by Institute for Energy and Environmental Research –
A new plant designed to manufacture plutonium triggers for the US nuclear arsenal is likely to cause several fatal cancers among its workforce, according to an independent analysis of newly released government documents.
The conclusion is based on a review of the May 2003 draft Department of Energy (DOE) Environmental Impact Statement on its proposed Modern Pit Facility by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). The plutonium “pits” that trigger the initial explosion in modern multi-stage nuclear warheads are similar to the plutonium explosive in the bomb that the United States used to destroy Nagasaki during World War II.
According to IEER, the data tables in the DOE document project that the proposed plant to manufacture 450 plutonium pits per year would expose its workers to radiation sufficient to cause one fatal cancer every four and a half years. That would total about nine cancer deaths over the plutonium pit factory’s 40-year anticipated life. DOE projections of collective radiation dose to workers vary with projected plant size.
“This proposed plutonium explosives factory will be dangerous for its employees,” concluded IEER President Dr. Arjun Makhijani. “The Department of Energy‚s own radiation dose estimates indicate that several workers would die of cancer over the life of the plant as a result of their exposure. It seems unconscionable to propose to build such a risky and unneeded facility when the DOE is only just beginning to compensate workers that it put at risk during the Cold War after fifty years of denial of harm.”
The DOE admitted in the year 2000 that over half a million workers had been put in harm‚s way during the Cold War because of exposure to radioactivity at its nuclear weapons plants. Congress put a complex compensation program into place that year. Thousands of frustrated workers are yet to be compensated.
“This seems like a return to the bad old days of the Cold War, when public health was put at risk in an irrational pursuit of vast nuclear arsenals,” added Lisa Ledwidge, IEER’s Outreach Director. “It is lamentable that DOE does not clearly state that several cancer deaths would result from the operation of the plutonium pit factory. One has to calculate that from the fine print in the tables: the text is misleading and makes it seem that workers would be safe.”
The Modern Pit Facility is supposed to be a part of DOE’s “Stockpile Stewardship Program” to maintain the safety and reliability of the US nuclear arsenal. But no problems that would materially affect the reliability of plutonium pits in the current US arsenal are identified in the Draft EIS and or other literature. On the contrary the data indicate that aging of pits affects neither safety nor reliability.
“There is currently no scientific basis for claiming that pit replacement is required for safety or reliability of the existing arsenal,” said Dr. Makhijani. “Even the 20 pit per year capacity that the DOE plans to have at Los Alamos National Laboratory by 2007 may be superfluous, to say nothing of a huge new plant.”
The proposed plant could also be used to make plutonium cores for new bomb designs. Two new types have been proposed by the US government: “mini-nukes” which could be as much as 1,000 times bigger than the one Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and “bunker busters.”
“Building large numbers of new bombs that could be used in nuclear war-fighting seems to be the real purpose of this plant,” said Dr. Makhijani. “This is a dangerous drift towards usable nuclear weapons that is in violation of US commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Using nuclear bombs to attack runways or bunkers would likely kill large numbers of civilians and create huge amounts of fallout.”
Fallout from nuclear weapons testing increased cancer risks for many people in the United States, including thousands of armed forces personnel who assisted in the US nuclear testing program. World War II occupation troops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki also faced increased risks.
“Thousands of atomic veterans are being denied compensation even though US government testing and use of nuclear bombs put them at risk,” said Ms. Ledwidge. “But instead of focusing on justice for ill veterans, the government is wasting money preparing for a dangerous new plan to build usable nuclear weapons, possibly even in a pre-emptive war. That‚s not only the wrong message to governments abroad. It’s an injustice for people in the United States.”
The United States has named several countries as potential nuclear weapon targets, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Libya. “Nuclear war-fighting strategies and nuclear threats are likely to spur proliferation,” said Dr. Makhijani. “For instance, India‚s nuclear bomb-building advocates received a great political boost when the United States threatened India during its war with Pakistan in 1971 by sending a US nuclear-armed aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal in a “tilt towards Pakistan.” India conducted its first nuclear explosive test in 1974.
Sites being considered for DOE’s Modern Pit Facility include the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Carlsbad, both in New Mexico; the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina; the Nevada Test Site, 60 miles from Las Vegas; and the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. Public hearings about plans to construct the new plutonium manufacturing are scheduled for communities near all the target sites and in Washington, DC during the early summer months.
Lisa Ledwidge, Outreach Director, United States, and Editor of Science for Democratic Action, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), 2104 Stevens Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55404 USA, (612) 879-7517, fax –7518, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.ieer.org IEER’s main office: 6935 Laurel Ave. Suite 201, Takoma Park, MD 20912 USA, 1-(301) 270-5500. –3029.