world without nuclear weapons.” The current nuclear stockpile stands at 4,804 warheads, down by just 309 weapons from the end of the Bush administration. By contrast, president George W Bush cut the nuclear stockpile in half during his eight years in office.
“We view the Obama administration’s position as increasingly hypocritical,” said Jay Coghlan of New Mexico Nuclear Watch, a non-profit watchdog group. “Obama’s proposed 2015 budget is the highest ever for nuclear weapons research and production. And at the same time they’re cutting nonproliferation budgets to pay for it.”
Critics say there’s no need for the new plutonium core project, because the US already maintains an estimated 15,000 reserve cores or “pits” at a facility in Texas, and those pits are supposed to last another 50 years.
They also point to safety risks at LANL that are acknowledged in the CRS report, which suggests that the current plutonium pit production building should be retrofitted to withstand earthquakes, as the facility sits adjacent to a seismic fault line.
Furthermore, the US navy, which also works on weapons development, has questioned the necessity of making further plutonium pits at all. The government could, it suggested, update nuclear weapons components at a fraction of the cost.
Spokespeople for Los Alamos National Laboratory declined multiple requests for comment.
Opponents of the project cite safety concerns as a primary reason not to ramp up production of the cores, which creates various types of hazardous radioactive waste.
The facility at Los Alamos that the CRS report named as the only plausible place where new pits could be made has been shut for production since June 2013, when a number of safety violations, including improper storage of hazardous materials, prompted LANL director Charlie MacMillan to close it. The laboratory made 29 practice pits between 2007 and 2013, the first created since the late 1980s, when the FBI raided, fined, and finally closed the only facility then making them, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, in Colorado.
Despite the risks, Will Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and a former deputy administrator for defense and nuclear non-proliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that producing a certain number of nuclear pits every year is necessary to discourage other countries from ramping up their nuclear programs.
James Doyle, a former scientist in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at LANL, said that the scale of the proposed project lacks supporting research, particularly in the quantity of cores required. “I’ve never seen the justification articulated for the 50-80 pits per year by 2030,” Doyle said.
Doyle, a 17-year veteran of Los Alamos, was dismissed on July 8 for publishing an article in support of nuclear disarmament that had been approved prior to publication by the laboratory’s classification department. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the State Department have since classified the article, despite the fact that independent reviewers for the Center for Public Integrity found no plausible breaches. (The article remains available to the public even after the classification.)
Doyle believes that the timing of his ouster was connected to the congressional push for nuclear weapons maintenance. “I think the laboratory would like to review for message, too,” he said.“I would speculate that the message of my article was in opposition to the labs’ message when searching for funding for the plutonium pit project.”
Doyle believes that the government should turn its focus from weapons component production to a strategic plan for eliminating nuclear weapons by the year 2045. “I think there are plenty of people at the lab who share my view that are now even less likely to write an article like that now this has happened to me,” Doyle said.
While LANL employees might be unlikely to speak out against the lab, the accident at WIPP has prompted strong words from New Mexico’s environment department, one of the agencies investigating the February 14 accident. Department secretary Ryan Flynn indicated that LANL and the DOE have proven “inconsistent” communicators in the ongoing investigation, slow and contradictory in providing information to which the environmental agency is legally entitled.
Flynn said that the department has already identified a number of violations of the Hazardous Waste Facility Permit at the Carlsbad site as well as at Los Alamos, related and unrelated to the incident at WIPP. “We need to get information in order to do our job, first and foremost protecting the public from any risks that are posed by any of these activities,” Flynn said. “We’re going to get [this information] voluntarily or involuntarily.”
The February incident at WIPP was assumed to have been caused by a rupture of a single barrel of waste from LANL. But on September 18, in the DOE’s preliminary briefing, officials announced that an exploration of the underground storage area found at least one other barrel from LANL, in a separate area of the facility, that had also ruptured.
An investigation into the incident has not yet identified a cause, but the DOE announced in August that independent air testing, required of state regulators after the accident, was not performed due to what the Environment Department has explained as a “staff vacancy.”
Other similar barrels are being treated as suspect, including some being stored temporarily above ground at LANL due to the WIPP shutdown. The DOE, fearing the potentially dangerous summer fire season, had set a June 30 deadline to remove the material, but missed that deadline, citing concerns about the chemicals’ stability. With no alternative available, the waste is being housed indefinitely at Los Alamos.
New Mexico senator Tom Udall (D) had indicated in March that the DOE was legally required to move the waste from LANL and that the summer deadline was “non-negotiable.” Senator Udall’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The safety concerns, combined with the financial advantages of having the laboratory in New Mexico, have put the state’s congressional members in a tight spot. This year, Forbes named Los Alamos County the country’s second-richest county, and Udall has said that “protecting Sandia labs and Los Alamos from budget cuts” by other members of Congress means protecting jobs and economic development in the state.
Multiple calls for comment to the members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation – Senator Martin Heinrich (D), Representative Ben Lujan (D), Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), and Representative Stevan Pearce (R) – were not returned.
Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog group, said that the reason the pit proposal has progressed, despite monumental cost to the taxpayer, comes down to the priorities of the for-profit corporations that now run all the country’s nuclear laboratories since they were privatized in 2006. That includes Los Alamos National Security, a private limited liability corporation that manages and operates Los Alamos National Laboratories.
“The business model of the nuclear weapons labs is to blackmail the government into continuing excessive appropriations,” said Mello. “The nuclear weapons labs are sized for the Cold War, and they need a Cold War to keep that size.”
Doyle declined to speculate on the changes at the lab after it moved into private operation in 2006, but he did say that scientists became responsible for finding their own funding. “We’re encouraged to be more entrepreneurial,” Doyle said. “And that means going to our sponsors at the Department of Energy and proposing ideas. It’s run more like a business now.”
The problem with that, he said, is that the laboratory, whether intentionally or not, exerts a great deal of influence over the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and Congress, where former laboratory employees often end up. And its financial interests are not necessarily in keeping with the country’s interests.
While the plutonium core proposal does not touch on cost, a leaked National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) report, published August 28, estimates that the preliminary costs of construction and equipment for the project would begin at $4.3bn. That would not include an operational budget for the lab, whose operating budget is already $2.2bn.
New Mexico is set to receive a total of $4.6bn from the Department of Energy this coming year, $3.4bn of it for nuclear weapons research and development. The Department of Defense budget for 2015 indicates that 65% of LANL’s total funding will come from nuclear weapons activities.