WIPP Trucks ready to roll down Santa Fe streets in two years

DOE discloses existence of 33 hundred pounds of "excess" plutonium waste at Los Alamos

French end testing and pledge to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. START II is ratified

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is preparing to send its plutonium contaminated waste through Santa Fe beginning as early as spring of 1998. According to media reports, Tom Baca, head of LANL's environmental management program, stated, "Our goal is to be at the starting line ready to go when WIPP opens." "Where else would we take it?" except down St. Francis Drive? George Dials, DOE's WIPP manager, said, "LANL will be one of the first sites to ship waste to WIPP."

Originally, initial WIPP shipments were expected to come from out-of-state DOE sites. However, LANL has reportedly made rapid progress in certifying its waste, to the point that up to 7,000 barrels will be ready for shipment as soon as WIPP opens. A lab spokesman stated that 2,400 drums of radioactive waste could be shipped per year, which works out to two shipments per week. He said, "We'd fill the pipeline for several years."

Meanshile, the long-awaited Santa Fe bypass is still only one-third built, and full completion is not expected til sometime in 1999. Utnil the bypass is completed, DOE says it must send its waste shipments through the heart of Santa Fe. According to member of the state WIPP watchdog panel, training for emergency response personnel for the route that these waste shipments will take has not yet begun.

In past nationwide inventories, Los Alamos had 24% of all radioactive wastes bound for WIPP. According to a newly released draft DOE study, WIPP-bound radioactive wastes at LANL are projected to exceed more than 11,000 cubic yards over the next 20 years. The same study also proposed LANL as a candidate for regional treatment and disposal of so-called "low-level" radioactive wastes. The study attempted to evaluate the nationwide management of 1.5 million cubic yards of "low-level" waste over the next 30 years.

DOE discloses existence of 33 hundred pounds of "excess" plutonium and 13 hundred pounds of plutonium waste at LANL

As part of DOE's openness initiative, Secretary Hazel O'Leary revealed that Los Alamos is holding 33 hundred pounds of "excess" plutonium. This is plutonium that the nation has no use for and which must eventually be disposed of. LANL's excess plutonium inventory is the fourth highest among DOE's nuclear weapons facilities. O'Leary also revealed that LANL has 11 hundred pounds of excess weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.

DOE has disclosed that LANL currently has 13 hundred pounds of plutonium in various forms. Almost all of this waste is stored or buried at the lab's solid waste dump at Area G. This waste is destined to be transported to WIPP, if and when the facility ever opens. It is not known whether this inventory of plutonium waste includes an additional 88 pounds of plutonium that were permanently buried in a mesa at Los Alamos by underground explosive tests conducted in the 1960s.

Secretary O'Leary's announcements were made at a press conference that revealed previously classified information as part of an effort to take an international lead in curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The difficulty of obtaining enough nuclear material to build a bomb is commonly regarded as the biggest obstacle to would-be proliferators. The Clinton administration is hoping that other nuclear powers will follow the U.S. in revealing more information about their inventories of special nuclear materials. Once all inventories are declared, the belief is that global supplies of bomb-making materials can be more closely monitored and diversion of potential bomb-makers more easily prevented.

French end testing and pledge to sign Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. START II is ratified

On January 25, France set off its sixth nuclear blast in a series of weapons tests in the South Pacific. This detonation was the largest at 120 kilotons, roughly the size of eight Hiroshima nuclear explosions put together. The test was quickly followed by an announcement by French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac that there would be no further tests and that France would eagerly pursue completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty this year. Seeking to end diplomatic damage, Chirac declared that "a new chapter is opening. France will play an active and determined role for disarmament in the world and for a better European defense." In the past, Chirac has claimed that the tests were needed to help ensure the safety and reliability of the French nuclear weapons stockpile. Many nuclear weapons experts believe, however, that the principal reason for the series of tests was to modernize French submarine-launched nuclear warheads.

The day before the last test, a major Japanese newspaper reported that small amounts of radioactive iodine had been detected leaking from the French test site. The newspaper also claimed that an official from the French Atomic Energy Commission revealed the leaks to a gathering of potential Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signatories, but then asked other participants to "forget what they had just heard" and that the data was "extremely confidential." The French Atomic Energy Commission has previously admitted to small leaks of tritium and iodine while drilling for rock samples following each blast.

In developments on another international treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II was ratified by the Senate. This treaty between the U.S. and Russia will reduce each countries' arsenal of deployed strategic nuclear weapons from approximately 9,000 weapons down to 3,500 each. START II will also eliminate the deployment of multiple warheads on one missile, a technological advance in the 1980s that was commonly regarded as dangerously destablizing. New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman played a particularly strong leadership role in ensuring START II's ratification. The treaty still needs to be ratified by the Russian parliament before it can go into effect.

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