Saturday, December 31, 2011

N. Korea in the News

Dec 27, 2011: Appearing on the LANL website ( under the heading "Media Coverage" (normally  containing only LANL-related news) is an entry entitled "N. Korea closer to nuclear-tipped missile: U.S. expert". This is a reprint of an article appearing on the Reuters website (, written by the Reuters national security correspondent Jim Wolf. In turn, Wolf quotes from a "recent" publication by the Congressional Research Service's Larry Niksch who opined that N. Korea may be one to two years away from being able to place a nuclear weapon atop an intermediate range ballistic missile. Ostensibly, LANL is reprinting Wolf's story because it mentions LANL ex-Director Sig Hecker and his trip, ~1 year ago, to N. Korea. But, it seems to me that by carrying this story LANL engages in some unsavory self-promotion. That is, by calling attention to Wolf's interpretations of Niksch's ruminations, LANL places itself in the position of seeming to advocate for more support for its own R&D on nuclear weapons, the management of which, as we know, has become a lucrative for-profit business.

Interestingly, the most recent article on N. Korea by Larry Niksch, listed on the CRS website (, is dated Feb. 24, 2009. Is this the article to which Jim Wolf referred? If so, then Niksch's predictions are hardly "recent". What's more, according to the Federation of American Scientists, Larry Niksch has not worked for CRS since Feb., 2010.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Accidental Fallout from LANL?

Although contrary to today’s festive spirit, let's think for a bit about possible future releases of radioactive material from LANL, as a result of earthquake and/or wildfire. How much radioactive fallout would be experienced by local residents? Could this radioactive fallout constitute any sort of health hazard?  Could a retired physicist like myself, with no particular knowledge of environmental science, have anything sensible to say about such questions? Well, let’s see!    

 A release of Pu-239 from PF-4, or the still to be built CMRR-NF, could occur sometime in the future. In the event of a major earthquake (>7 on the Richter scale) followed by fire, there might be a release from either of these facilities of Pu-239 in dust form, or in the form of fumes from burning Pu-metal. Since many tons of Pu-239 is expected to be stored at PF-4, and/or at the CMRR-NF, one might imagine that a release of >1 ton Of Pu-239 could be possible. [1 ton, or 1000 kg of Pu-239 corresponds to 73,000 PE Ci.]

 Such a possibility was said last week, at a meeting in Santa Fe, NM, by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board Chairman, Dr. Peter Winokur, to be “not far-fetched.” (The DNFSB is a group of scientists and engineers tasked by the US Congress to provide advice on safety practices, at US nuclear weapons facilities, to the US President and to the DOE Secretary.)

 A wildfire burning over Area-G might have serious consequences. Currently, there are 10,000 barrels of TRU-waste stored above ground at Area-G, and these are only poorly protected against the effects of  wildfire. Each barrel contains ~10 PE Ci of actinide residue, mainly Pu. If these barrels were to burst during a wildfire, ~100,000 PE Ci could go up into the air. (At the DNFSB meeting in Santa Fe last week, DOE/NNSA manager Anderson testified that the las Conchas wildfire  "was very scary" and that "if the wind hadn't shifted when it did, LANL might have been consumed by fire.")

 Thus, there are at least two different scenarios that might result in the release of ~100,000 PE Ci into the air over LANL.

 If a bad accident at LANL, accompanied by a hot fire, were to release 100,000 Ci of Pu-239 into the atmosphere, and if the ensuing fallout exhibited circular symmetry with an activity decreasing exponentially with distance r from the source, over a characteristic distance R (that is, if r=R, then the concentration at r would be  1/e = 0.37 of its value at the source, according to the law C(r) = C(0) * exp( -r/R), where C(r) is the activity per unit area, at r, in units of Ci per square meter, or Ci/m**2) then the activity of Pu-239 deposited on the ground at a distance r, and for R = 1.0 mile, would be:

                        Table 1

         r (miles)              C(r)  (Ci/m**2)
         --------            --------------------

          0.01                     30.7
          0.10                     0.307
          1.00                     0.00113                     

          5.00                     8.28 * 10**(-7)

          10.0                     1.39 * 10**(-9)

          20.0                     1.59 * 10**(-14)

If, instead, R = 5.0 mile, then:

                       Table 2

         r (miles)             C(r) (Ci/m**2)
         --------            --------------------

          0.01                     30.7
          0.10                     0.307
          1.00                     0.00307                     

          5.00                     4.52 * 10**(-5)

          10.0                     4.16 * 10**(-6)

          20.0                     1.41 * 10**(-7)

 For a small fire, one would expect fallout to be concentrated over and around the facility which was burning, with the density of fallout and, therefore, of activity, both areal and volumetric, decreasing with distance from the facility; i.e., as described by the numbers in Table 1.  For a hotter and more extensive fire, Table 2 might instead pertain. But, if the fire were both very hot and very extensive, such that the hot gases being generated rose up into the stratosphere, then the fallout would be distributed over larger distances than those indicated in the Tables, and the fallout pattern would  elongate along the direction of the prevailing winds. In such a case, both Tables would need to be modified. (The Fukushima-Daiichi disaster exhibited a pattern of fallout that extended in the northwest direction over a range ~10 times that of its width. Since the damaged nuclear reactors were located on the eastern seacoast, strong prevailing sea breezes blew the fallout away from the coast and towards the northwest. In May, 2000, smoke from the Cerro Grande wildfire extended from its source in the Jemez Mts., through Los Alamos, and towards the northeast, over the town of Española, and over the pueblos of  Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh, again blown by the prevailing winds. The length of the smoke plume was ~3 times its width, and it extended all the way into Oklahoma.)

 But, to continue:

 Let's estimate the amount of Pu-239 that would be deposited in the lungs of a local resident over the ~1 year's time that it would take for all of the fallout to come to earth. Let's assume that the amount of Pu-239 suspended in the air, during that 1 year's time, remains at a constant value and is distributed evenly in a vertical air column up to an altitude of 1000 m. (One could object to this number since, as we will see, it plays a critical role in our calculation; however, as a rough value I think that it may not be so bad.) The volumetric activity of Pu-239, as a function of r, would then be given by the numerical values in the above Tables, reduced by a factor of 1000 (and in units of Ci/m**3). Then, since the volume of air exchanged per breath by the human lungs is ~0.5 liter, or 0.0005 m**3, and the number of breaths taken per year is ~2 x 10**6, the volume of air exchanged in 1 year would be ~1,000 m**3. If we assume that all of the inhaled Pu-239 is deposited in the lungs, and remains in the lungs, then the activity of the Pu-239 concentrated in the lungs in 1 year, as a function of r, is given by the numerical results appearing in the above Tables (but, now in units of Ci).

 A LANL compendium of radiation effects published in June, 2000 (Los Alamos Radiation Monitoring Notebook, by J. T. Voss) noted that Pu-239 deposited in the lungs of dogs was fatal, within a year, if its activity exceeded ~5 x 10**(-7) Ci/gm (Ci per gm-weight of lung tissue.) Therefore, for adult humans with an average lung mass of 900 gm, inhaled Pu-239 might be lethal for activities > 4 x 10**(-4) Ci (corresponding to a dose > 4000 Rem.) Since single doses < 10 Rem are usually considered to be marginally safe, one could say that for adult humans inhaled Pu-239 would be marginally safe if the activity of all the inhaled material was < 10**(-6) Ci.

 Returning to the Tables, we see that, for R = 1 mile (Table 1), and at a distance of 5 miles from a Pu-239 release of 100,000 Ci into the atmosphere, the amount of Pu-239 concentrated in the lungs of a local resident, within 1 year of the release, does not exceed a marginally safe value. However, at a distance of just 1 mile from the release point the amount accumulated would be lethal. Therefore, for this case, a zone of exclusion extending out to at ~5 miles from the release point would be necessary.

 Similarly, for R = 5 mile (Table 2), and at a distance of 10 miles from a Pu-239 release of 100,000 Ci into the atmosphere, the amount of Pu-239 concentrated in the lungs of each local resident, within 1 year of the release, is marginally safe; but, at a distance of 5 miles the amount accumulated would be unsafe and possibly lethal. In this case, the zone of exclusion would have to extend to ~10 miles.

 Shocking stuff? Well, maybe.

 Clearly, many assumptions have been made in these rough "calculations", some more critical than others. The form of the distribution assumed is very important, as is the value of R chosen, if the distribution were to be exponential. The height of the air column through which the fallout occurs is, obviously, very important; i.e., the actual volumetric density of Pu-239 at ground level is critical. Moreover, there is uncertainty in the amount of Pu-239 which would be inhaled by persons in the vicinity of the release point and the maximum dose of inhaled Pu-239 which can be tolerated by humans is also not very well known.

  But, in spite of these uncertainties, I claim that my rough "calculations" suggest the need for a careful study of these important questions by independent qualified experts. But, perhaps such studies have already been performed? Then I wonder what their results have shown and why they aren’t already available as public information?  Maybe they’re just too shocking?

Friday, November 18, 2011

DNFSB Criticizes LANL's Risky Practices

17 Nov 2011/ Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB, or the Board) public meeting held at the Santa Fe, NM Convention Center / Thursday, 17 Nov 2011/ 1PM - 5:30PM; 7PM - 9PM.

The Board was created in 1989 to advise the President and the DOE Secretary on safety issues at the DOE's nuclear weapons laboratories. The Board has ~100 full-time staff and an annual budget of ~$22 million.

Today, safety practices at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) will be addressed by the Board. Of particular interest to the Board are:

 1) effects of the latest information about seismic activity beneath the Pajarito Plateau as it concerns the ongoing planning for the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL;

 2) effects of lessons learned from the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas wildfires on planning for the CMRR-NF construction project at LANL, as well as on the Area G cleanup, and upgrades to the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility;

 3) effects of lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi natural disaster on planning for the CMRR-NF construction project, and on other projects at LANL.

The Board Chair, Peter Winokur, and four other Board members listen to short formal presentations from two panels of LANL/NNSA managers (6 per panel), and ask follow-up questions. Approximately 50 members of the general public are also in attendance. However, no questions from the general public are allowed and several uniformed security personnel are present to keep order. Nevertheless, the general public has been invited to present comments, 5 minutes per person, during a 45 min period at the end of the meeting. The Board Chair also announces that the meeting record will be held open until 19 Dec, 2011 and that anyone may add remarks to the record. Proceedings of the meeting are being recorded by means of redundent audio and video, a stenographic record is being created, and several photographers are at work in the meeting hall.

Panel member Donald Cook (DOE/NNSA manager) remarks that the latest seismic studies show that earthquakes which might occur beneath the Pajarito Plateau could be so large as to exceed the design standards for LANL's PF4 (an existing plutonium facility) and that the PF4 building structure might experience multiple failures during such an earthquake. However, he asserts that even assuming a maximum release of plutonium (powder, or fumes from burning metal) into the atmosphere, the resulting biohazard would be 10,000 times less serious than current natural occurring biohazards. He also claims that planned upgrades to the facility will reduce future possible releases of plutonium to below levels specified as safe by the DOE.

Cook also claims that lessons learned from Cerro Grande wildfire helped to mitigate effects at LANL of the Las Conchas wildfire. Similarly, he expects that lessons learned from the Las Conchas wildfire will mitigate the effects of future disastrous wildfires at LANL; ditto [somehow] for the Fukushima Daiichi earthquake and flood.

LANL Dir. Charles McMillan talks about "the broad scope of what we have done at the Lab." He says that "safety is our highest priority at the Lab", and that "our goal is to encourage reporting safety issues before they become serious." He asserts that "one of the reasons that we are here today is because of the Lab's self-reporting of possible problems at PF4." He says that, however, "PF4 is so well-designed that, in the event of an earthquake he would feel safer in PF4 than in his own home."

Board Chair Winokur remarks that, in the event of earthquake inspired structural failures and fires at PF4, “the levels of radiation in and around the destroyed facility might rise to 100,000s of Rem.  It is doubtful that anyone could be safe under those circumstances.”

DNFSB LANL site-representative Brett Broderick points out that PF4 was designed and constructed in the 1970s using the best seismic info then available. However, in 2007 new seismic data showed that ground motions during a strong earthquake could be (1 1/2)x greater in the horizontal direction and 2x greater in the vertical direction, than previously thought. Projected radiation releases during such extreme events were shown to be 100x greater than had been thought possible earlier. He said that, nevertheless, approximately 1/2 of the revealed vulnerabilities at PF4 had already been corrected. Remaining vulnerabilities were primarily in the ventilation systems and in the fire suppression systems.

At this point, Board Chair Winokur notes that the US Atomic Energy Act required the DOE to protect the public against hazardous conditions at DOE nuclear weapons facilities. In this regard, he believed that DOE was designing its facilities so that worst case accidents would not result in radiation doses to members of the general public of greater than 25 Rem. However, recently, he has become aware that the DOE has actually been designing its faciities such that doses to individuals could be as high as 2500 Rem.

DOE/NNSA manager Cook immediately objects, saying that the "risk" to the general public is being appropriately computed by DOE as the product of the probability of an accident with the "consequence" of that accident.

Board member John Mansfield objects strenuously, saying that he does not believe that the DOE knows how to correctly calculate risk. [Evidently, a controversy has been brewing about this interesting topic between the Board and the DOE.]

Board Chair Winokur continues: "The risk to the public of an accident occurring once in 2000 yr, with radiation released corresponding to a dose of 2000 Rem is very different than the risk to the public of an accident which occurs once a year and leads to a dose of 1 Rem each time!"

[Now, I think it worthwhile to point out a few facts about radiation dose; i.e., according to experts who have studied the effects of radiation dose on the human body:

Normally, exposure to radiation from environmental sources results in an accumulated annual dose of less than 1 Rem, for each individual; such a low dose is always inconsequential. Also, doses accumulated gradually (over the course of a year, say) are always less problematic than doses accumulated all at once. Although sudden doses of less than 50 Rem usually do not lead to observable physical effects, sudden doses of ~ 100 Rem or more are often physically damaging, and doses of 1000 Rem or greater are usually fatal. The DOE sets 5 Rem as the maximum allowed annual dose for a worker in the nuclear weapons industry.]

[Although Winokur did not say so explicitly, it seems clear that although a release of 2000 Rem might be a rare event, any person would experience it as a deadly event, if it happened to occur in his life-time, or at the end of his life-time; but otherwise not! Which is to say that it is essential not to be confused by the rarity of an event when estimating the risk of that event to an individual.]

Panel member Kevin Smith (DOE/NNSA manager) remarks that the Las Conchas wildfire was very different than the Cerro Grande wildfire in that the more recent wildfire moved much more rapidly (explosively, in fact) and consumed much more of the forest (~10X more.)

Panel member Anderson (DOE/NNSA manager) said that the Las Conchas wildfire "was very scary" and that "if the wind hadn't shifted when it did, LANL might have been consumed by fire."

Board Chair Winokur asked Anderson if, during the Las Conchas wildfire, he had been worried about LANL's Area G; i.e., since Area G stores aboveground and essentially unprotected against the ravages of wildfire many [~10,000] large metal drums, each drum filled with TRU waste [~10 PE Ci per drum]. Anderson said that he had not been particularly worried about Area G.

Board member Joseph Bader asked about accidents so severe that they exceeded the "design basis" threat level. DOE/NNSA's Dr. Stanford answered that "such extreme events will be practiced during upcoming exercises."

Board Chair Winokur remarked that, if one tried to "imagine accidents at LANL beyond the design basis, a large earthquake accompanied by a wildfire would qualify, and did not seem to him to be far-fetched."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Scare and Scare Again

In an editorial, yesterday the New York Times spoke out sharply against any further care and feeding of the US nuclear weapons program; viz., "The Bloated Nuclear Weapons Budget." The Times opined that the upgrades to this program planned by the Obama Administration, to the tune of $600 billion to be spent over the next ten years, are unnecessary and a sharp reduction in the numbers of deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons in the US arsenal is now entirely in order.

Moreover, a cancellation of DOE/NNSA plans to build a new plutonium pit manufacturing facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (for ~$5 billion), and a new uranium parts fabrication facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (another ~$5 billion) should also ensue.

The Times argued that, since the Russian nuclear threat to America has vanished, or become "unthinkable", it is illogical for the US to continue to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons of a size perhaps appropriate during the cold war, but no longer.

But, in the same edition of the Times, a long news article entitled "Are We Ready for Bioterrorism?" appeared, purporting to describe the sorry state of the US bioweapons defense program. The Times reported that the major threats faced by the US today arise from weaponized forms of the smallpox and anthrax bacilli; but, no good vaccine has been developed to combat these two pathogens. Thus, the US may be standing naked before its enemies, who might be armed with scary bioweapons.

What the Times reporter failed to point out was that antrax has been successfully weaponized by the US and by the Russians, during the cold war, but by no one else. What's more, today the only live smallpox bacilli are residing in vaults at bioweapons laboratories in the US and in Russia. So then is the reporter just trying to scare us a bit, in keeping with the present season? Or is he really suggesting that we try to think more about the "unthinkable"?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Life Support for US Nuclear Weapons Program?

The following information concerning the ongoing US nuclear weapons program has been taken from the DOE/NNSA's Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSM) Summary for FY2011, issued May 2010.

The first page of this document includes a fragment from the April, 2009 "President's Vision" of a nuclear weapons free future: " ... we will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same."

Then, in the Preface, Section 1 "National Policy and Strategy", Subsection 1B "International Treaty Obligations", reference is made to Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which the USA is a signatory. This Treaty obliges the USA to "pursue nuclear disarmament." DOE/NNSA asserts that the USA "will make progress toward nuclear disarmament over the next decade", and that "NNSA will support these efforts by managing a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal without developing new weapons, conducting underground nuclear testing, or providing any new military capabilities to existing weapons systems."

The "effective nuclear arsenal", referred to above, is described in Sect 3.A. "Stockpile Composition" (p21):

B61-3/4 Non-strategic bomb for F-15, F-16, and other certified NATO aircraft; developed by LANL/SNL
B61-7   Strategic bomb for B-52 and B-2; developed by LANL/SNL
B61-11  Strategic bomb for B-2; developed by LANL/SNL
B83-1   Strategic bomb for B-52 and B-2; developed by LLNL/SNL
W78     ICBM warhead for MM III ICBM; developed by LANL/SNL
W87     ICBM warhead for MM III ICBM; developed by LLNL/SNL
W76-0/1 SLBM warhead for D5 Trident Sub; developed by LLANL/SNL
W88     SLBM warhead for D5 Trident Sub; developed by LANL/SNL
W80-0   TLAM/N for Attack Sub; developed by LLNL/SNL
W80-1   ALCM/ACM for B-52; developed by LLNL/SNL

With regard to costs, beginning on p23 of the Summary are three charts describing the projected costs (out to 2025) of the Life Extension Programs (LEP) for the W76 (a maximum of $300 million per year), the B61 (a maximum of $500 million per year), and the W78 (a maximum of $400 million per year.).

A more recent follow-on to this document is the Stockpile Stewardship and Management (SSM) Plan for FY2012, issued April 15, 2011:

In this latest SSM Plan, the "President's Vision" of a nuclear weapons free future, an excerpt from which appeared on the first page of last year's SSM Plan, is ignored. And mention of the USA's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which appeared in the Preface of last year's SSM Plan, is also ignored.

Nevertheless, of continuing interest to a concerned citizenry is a detailed description of the Life Extension Program, and its costs, as it will be applied to specific nuclear weapons systems. This begins on p75 under the heading "Weapon System Life Extensions and Services", wherein the W76, B61, W78, and W88 are each separately considered. Under the subheading "Experiments", separate strategies facilitating SSM are also addressed. These strategies involve use of DARHT (LANL), NIF (LLNL), the Contained Firing Facility, and the underground subcritical Test Facility (NNSS).

The ongoing CMRR-NF and the UPF construction projects are discussed beginning on p77. In Table 5, "Near Term Projects" (p79) the projected dollar costs of these projects is described; e.g., CMRR-NF ($3.7B - $5.9B), UPF ($4.2B - $6.5B), PF4 extension ($75M - $100M); HE pressing facility ($147M); TRU waste facility ($71M - $124M.)

On p81, in Table 6, appear estimates of total nuclear weapons expenditures, per year and by category, for the next ten years; viz., for 2012 the expected total cost is $7.6B; for 2021 the projected total cost will be $9.5B.

On p86, in Fig. 16, are the projected costs of performing a complete LEP on the W80 ALCM warhead. According to the existing plan, these costs will peak at $400M per year, beginning in 2026, and will maintain this level of spending through 2031.

On p88, in Fig. 20, appear estimates of the total cost (for the period 2003-2031) of each of the stockpiled nuclear weapons systems; viz., B61/$6.5B; W76/$5.5B, W78/$6.0B; W80/$4.5B; B83/$1.5B; W87/$2.5B; W88/$7.0B.

The nuclear weapons related Science Campaign accomplishments for 2010-2011 are described on p102-103, the Engineering campaign accomplishments are described on p106-107, and the ICF campaign accomplishments appear on p107-108.

In June of 2011, the General Accounting Office released an analysis of the DOE's SSM plans, insofar as these plans reflect on the "Modernization and Refurbishment of the Nuclear Security Enterprise". GAO concluded that, although "NNSA estimated that it will require over $180B to operate and modernize the nuclear security enterprise over the next two decades (2012-2031)", projected costs of NNSA's activities have been understated. In particular, GAO points out that the costs of NNSA's modernization program does not cover its congressionally mandated Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program and its Naval reactor program.

GAO goes on to say that: "NNSA considers the $88B pledged by the Administration over the next decade as its operations and modernization baseline." Furthermore, GAO says that: "During FY2022-2031, NNSA estimates it will need another $92B to operate and modernize the nuclear security enterprise."

GAO mentions that there are now 12 ongoing NNSA line-item construction projects, including:

Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facilty (CMRR-NF) (LANL)
Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12)
High Explosive Pressing facility (HEPF) at Pantex Plant (Pantex)
Test Capabilities Revitalization Phase 2 (SNL)
TA-55 Reinvestment Project Phase 2 (LANL)
Transuranic (TRU) Waste Facilities (LANL)

There are 7 line-item construction projects slated to start by 2016; among these are:

Radioactive Liquid waste Treatment Facility (LANL)
High Explosives ST&E Facility (Pantex)
High Explosives Packaging and Staging Facility (Pantex)

And, there are 35 new line-item construction projects planned to begin in the second decade of the modernization project. Among these are:

Weapons Manufacturing Support Facility (LANL)
Life Extension Program and Warhead Assessment facility (LLNL)
Data Center Consolidation Project (NNSS)
Weapons Engineering Facility (SNL)
Consolidated Manufacturing Complex (Y-12)

GAO has also documented NNSA's poor record of project and contract management; viz., GAO notes that, although the CMRR-NF and UPF projects comprise 85% of NNSA's planned construction funding for the next ten years, firm cost and scheduling baselines still do not exist.


Since the inception of the American nuclear weapons program in 1943, its annual dollar costs have been large. And as discussed above, according to the latest SSM plans, the projected future DOE/NNSA costs of this program are also large. Moreover, DOE/NNSA's spending is only one component of the total cost of the US nuclear weapons program.

The DOD adds another important measure of spending to the nuclear weapons program. Just to consider the US fleet of nuclear powered missile carrying submarines: according to the US Navy website, there are presently 18 Ohio class,nuclear powered, missile carrying submarines in service, the total production cost of which has been ~$100B; 14 of these submarines carry ballistic missiles and 4 (the 4 oldest) carry guided missiles. The USS Ohio (the oldest boat) will reach its design lifetime of 42 years in 2023, and the USS Louisiana (the youngest) is due to retire in 2039. Before, or soon after reaching their design lifetime, all of these boats will have to be replaced, at an average cost of >$10B per boat, or a total cost of ~$200B. Similarly, the Air Force's fleet of B-52s will also soon have to be replaced, and the cost of this replacement will be equally large.

It is often said that the US nuclear weapons program has been a deterrent to war, and although the cost of this deterrent has been large, it could not have been as large as the cost of another major war.

Perhaps; however, the dollar cost to the US of ten years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan has already been >$1000B, and these two very expensive unconventional wars were not deterred by the US nuclear weapons program. Indeed, since the war in Afghanistan was a US response to the attack of 9/11, then both this attack and the subsequent war were not deterred. Similarly, and since the war in Iraq has been entirely a war of the US's choosing, existence of the US nuclear weapons program did not stop the US from attacking Iraq. 

And, could anyone imagine that the US nuclear weapons program would stop a nuclear attack on the US by nonstate actors who might obtain access to nuclear weapons?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Las Conchas Wildfire & LANL Nuclear Waste

The New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF) sponsored another in its Forum for Environmental Education and Dialogue (FEED) series of meetings on Thursday, Aug 18, 2011, at the Pojoaque Elementary   School Business Office, at 5:30 PM. The topic to be discussed was the aftermath of the recent Las Conchas wildfire, which burned ~250 square miles of forestland in the Jemez Mts. There were approximately 20 members of the general public in attendance at this meeting.

A panel of experts had been commissioned by NMCF to present an overview of the fire's aftermath. The panel consisted of: Manny L'Esperance, LANL manager in charge of fire preparedness and an expert in wildfire control; Mike McNaughton, LANL environmental scientist; Mike McInroy, LANL expert on stormwater runoff and its effects; Bill Bartels, an environmental specialist from NMED; Nita Bates, another environmental specialist from NMED. 

Manny L'Esperance talked about the actual fighting of the Las Conchas fire; e.g., the extensive backburns that had been set in order to try to keep the wildfire from intruding onto LANL property (a success, he said); and the difficulty that had been experienced by firefighters in controlling a wildfire that, at the outset, had been moving at a very rapid pace through the forest (only a partial success.) It was perhaps partly due to the efforts of Mr. L'Esperance and partly due to dumb luck that the wildfire did not burn over TA-54, where 100's, if not 1000's, of 55 gallon drums containing TRU waste are being stored under fabric tents. ( As Joni Arends of CCNS has repeatedly pointed out.)

Mike McNaughton talked about several radioactive substances carried by the ash and smoke generated by the wildfire. He said that the radioactive contaminants of special concern to the public were plutonium-239 (originated from the planet Pluto, he thought), contained in the ash, and polonium-210 (of Polish origin, he had heard), contained in the smoke. He said that these two radionuclides could have been equally perilous to human health, if they had appeared in sufficiently large concentrations. Further, he said that although he believed that the ash, being poorly mobile, could not have constituted a danger to public health, he thought that the smoke might have been a matter for legitimate public concern. Nevertheless, he asserted that any radioactive materials that might have been found in the ash or the smoke were of natural origin, or associated with global fallout, and could not fairly be associated with present or past LANL operations. Even so, I thought he might admit that the building and testing of nuclear weapons, both past LANL operations and the sole purpose for which LANL was created in 1943, have greatly contributed to the last ~50 years of global fallout.

Bill Bartels talked about a small number of air quality monitoring stations that NMED had erected around the burning area, in order to spot-check the extensive air-quality monitoring data that LANL instruments were recording. Bartels said that no discrepancies between NMED and LANL data were discovered in the course of this exercise.

Nita Bates talked about the recent collection of air-quality data all around the state of New Mexico, not just to assess the effects of the Las Conchas wildfire, but also to enquire into the effects of the massive Wallow wildfire, which had burned along the Arizona - New Mexico border. She said that these effects were determined to be minimal; e.g., there was no elevation in ozone levels detected due to the two wildfires. She also asserted that Santa Fe had not experienced any appreciable degradation in its air-quality due to the Las Conchas wildfire.

Dave McInroy said that the occurrence of contamination in stormwater runoff was just beginning to be measured by LANL, and that the first data had just been assembled for stormwaters collected at a location upgradient of LANL operations. He anticipated that contamination in runoff would ultimately be found to be less than what had occurred 10 years earlier, following the Cerro Grande fire; i.e., because of interim improvements in drainage and the slowing down of sediment transport rates.

I brought along a copy of this first tranche of stormwater runoff contamination data to the FEED meeting. (The data had already been placed in the online RACER data-base.) I pointed out at the meeting that this data showed that the concentration of strontium-90 and plutonium-239,240 was occurring at ~50 times the drinking water standard, while americium-241, cesium-137, and uranium-238,234 had been measured  at ~10 times the standard. Mike McNaughton then asserted that the drinking water standard was too stringent a comparison to invoke when attempting to assess the seriousness of the levels of these contaminants in stormwater runoff. He also insisted that these data were indicative of conditions occurring in the natural environment and not connected to LANL operations.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Open Detonation of Explosives Waste at LANL

This week, on 16 Aug. between 5:30 - 7:30 PM, at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, LANL held a public meeting to describe their request of NMED for a Permit to detonate explosives waste at TA-36 and TA-39, in the open air.

Similar to last week's meeting regarding a new TRU waste treatment facility, there were ~35 people in attendance at Fuller Lodge; of these, ~25 were from LANL, 1 was from NMED, and ~10 were from the general public. Among the members of the general public were Joanie Arends (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety), Scott and Susan Kovacs (Nuclear Watch of New Mexico), and myself. The meeting was facilitated by Bruce MacAllister, and there were two LANL presenters: Dave Funk (LANL explosives div. head), and Luciana Vigil-Holterman (ENV-RCRA specialist).

This newest request seeks a Permit from NMED to detonate up to 15,000 lbs of explosives waste in the open air, per year, at each of the two adjacent sites (TA-36 and TA-39). According to D. Funk, this is actually >10 times the weight of explosives waste currently being detonated in the open. He says that LANL is requesting a Permit to detonate so much more than is now necessary, "because future national security interests might require LANL to detonate a whole lot more explosives waste."

According to Mr. Funk, explosives waste is now being generated by LANL primarily from its work on nuclear weapons, both the R&D of nuclear weapons and the recertifying of stockpiled nuclear weapons; other explosives waste is the product of LANL's advanced explosives R&D, as well as its R&D being conducted on improvised explosives. Both Mr. Funk and Ms. Vigil-Holterman adamantly maintain that there is no off-site contamination now being produced by the open detonation of explosives waste at LANL.

Mr. Funk further opined that detonating explosives waste in specially constructive enclosures was much too expensive; i.e., as compared to detonations in the open air. Ms. Vigil-Holterman also pointed out that LANL has been detonating explosives waste in the open air continuously, since the 1950's, but without ever having had a formal Permit.

From the audience, LANL manager D. Hjeresen read a letter written to NMED by Rio Arriba County Commission Chair Felipe Martinez, saying that the RAC Commission was in favor of LANL recieving  a permit for open detonation of explosives waste, since "We believe that detonations in the Laboratory's remote and secure areas are a better alternative to transporting these unstable, explosive wastes on the public roads through our communities. We further believe that a denial of open detonation capability would harm our
country's nation security without an appreciable benefit to the environment." During a later telephone conversation (on 8/22/11), Chairman Martinez told me that a continuation of the economic benefits being brought to the citizens of northern New Mexico, by DOE/LANL, were a matter of special concern to him. 

In the past, it's been difficult for NMED to resist DOE/LANL's demands for additional permissions for hazardous activities not already covered under the Hazardous Waste Facility Permit (RCRA Permit). On 23 December, 2010 NMED outgoing Sec. Curry acceded to a LANL demand for an Open Burn Permit (of explosives residues) for TA-16. The OB Permit had only just been denied by NMED on 30 Nov, 2010, after weeks of public hearings presided over by Judge Joseph Alarid, who then issued his recommendation (evidently negative) to NMED. But, subsequently, NMED was bombarded by letters from local public officials attesting to the many benefits that open burning of explosives residues would have for the national interest; e.g., the mayor of Española who said that an OB Permit was "essential in order to protect our military and our nation's welfare."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

LANL TRU Waste Permit Modification Request

The Los Alamos National Laboratory TRansUranic (TRU) Waste Permit Modification Request Public Meeting was held on 10 Aug., 2011, between 5:30 - 7:30 PM,  at Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos, NM. The intent of this meeting is to discuss a Permit Modification Request (PMR) being made to the New Mexico Environment Dept/ 's Hazardous Waste Bureau, which issued the original Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Hazardous Waste Facility Permit last year.

There were ~35 people in attendance at the PMR meeting; of these, ~25 were from LANL, 1 was from NMED, and ~10 were from the general public. Among the members of the general public were Joanie Arends (Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety), Scott and Susan Kovacs (Nuclear Watch of New Mexico), and myself. The meeting was facilitated by Bruce MacAllister, and there were 3 LANL presenters: Matt Nuckols (civil engineer), Greg Juerling (project manager), and Gian Bacigalupa (RCRA permitting process expert).

The PMR will be for one new LANL hazardous waste facility, in which up to 105,875 gallons of TRU  waste will be characterized and stored, while awaiting shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, NM. The new facility will be located at TA-63. The present RCRA Permit allows for the characterization and storage of up to 4.5 million gallons of TRU waste, now being stored at TA-54.

As planned, the new facility at TA-63 will be adjacent to the plutonium facility at TA-55; this is the source of the majority of the TRU waste being generated now, and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future. Currently, the 2nd largest source of TRU waste is the old CMR building. If the CMRR-NF is eventually built, replacing CMR, it will probably be sited next to TA-55 and is expected to generate as much TRU waste as CMR. The 3rd largest amount of TRU waste now comes from the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility, which is also expected to continue to operate into the foreseeable future.

Each of the TRU waste generator sites (TA-55, CMR, and RLWTF) will package its own waste into numbered 55 gallon steel drums, the contents of each drum will be recorded and the drums will be sealed. The sealed drums will be transferred to TA-63 where their contents will be "characterized", and the drums stored while awaiting shipment to WIPP.

Characterization of the contents of each drum will consist of: radiography of the sealed drum, in order to ensure the absence of certain prohibited items (no liquids are being accepted at WIPP); measurement of the intensity of radiation (primarily neutrons and gammas) emanating from the sealed drum, in order to ensure that the dose rate, at the container wall, is less than 200 mrem/hr (which is the maximum allowed dose rate for so-called contact-handled TRU waste); and anaysis of the gases emanating from the HEPA filter terminating the vent attached to each sealed container, in order to ensure the absence of certain radioactive, poisonousness and/or corrosive gases.

The new facility will store TRU waste containers in 6 buildings, designed with fire suppresant systems, located at TA-63. This will be an improvement over the current situation at TA-54, where containers are stored on concrete pads covered by fabric domes. These domes are vulnerable to fire. It was only due to aggressive fire-fighting and to much good luck that these domes didn't burn during the recent Las Conchas wildfire (which.burned more than 244 square miles over 36 days in the mountains surrounding Los Alamos.) Ten years ago, the Cerro Grande wildfire also very seriously threatened LANL buildings.

During the PMR Meeting, it was stated by LANL staff that if any of the proposed TA-63 buildings were to burn in an uncontrolled manner, due to accident or wildfire, then TRU waste containers being held in storage could rupture, due to rapid expansion of the trapped gases inside the containers. A worst case scenario of this sort had been modeled, and it was thought that no more than ~5 rem would be absorbed by workers during such a catastrophic event. The annual dose allowed by the DOE for an employee working around radioactive materials is ~1 rem/year. Even so, a person or persons who absorbed a dose of ~1 rem within a period of minutes or hours would probably not experience any symptoms of radiation sickness. But, whether a maximum dose of 5 rem  is realistic is another question. After all, the new facility will be permitted for 105,875 gallons (~425 m**3) of TRU waste which, if one accepts the DOE's estimate of the average activity of contact handled TRU waste as being 47 Ci/m**3, implies a total activity of ~19,900 Ci (mostly isotopes of Pu.) If this material should all be released into the facility's buildings, then this would be more than enough to compromise the health of anyone unfortunate enough to be present, even briefly, in those areas.

As was pointed out by Joanie Arends, DOE plans to close the WIPP site in ~2030. After that, and absent any new plans for waste disposition, TRU waste generated at LANL will stay at LANL.

DOE anticipates that by ~2030 WIPP will contain a total of ~9 million Curies (Ci) of TRU waste. This waste must "remain isolated from the biosphere" for a time much greater than 24 thousand years; i.e., the half-life of Pu239, the radionuclide making up ~10% of TRU waste, and the one with the longest half-life. By contrast, most of the TRU waste has a half-life of less than 100 years.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Future of Nuclear Power Plants Uncertain

        As reported today by BBC World News:

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has repeated a pledge to reduce reliance on nuclear power, as people mark the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
Thousands gathered at the city's peace memorial to observe one minute's silence in memory of the 140,000 killed by the US atomic attack in 1945.
Mr Kan used the occasion to address the crisis caused by a tsunami wrecking the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March.
He promised to challenge "conventional beliefs" that nuclear energy was safe.
The Fukushima plant continues to leak radioactive material, nearly five months after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami which caused the damage.
It was causing serious concerns not just in Japan but across the world, Mr Kan said.
"We will deeply reflect over the conventional belief that nuclear energy is safe, thoroughly look into the cause of the accident and - to secure safety - implement fundamental measures," he said.
About 30% of Japan's electricity was nuclear generated before the Fukushima crisis, and the country had previously targeted raising that figure to 53% by 2030.
But Mr Kan said: "I will reduce Japan's reliance on nuclear power, aiming at creating a society that will not rely on atomic power generation."
The prime minister spoke after laying a wreath of yellow flowers at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where doves were released as a symbol of peace.
Japan has long vowed never to make or possess nuclear weapons but had embraced nuclear power as it rebuilt after World War II.
However, referring to Fukushima, Hiroshima mayor Kazumi Matsui told those gathered: "The continuing radiation scare has made many people live in fear and undermined people's confidence in nuclear power.
"The Japanese government must quickly review the energy policy... to regain people's understanding and trust," added Mr Matsui, the son of an atomic bomb survivor.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nuclear Power Plants, Sí! Nuclear Weapons, No!

Yes, it seems to me to be altogether reasonable for a person to be against the continuation of American R&D on nuclear weapons, while encouraging the drive toward the eventual world-wide abolition of these absurdly horrific weapons, and simultaneously to be for the continued push to build and operate more nuclear power plants in America.

Last night (Aug. 2, 2011), on C-SPAN, I watched the Senate hearing on nuclear power plant safety, chaired by Sen. Boxer (Environment and Public Works Committee.) Four NRC commissioners were seated as witnesses, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman, Dr. Jaszco.

The following is the text of a note that I sent today to Sen. Boxer:

Senator Boxer, in the context of your review of concerns that were expressed recently by members of the general public regarding the disaster at Fukishima Daiichi, and its possible implications for nuclear power plant safety in the USA, I agree with the pertinence of the observation made last night by your colleague Sen. Alexander that "each year in the USA there are 38,000 auto-related deaths on the highways" (as well as 100,000's of serious injuries).

It is, therefore, astonishing to me that members of the general public, who would no more consider giving up driving their beloved cars (cars which, over a 50 year period of use could, demonstrably, lead to their death with probability ~0.01, and/or to their serious injury with probability ~0.1) than they would consider giving up eating tasty but unhealthy foods (foods which, when consumed over the course of a lifetime, could lead to serious health problems, and even early death, at predictable average rates); they, nevertheless will excitedly agitate over the possible dire consequences of radiation releases from nuclear power plants, power plants which, in their ~50 yearlong history of use, have never been shown to be the cause of a single human death in the USA. 

Senator Boxer, it seems to me that you could be more of a leader than a follower on this issue, and could stop catering to the, in my view, irrational fears expressed by some members of the general public. You may be aware of the fact that, when the incandescent light bulb was first introduced into wide use, ~100 years ago, there were many urgent expressions of fear by members of the general public concerning the possible ill effects of the "unnatural glow" emitted by, what was then, a very unfamiliar light source.

Interestingly, nowadays, libertarian elements in our society complain bitterly about an incipient ban by the federal government on the sale of the now very familiar incandescent light bulb; i.e., to be banned by the feds because it is so inefficient, in terms of energy use, and because there are much better alternatives available in the form of plasma lamps and solid state illuminators. Evidently, while familiarity breeds contempt (or love, in the case of libertarians), unfamiliarity can breed suspicion and even fear.

Whatever! Or, as some say in California, New Mexico,and other places of diverse culture: "Cada loco por su tema."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's Sig Hecker Up To?

Appearing in the latest issue of Physics Today /July 2011 / is an article entitled “Adventures in scientific nuclear diplomacy’’, by past director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sigfried Hecker .

This may be nothing more than a straight-forward exercise in self-promotion. Or it may be a sincere attempt to  encourage scientists and engineers, who might have an interest in public policy, to become more involved in the creation of that policy. Alternately, it may be part of an ongoing effort to cast doubt on the advisability of the United States federal government’s proceeding further along a road toward nuclear disarmament.

Headings in Hecker's Physics Today article include:

“From competition to collaboration”
“Lab-to-lab contact”
“Securing Kazakhstan
“Collaboration with China
South Asia’s nuclear risks”
“The most difficult countries in the world”
“Scientists’ important role”

Under this last heading Hecker asserts that:

Twenty years after I started lab-to-lab contacts, I believe more firmly than ever that scientists can be an important part of international security diplomacy. Scientists look through different lenses than politicians and build different relationships – often deeply personal friendships. They speak a common language and usually respect each other, which makes it easier to build trust. Communications are more less formal, with email instead of diplomatic cables, and scientists can explore a broader spectrum of solutions than government officials can.

Fair enough; however, Hecker also includes a figure from his much earlier article  entitled “A tale of two diagrams”, in Los Alamos Science  26, 244 (2000) (an issue devoted to plutonium metallurgy and chemistry, Hecker’s area of technical expertise.) The point of that article was to show that, prior to 2000, American understanding of plutonium metallurgy and chemistry was incomplete. An implication of this, although not stated explicitly, was that conclusions being drawn about the continued and long-term reliability of the American nuclear weapons stockpile should be regarded with some skepticism.  

As I have remarked before in this blog (blogpost entitled “Nuke Enthusiasts Fight New Start Treaty”, November 21, 2010), Hecker was a signatory to a letter admonishing theObama administration that the latest Nuclear Posture Review unduly constrained the R&D of nuclear weapons at the nuclear weapons laboratories and, therefore, placed the US nuclear deterrent in jeopardy.  I reprise these remarks below:

The New York Times today is running a William J Broad story about the New Start Treaty, and its relation to controversy over upgrading of the US nuclear deterrent, with corresponding costly nuke building programs at the DOE/NNSA's nuke labs, especially LANL and ORNL, but also the Kansas City Plant. In order to entice a few Republican Treaty ratification votes, Pres. Obama is offering more money for nuke program upgrades, but the Republican point man on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl, still says no.

The Los Angeles Times contains a more comprehensive story about Hecker's trip to N Korea, pointing out that he traveled with Jack Pritchard, a former US ambassador to S Korea, and a current publicist for S Korean interests. According to the LAT, both Hecker and Pritchard will shortly give a talk about their trip to the Korean Economic Institute, Pritchard's organization. They had both also just finished briefing the Institute for Science and International Security, a group focused on world-wide nuclear proliferation matters.

Hecker, a past director of LANL and a strong proponent of continuing the American nuclear weapons program, was a signatory to a May 2010 letter by 10 former nuke lab directors criticizing the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The former directors asserted that the NPR restricts the creative freedom of scientists and engineers who work at the nuke labs, thus denying the nation the full benefit of its nuclear weapons designers' expertise, and placing the nation at unnecessary risk of a possible future nuclear attack. 

One wonders about the timing of the release of information about Hecker's latest visit to
N Korea, and the effect that this information might have on the New Start Treaty ratification process.

Perhaps it’s time for Dr. Hecker to give us all a clearer view of his true intentions. If these are benign, then a good next step might be to publicly renounce his support for the May 2010 letter criticizing the Nuclear Posture Review.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

National Park Status for Nuke Labs?

Since 2004, parts of the Department of Energy nuclear weapons R&D centers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have been under consideration by the National Park Service, as candidates for NPS sites commemorating the creation of nuclear weapons. 

Recently, in July, 2011, and after much study by the NPS, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recommended to the US Congress that they proceed with the writing of legislation bestowing National Park Service status on these three sites. Materials relating to this NPS recommendation may be found at

A spokesperson for the NPS points out that there are many precedents for the incorporation of sites commemorating war related events into the NPS. Such sites have been in the form of National Monuments, National Memorials, and National Military Parks.

What is unusual is that the new NPS recommendation is for the creation of a National Park to commemorate the Manhattan Project. But, past national parks have been designated to protect and preserve, for the enjoyment of future generations, areas of surpassing natural beauty, not areas associated with the massacre of 100,000's of noncombatants, in the nuclear heat of past battles.

It seems to be true, however, that some advances in military science and/or practice may always be deemed by some military enthusiasts to be worthy of some public recognition in perpetuity.

And, this may be a problem for President Barack Obama, who strives to limit the rate of spread of nuclear weapons technology, and promotes the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, but also must placate the most militaristic members of the US Senate.

After all, how better to move toward the abolition of nuclear weapons than to try to marginalize ideas of their military usefulness while also attempting to stigmatize the role that they play in the formation of national policy? But it is difficult to imagine stigmatizing the holding and R&D of nuclear weapons, while at the same time celebrating their creation. That is, it is difficult to imagine celebrating the creation of nuclear weapons without also celebrating their continued existence. Difficult but, I suppose, not impossible. So, good luck with that Mr. President!

Finally, as a contribution to the general bemusement, I recapitulate here remarks made during the finale of the US Senate debate on the New Start Treaty (recorded in the US Senate on 12-22-10). These remarks were in the nature of heartfelt objections to the Treaty by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. According to the cherubic Sen. Sessions: 

 1) The Treaty is a step on the road toward President Obama's goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, which is a leftist goal and a dangerous fantasy.

 2) The notion that the Treaty will make Russia more cooperative in its relations with the US is false. Russia has shown itself to be uninterested in cooperation with the US since it blocked United Nations Security Council attempts to condemn North Korea and, in 2008, attacked its neighbor Georgia.

 3) The Obama Administration has unilaterally given away US missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, thus, showing itself to be insufficiently committed to missile defense.

 4) The US Senate should state clearly that the goal of zero nuclear weapons is undesirable and even impossible.

 5) The goal of zero nuclear weapons is a cock-a-mammy and dangerous idea.

 6) The idea of a world without nuclear weapons is ominous and chilling.

 7) In the Nuclear Posture Review of this past spring, Pres. Obama made clear that his goal is a world without nuclear weapons. However, ex-Sec. of Defense Schlesinger has said that he believes that a world without nuclear weapons is a utopian idea.

 8) The maintenance of a large US arsenal of nuclear weapons is the best way to encourage the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. If the US continues to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, this will lead other nations, which don't now have nuclear weapons, to develop their own.

 9) The Obama Administration has made it clear that the New Start Treaty is a step on the road toward its goal of a world without nuclear weapons. But, to me this is not a dream, it's a nightmare!

 10) By reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, the US is relinquishing its leadership role in the world.

More recently, and also from Alabama, the following story has emerged, as reprinted by The Tennessean and The Tuscaloosa News from an Associated Press report, dated July 20, 2011, and datelined Mountain Creek, Alabama:

"The last of the more than 60,000 Confederate veterans who came home to Alabama after the Civil War died generations ago, yet residents are still paying a tax that supported the neediest among them."

"Despite fire-and-brimstone opposition to taxes among many in a state that still has 'Heart of Dixie' on its license plates, officials never stopped collecting a property tax that once funded the Alabama Confederate Soldiers' Home, which closed 72 years ago. The tax now pays for Confederate Memorial Park [Park Director Bill Rambo], which sits on the same 102-acre tract where elderly veterans used to stroll."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

LANL Data Mushrooms into Cloud

Cities of Gold Hotel and Casino, Pojoaque, NM/ June 7, 2011, 5:30 PM-7:30 PM:

The RACER environmental database team, and the New Mexico Community Foundation (NMCF), held a public meeting to describe the results of a recent audit of RACER data, and to introduce the planned use of cloud computing technology as an enhancement to the RACER database.

The audit was designed and conducted by the Risk Assessment Corporation (RAC), the original creator of RACER, under contract to  Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Agency (DOE/NNSA). DOE/NNSA is currently the sole support of RACER and also funds ~10% of ongoing NMCF operations. A RAC employee presented the audit findings to an assembly of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and New Mexico Environment Department  (NMED) personnel, along with a few members of the general public. Altogether, approximately 30 people were in attendance. The purpose of RACER is ostensibly to make LANL and NMED environmental data accessible to the general public.

The audit uncovered numerous discrepancies contained in RACER data, when compared to data supplied by LANL to the auditors. Because of these discrepancies, the RAC presenter judged the current interface through which LANL has been supplying data to RACER to be a "failure".

However, in the next presentation a LANL staff member described reasons for these discrepancies, and the strategy which soon would be employed to correct them.

A second LANL staff member then elaborated on the planned use of cloud computing technology to enhance the RACER database.

During the course of this last presentation, and as a result of the question and answer session which followed, it became clear that the DOE intends to replace its LANL environmental database, now being held redundantly on servers at LANL and by RACER, with data residing only in the Cloud; i.e., on public access servers owned by the Locus Corporation, and provided under a new DOE/NNSA contract. For future users of this data, Locus will also supply display software surpassing in versatility what is now being offered by RACER.

That the DOE may wish to cut costs by contracting out the management of its environmental data seems unexceptional. Indeed, the ability of LANL staff to make use of its environmental data may well be facilitated by a more efficient data management scheme. Whether or not this new arrangement will facilitate or inhibit use of LANL environmental data by the general public is another question.

It appears to me that, at present, there are very few users of this data among the general public; viz., few or almost none, as judged by tallies reported by the RACER site-meter. Will the invocation of a more versatile data display tool encourage more use of LANL environmental data by the general public? Judging by my own experience with RACER, and with display software generally, I'm dubious of such a theory.

Unless, that is, one has in mind the use of environmental data as a new form of entertainment (perhaps a 3D environmental movie hosted by a sexy captain DOE-America?) ... and a distraction for the general public from its worries about the real nuclear weapons R&D going on at LANL, with all of its likely accompanying environmental contamination.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

CMRR-NF SEIS Hearings in New Mexico

Public hearings were recently held by DOE/NNSA, in which comments were solicited from the general public on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of April, 2011, regarding proposed construction of the ~$6 billion facility for plutonium R&D at LANL. These hearings were a part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, mandated by the U. S. Congress, and were held on the evenings of May 23-26, 2011 in Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Española, and Santa Fe, NM.

The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) discussed is being designed to replace a similar, but said to be outmoded building (CMR) constructed in the 1950's. If constructed as planned, the CMRR-NF will enable DOE/NNSA/LANL's continuation of the performance of nuclear weapons R&D at Los Alamos for approximately the next 50 years; in particular, R&D activities related to plutonium chemistry and metallurgy. These activities would have applications to stockpile stewardship, as presently understood; i.e., to the production of new plutonium triggers to replace weapons that have been damaged or destroyed during active surveillance.

However, the CMRR-NF is also a keystone of DOE/NNSA's plans for the continuation of the U. S. nuclear weapons program for the next 50 years. An essential part of these plans is the centralization of all  plutonium related activities at LANL, with the collection and storage of weapons grade plutonium in underground vaults at CMRR-NF. The CMRR-NF could also support the large-scale production of plutonium pits, or triggers, of new and untested designs if DOE/NNSA should ever convince a future U. S. Congress to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.

It is interesting to recall that plutonium pits, or triggers, are really only essential for the detonation of miniaturized thermonuclear weapons which, although small in dimension, can be designed to be weapons of almost limitless explosive power. A single very powerful thermonuclear weapon exploded over a major metropolis could result in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Thus, in our current political environment, in which the role of nuclear weapons in national policy is being down-played, and in which the contemplation of the use of any weapon of mass destruction is being stigmatized, thermonuclear weapons would seem to be of little value.

On the other hand, weapons of more limited power, such as atomic weapons, can be fashioned from uranium alone. The atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was just such a weapon, and its design was so simple that it did not even need to be tested before use. As is well known, however, the design of the plutonium based device dropped on Nagasaki did require testing before use, since its design was fraught with difficult engineering challenges. Thus, if there were to be any future for nuclear weapons, based say on their presumed deterrence value, then uranium weapons might easily suffice. In fact, initial concepts of the RRW were for just such a uranium based atomic weapon. However, in this, advocates for the "more is better" approach seem to have prevailed.

I attended the last 3 of the public meetings held to encourage public comment on construction of the proposed CMRR-NF. The emphasis in comments made by the public was different in each of these 3 meetings.

The Los Alamos meeting was rather small: 7 comments were pro-LANL and pro-construction; 3 comments were anti-LANL. The pro-LANL comments asserted the importance of the proposed construction to the local economy, as well as the importance of LANL to the local economy, generally. A few patriotic themes were also struck by the pro-LANL speakers.

The Española meeting was larger: there were 4 pro-LANL comments, 2 of which were by the same individuals who had spoken at the Los Alamos meeting; and there were 34 anti-LANL comments. The anti-LANL commenters mostly expressed outrage at the environmental contamination which they believed LANL operations were causing and which, they implied, activities at the CMRR-NF would worsen.

The Santa Fe meeting was equally large: there were 2 pro-LANL comments, but by the same 2 individuals who had spoken at the previous meetings; again there were 34 anti-LANL comments, of which only 4 were by people who had spoken in Española. The anti-LANL sentiments were now largely centered on moral concerns; i.e., the immorality of continuing with the U. S. nuclear weapons enterprise.

Thus, it appears that the local community is much more motivated to express opposition to the proposed CMRR-NF construction project than it is willing to express support for the smathering of new jobs that the project will produce; viz., over all, 65 citizens opposed the project while 8 expressed support.

The period for written public comment on construction of the CMRR-NF building extends to June 28, 2011, and citizens may email DOE/NNSA at (Attn: Mr. John Tegtmeier, CMRR–NF SEIS Document Manager) expressing their views on this controversial matter. Copies of such communications should be forwarded to the offices of Rep. Ben Ray Lujan and to Senators Bingaman and Udall.