Op-Ed By JEANNE GREEN
Most of the six metric tons of plutonium at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) now resides at a building called PF-4 on a Jemez mountain plateau. “The large plutonium inventory held by PF-4, coupled with the building’s proximity to population centers, creates the potential for very high offsite dose consequences were the building to collapse,” a recent Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board (DNFSB) letter warned the Department of Energy (DOE). Plutonium is the earth’s most dangerous element, a radioactive and toxic heavy metal primed to go critical.
According to Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, PF-4 contains as much plutonium as do the combined nuclear arsenals of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, and Pakistan. At PF-4 plutonium is formed into a “pit,” the nuclear explosive primary. Employees wear protective suits and dosimeter badges to warn of contamination while working with plutonium remotely in sealed glove boxes. The DFNSB is a federal advisory panel that oversees the nation’s for-profit nuclear weapons production facility contractors. Bechtel, notorious for its fraud, waste, and abuse, the University of California, Babcock & Wilcox, and URS Corporation together run LANL for the DOE. Back in 2008, the DFNSB warned the DOE of the vulnerability of PF-4 to possible quakes. The warning resulted in some corrective measures. But LANL based its recent analysis on half the seismic estimate required by newer quake findings—findings they were aware of.
Now the 2013 DNFSB warning letter is dire: “A worst-case scenario for the PF-4 at LANL (an earthquake and resultant fire) could result in the release of approximately 900 rems of radiation to a person located offsite,” roughly double the dose the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) describes as lethal. “400 to 450 rems received in a very short time is the dose of radiation expected to cause death to 50 percent of an exposed population within 30 days.”
A 10 micron or smaller plutonium particle when inhaled, ingested, or entering the body through abrasions can cause cancer and/or genetic abnormalities. According to the NRC, exposure to greater than 50 rems TEDE (total effective dose equivalent) has been associated with cancers of the bladder, breast, colon, esophagus, liver, lungs, ovaries, stomach, and bone marrow, plus leukemia, not to mention death. LANL’s 2011 safety analysis erroneously asserted that the presence of combustible materials in the glove boxes together with electrical ignition sources not designed to shut off during an earthquake do not constitute a “credible risk” of fire; and that PF-4’s gypsum board walls would remain intact after an earthquake, preventing any radiation release.
Plutonium catches fire spontaneously. Its blaze is extremely difficult to douse or contain. Water can make it go critical. Vaporized plutonium can fly to our neighborhoods. LANL based its calculations on “arbitrary factors” with estimates that “cannot be technically justified,” states DNFSB. “Multiple, substantial deficiencies” were found, requiring “prompt action.” In an earthquake, states the warning, PF-4 could collapse.
Last summer the largest fire in New Mexico history came within 3.5 miles of Lab property. The smoke billowed as far north as Durango and hampered breathing in Taos. A smaller fire started by a squirrel was quickly contained within Lab boundaries.
On October 17th, 2011, a “historically unusual” magnitude 3.8 earthquake struck around 20 miles from the Lab near Tesuque. In December of 2011, a series of four earthquakes of around magnitude 3 took place in the northwest Jemez near Coyote. Over the next 50 years the U.S. Geological Survey database estimates a 22.5 percent probability for a 5.0 magnitude earthquake within 50 miles of Coyote (28 miles from LANL) and a 31 percent chance of a major earthquake within 50 miles of Tesuque Pueblo.
PF-4 exists to make more pits for more nuclear weapons, as if more were needed, as if they should ever be used. The Pantex Amarillo plant contains at least 14,000 plutonium pits. Another 1,500-2,000 pits (nuclear warheads, actually) are stored a mile from the Albuquerque airport. Livermore Laboratory reports that these fissile cores for nuclear weapons are stable (usable) for 150 years. Why make any more? Do the world’s living things really need a mushrooming stockpile of threats to life on earth?
Enough! Please demand closure and decontamination of the PF-4 and the complete removal of plutonium from the seismically unstable dormant volcano known as the Jemez Mountains. Please write/call your Congress members, tell your friends and family. Lethal doses of radiation for everybody loom up the road in Los Alamos. Even the delay of the grandiose Chemical and Metallurgical Research Replacement (CMRR) edifice is not going to stop LANL from making pits; it claims it has been mandated to do so by the Department of Defense and is working on a “Plan B” to meet this commitment (see June 11 La Jicarita). Nothing will stop them unless we do. Let the DOE know that New Mexico does not want to live under the threat of a plutonium cloud. Our own lives and all succeeding generations may be at stake.