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Bombs, Away!

Horse Fly
Published Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fifty-five miles downwind of Los Alamos, Taosenos may be surprised to learn that, according to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), eleven new nuclear warheads or plutonium "pits" were manufactured for the first time since 1949 at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) in 2007. Confirming the number of pits, Kevin Roark, a spokesperson at the Labs explains, "The pits are the nuclear triggers, what initiates the nuclear reaction."

Almost twenty years ago in Santa Fe, Mello helped found the now Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group (LASG), a nuclear disarmament watchdog organization that gathers, analyzes, discusses and disseminates information about what’s going on at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The hot topic is funding and plans for a new plutonium pit factory at LANL, the first since Rocky Flats in Colorado was shut down twenty years ago.

"We did not get funding to make a bigger ’factory,’ which Mello keeps calling it," Roark protests. "We got funding for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement project (CMRR)," that is, replacing the old CMR building, where the pits were made. Roark justifies their manufacture with an analogy: "If Ford stopped making cars and bulldozed all the factories and never made cars for another twenty years, think how hard it would be to make a car."

Roark defines the mission of LANL as "maintenance of U.S. nuclear deterrence. We do the science that confirms that if our country should require their use, the weapons will work as designed. (The CMR building is) where we currently do a variety of actinide chemistry," he said. "Certain types of actinide chemistry are in support of plutonium science." Mello argues that the White House documents he has obtained do not support Roark’s statements. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is requesting funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project: "This facility (at LANL) will be used to manufacture the central core of nuclear weapons known as the ’pit.’"

"Making pits makes nuclear waste," says Mello, "lots of it. (At LANL), there are tens of thousands of drums sitting in stacks on (the area called) TA-54, "and some of them contain a lot of plutonium. Someone could crash an airplane into them. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board and the NNSA have identified these stacks of drums as probably the single most dangerous thing at Los Alamos," Mello warns. "And they are poorly guarded."

Mello’s experience as far back as in elementary school with "Duck and Cover" drills foreshadowed his suitability for heading the LASG. Mello was only a second grader when his class was shown a movie of an atomic blast and then was instructed in how to protect themselves during such an event by taking shelter under their desks. "I looked at the film and looked at my desk," Mello remembers, "and realized that something did not add up."

But Mello is less interested in talking about himself than he is in talking about nuclear issues, subjects about which his talent, education and experience qualify him to speak. He insists he doesn’t want the messenger to detract from the urgency and importance of his message.

Mello’s first job after college in 1971 was as an intern in Washington, D.C., with the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency—what he considers his first real encounter with the nuclear weapons industry. On a field trip to the Hanford site in eastern Washington State, a site which reprocessed waste nuclear reactor fuel to make weapons grade plutonium, "I was made to take the day off because my superiors were afraid I would ask embarrassing questions. So I drove around the area interviewing Hanford’s neighbors."

"The thing that really impressed me, a rather naive young man then," Mello says, "was what a federal wildlife manager told me. He said there were ponds at Hanford so toxic that wildfowl would land in them and just die. Hanford’s solution was to put a chain link fence over the ponds."

Mello saw that the problems at Hanford were well-known to everybody involved long before 1991, when it was listed as a Superfund site and eligible for federally-funded cleanup. Hanford would have been so much easier to clean up, he says, if they had started earlier, a wish he has for the work at LANL.

"But they don’t want to do cleanup at LANL," Mello says, "because they are still dumping nuclear waste in unlicensed shallow trenches and shafts, to be covered with a meter of crushed tuff (volcanic rock). Cleanup will never happen in earnest until the dumping stops."

"The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has been complicit in allowing the dumping to continue," Mello adds, "when they could have stopped it at any time from November 1985 to the present, given the will and given support from the Governor. That support has never come."

"NMED has never even chosen to enforce the New Mexico Ground Water Protection Act at the site," Mello says. "This regulatory laxity is a big reason why LANL is getting all the dirtiest manufacturing work in the weapons complex today."

"At the time (of the closing of Hanford and Rocky Flats in 1988-89)," Mello says, "there was no known contamination of the ground water at Los Alamos. The Hanford site had contaminated drinking water. If Los Alamos were evaluated now, it might well meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Priorities List under Superfund. In the scoring formula, known ground-water contamination bumps up the score dramatically."

Asked if he thought LANL could be declared a Superfund site, Roark replied, "There’s nothing at LANL that would come close to a Superfund issue. We have never been a production site, but a research and development site," Roark insists. "LANL does nothing on an industrial scale, some limited small-scale manufacturing," he admits, no doubt referring to the manufacture of the eleven nuclear warheads. "Hanford and Rocky Flats were production sites. LANL’s role has been research and nothing that constitutes a factory."

However, as Mello points out, "LANL began as a factory, and the replacement of LANL’s old Chemistry and Metallurgy building, not to mention other manufacturing-related products, is the largest capital project in the history of the lab. It will cost at least $2.2 billion over a ten-year period, or $3 billion, if the other projects are included. "

"Even the Bush Administration believes that by the time the CMRR is completed," Mello says, "each warhead type in the arsenal will be present to surfeit. Manufacturing novel kinds of nuclear weapons is the real reason, and the only reason, to build these facilities."

In 1984 Mello was a hazardous waste inspector with New Mexico’s Environment Department (NMED), then a division of the Health Department. In that capacity, he led the first environmental enforcement actions at LANL.

Mello contrasts the attitude he saw, and still sees, at LANL with that of the Intel Corporation, the semi-conductor and microchip company, in Rio Rancho, also a site he regulated at the time. "Intel was quite cooperative," Mello says. "The people there would say, ’Tell us what we need to do, and we’ll do it.’ And they did. The people at LANL weren’t interested in solving environmental problems. They went to the (State) legislature to fix things their way. Within days of receiving their first notice of violation, they threatened to cut our NMED budget."

From its inception, LANL had been managed solely by the University of California (UC), Mello explains. But in December 2005, Bechtel put together the team of UC, BWX Technologies (BWXT), and Washington Group International (now the Washington Division of URS Corporation) to form Los Alamos National Security (LANS) and in June 2006, won the contract to take over management and operation of LANL that will eventually be worth almost $40 billion with little federal oversight. No actual bids were required. Now LANS may continue at LANL for twenty years without competition.

In an incestuous industry, the Bechtel Corporation is building the plant to treat hazardous waste at Hanford, and Bechtel is developing the repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. BWXT manages the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, where thousands of nuclear weapons were assembled up to 1991. According to its own history, Pantex has also "dismantled thousands of weapons retired from the stockpile by the military and placed the resulting plutonium pits in interim storage." (So why do we need to make more pits at LANL, Mello asks?) Pantex additionally works on "life extension programs designed to increase the longevity of weapons in the stockpile." The Washington Division of URS Corporation manages the Savannah River site, where by 2004, 10,000 drums of glassified radioactive waste have been shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Mello points out that the private corporations now running LANL for profit have little accountability.

"The biggest challenge facing the Study Group today," Mello says, "is whether we can educate key policy makers fast enough to prevent irreversible damage. For example, if we start pouring concrete on the new pit factory (at LANL), it’s going to be harder to stop it. This has already happened on one building. Fortunately, construction is not supposed to start until 2009 at the earliest on the main new factory annex."

Mello gives the people who work at LANL the benefit of the doubt. "Nobody really likes nuclear weapons," he says. "LANL people are not wanting to destroy cities full of people," he says. "Nuclear weapons are meant to scare everyone who interacts with the U.S.," one point on which Mello and Roark would agree.

"More simply," Mello asks, "should we try to remain an empire, clinging to failing policies even as the country now heads into steep decline, or could we be a nation that puts its own house in order, investing in ’full-spectrum sustainability’ at home rather than the fantasy of ’full-spectrum dominance’ abroad, and so, lead by example?"

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