[ RadSafe ] Editorial: No convincing evidence to increase Pu at LLNL

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Thu Dec 8 09:59:56 CST 2005

>From Nature 438, 712 (8 December 2005) 

Enough, already

Abstract:No convincing case has been made for
increasing the amount of plutonium held at a
Californian lab.

The US Department of Energy is planning to double the
amount of plutonium that can be stored at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in California. Under new
rules announced last week, the nuclear-weapons lab can
keep up to 1,400 kilograms, or enough for around 300

Not surprisingly, antinuclear activists are up in arms
about having so much bomb-grade metal in such a
heavily populated area. But researchers who want the
US nuclear-weapons laboratories to set a good example
for the rest of the world should be equally dismayed
at the plan.

Since 1992, the United States has maintained a
moratorium on the testing and development of new
nuclear weapons. There's no real need for this
research lab, which accommodates an outstanding
civilian research programme next to its
weapons-related activity, to be playing with this
quantity of plutonium.

Livermore is expected to use some of the expanded
inventory in nuclear-weapons research, including
experiments at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a
massive laser facility that will recreate some of the
conditions inside nuclear weapons at detonation. The
facility's original function was to perform such
experiments on hydrogen isotopes, rather than
plutonium. Officials at the Department of Energy never
formally excluded the option of using plutonium in the
NIF, but a 1995 report prepared by scientists in the
department's non-proliferation office warned that its
use at the facility could be seen as provocative by
other nations.

The other main reason why Livermore wants to hold more
plutonium, according to energy-department documents,
is that it will start to lay the groundwork for the
renewed mass production of plutonium pits, used in US
nuclear weapons. Livermore will be charged with
developing new technologies for manufacturing the
pits, for use at a proposed industrial-sized
production facility. But questions remain over whether
this facility is either necessary or appropriate, and
this year Congress declined to appropriate the money
needed to begin planning for its construction.

Most of Livermore's new plutonium stocks would be
shipped there from the Los Alamos National Laboratory
in New Mexico, where the Department of Energy's track
record in handling plutonium does not inspire much
confidence. According to a report released on 29
November by the Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research, a watchdog group based near Washington DC,
Los Alamos has managed to lose between 300 kg and 600
kg of the material over the years. The group suggests
that much of it was dumped indiscriminately in the
desert during the early days of the nuclear age, or
was mislabelled when shipped off elsewhere for
long-term storage.

And Livermore has had its own problems with plutonium.
In January, its plutonium facility, where scientists
work with the metal under heavily controlled
conditions, was shut down amid safety concerns.
Problems cited at the time included cracks in the
building's ventilation systems and poorly constructed
'hot boxes' for handling the metal. The facility was
allowed to reopen at a reduced capacity last month.

The laboratory is wasting its time researching pit
production for a facility that may never actually be
In light of all this, Livermore's plan to double its
inventory of plutonium is ill-advised. A case for
plutonium experiments at the NIF has not been made,
even to review groups that have the security clearance
needed to assess it. And the laboratory is wasting its
time researching pit production for a facility that
may never actually be built. For a mixed-use
scientific facility in a residential area, 700 kg of
plutonium is enough, already

"Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction."
"John F. Kennedy, U.S. President and former Naval Officer 

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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