Weapons-grade plutonium transported by air to Canadian reactor
Physicist claims that Nuclear Weapons
Labs misled Senate about Test Ban Treaty
State finds radioactive contaminants
in Los Alamos drinking water wells
*A controversial shipment of weapons-grade plutonium fuel from Los
Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to the Chalk River research
reactor in eastern Ontario, Canada, was trucked through six U.S. states
before entering Canada on January 14. The shipment was then flown by
helicopter from the Canadian border to its final destination at Chalk
River. The shipment, which contained 119 grams of plutonium, is intended
for an initial "test-burn" to obtain technical information on the
suitability of Los Alamos plutonium fuel and fuel rod assemblies for
Canadian reactors. If successful, the tests may lead to the transport of
dozens of tons of plutonium fuel from Los Alamos to Canada over the next 25
Opponents of the shipment were taken by surprise by the decision to
transport the plutonium by air once it was in Canada, and argued that air
transport may have constituted a violation of legal requirements for
shipping hazardous substances. The predecisional draft of the U.S.
Department of Energy (or DOE) Environmental Assessment for the transport
states that "federal regulations [Š] explicitly prohibit the transportation
of plutonium by air or the delivery to a carrier for air transport" in the
quantities needed for the project. According to the environmental
assessment, "air transport is considered more hazardous than ground
transport due to the potential for greater distribution of radioactive
materials in the event of a major air accident."
Canadian authorities may have opted for air transport to avoid
opposition from environmental organizations, citizens groups, elected
officials and tribal leaders, some of whom had vowed to block the shipment
if it passed through their territory.
A similar shipment from Russia is expected to arrive in Canada by ship this
*The heads of the nation's three nuclear weapons laboratories,
Sandia National Labs President Paul Robinson, Los Alamos Director
John Browne and Lawrence Livermore Director Bruce Tarter, created
"misconceptions" in their Senate testimony last fall that served
to defeat the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, according to Cornell
University physicist and disarmament expert Kurt Gottfried.
an article in the British science journal Nature, Gottfried contends
that the lab directors played on "widespread ignorance and anxiety"
about their labs' abilities to maintain the nation's nuclear stockpile
in their Senate testimony, which was widely quoted throughout
the treaty debate. According to the article, Paul Robinson's claim
that "we will be at an intolerable disadvantage" should other
nations conduct low yield nuclear tests while the U.S. adheres
to the treaty's zero-limit is "most implausible". Gottfried says
that "only far-fetched scenarios can conjure up risks to the United
States" that outweigh the considerable benefits that advanced
nuclear powers would derive from an international test ban agreement.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would implement a global
ban on all nuclear weapons tests, is critical to non-proliferation
efforts, and to prevent the development of more advanced and destructive
nuclear warheads. Gottfried believes that the Senate needs to
reconsider the treaty to avoid serious international consequences.
*During inspections performed in March and June
of last year, the New Mexico Environmental Department for the
first time found traces of radioactive contaminants in drinking-water
wells near Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Although the pollutants
- tritium and strontium-90 - tested at levels below federal health
standards, the findings are significant because they constitute
the strongest evidence to date that radioactive chemicals from
lab activities are reaching the drinking water for Los Alamos
County residents. While tritium can occur as a natural result
of cosmic radiation interacting with atmospheric moisture, strontium-90
is always man-made, and most likely a by-product of laboratory
Environmentalists reacted to the data by renewing
their appeal that the DOE earmark more funds for efforts to clean
up contaminated lab facilities. Greg Mello, head of the Los Alamos
Study Group, says: "When you've got contaminants in the deep aquifer
above health advisory levels in one place and now you have contaminants
in production wells in two other canyons, the idea that Los Alamos
can just leave tons and tons of radioactive and toxic wastes in
the ground forever needs to be seriously reevaluated."
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