Livermore Lab Gets Rocky Flats Plutonium: Shipments Proposed 'til 2002
by Marylia Kelley
On July 30, a jubilant Kaiser-Hill press release announced the "offsite shipment of all plutonium pits from Rocky Flats to the Pantex Plant and Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories by June 1999 (16 years ahead of DOE's commitment in the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement)."
Kaiser-Hill runs Rocky Flats under contract to the Dept. of Energy (DOE). Plutonium "pits" are the cores of nuclear bombs -- so called because the plutonium is situated in the bomb the way an apricot pit sits inside the fruit. Rocky Flats is the notorious Colorado facility shut down by the FBI in 1989 due to massive environmental problems and plutonium contamination.
And, they are celebrating because they shipped some of this plutonium to Livermore. Ahead of schedule.
Phone calls to the Rocky Flats plant yielded some additional information. Apparently plutonium pits began coming to Livermore quietly in 1995. Livermore Lab was the site chosen to disassemble, melt and recast the deadly metal. Subsequently, that 1995 plutonium was shipped back to Rocky Flats for storage.
Another load of plutonium pits came to Livermore Lab in June of this year -- the truck going first from Rocky Flats to Los Alamos in New Mexico and then to Livermore. All Rocky Flats would say is these were "special" pits used as "stockpile reliability evaluation program units" for bomb shelf-life experiments and testing machine techniques. The Rocky Flats' spokesperson alluded to possible further experiments to be conducted on the pits by Livermore and, perhaps, disassembly of some of the pits afterward at the Lab.
DOE and Rocky Flats officials refused to say whether there were other shipments or how many plutonium pits were sent from Rocky Flats to Livermore Lab.
DOE went so far as to require Tri-Valley CAREs to submit all its questions about Rocky Flats plutonium in writing. The Department then refused to answer any of them. None of our questions involved bomb design details. All were aimed at finding out the potential hazards to which we in the community are subjected. We will soon submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
More Plutonium Coming to Lab
Rocky Flats' plutonium pits are, unfortunately, only the beginning. Recently Tri-Valley CAREs received documentation from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) that DOE proposes to ship up to 89 "classified plutonium metal items" to Livermore Lab, beginning in October of this year and continuing until February 2002.
According to a letter from DOE to DNFSB, plutonium parts at Rocky Flats that are bonded to other hazardous materials, such as beryllium, may cause problems that cannot be handled by the casting and oxidation facilities at DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where two huge plutonium processing canyons are located. Therefore, DOE proposes to send these particularly troublesome plutonium parts to Livermore.
Livermore Lab is listed as either the number one or number two-favored option to receive 56 Plutonium/Tantalum targets, 6 Plutonium/Vanadium hemishells (half-pits), 2 Plutonium/Depleted Uranium hemishells and 25 Plutonium/Beryllium hemishells. Beryllium, in particular, is used in bombs along with plutonium to maximize the neutron output. DOE's proposal makes no mention of any safety measures, precautions or risk-reduction methods to be employed.
Lab to Burn Plutonium in Furnace
The proposal does specify that the Lab will put any plutonium it receives that had been bonded to what DOE calls "classified substrate materials (e.g. Beryllium, Vanadium, Depleted Uranium)" into a furnace. This dangerous action is intended to separate the plutonium from the other materials. The process is called HYDOX (short for hydride-oxidation). Each item will be placed in a burner, where high temperatures will create a "heat bath." A vacuum will be created in the compartment around the plutonium hemishell or target and its substrate material. Hydrogen will then be pumped in. Plutonium metal plus hydrogen gas at high-temperature creates plutonium hydride. The plutonium will subsequently be turned into an oxide, according to DOE.
Tri-Valley CAREs has a number of internal Livermore Lab documents that demonstrate dramatically how the process of oxidizing plutonium spews tiny particles, clogs filters and results in emissions to the environment. The goal, says DOE, is to create nuclear waste -- specifically transuranic (TRU) and mixed TRU waste (some of it will become "mixed waste" due to plutonium contamination left in the substrate material). DOE plans, eventually, to ship the wastes to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for disposal.
Why Livermore Lab?
The documents we obtained offer simply that Livermore Lab has the "research, development, and demonstration missions to declassify/disposition classified TRU waste." This implies there is an experimental element to the proposal, creating a further hazard if, indeed, difficult to handle plutonium parts are brought to the Lab to "research" or "work the bugs out" of the method used to turn them into wastes for disposition.
The Lab's plutonium facility, where these operations would occur, covers approximately 4 acres of ground; contains 880 pounds of plutonium, nearly enough for 100 modern nuclear bombs; lies adjacent to more than one earthquake fault; has documented problems with its air filters; sits within sight of nearby homes; is located in the SF Bay Area with more than 6 million people living within a 50-mile radius; and has been shut down (again) not long ago due to 25 plutonium safety violations. In fact, the building is just now resuming "normal operation."
Further, the HYDOX process that will be used to turn the targets and hemishells into TRU and mixed wastes is not even mentioned in the waste permit the state just issued to the Lab. As best we can tell, the state is completely failing to regulate this risky activity, even though it has the responsibility for mixed waste. (One more reason we are challenging the permit and demanding an environmental review.)
The community has every right to know about DOE's plans for Rocky Flats' plutonium. How much is already at Livermore? What experiments are being performed on the pits shipped to the Lab this past June? Exactly what is being planned for the future? Will the public have a voice?
Consider how crucial these issues are as you take your next breath and your next drive on the freeway. Stay tuned!
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Working for peace, justice and a healthy environment since 1983, Tri-Valley CAREs has been a member of the nation-wide Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in the U.S. since 1989, and is a co-founding member of the international Abolition 2000 network for the elimination of nuclear weapons.