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Cancer deaths from nuclear weapons testing

This work-in-progress book, titled 'Deception, Cover-up and Murder in the Nuclear Age,' is made freely accessible here on Nuclearcrimes.org as a public service. Several chapters in the book remain offline while they're being editted. They are denoted with an asterix (*) on the Table of Contents page.

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4-2

Chapter 4 - Nuclear Weapons Complex's Toxic Releases

Cerro Grande fire

In 2000, the Cerro Grande forest fire, which was a prescribed burn that got out of control, encircled Los Alamos National Laboratory and burned through outdoor areas tainted with contaminated soil and vegetation. The inferno resuspended radioactive substances - including depleted uranium, plutonium and americium-241 - and it is believed that the levels of radiation released by the fires could have been up to 135 times the yearly limit the government sets for nuclear workers' exposure.  

To some, the Cerro Grande fire was a nightmare.  To others, it was the apocalypse.  Anecdotal accounts of people fleeing the state by car to escape clouds of radioactive materials underscore the gravity of the fires and the levels of contamination across LANL's various 'areas.'  (These include a number of nuclear waste disposal sites associated with LANL.  At these sites, radioactive materials lying on the surface are vulnerable to natural processes; for example, radioactive particles at some sites can be suspended into the air by gusty winds, 10 mph or greater, or fire, or some types of animal activity.)  

Looking back, we can all agree on one thing: no one knew enough about the Cerro Grande fire and the possible public health dangers to make educated, informed decisions.  The reason why was the monitoring networks5 in place around LANL and in the state of New Mexico (and beyond) weren't adequate to respond to the kind of disaster that unfolded during that summer.  Although some radiological data showed that background levels increased in some areas because of the fires, no one really knew what went on and what residents were being exposed to.  The blame falls squarely on LANL, which "failed to deploy airborne monitoring systems to measure smoke contaminants, ...[and] monitor possible localized 'hot spots.'" (Helen Caldicott; The New Nuclear Danger, p. 66).   

The EPA took notice of LANL's failure and their own failure to track - in real-time - environmental contaminants from the fires, which may have spread radioactivity across large parts of the southern U.S.  The EPA cited the fire as one of the three main culprits - the others were a 2000 wildfire at Hanford and a nuclear plant accident in Japan - for its significant but largely unimpressive attempts at upgrading nationwide radiation monitoring (RADNET) in the U.S. over the past ten years. 

LANL is still experiencing a never-ending series of public-health endangering radiological events.6 In 2011, the 'Los Conchas Fire' burned in and around the town of Los Alamos and threatened a southwest location of LANL dubbed 'TA-16' where poorly-stored plutonium could have ignited and caused a public health catastrophe. Considering that an independent environmental radiation study of Los Alamos soils indicated elevated quantities of soil-bearing cesium-137 and these soils were scorched by the Los Conchas fire, then we can assume vaporized cesium-137 - and other radionuclides - was inhaled by New Mexicans and others downwind (smoke was seen via satellite reaching to Missouri and beyond during the fire). Each summer brings the threat of wildfires to the area and so it will remain a public health risk.

DARHT emissions

An electron-accelerator/3-D-nuclear-explosion-simulator using one of the rarest-isotopes of plutonium sounds cool, doesn't it?  It's not.

LANL's Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility is one of the few places in the world where scientists can take X-ray images of a fake nuclear explosion. What is a fake nuclear explosion? At the DARHT facility, it involves a full-scale 'model' (or mock up) of the inner 'core' of a nuclear bomb, or a hollow sphere that holds plutonium. This mock core or 'pit' is subjected to a chemical explosion. Although this sounds like a simple experiment, in fact Los Alamos scientists says these tests simulate the physical properties (heat, pressure, etc...) that plutonium or uranium undergoes during the first few instants of a nuclear explosion. Powerful x-ray beams are pumped through the exploding mock core to render a series of images that give scientists a better idea of the fluid state of plutonium when it is heated up, compressed and thrown about. These 'DAHRT' tests were initially conducted above-ground and involved a non-weapons-grade isotope of plutonium.

Construction on the DARHT facility initially began in 1988 but construction was stopped in the mid-1990s when the Los Alamos Study Group and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), two anti-nuclear groups, filed suit noting there was no Environmental Impact Statement. That document was completed in the late 1990s and construction of the DARHT facility soon resumed. The inaugural plutonium 'hydrotest' was fired - performed with DARHT's operational first axis - on November 9, 1999, but this was not good news for the environment or New Mexicans. The 'hydrotests' conducted in November 1999 and many like it through 2005 were carried out in the open-air at the DARHT facility. These experiments spewed radioactive and hazardous materials into New Mexico's environment including depleted uranium, beryllium, lead and plutonium-242. The 'master plan' concocted by LANL ensured that over a period of 30 years containment of environmental releases from these experiments would slowly improve, peaking at 75% containment by the year 2025.7 Fortunately, a fast-track containment process was in motion and LANL announced on May 17, 2007 that they fired the first successful DARHT test that was fully contained. (All future hydrotests were contained in steel vessels). The event, read the press statement, "mark[ed] the beginning of an era of fully-contained tests at DARHT as virtually all future testing at the facility will be conducted inside huge steel vessels, eliminating nearly all environmental hazards...Post-test sampling and monitoring confirmed that the experiment was completely contained."8

Despite the assurance given by LANL that all future DARHT tests will occur in sealed vessels, there is still danger.   First, there is a remote possibility that the 2-inch walls of Navy-developed steel might not be able to contain the explosion, and thus plutonium would escape into the environment.  This is called the 'vessel containment breach' scenario.  The second danger is the 'uncontained detonation' a.k.a. 'inadvertent detonation' scenario.  

The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the DARHT facility considers the odds of a containment failure for a DARHT test (with plutonium in 'double containment') in the 'incredible' and 'not credible' categories.  'Incredible' is defined as an event happening with a probability of no greater than 1 in 1,000,000 (per year), which also translates into an event that happens every 1 million years, which the DOE calls a 'not credible' danger: "By definition, scenarios determined to occur less than once every 1,000,000 years are not credible."  The DOE, however, considers the odds of an inadvertent detonation as 'unlikely' to 'extremely unlikely' or 1-in-100 to 1-in-1,000,000.9 

The amount of plutonium-242 (Pu-242) used in these tests is classified, but if it is in the 'kilograms,' then these subcritical DARHT tests could likely inadvertently become plutonium dispersal experiments.  (It doesn't matter if Pu-242 is 1/15th as radioactive as Pu-239, especially if you're using a heck of a lot more of it.) The Los Alamos Study Group notes on their website: 'Should an unconfined explosion occur prior to sealing the vessels, kilogram quantities of plutonium would be dispersed.  The typical result of a "small" unconfined plutonium explosion (10 kg of explosive, 2 kg of plutonium) is [see pic: here]. Explosions up to 200 kilograms of explosives are planned. In such an accident, radioactive fallout and respirable particles of plutonium could easily reach thousands of people and leave a permanent swath of contamination covering dozens of square miles. Fatal cancers and other health effects would occur; property values, tourism, and businesses could be severely impacted. Close-in areas might have to be abandoned for residential purposes, and cleanup of highly-contaminated zones for even industrial purposes would be difficult, dangerous, uncertain, and expensive."

To learn more about the similarities of DAHRT experiments to subcritical nuclear experiments, visit this page in Appendix 9. Also, play 'DAHRTs' - print out a free dart board and invite your friends for a lesson about LANL's gambling with 'DARHTs.'


Footnotes

5 More about wildfires and monitoring programs in Chapter 13.

6 News events:

January 31, 2009: [broken water line to blame for] Radioactive Material Spilled Into Watershed 'A water main break at Los Alamos National Laboratory last summer caused plutonium and other radionuclides to wash into a Rio Grande watershed, state officials announced Friday. About 4 million gallons of potable water were released during 26 hours from the site of an old plutonium facility, eroding contaminants beyond lab boundaries but not into the Rio Grande itself...But the agency said the incident does highlight the need for the lab to do more to handle its runoff and clean up Cold War-era contamination, particularly because the Rio Grande will one day be the source of drinking water in Santa Fe...However, last summer's spill meant that concentrations of plutonium-239/240 averaged 114 picocuries per gram, about 100 times what's typically seen during storms in recent years. NMED also detected plutonium-238, americium-241 and strontium-90 at elevated levels.' 

November 25, 2007: LANL is playing with fire, again - On Monday, November 26, LANL will conduct prescribed burns in two areas of the sprawling DOE site property in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Officials from LANL say the burns, which are expected to consume 33 and 55 acres, respectively, are a proactive step by the Laboratory to prevent wildfires. "The burn is a maintenance effort to reduce the risk of an escape fire and also to create a fuel break to protect our neighbors,"said Manny L'Esperance of Emergency Management, fire management officer.

What's in the minds of the LANL folks is the 2000 Cerro Grande forest fire, which encircled Los Alamos National Laboratory and burned through outdoor areas tainted with contaminated soil and vegetation. The inferno resuspended radioactive substances - including depleted uranium, plutonium and americium - at levels up to 135 times the yearly limit the government sets for nuclear workers' exposure.

The LANL's idea is to burn out grass and brush to prevent catastrophic wildfires such as the Cerro Grande Fire. What the public and media have forgotten, however, is that the Cerro Grande fire, which burned 43,000 acres and 7,000 of it on LANL property, BEGAN AS A PRESCRIBED BURN THAT GREW OUT OF CONTROL.

The LANL website has notified the public of the event since earlier this month and as recently as November 21 a webpage has stated that 'No agency has expressed concern about the burn.' On Nov. 25 and 26, the Associated Press cited three groups who were calling for the lab to postpone the burns until further review and public comment.

Also:

Elevated Radioactivity Found Around Los Alamos - GAP Report Details High Levels of Radioactivity in Environmental Samples

Cyanide, more, found in LANL storm runoff

7LANL's original plan was for a "phased in" containment system over something like 30 years. Phase one (first 5 years) would insure up to 5 percent containment of the experimental material at DARHT. Phase two (next 5 years) would involve "a permanent vessel cleanout facility" that would contain "up to 40 percent of the experimental material." Through 2025, when the facility would "expire" - and a new one would be sited at the Nevada National Security Site - goals to bring containment up to 75 percent would occur. 

By 2005, this containment phasing was not happening quickly enough even for the DOE's internal watchdog. The U.S. DOE Inspector General noted in a 2005 audit that "The current strategy utilized at DARHT to mitigate the dispersal of materials to the environment during a test is not the most efficient. Before a hydrotest is performed at Los Alamos, a tent structure is constructed over the firing pad and filled with aqueous foam to mitigate releases of materials such as beryllium, depleted uranium, and lead into the environment. It takes approximately two months to clean up the DARHT firing pad following a hydrotest using foam to control releases. Although Los Alamos uses foam, it is neither the only form of mitigation nor is it the preferred method. According to the DARHT Record of Decision (ROD), containment vessels are the preferred alternative for mitigating releases of materials during a hydrotest. In fact, Los Alamos planned to use vessels once the first axis of DARHT was operational in July 1999....Further, our audit determined that Los Alamos is about a year behind schedule in conducting the first Phase 2 hydrotest using a vessel at DARHT. According to Los Alamos officials, the recent stand-down and other programmatic missions have affected vessel implementation at Los Alamos...Vessels would improve the turnaround time of each hydrotest...In addition, the amount of waste generated from these tests would be reduced."

The DARHT facility's inaugural first experiment involving dual-axis, or both accelerators firing, took place on Dec. 4, 2009.

8 In 2008, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety wanted to be sure that open-air tests wouldn't happen and made numerous requests for additional information about whether the DARHT tests will indeed be conducted in vessels, or open air. They received no response to their inquiries.

9 http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/report/enviro/eis-0228/Appen-i.htm


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