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 years.

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 [] 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 spring.

*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.

In 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 operations.

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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