Archive for the ‘– plutonium’ Category

Los Alamos National Plutonium Facility-4 (PF-4) and its dangerous plutonium pits

July 24, 2017

Safety problems at a Los Alamos laboratory delay U.S. nuclear warhead testing and production A facility that handles the cores of U.S. nuclear weapons has been mostly closed since 2013 over its inability to control worker safety risks, Science,  By The Center for Public IntegrityR. Jeffrey SmithPatrick Malon Jun. 30, 2017 “……..A unique task, unfulfilled for the past four years

Before the work was halted in 2013, those overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal typically pulled six or seven warheads from bombers or missiles every year for dismantlement and invasive diagnostic testing. One reason is that the unstable metals that act as spark plugs for the bombs — plutonium and highly-enriched uranium — bathe themselves and nearby electrical components in radiation, with sometimes unpredictable consequences; another is that all the bombs’ metallic components are subject to normal, sometimes fitful corrosion.

Plutonium also slowly decays, with some of its isotopes becoming uranium. And the special high explosives fabricated by nuclear scientists to compress the plutonium cores in a deliberate detonation also have an unstable molecular structure.

Invasive testing provides details vital to the computer modeling and scientifically simulated plutonium behavior that has replaced nuclear testing, said DOE consultant David Overskei. He compared the pit — so named because it is spherical and positioned near the center of a warhead — to the heart of a human being, explaining that destructive testing is like taking a blood sample capable of exposing harmful maladies.

The aim, as Vice President Joe Biden said in a 2010 National Defense University speech, has been to “anticipate potential problems and reduce their impact on our arsenal.” Weapons designers say it’s what anyone would do if they were storing a car for years while still expecting the engine to start and the vehicle to speed down the road at the sudden turn of a key.

Typically, warheads selected for testing are first sent to the Energy Department’s Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. Technicians there gently separate their components — such as the detonators — at that site; they also send the pits — used in a primary nuclear explosion — to Los Alamos, and the highly-enriched uranium — used in a secondary explosion — to Oak Ridge, Tenn. The arming, fusing, and firing mechanisms are tested by Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and other locations.

At Los Alamos, the pits are brought to Plutonium Facility-4 (PF-4), a boxy, two-story, concrete building with a footprint the size of two city blocks.  Inside are hundreds of special “glove boxes” for working with plutonium, a series of individual laboratories, and a special vault, in which containers hold plutonium on racks meant to ensure that escaping neutrons don’t collide too often with other atoms, provoking them to fission uncontrollably. Only a small portion of the building is normally used for pit surveillance, while about a fifth is used for pit fabrication, and another seven percent for analytical chemistry and pit certification. Budget documents indicate that annual federal spending for the work centered there is nearly $200 million.

“The Los Alamos Plutonium Facility is a unique and essential national security capability,” McMillan, the lab’s director, said last September during a visit by then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who watched as technicians — attempting to restart their work after the lengthy hiatus — used pressing machines and other equipment to fabricate a mock pit, rather than a usable one.

The building lies in the middle of a 40-acre campus in the mountains above Santa Fe hastily built during World War II to coordinate the construction of the two nuclear bombs used in Japan. Los Alamos is still considered the foremost U.S. nuclear weapons facility — where six of the nine warheads currently in the U.S. arsenal were designed, and where plutonium-based power supplies for most of the nation’s deep-space probes are fabricated. Hundreds of nuclear physicists work there.

Unfortunately, it also has an active seismic zone beneath the PF-4 building, producing persistent worries among the staff and members of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a congressionally-chartered oversight group, that if it experienced a rare, large earthquake, the roof could collapse and toss chunks of plutonium so closely together a chain reaction would ensue, spewing radioactive, cancer-causing plutonium particles throughout nearby residential communities.

Millions of dollars have already been spent to diminish this risk, which until recently exceeded federal guidelines, and the Trump administration last month proposed spending $14 million in 2018 alone to strengthen the building’s firewalls and sprinkler systems. The government has also sunk more than $450 million into preparations for construction of a modern and more seismically durable pit production facility at Los Alamos, projected to have a total price tag between $1.5 billion and $3 billion.

Making new pits involves melting, casting, and machining the plutonium, while assessing how well or poorly the pits are aging requires using various instruments to withdraw small pieces for detailed chemical and material analysis. These operations are typically done in the glove boxes, by specialists whose hands are inserted into gloves attached to the side of sealed containers meant to keep the plutonium particles from escaping. But the work is messy, requiring constant vigilance to be certain that too much of the metal doesn’t pile up in a compact space. The byproducts include “chunks, shards, and grains of plutonium metal,” all of it radioactive and unstable, according to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report.

Notably, a 2013 Los Alamos study depicted leaks of glove boxes at PF-4 as frequent — averaging nearly three a month — and said they were often caused by avoidable errors such as inattention, improper maintenance, collisions with rolling storage carts, complacency and degradation from the heat that plutonium constantly emits. It said that sometimes those operating or supervising the equipment “accepted risk” or took a chance, rushed to meet a deadline, or otherwise succumbed to workplace production pressures.

“Operations always wants it yesterday,” the lab’s current criticality safety chief and the lone NNSA expert assigned to that issue in the agency’s Los Alamos oversight office warned in a private briefing for their colleagues at Sandia labs last month. Managers “must shield analysts from demands” from production personnel, they said.

Besides posing a serious health risk to those in PF-4, glove box releases of radioactive material each cost the government $23,000 to clean up, on average, the Los Alamos study said.

An acute shortage of criticality experts

Calculating exactly “how much material can come together before there’s an explosion” — as the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman once put it — is a complex task. While visiting the production site for highly-enriched uranium in

Oak Ridge, Tenn., during the 1940’s, for example, Feynman was surprised to see stocks of that fissionable material deliberately stored in separate rooms, but on an adjoining wall that posed no barrier to collisions involving atoms of uranium and escaping neutrons on both sides. “It was very dangerous and they had not paid any attention to the safety at all,” Feynman wrote years later.

Plutonium work is so fraught with risk that the total mass of that metal allowed to be present in PF-4 is strictly limited. A decade ago, the limit was increased without an appropriate understanding of the risks, according to an NNSA technical bulletin in February. But with pieces of it strewn and stored throughout the normally busy building, partly because the vault is typically full, its managers have labored for years to systematically track down and remove excess stocks. They had some success last year, when they got rid of nearly a quarter of the plutonium on the building’s “main floor,” according to recent budget documents.

Criticality specialists are employed not only to help set these overall mass limits but to guide technicians so they don’t inadvertently trigger chain reactions in their daily work; those specialists are also supposed to be the first-responders when too much dangerous material is found in one place.

“The weird thing about criticality safety is that it’s not intuitive,” Don Nichols, a former chief for defense nuclear safety at the NNSA, said in an interview. He cited an instance in which someone operating a stirring machine noticed that fissionable liquids were forming a “critical” mass, so the operator shut the stirrer off, not immediately realizing that doing so made the problem worse. In other instances, analysts had judged a plutonium operation was safe, but then more workers — whose bodies reflect and slow neutrons — wound up being present nearby, creating unanticipated risks.

Those doing the weapons disassemblies and invasive pit studies are typically under “a big level pressure” to complete a certain number every year, Nichols added. They are expected to do “so many of these in this amount of time,” to allow the labs to certify to the president that the stockpile is viable. Meanwhile, the calculations involved in avoiding criticality — which depend on the shape, size, form, quantity, and geometric configuration of material being used in more than a dozen different industrial operations — are so complex that it takes a year and a half of training for an engineer to become qualified and as many as five years to become proficient, experts say.

“It’s difficult to find people who want to do this job,” particularly at the remote Los Alamos site, said McConnell, the NNSA safety chief. With plutonium use mostly confined to creating the world’s most powerful explosives, “there are…very few public-sector opportunities for people to develop these skills,” he added. As a result, he said, many NNSA sites lack the desired number of experts, which slows down production.

At the time of the 2013 shutdown, after numerous internal warnings about the consequences of its mismanagement, Los Alamos had only “a single junior qualified criticality safety engineer” still in place, according to the February NNSA technical bulletin. Nichols, who was then the NNSA’s associate administrator for safety and health, said McMillan didn’t “realize how serious it was until we took notice and helped him take notice.”

Without having adequate staff on hand to guide their operations safely, technicians at PF-4 were unable to carry out a scheduled destructive surveillance in 2014 of a refurbished plutonium pit meant for a warhead to be fit atop American submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It’s been modernized at a cost of $946 million since 2014, with total expenses predicted to exceed $3.7 billion. Generally, up to 10 of the first pits produced for a new warhead type are set aside for surveillance to assure they’re safely constructed and potent before they’re deployed. But the planned disassembly was cancelled and the NNSA hasn’t scheduled another yet, because of the shutdown.

The lab also hasn’t been able to complete planned invasive studies of the aging of plutonium used in a warhead for an aircraft-delivered nuclear bomb, now being modernized at an estimated cost of $7.4 billion to $10 billion.

Former deputy NNSA director Madelyn Creedon told an industry conference in March that if new funds are given to the agency in President Trump’s new budget, she knows where she’d advise it be spent. “One of the things that doesn’t take a huge amount of money but it’s one that has been cut back over the last couple of years, is surveillance — enhanced surveillance” of existing warheads, Creedon said……..http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/safety-problems-los-alamos-laboratory-delay-us-nuclear-warhead-testing-and-production

Repeated safety lapses hobble federal nuclear weapons laboratory – including a near disaster

July 24, 2017

A near-disaster at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory takes a hidden toll on America’s arsenal, Repeated safety lapses hobble Los Alamos National Laboratory’s work on the cores of U.S. nuclear warheads, Center For Public Integrity , by Patrick Malone, June 19, 2017

Key findings
  • Technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory placed rods of plutonium so closely together on a table in 2011 that they nearly caused a runaway nuclear chain reaction, which would likely have killed all those nearby and spread cancer-causing plutonium particles.
  • The accident led to an exodus of key engineers from Los Alamos who had warned the lab to take better precautions, and this led in turn to a nearly four-year shutdown of key plutonium operations at Los Alamos.
  • A similar incident in Japan in 1999 provoked a burst of radiation that caused two agonizing deaths, a mass evacuation and an order that 310,000 seek shelter. Three workers have died from such radiation bursts at Los Alamos in the past.
  • Los Alamos’s handling of plutonium — a key component of all U.S. nuclear weapons — has been criticized in more than 40 official government reports stretching over a decade, but the lab has repeatedly struggled to meet federal safety requirements.
  • Officials in Washington proposed to fine the lab more than a half-million dollars for its record of poor nuclear safety dating back a decade, but in the end chose not to do so, exemplifying what critics say is a climate of impunity for nuclear weapons contractors.
Eight rods of plutonium within inches — had a few more rods been placed nearby it would have triggered a disaster. Los Alamos National Laboratory/U.S. Department of Energy

At many jobs, this would be innocent bragging. But plutonium is the unstable, radioactive, man-made fuel of a nuclear explosion, and it isn’t amenable to showboating. When too much is put in one place, it becomes “critical” and begins to fission uncontrollably, spontaneously sparking a nuclear chain reaction, which releases energy and generates a deadly burst of radiation.

The resulting blue glow — known as Cherenkov radiation — has accidentally and abruptly flashed at least 60 times since the dawn of the nuclear age, signaling an instantaneous nuclear charge and causing a total of 21 agonizing deaths. So keeping bits of plutonium far apart is one of the bedrock rules that those working on the nuclear arsenal are supposed to follow to prevent workplace accidents. It’s Physics 101 for nuclear scientists, but has sometimes been ignored at Los Alamos……

Workplace safety, many of the reports say, has frequently taken a back seat to profit-seeking at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, lab — which is run by a group of three private firms and the University of California — as managers there chase lucrative government bonuses tied to accomplishing specific goals for producing and recycling the plutonium parts of nuclear weapons.

And these safety challenges aren’t confined to Los Alamos. The Center’s probe revealed a frightening series of glaring worker safety risks, previously unpublicized accidents, and dangerously lax management practices. The investigation further revealed that the penalties imposed by the government on the private firms that make America’s nuclear weapons were typically just pinpricks, and that instead the firms annually were awarded large profits in the same years that major safety lapses occurred. Some were awarded new contracts despite repeated, avoidable accidents, including some that exposed workers to radiation….

George Anastas, a past president of the Health Physics Society who analyzed dozens of internal government reports about criticality problems at Los Alamos for the Center, said he wonders if “the work at Los Alamos [can] be done somewhere else? Because it appears the safety culture, the safety leadership, has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Anastas said the reports, spanning more than a decade, describe “a series of accidents waiting to happen.” The lab, he said, is “dodging so many bullets that it’s scary as hell.”https://apps.publicintegrity.org/nuclear-negligence/near-disaster/

Increased cancer risk for Japanese workers exposed to plutonium

July 24, 2017

Increase in Cancer Risk for Japanese Workers Accidentally Exposed to Plutonium http://allthingsnuclear.org/elyman/cancer-risk-for-japanese-exposed-to-plutonium#.WTxxNdgMNK8.twitter, ED LYMAN, SENIOR SCIENTIST | JUNE 9, 2017, 

 According to news reports, five workers were accidentally exposed to high levels of radiation at the Oarai nuclear research and development center in Tokai-mura, Japan on June 6th. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of the facility, reported that five workers inhaled plutonium and americium that was released from a storage container that the workers had opened. The radioactive materials were contained in two plastic bags, but they had apparently ripped.

We wish to express our sympathy for the victims of this accident.

This incident is a reminder of the extremely hazardous nature of these materials, especially when they are inhaled, and illustrates why they require such stringent procedures when they are stored and processed.

According to the earliest reports, it was estimated that one worker had inhaled 22,000 becquerels (Bq) of plutonium-239, and 220 Bq of americium-241. (One becquerel of a radioactive substance undergoes one radioactive decay per second.) The others inhaled between 2,200 and 14,000 Bq of plutonium-239 and quantities of americium-241 similar to that of the first worker.

More recent reports have stated that the amount of plutonium inhaled by the most highly exposed worker is now estimated to be 360,000 Bq, and that the 22,000 Bq measurement in the lungs was made 10 hours after the event occurred. Apparently, the plutonium that remains in the body decreases rapidly during the first hours after exposure, as a fraction of the quantity initially inhaled is expelled through respiration. But there are large uncertainties.

The mass equivalent of 360,000 Bq of Pu-239 is about 150 micrograms. It is commonly heard that plutonium is so radiotoxic that inhaling only one microgram will cause cancer with essentially one hundred percent certainty. This is not far off the mark for certain isotopes of plutonium, like Pu-238, but Pu-239 decays more slowly, so it is less toxic per gram.  The actual level of harm also depends on a number of other factors. Estimating the health impacts of these exposures in the absence of more information is tricky, because those impacts depend on the exact composition of the radioactive materials, their chemical forms, and the sizes of the particles that were inhaled. Smaller particles become more deeply lodged in the lungs and are harder to clear by coughing. And more soluble compounds will dissolve more readily in the bloodstream and be transported from the lungs to other organs, resulting in exposure of more of the body to radiation. However, it is possible to make a rough estimate.

Using Department of Energy data, the inhalation of 360,000 Bq of Pu-239 would result in a whole-body radiation dose to an average adult over a 50-year period between 580 rem and nearly 4300 rem, depending on the solubility of the compounds inhaled. The material was most likely an oxide, which is relatively insoluble, corresponding to the lower bound of the estimate. But without further information on the material form, the best estimate would be around 1800 rem.

What is the health impact of such a dose? For isotopes such as plutonium-239 or americium-241, which emit relatively large, heavy charged particles known as alpha particles, there is a high likelihood that a dose of around 1000 rem will cause a fatal cancer. This is well below the radiation dose that the most highly exposed worker will receive over a 50-year period. This shows how costly a mistake can be when working with plutonium.

The workers are receiving chelation therapy to try to remove some plutonium from their bloodstream. However, the effectiveness of this therapy is limited at best, especially for insoluble forms, like oxides, that tend to be retained in the lungs.

The workers were exposed when they opened up an old storage can that held materials related to production of fuel from fast reactors. The plutonium facilities at Tokai-mura have been used to produce plutonium-uranium mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for experimental test reactors, including the Joyo fast reactor, as well as the now-shutdown Monju fast reactor. Americium-241 was present as the result of the decay of the isotope plutonium-241.

I had the opportunity to tour some of these facilities about twenty years ago. MOX fuel fabrication at these facilities was primarily done in gloveboxes through manual means, and we were able to stand next to gloveboxes containing MOX pellets. The gloveboxes represented the only barrier between us and the plutonium they contained. In light of the incident this week, that is a sobering memory.

Getting rid of plutonium is harder

July 24, 2017

How To Dismantle A Nuclear Weapon, Gizmodo, Terrell Jermaine Starr and Jalopnik, May 24, 2017  “…..Getting Rid Of Plutonium Is Harder

For one, there is no civilian use for plutonium in the United States because you can’t break it down or blend it. In other words, it is always ready to be used for weapons. In fact, according to Live Science, of its five common isotopes, only plutonium-238 and plutonium-239 are used for anything.

Pu-238 is used for powering space probes and Pu-239, the isotope we’re talking about, goes through a fission chain reaction when concentrated enough. And when that process takes place, it is nuke-ready.

By the way, Plutonium is pretty damn radioactive and contains the “worst kind of fission byproducts that could enter the environment as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” as Live Science notes (emphasis ours):

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plutonium enters the bloodstream via the lungs, then moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, and other organs. It generally stays in those places for decades, subjecting surrounding organs and tissues to a continual bombardment of alpha radiation and greatly increasing the risk of cancer, especially lung cancer, liver cancer and bone sarcoma.

There are documented cases of workers at nuclear weapons facilities dying within days of experiencing brief accidental exposure to plutonium, according to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank.

Furthermore, among all the bad things coming out of Fukushima, plutonium will stay in the environment the longest. One isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, has a half-life of 24,100 years; that’s the time it will take for half of the stuff to radioactively decay. Radioactive contaminants are dangerous for 10 to 20 times the length of their half-lives, meaning that dangerous plutonium released to the environment today will stick around for the next half a million years.

That is why Japan’s reported goal to use plutonium for civilian reactors have the U.S. and China worried. At one point, Japan had around 10 tons of unseparated plutonium in-country; 37.1 tons are in France and the United Kingdom. China fears Toyko could possibly use the plutonium to develop nuclear weapons, although the Japanese did give up 331kg of it in 2016.

Collina said it’s a good thing the U.S. has no plans to use plutonium for civilian purposes.

“You can’t blend down plutonium,” he says. “It’s always weapons-usable. So if you use this stuff at nuclear power plants, you’re basically spreading weapons-usable nuclear material all around. It’s a proliferation problem because we don’t want to set the example for other nations to say, ‘I’m going to use plutonium in my civilian power program’ and therefore create a cover for a secret weapons program. We want to have a pretty clear line that says, ‘Plutonium is only used for weapons and you should not use plutonium if you’re not using it for weapons.'”

As for actually getting rid of plutonium, the process is not environmentally friendly and it never will be. Most of the plutonium that is separated from nukes is stored at the Savannah River Site (SRS), near the Georgia border. Plutonium is also stored at the Pantex Plant. It’s authorised to store 20,000 plutonium pits; current estimates find that 14,000 are stored in the facility.

But here’s the catch: you can never make it truly safe, and no one wants it near them. For example, the Department of Energy, through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is currently overseeing construction of a facility at SRS to make MOX fuel from weapons-ready plutonium. It would then be used for commercial use.

The problem is that no one wants plutonium storage facilities in their backyards. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, expressed concerns over the MOX fuel initiative when she was governor of South Carolina. Her issue was that the feds were supposed to remove a ton of plutonium from the state by January 2016 and ship it to another facility in New Mexico or process it for commercial use through the facility; neither happened, so she sued the Department of Energy. A federal circuit court dismissed the case.

Officially, MOX fuel is not being used in the United States, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Europe uses MOX fuel, but its plutonium is from spent nuclear fuel rather than nuclear weapons.

Former Nevada Senator Harry Reid resisted the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository project, which was supposed to be a deep geological repository storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste like Pu-239. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987, the Yucca Mountains were supposed to be the key destination for storing this waste, but Reid worked with Obama to end funding for the project.

Where To Send It?

So, if no one wants plutonium in their backyard here on planet earth, where can it be disposed? Well, there have been a bunch of wild ideas, like blasting it into the sun. Which, as the video below explains, is a pretty bad idea.

Hitting the Sun is HARD

You also have to factor in the possibility the space ship won’t make it to orbit. “Space shuttles crash,” Collina said. “So if you had just one crash with a space shuttle full of plutonium, that would ruin your whole day.”

The best plan of action the feds have to deal with weapons-ready plutonium is to simply store it someplace — a place where folks won’t complain to much about it. Good luck finding such a place.https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2017/05/how-to-dismantle-a-nuclear-weapon/

The danger of plutonium being released at United States at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

February 1, 2017

Puget Sound’s ticking nuclear time bomb, Crosscut by , 10 Jan 17  “……“Command and Control” shows what can happen when the weapons built to protect us threaten to destroy us, and it speaks directly to Puget Sound citizens: Locally, we face a similar threat in Hood Canal with the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the United States at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

An accident at Bangor involving nuclear weapons occurred in November 2003 when a ladder penetrated a nuclear nose cone during a routine missile offloading at the Explosives Handling Wharf. All missile-handling operations at the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWFPAC) were stopped for nine weeks until Bangor could be recertified for handling nuclear weapons. Three top commanders were fired but the public was never informed until information was leaked to the media in March 2004.

The Navy never publicly admitted that the 2003 accident occurred. The Navy failed to report the accident at the time to county or state authorities. Public responses from governmental officials were generally in the form of surprise and disappointment.

The result of such an explosion likely would not cause a nuclear detonation. Instead, plutonium from the approximately 108 nuclear warheads on one submarine could be spread by the wind…… http://crosscut.com/2017/01/nuclear-accidents-bangor-accident-command-and-control/

Radioactive legacy at Rocky Flats

September 13, 2016

The concerns are not limited to the refuge itself. There is plenty of plutonium offsite, thanks to a combination of sloppy practices onsite and the high winds for which the area is notorious. In 2010, one researcher discovered high concentrations of plutonium in dust in the crawl space under a local home. Researchers have concluded that smoke from a series of fires and plutonium blown from waste holding areas were probably the main sources. Peer-reviewed studies have found high rates of lung and brain cancers, leukemia, and other diseases among workers at the plant. 

We are left with a conundrum: Is Rocky Flats a brilliant urban wildlife resource, or a dangerous radioactive legacy? The weird but inescapable truth is that it is both.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge Confronts Its Radioactive Past, Environment 36016 AUG 2016: REPORT

The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.by fred pearce “…….In a previous life, Rocky Flats was a secret place, where over almost four decades Dow Chemical and Rockwell International, as contractors working for the U.S. government, turned plutonium from military reactors into an estimated 70,000 grapefruit-sized triggers at the heart of hydrogen bombs. Few installations were as important during the Cold War as the Rocky Flats Plant, which operated from 1952 to 1989. And by all accounts, preventing plutonium pollution of the surrounding environment, including that of the people of Denver, was low on the list of priorities……

In nearby Boulder recently, I sat round a kitchen table with half a dozen scientists — chemists, meteorologists, engineers, and hydrologists — some of whom became opponents of the plant after having conducted research in the area for government agencies. They told me that the public should be permanently prevented from setting foot anywhere near Rocky Flats because of the risks from the millions of tiny particles of plutonium in the soil – any one of which, they said, if breathed in might lodge in your lungs, irradiating and ultimately killing you. …..

biologist Harvey Nichols, whom I spoke to in Boulder, said the government’s sampling regime was unlikely to have identified hotspots in surface soils; nor did its safety standards account for the risk of ingesting plutonium, which could irradiate organs. “If they open the refuge, children will be exposed to plutonium. Why would we do that?” asked LeRoy Moore, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and a long-time opponent of opening up the former weapons site.

Behind some of this wariness lies deep suspicion about what secrets may lie hidden at the Rocky Flats plutonium plant. It has a murky history of rule breaking and disregard for the basics of handling nuclear materials.

There were frequent fires in the plutonium handling areas, caused by spontaneously combusting plutonium. The biggest was in 1957. Kept secret at the time, it burned out the stack filters and released about a pound of plutonium in smoke, much of which rained out over what is now the wildlife refuge, and in lesser quantities across several Denver suburbs. Plutonium inventories at the plant showed discrepancies that sometimes reached more than 100 kilograms a year. By the time Rocky Flats closed, an estimated 1.2 tons of the deadly metal could not be accounted for. There was also widespread dumping and spraying of plutonium-contaminated wastes on land around the facility, some of which got into local creeks or was whipped up by the wind. There were allegations of illegal incineration of plutonium waste that led to a notorious FBI raid in 1989, after which the site was shut down.

A federal grand jury sat for three years to hear evidence from the FBI raid. Two days after the jury handed down its indictment, a plea bargain was struck between the U.S. Justice Department and Rockwell — the private contractor then running the place — which resulted in guilty pleas for minor charges, but with the evidence and grand jury conclusions being sealed forever.

Today, Rocky Flats has ostensibly been rehabilitated. Decommissioning of the plant began in 1992. The 10-year cleanup, funded by the federal government, was completed in 2005 – “the largest and most successful environmental cleanup in history,” according to government officials.

The cleanup, carried out by the Department of Energy (DOE) and its contractors, required the removal of six plutonium processing buildings and some 800 other structures; the removal of 500,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, much of it to off-site Department of Defense facilities; and the cleanup of 88 landfills and other sites across the core production area.

But to cart away all the infrastructure, buildings, and contaminated soils would have cost $37 billion and taken 65 years, the DOE estimated. Congress approved a budget of $7 billion. The 1,300-acre core area where manufacturing took place remains cordoned off and under the control of the Department of Energy. Surrounding that core is the former buffer zone that will comprise the new nearly 5,000-acre wildlife refuge. The government has deemed the area safe without further remediation. ……..

On my tour with Lucas, we drove along the chain-link fence separating the core and buffer zones, past the sites of covered-over landfills; past the notorious 903 pad, where thousands of 55-gallon drums of fluids laced with plutonium were stored during the 1960s, corroding and leaking into the ground; and past grassy areas where liquid wastes containing plutonium were sprayed across the land. Nobody can say for sure how much of the missing plutonium might still be lurking in such places. Official estimates suggest they might be measured in tens of grams. But those estimates could be orders of magnitude too low, wrote Thomas Cochran, a former nuclear physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The concerns are not limited to the refuge itself. There is plenty of plutonium offsite, thanks to a combination of sloppy practices onsite and the high winds for which the area is notorious. In 2010, one researcher discovered high concentrations of plutonium in dust in the crawl space under a local home. Researchers have concluded that smoke from a series of fires and plutonium blown from waste holding areas were probably the main sources. Peer-reviewed studies have found high rates of lung and brain cancers, leukemia, and other diseases among workers at the plant.

More than two decades after its operations closed, the legacy of Rocky Flats lingers in the public mind in Colorado. In May, a local citizens action group,Rocky Flats Downwinders, launched a call for people who lived near the site to come forward if they think they may have suffered illness as a result of its operations. So far, says Downwinders activist Alesya Casse, the group has received more than 3,000 responses. Rocky Flats Downwinders says the government has done no comprehensive epidemiology to assess health impacts from the known releases of plutonium into their communities.

The main trouble with plutonium is that it remains a hazard for tens of thousands of years. The half-life of the main isotope found at Rocky Flats, plutonium-239, is 24,100 years. Even if most of what remains is in contaminated buildings that are currently buried, will it stay that way? Critics of the refuge fear not.

In 2013, major floods caused extensive soil slips on hillsides within the core area. More earth movements followed rains last winter, leaving ugly gashes on grassy slopes, as I saw during my visit. The DOE’s custodian at Rocky Flats, Scott Surovchak, told me the slides I saw were on the site of a landfill that operated from 1952 to 1968, which probably only contains “construction debris, office and cafeteria waste.” But at least one barrel of radioactive material is recorded as having been removed from the landfill. Since the 2013 floods, tiny amounts of plutonium and americium (a decay product of plutonium-241) have been found by monitors in the creeks that drain from Rocky Flats toward the South Platte River.
For now, such matters are not major concerns for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has managed the land since 2007. Lucas remains confident about opening up the refuge to visitors. On the other side of Denver, he already manages wildlife at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a former chemical weapons production site that opened to the public in 2011. He anticipates Rocky Flats could attract up to 150,000 visitors a year.

“We need to get people out here on the refuge, then the fears will evaporate,” he says. But that is just what worries critics of the government plan. Forgetting about the plutonium is the worst thing that could happen, they claim. “What happens after fences fall and memory fades?” asks Moore.

We are left with a conundrum: Is Rocky Flats a brilliant urban wildlife resource, or a dangerous radioactive legacy? The weird but inescapable truth is that it is both. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/rocky_flats_wildlife_refuge_confronts_radioactive_past/3025/

The Coke Can Plutonium Experiment

February 2, 2015

On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.

A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive? TruthOut,  19 March 2014 12:24 By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey SmithCenter for Public Integrity | Report Washington #……..The Coke Can Experiment In the abstract, there’s plenty of alarm in official circles. “Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city — be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris — could kill hundreds of thousands of people,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations Security Council in September 2009. “And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”

But Cochran has long criticized the effectiveness of one of Washington’s most costly and elaborate strategies to prevent such a catastrophe — a global effort to detect and capture illicit fissile materials at border crossings and major world ports.

Since 2003 the United States has spent more than $850 million on equipment and training for customs officials at 45 foreign ports so they can scan shipping containers to detect nuclear materials. It’s a daunting assignment. About 432 million shipping containers crisscrossed the oceans in 2009 alone. U.S. ports accept 15 million containers every year.

The initial goal of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration under the so-called Megaports program was to install equipment at more than 100 foreign ports by 2018 and train local officials to scan half of global traffic. But many countries with large stocks of nuclear explosive materials did not participate in the program, according to the NNSA, including France, India, Russia and Japan.

Some countries that installed the U.S. equipment — like Panama — later reported using it on a tiny fraction of their cargo. As of 2012, China had installed just a single monitor at one port, out of 12 Chinese ports given high priority rankings by Washington, according to a report that year by the Government Accountability Office.

The NNSA has never released data on what nuclear materials its foreign partners reported seizing, but intelligence officials have said the equipment has only flagged tons of mildly radioactive scrap metal, not the makings of potential bombs.

“The technologies used … may not be able to detect nuclear or other radiological material that has been shielded or masked, and terrorists could also bypass” it, the GAO report stated. It added that the Energy Department, which inherited some of the scanners as cast-offs from the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t adequately test them; instead, it changed the name of the hardware to “avoid the negative connotations associated with” its prior service.

At a Washington symposium last year meant to showcase some new technologies for portal monitoring, Cochran stood in the audience, cautioned the sponsor that they might want to turn off their video recorders, and then firmly tore apart the premise that such detection devices could play a useful role in protecting the country from nuclear terror.

“I wouldn’t put another penny” in such technologies, Cochran said, because “it won’t reduce the risk.” The billions already spent could better have been used for “intelligence, police work, locking up materials at the source,” or eliminating their production altogether. Millions of illegal immigrants “didn’t go through ports,” he said. And screening all rail cars and container ships would be impossibly costly.

Cochran says that border detection is a particularly futile exercise for enriched uranium. Radiation detectors would have to be placed on top of a container, he says, to register the kind of radiation given off by uranium. Plutonium is more difficult to shield, but it could still be done — perhaps by packing the plutonium in a light material, like a plastic containing many hydrogen atoms to absorb the neutrons that would set off a detector.

“The only way you can solve this problem is by securing the plutonium at the source,” or by not producing it in the first place, he said. “You can’t secure the border.”

Battered by persistently critical audits and by criticisms like Cochran’s, the Energy Department has slowly been shifting ground. In budget documents last year, DOE suspended installation of new scanning equipment at large container seaports pending a review on the cost and effectiveness of the program. The administration’s budget called for eliminating the $133 million program in fiscal 2014. Congress in January also capped spending on the Megaports program, providing enough funds to expand it only modestly.

While Cochran couches many of his arguments in the language of mathematics and physics, he has also sought to drive home his points with theatrics.

At the height of the 1970s battle over the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, he hit on an idea for demonstrating how easy it would be to smuggle the fuel needed for an atomic bomb past international borders.

So for $100, he purchased by mail from a Massachusetts lab supply company a 6.8 kilogram — 15 pound — cylinder of dense, heavy, depleted uranium, a mildly radioactive waste material from reactors that cannot be used to make a bomb. Fifteen pounds was the largest order allowed without a government license; the same quantity can still be purchased readily today. The cylinder had the same weight and a similar bulk as the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.

Then, when he flew to lectures or meetings, Cochran wrapped the uranium in lead, stuck it in a length of yellow-painted pipe with a handle welded to it and carried it through airport security. After being stopped at an x-ray machine in one airport, he told the operator “it’s uranium, don’t worry about it. It’s okay.” She let him through and he carried it onto the plane.

On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.

During a 1995 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in the Capitol building about how easy it would be to smuggle plutonium out of Russia, Cochran produced his Coke can and waved a hand-held radiation detector over it to prove it was radioactive.

Six years later, after the 9/11 attacks, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross asked Cochran to borrow his Coke can, and wound up smuggling it from Vienna back to the United States, first by boarding a train through the Balkans and then by container ship out of Istanbul. The ship docked at a Staten Island facility where Customs officials said they had installed detectors capable of spotting radioactive materials.

“This is what they’re looking for or should be looking for and this is what they absolutely have to stop,” Cochran said on camera. But Customs inspectors never opened the ornamental Turkish chest the can was stored in, and it was later carried by truck to a warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, across from Manhattan.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told ABC that inspectors determined “that container did not pose a threat for having, let’s say, some sort of nuclear weapons grade material in it or a nuclear device.”

But Cochran said Customs could not have detected anything without opening the crate, and obviously missed it. “You can reliably detect most anything with sufficient money or time to do it, but you don’t have sufficient money or time to do it at a border,” he says. “So basically you can’t reliably detect it.”

After a second smuggling episode embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the department dispatched agents to the ABC News offices in Los Angeles, the home of a cameraman, and Cochran’s home in Alexandria, Va., where they blocked him from leaving to shop for groceries.

“Has any law been broken?” Cochran asked. An agent said she wanted to ask him some questions. Cochran said he would, but only in his office during the work week, and only with an NRDC lawyer present. The meeting never occurred and no charges were ever filed. But Homeland Security officials seized the depleted uranium.

Asked about the episode several months ago, Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, said she could not find any information about the investigation or the fate of the sample.

So ended the tale of the nuclear Coke can — at least for now. Cochran isn’t making any promises about the future. “I think it’s a more dangerous time [than] when Ted Taylor was making his case, and I began to make that case,” Cochran says. “It was difficult to point to active terrorist cells that were out there, poised to get this kind of material. And now we know they’re out there.”

Annoying? Perhaps. Persistent? For sure. But the way Cochran sees it, sometimes that’s what it takes.http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22531-a-world-awash-in-a-nuclear-explosive

Why plutonium is so dangerous

February 2, 2015

A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive? TruthOut,  19 March 2014 12:24 By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey SmithCenter for Public Integrity | Report Washington “……..Just a Few Pounds Worth of Plutonium? There’s been a ghoulish debate between officials and independent scientists about how much plutonium is needed to fuel a clandestine bomb. But both agree it’s not much.

The U.S. bomb that destroyed half of Nagasaki in 1945 had 6.2 kilograms of plutonium in it, or 13.6 pounds. But experts say it was over-engineered — only one kilogram fissioned, they concluded later.

The International Atomic Energy Agency nonetheless decided years ago that eight kilograms of plutonium, or 17.6 pounds, are needed to make a bomb and so that’s the quantity its monitoring is geared to stop from getting loose.

Cochran and his NRDC colleague Christopher Paine challenged the IAEA standard in 1995 with a study concluding that only 3 kilograms — 6.6 pounds — would be needed to fashion a “very respectable” bomb with the explosive power of a kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT. But no matter who is right, Rokkasho’s annual plutonium production would be enough for 1,000 weapons or more.

To build an efficient plutonium bomb, the plutonium would have to be shaped into a sphere so it could be compressed with conventional explosives and rapidly reach critical mass, Cochran said. If the plutonium is crammed together too slowly, it becomes, according to an old weapons-designer joke, “fizzle” material instead of fissile material. It detonates prematurely, and only a tiny fraction is fissioned.

But a skilled, well-financed team could take a thermos-full, Cochran says, shape it into a hollow sphere about the size of a baseball or softball, pack it inside a sphere of explosives in a way that focuses the blast inward and turn it into a weapon that could produce a nuclear blast of one or two kilotons, equal to 1,000 or 2,000 tons of TNT.

“The technology needed to make a plutonium bomb is very old,” Cochran says. “This is not rocket science. So it’s within the capability of a team of people who had some sophistication.”

He paused. “This is why people worry about plutonium.”

A one-kiloton device exploded at ground level in a heavily populated area would be comparable in its effects to the Nagasaki bomb that exploded more than 1,500 feet in the sky, causing about 75,000 deaths and a similar number of injuries. A 2003 study by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pegged the direct cost of damage from a 10-kiloton bomb at $1 trillion, along with incalculable political, economic, and social chaos.

The danger that plutonium harvested from the spent fuel of civilian reactors could be used to build nuclear weapons was dramatized in 1974. India used a reactor built by Canada under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program to produce plutonium that fueled the first nuclear explosive detonated by a country other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The bomb was built from plutonium produced by India’s CIRUS — for “Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S.” — at the Trombay nuclear complex north of the city now called Mumbai. CIRUS is a type of reactor that uses heavy water as a moderator and can run on natural rather than enriched uranium. The research reactor being built by Iran at Arak is also a heavy-water design.

Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reacted by trying to discourage the development of civilian plutonium programs at home and abroad. Carter tried to stop Japan’s by withholding permission to use U.S.-supplied materials and technology for the effort. But Japan insisted on proceeding, and the White House settled for an agreement under which Japan would seek permission for each new batch it made.

Then, in 1982, President Reagan issued a secret National Security Decision Directive giving Japan “advance consent” to produce plutonium and trade it with European allies, as long as it met certain guidelines. And in 1987, Reagan went further, publicly granting Japan blanket approval essentially to make all the plutonium it wished, as part of a broader nuclear trade agreement. The groundwork for Rokkasho had thus been laid.http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/22531-a-world-awash-in-a-nuclear-explosive

 

Plutonium pumped into ocean from Europe, as well as from Japan

February 2, 2015
TV: Plutonium being pumped into ocean through miles of underwater pipes — Nuclear waste left lying on beach — Kids playing on sand where machines scoop up plutonium each day — Alarming test results 1,000% legal limit (VIDEO & PHOTOS)http://enenews.com/tv-plutonium-being-pumped-ocean-miles-underwater-pipes-nuclear-waste-left-lying-beach-kids-playing-sand-machines-scoop-plutonium-day-video-photos?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ENENews+%28Energy+News%29
SWR (German public television broadcaster), 2013 (emphasis added):
  • 25:00 in — The dumping of nuclear waste in the sea was banned worldwide in 1993, yet the nuclear industry has come up with other ways. They no longer dump the barrels at sea; they build kilometers of underwater pipes through which the radioactive effluent now flows freely into the sea. One of these pipes is situated in Normandy [near] the French reprocessing plant in La Hague… The advantage for the nuclear industry? No more bad press… disposal via waste pipes remains hidden from the public eye, quite literally.
  • 28:30 in — 400 km from La Hague [as well as] Holland [and] Germany… we find iodine… 5-fold higher tritium value than [reported] by the operator Areva. It’s now obvious why citizens take their own measurements.
  • 30:15 in — Molecular Biologist: “The radioactive toxins accumulate in the food chain. This little worm can contain 2,000-3,000 times more radioactivity than its environment. It is then eaten by the next biggest creature and so on, at the end of the food chain we discovered damage to the reproductive cells of crabs… These genetic defects are inherited from one generation to the next… Cells in humans and animals are the same.”
  • 32:00 in — The 2nd disposal pipe for Europe’s nuclear waste is located in the north of England… Radioactive pollution comes in from the sea. Their houses are full of plutonium dust… The pipe from Sellafield is clearly visible only from the air… nuclear waste is still being dumped into the sea. Operators argue this is land-based disposal… It has been approved by the authorities.
  • 35:45 in — Plutonium can be found here on a daily basis, the toxic waste returns from the sea… it leaches out, it dries, and is left lying on the beach. The people here have long since guessed that the danger is greater than those responsible care to admit… Every day a smallexcavator removes plutonium from the beach… In recent decadesthe operator at Sellafield has tossed more than 500 kg of plutonium into the sea.
  • 42:00 in — We take a soil sample… The result turns out to be alarming. The amount of plutonium is up to 10 times higher than the permissible limit.

Yahoo News, Dec 5, 2014: All this radiation from the [Fukushima] disaster has definitely not been isolated to just Japan. Researchers monitoring the Pacific Ocean, in which much of the radiation spilled into, have detected radioactive isotopes this past November just 160 km [100 miles] off the coast of California. So this story will continue to unfold for many years to come.

Watch SWR’s investigative report here

The latest confidence trick- PRISM – Power Reactor Innovative Small Module

December 29, 2013

The plutonium stockpile poses enormous problems for the government. Not only is it highly radioactive and an immense potential danger to health, it is also a target for terrorist attacks and for anyone interested in stealing nuclear weapons-grade material.

The NDA’s report to DECC is understood to conclude that the Prism fast reactor is as credible as the two other options based on Mox fuel, even though GE-Hitachi has not yet built a commercial-scale plant for burning plutonium waste. DECC, however, has refused to release the report under a Freedom of Information request 

It is understood that the NDA has been impressed by proposals from GE-Hitachi to build a pair of its Prism fast reactors on the Sellafield site,

Revealed: UK Government’s radical plan to ‘burn up’ UK’s mountain of plutonium http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/revealed-uk-governments-radical-plan-to-burn-up-uks-mountain-of-plutonium-8967535.html 28 Nove 13 A radical plan to dispose of Britain’s huge store of civil plutonium – the biggest in the world – by “burning” it in a new type of fast reactor is now officially one of three “credible options” being considered by the Government, The Independent understands. However, further delays have hit attempts to make a final decision on what to do with the growing plutonium stockpile which has been a recurring headache for successive governments over the past three decades.

The stock of plutonium, one of the most dangerous radioactive substances and the element of nuclear bombs, has already exceeded 100 tonnes and is likely to grow to as much as 140 tonnes by 2020, bolstered by a recent decision to include foreign plutonium from imported nuclear waste.

Ministers had pledged to resolve the plutonium problem in a public consultation but are sitting on a secret report by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) which is believed to confirm that there are now three “credible options” for dealing with the plutonium stored at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria.

The original “preferred option” was to convert the plutonium into a form of nuclear fuel called mixed oxide (Mox) and then to burn this in conventional nuclear reactors. However, serious questions have been raised about this proposal in the light of the expensive failure of a previous £1.4bn Mox plant at Sellafield, which had to be closed in 2011.

Two other options are now on the table, according to the NDA report. One involves a Canadian nuclear power plant called a Candu reactor which will burn a simpler form of Mox fuel. The other more radical proposal is to burn the plutonium directly in a fast reactor built by GE-Hitachi.

The NDA report, which is classified as commercially confidentially, was itself delayed by several months before being submitted in August to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The Government’s response to it was supposed to have been published within weeks but has now been delayed until next year – to the consternation of the companies involved in the consultation process.

The plutonium stockpile poses enormous problems for the government. Not only is it highly radioactive and an immense potential danger to health, it is also a target for terrorist attacks and for anyone interested in stealing nuclear weapons-grade material.

The NDA’s report to DECC is understood to conclude that the Prism fast reactor is as credible as the two other options based on Mox fuel, even though GE-Hitachi has not yet built a commercial-scale plant for burning plutonium waste. DECC, however, has refused to release the report under a Freedom of Information request, saying that publishing its contents could jeopardise future commercial negotiations.

The Independent also understands that DECC is seeking the views of the National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minster David Cameron, before it releases its public position statement on what should be done with the plutonium stockpile – such is the sensitivity of the issue.

One industry insider said that the delay by DECC may in part be due to the intense negotiations over the strike price for electricity generated by the new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset. But another reason is the undoubted sensitivity of any future decision over which option to go for when dealing with the growing plutonium problem.

Although the final contract is unlikely to be signed before 2015, both Candu and GE-Hitachi are keen to know whether they are still in the race for tendering against the French company Areva, which was originally hoping win the contract to build a £3bn Mox plant for plutonium disposal without running up against any competitors.

A previous public consultation process led the NDA to recommend the conversion of the plutonium into Mox fuel, which would in itself make it less attractive to terrorists. However, Sellafield has a poor record of producing viable Mox fuel and there are no power stations in the UK willing to burn it given that uranium fuel is much cheaper.

However, over the past two years the NDA has performed a U-turn over another option, which is to burn the plutonium directly in a purpose-built fast reactor. Ironically this was the original intention 40 years ago and the reason for building up a plutonium stockpile in the first place, but Britain’s own fast-reactor programme was abandoned in the 1990s.

It is understood that the NDA has been impressed by proposals from GE-Hitachi to build a pair of its Prism fast reactors on the Sellafield site, which could in theory burn the plutonium stockpile for up to 60 years, making it safe as well as generating carbon-free electricity.