Reading Room

Wednesday, May 19, 2004  
A new nuke nightmare

By: Mitchell Anderson
Published In: SF Bay Guardian

Fifteen years after the end of the cold war, when the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile should presumably be dwindling, the Bush administration proposed in February to dramatically expand nuclear work at the East Bay's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The proposal, outlined in a beastly 2,500-page environmental study by the Department of Energy, calls for the facility to begin preparing for a return to full-scale nuclear testing and to revive a cold war plan to create weapons-grade plutonium using lasers.

The plan would also allow the facility, situated about 40 miles from San Francisco, to triple the amount of deadly plutonium and tritium stored on-site.

The DOE is accepting public comment on it through May 27.

Opponents of the plan see this period as a rare and critical opportunity for the public to weigh in on the direction of U.S. nuclear policy over the course of the next 10 years.

"This is our only chance to stop the lab from making bombs in our own backyard," Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs), a Livermore-based nuclear watchdog, told the Bay Guardian.

The DOE expects to announce its final decision in January 2005. If the plan is enacted, the implications both at home and abroad could be disastrous.

The United States hasn't tested a live nuclear weapon since 1992. The only testing has been done with computer simulations. But the proposal, which calls for the lab to begin conducting diagnostics for a resumption of full-scale testing, suggests that this moratorium may be coming to an end. And, of course, resuming nuclear testing may induce other countries to do the same.

Proliferation experts say that the most dangerous aspect of the proposal is the Integrated Technology Project (formerly called P-AVLIS), which is a scheme to create weapons-grade plutonium with high-powered lasers. Plutonium fabrication is currently an expensive and complex process using a nuclear reactor.

Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, explains that if the United States perfects this laser technology, other countries may follow suit.

As he put it, "If you can find a way to get around the reactor problem, which is very visible and very expensive, and do this work with lasers, it's much harder to spot, and it lowers the bar to achieving nuclear weapons capabilities."

The U.S. government canceled this project in 1990, citing fears that the technology would speed up nuclear proliferation. But it's back.

Nuclear backyard

And if that isn't reason enough for concern, there's another dark side of the proposal, which has implications closer to home.

"Not only will this proposal place Livermore at the forefront of this administration's reckless approach to nuclear policy," Kelley said, "it also poses serious environmental risks to the Bay Area."

With 50 years of nuke-making under its belt, and the environmental fallout that has accompanied it, the lab is already listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of contaminated sites. The fact that it's situated between earthquake faults ? and on the edge of a very densely populated urban area ? makes the proposal even more dangerous and short-sighted, critics say.

Even worse, the plan came just as the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report April 27 claiming that security at the lab is subpar, leaving it particularly vulnerable to attack.

In spite of this, the proposal seeks to double the lab's storage limit for plutonium and triple the limit for tritium. The new limits would allow up to 3,300 pounds of plutonium on-site ? enough to make more than 300 nuclear bombs.

At present there's no practical solution for the disposal of plutonium at the site. And experts at Tri-Valley CAREs claim that's why the DOE wants to increase how much waste can be stored there.

"Increasing work with plutonium means more plutonium waste, and since there's no way of removing it, they want to increase the administrative limit [for on-site storage]," Inga Olson, program director at Tri-Valley CAREs, told us. "It's a security risk because someone [could try] to steal it, drive a truck into it, and because of seismic activity."

There are also concerns about the health risks associated with increasing operations at the lab. The environmental analysis of the plan estimates that there will be more than a tenfold increase in radiation exposure to people living close to the lab ? largely as a result of an increase in tritium work.

Tom Grim, lab spokesperson, said that the most severe environmental effects will actually come from the increased car traffic that the new projects will produce rather than from fugitive releases of plutonium and tritium. But Marianne Fulk, a retired staff scientist from the lab, is adamant that the new environmental analysis insufficiently documents the health risks of exposure to radioactivity. The analysis predicts less than one cancer fatality per year from increased exposure within a 50-mile radius of the lab.

"Of all the health problems caused by exposure, cancer should be at the bottom of the list," Fulk said. "Neuromuscular degenerative disease and immune damage are direct effects of radioactivity, and they're nowhere in the analysis."

To comment on the proposal, write to: Thomas Grim, L-293, U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Livermore Site Office, SWEIS Document Manager, 7000 East Ave., Livermore, CA 94550-9234. Fax: (925) 422-1776. E-mail: For more information and sample letters, contact Tri-Valley CAREs at (925) 443-7148 or go to

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