H. Josef Hebert / Washington Post – 2005-12-09 08:59:33
WASHINGTON — The Energy Department gave clearance Tuesday to doubling the amount of plutonium that can be kept at the Livermore National Laboratory in California despite protests by some local activists that the weapons material poses a threat to adjacent residential communities.
The department issued the new plutonium levels as part of an environmental review for operating the laboratory, including its defense nuclear programs, for the next decade. It said the review showed no adverse environmental impacts associated with the weapons research even if more plutonium is made available.
The announcement said the maximum amount of plutonium that can be kept at the laboratory 40 miles from downtown San Francisco can be increased from the current 1,540 pounds to 3,080 pounds. It also increased the maximum amount of plutonium that can be used in a specific operation from 44 pounds to 88 pounds, thereby expanding the kinds of research activities that are possible.
Plutonium, a radioactive material deadly if inhaled or ingested, is used to make so-called pits for nuclear weapons. At Livermore, it is used for research into weapons components and the reliability of existing warheads.
The amount of plutonium kept at Livermore’s “Superblock” facility _ where nuclear weapons research is conducted _ is classified. It doesn’t necessarily mean the maximum amount of plutonium authorized will be used, or is even on site, said John Belluardo, a Livermore spokesman.
Belluardo said the plutonium is needed “to continue our work at the laboratory.”
The announcement brought a sharp response from local activists who have been fighting for years to force the Energy Department to remove all plutonium from the Livermore facility, not add to the stockpile. They argue the material is too dangerous and could become a target of terrorists.
“Today’s decision puts the entire San Francisco Bay area at risk,” said Loulena Miles, an attorney for Tri-Valley CAREs, a Livermore-based activist group.
Marylia Kelley, the group’s executive director, said 7 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the laboratory, which once was in open countryside but now rests in the heart of San Francisco’s suburbia.
“One microscopic particle of plutonium, if lodged in the lungs, can cause cancer and other diseases,” Kelley said.
The Energy Department’s environmental assessment concluded that the increased plutonium can be kept safely and out of the environment.
“The lab has been conducting experiments using plutonium and highly enriched uranium for many years, and we have an excellent safety record and safety continues to be of paramount importance,” said Belluardo, the Livermore spokesman, in a telephone interview. He said Tri-Valley CAREs’ objections are addressed point by point in the DOE decision.
The Energy Department has been considering whether to consolidate plutonium kept at various weapons-related facilities so that they can be better secured from potential terrorist attacks. Plutonium at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, for example, is being moved to the Nevada Test Site.
Whether Livermore’s plutonium may one day be consolidated elsewhere remains an open question that likely will not be answered under the Energy Department decides how to revamp the entire weapons complex.
Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, who signed the Livermore record of decision issued Tuesday, has opposed removing plutonium from the California laboratory. Lab officials worry that if the plutonium, which is used in weapons research, is taken elsewhere, its weapons programs will be forced to shut down.
Kelley, the local activist, said she worries that the increase in plutonium means expanded weapons work. Doubling the amount of plutonium workers can use in a single process “is largely to enable Livermore lab to produce prototype plutonium bomb cores, or pits,” she maintains.
The DOE also said that Livermore can expand its supply of tritium, a radioactive gas used in weapons production, and increase by nearly tenfold the amount of tritium that can be used in single experiments, from 3.5 grams to 30 grams.
Marylia Kelley Executive Director Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) 2582 Old First Street Livermore, CA USA 94551. (925) 443-7148; (fax) (925) 443-0177. http://www.trivalleycares.org