For Immediate Release May 14, 1997
Greg Mello & Todd Macon
LANL Plan to Detonate Plutonium Poses Risks to Region
1970 LANL MEMO CITES HAZARD TO LOS ALAMOS RESIDENTS
The Study Group today announced results of their analysis
of the effects of an accidental plutonium explosion at Los Alamos National
Laboratory (LANL). The accident scenario we examined leads to widespread
plutonium contamination, economic impact, and fatal cancers. The
postulated accident results from the planned use of plutonium in above-ground
experimental detonations at LANL's so-called "hydrotesting" facilities
-- DARHT (the Dual-Axis Hydrotest Facility, now under construction) and/or
PHERMEX (an older facility with the same purpose, already in use).
"What has not been adequately recognized up to now is that these activities
could have economic fallout prior to any accident," says the Study Group's
Mello, the engineer who conducted the analysis. The threat of accident
alone -- realistic, given the history of accidents at LANL, Rocky Flats,
and elsewhere -- could affect the attractiveness of our region as a tourism,
business, and residential destination."
The accident analyzed is unlikely but possible. In 1970, long before
the current planned "shots," LANL itself undertook an analysis of what
could happen. What the Lab found was disturbing enough to cause
LANL (then LASL), to "reevaluate" the need for the program (the 1970 technical
memo is available upon request). LANL and DOE recently updated the
earlier analysis, using better methodology, but the details are in a classified
section of the DARHT Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has also been evaluating
the risk and hazard from such an accident. Statements from LANL
that this accident is not "credible" are belied by all this study, as
well as by common sense.
This accident is only one scenario, however, among many. LANL is
embarked on a dramatic increase in its storage, transportation, processing,
fabrication, and explosive testing of plutonium and plutonium weapon components
that greatly increase the variety and likelihood of possible accidents.
We believe that, in addition to routine nuclear waste production and increased
worker exposures, accidents, small or large, are not at all unlikely in
the long run. Rocky Flats, which conducted some of these activities
in the past, was subject to hundreds of fires.
LANL has recently been the subject of scathing safety reviews by DOE and
internal investigators following serious accidents. The Study Group
suggests that these investigation results support aspects of what is known
as "normal accident theory," which postulates that organizational and
sociological factors place an upper limit on the safety that can be achieved
by real institutions that use complex and dangerous technologies, especially
in a democratic society.
The radiological doses and deposition patterns ("fallout") were calculating
using nuclear accident software obtained from Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory (LLNL). They generally agree with the analysis published
by the DOE in the DARHT EIS, and with other authors.
The attached broadside, published today in the Santa Fe Reporter, summarizes
the salient points of the analysis; further details are available upon
It should be noted that the complexities of terrain, wind variations,
and mode of release mock attempts to predict doses and fallout patterns
exactly. Real plumes are not so predictable. The effects of
an entire population inhaling plutonium are likewise not fully known.
The dose effect relationship used is the standard one; it assumes no shielding
from buildings, on the one hand -- and that everyone is a nonsmoking adult,
on the other. Smokers are extremely vulnerable to plutonium inhalation,
perhaps 200 times more so than nonsmokers. There may also be other
especially vulnerable groups, for whom plutonium inhalation is particularly
Not discussed by the DOE's analysis is the possibility that, in the event
of an accident, high levels of plutonium deposition could render portions
of LANL itself unusable, including the plutonium facilities at TA-55.
Today's results focus on possible economic, environmental, and public
health impacts of one aspect of DOE's planned increase in nuclear weapons
activities. The Study Group, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety,
the Natural Resources Defense Council, and dozens of other groups filed
suit in Washington on May 2 to force DOE to examine alternatives to its
massive new nuclear weapons program, slated to cost $40 billion over the
next ten years -- more than the Department spent, on average, during the
Cold War on comparable activities. All told, the nation has spent
$4 trillion on nuclear weapons, according to an authoritative ongoing
study at the Brookings Institution.
The DARHT facility is one of six existing, under construction, or planned
hydrotest facilities, three of which have, or would, use plutonium.
The DOE is now upgrading all of its existing facilities simultaneously
in a capital program with a price tag of roughly $1 billion -- an example
of the gross waste and excessive environmental impact that led to the
current litigation. Some of these facilities -- such as the second
axis of DARHT -- are considered redundant by many even within the weapons
community, as written opinions shared with the Study Group show.
The planned plutonium hydrotests will involve not only weapons-grade plutonium
but also a special isotope, called Pu-242, which will enable the United
States to test exact copies of proposed or current weapons designs with
unprecedented accuracy. This will enable U.S. nuclear designers
to design and certify new warhead designs in the absence of nuclear testing,
now banned by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). These high-priced
tools, unaffordable in Russia and technically inaccessible in China, will
enable the U.S. to extend its technological lead in nuclear weapons technology
-- and, in the process, gravely undermine the recently-signed CTBT.
"We think the DOE should rethink its wasteful, dangerous, and redundant
hydrotesting program. Scientists love data, but the plutonium explosions
are not really essential for existing weapons. The program should
be made transparent, and the need for each facility and each plutonium
shot debated in open, public forums before undertaking such a dangerous
activity," concluded Mello.