Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

September/October 1999
Vol. 55, No. 5


Plutonium puzzle

Unresolved public health issues, potentially important to northern New Mexico, are tied in with the history of Rocky Flats, recounted in "The Day We Almost Lost Denver," by Len Ackland (July/August Bulletin). The fire may have had an impact—albeit an indirect one—at Los Alamos National Laboratory as well.

A reciprocal relationship has long existed between these two facilities, and several lines of historical evidence suggest that the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) warhead production activities may have been shifted to Los Alamos after the May 1969 fire at Rocky Flats, with consequent impacts on the local environment and workplace safety.

The main plutonium facility at Los Alamos from 1948 to 1978 was DP West at Technical Area 21. A 1990 internal Los Alamos analysis of historical air emissions from DP West contains data suggesting a 20-fold rise in total stack emissions of plutonium in the last six months of 1969. Although based on crude data and simplifying assumptions, this provocative analysis was never completed by the Los Alamos Environmental Restoration Program scientists who initiated it—and they have since dodged efforts by outside scientists who wish to discuss it with them.

Furthermore, historical monitoring data for July 1 to July 17, 1969 (just two months after the fire at Rocky Flats), show apparent levels of airborne "alpha Pu" in the workroom air 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than normal. The work areas affected were the hot cells, the equipment room, and other rooms in Building 4 at DP West. However, the data available for the stacks does not show a corresponding spike. Interestingly, beside each of the extremely high numbers recorded for July 1-17, there is a hand-written note: "These figures should not be recorded on yearly report."

Dutifully, the annual report for 1969 contains no hint of anything the least bit unusual at DP West. An emissions inventory prepared for the AEC's area office for 1967-69 claims that one of the affected hot cells at DP West was "not in use" in 1969. An interview I conducted with a retired monitor from DP West in 1996 could not resolve this issue, although he expressed dismay on reviewing the historical data because the equipment room "was supposed to be clean." My search of the lab's occurrence reports collection was unavailing.

What specific activities at Los Alamos account for the rise in air emissions of plutonium from Technical Area 21 in the second half of 1969 after the Rocky Flats pit production facility was shut down by the May 11 fire? And what caused astronomical levels of workroom air contamination at DP West in the first two weeks of July 1969?

In the weeks following the fire, Glenn Seaborg, then AEC chairman, wrote to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, indicating that the AEC's "immediate concern" was to continue production of test devices "by some combination of development-related facilities at Los Alamos, Hanford, and Rocky Flats." Whether this or some other AEC objective might account for the unusual plutonium monitoring results described above is not yet clear.

Also contained in the 1990 internal analysis of plutonium emissions from DP West is an estimate of 1-2 curies of airborne releases per year in 1951, 1952, and 1953—a serious discrepancy with the official number of 1.3 curies as the total released during the entire 30 years of DP West's operation. What accounts for the discrepancy? Was official concern over plutonium air emissions from DP West in the early 1950s a contributing factor in the decision to build Rocky Flats in 1954?

Today, with Rocky Flats shut down, plutonium pits are being produced at Los Alamos's Technical Area 55, built in 1978. The decision to produce pits at Los Alamos was made with almost no independent analysis of the impacts of its past production activities on human health or the environment. Government "impact statements" are rife with information and assumptions that are contradicted by historical documents.

Meanwhile, excesses of brain, thyroid, and childhood cancers around Los Alamos remain "unexplained." The Phase I Historical Documents Discovery Project recently initiated by the Centers for Disease Control's (cdc) Radiation Studies Branch may be the best and last chance to shed light on Los Alamos's past record as a production facility. But no sooner did the cdc embark on this three-year project in January than the Chinese spy scandal broke, leading to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's 18-month moratorium on declassification of Cold War-era documents, which was announced in May. The impact of the moratorium on cdc's work at Los Alamos is not yet clear.

Concerned citizens and health scientists everywhere should support the cdc's effort to review—and make public—historical documents at Los Alamos, and the cdc should proceed to dose reconstruction if that is warranted. As Ackland's article demonstrates— in terms that are both compelling and chilling—plutonium pit production is one technology whose failures and near misses deserve the highest level of outside scrutiny.

Ken Silver
Santa Fe, New Mexico