* Los Alamos test-well shows LANL pollutants in ground-water.

* New Hanford horrors: "lost" plutonium tank rediscovered.

* Pantex checks atomic weapons for mercury contamination.

* For years, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has claimed that the drinking water in Los Alamos County was safe from surface pollutants dumped by the Lab into surrounding canyons. New evidence has shattered this claim. According to lab officials, the aquifers were sealed against pollution by thick packed volcanic ash and lava flows. This was the thought at LANL for the lab's first forty years, said Bruce Galleher, the lab's chief hydrologist. Earlier evidence gave cause for alarm about contaminated drinking water, but LANL scientists claimed the evidence found in testing done by the New Mexico Environmental Department, (or NMED) was debatable. Results obtained from the first deep testing well in almost forty years have confirmed that lab pollutants can travel fairly easily into ground waters as deep as 275 feet under Los Alamos County. The pollutants include acid byproducts and uranium. The uranium exists at more than twice the level being proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a drinking- water standard. Concentrations of uranium and oxalate acid, an organic acid used in uranium processing, are higher than what is referred to as naturally-occuring, and levels of chloride and nitrate, discharged by the lab for decades, are also higher than expected. In the deep aquifer, which holds the region's drinking water, the only traces of radioactive pollution to be confirmed so far are traces of tritium, a kind of hydrogen produced in lab experiments and nuclear weapons tests. Lab scientists claim it is not certain that it is lab influenced, although they do concede it could have come from LANL operations.

The new test-well, called R-9, is the first of 32 deep wells insisted upon by state hazardous-waste regulators to map the flow of contaminants into ground water. It is the most expensive well ever built for testing and geological characterization in New Mexico, according to private well-drillers and hydrologists. Originally budgeted at 332,298 dollars, in fact, it has cost more than 1.7 million dollars, and is still incomplete. As pollutants have not been found so far that exceed legal limits, the Department of Energy (DOE) has no plans to clean up the ground water. Lab experts say that, as major sources of pollution pouring into Los Alamos Canyon have now been shut off, tritium levels should now diminish. Another canyon, however, is still a problem. Critics point to the treatment plant of TA-50, which they maintain is inadequately designed, and continues to dump thousands of gallons of radioactive liquid waste daily into Mortendad Canyon. This waste has high levels of strontium 90, tritium and other contaminants. According to critics, the lab said they would amend this situation years ago, but continues to dump radioactive contaminants into the canyon. One of the 32 test wells will be in Mortendad Canyon, and the NMED LANL Oversight Bureau plans to participate in the decision of exactly where in the canyon the well will be dug.

* Just days ago, at B&W Hanford Co., the notorious nuclear facility in Hanford, Washington an almost- forgotten process tank filled with radioactive sludge was discovered buried outside the plant. The sludge contained sixty- two pounds of plutonium, enough to make 12 atomic bombs. Scientists say the tank could contain explosive gases that could cause the plutonium to chain-react. Before lifting the lid, officials will insert instruments to test for explosive and poisonous gases. They also plan to use a video camera and ultrasound to locate the plutonium. Originally the tank was used as a settling tank to clean the Plutonium Finishing Plant's watery waste, before it was flushed into the ground. When the tank filled with sludge, the DOE simply put a lid over it. Now the taxpayers will have to pay the deferred tab on cleaning up the cold war waste: the tank holds enough plutonium sludge to fill 1,500 to 2,000 barrels. Disposal will cost 10,000 to 15,000 dollars a barrel.

* Workers at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas have tested five nuclear weapons to discover if other units were contaminated by mercury during a reassembly procedure at the facility, said plant officials. The main activity at Pantex is the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons, specifically the fabrication of high explosive components. On January 29, a technician at Pantex found mercury in the leak detection system used by the plant's gas laboratory, government reports stated. According to Pantex officials, 37 weapons could have been contaminated during a back-filling procedure. A DOE Pantex spokesman said that the problem involves "rebuild units" that are shipped to Pantex for evaluation, maintenance and modification, before they are returned to military forces. When the units are examined at Pantex, technicians draw out the air inside and pump in inert gases to replace it. The problem was that mercury was found inside the pumping system. Weapons designers are trying to find out if the weapons are contaminated, and if contamination could affect the systems inside the bombs. Two systems have been used to detect mercury, but no contamination has been found so far. The detection devices can detect mercury down to the molecular level. Pantex also shipped some weapons components to Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, which also found no contamination. It is still up to the three national laboratories involved--Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Labs--to determine whether they want to pull in the other 32 units for a complete check. Sixteen workers were tested for potential mercury contamination from the incident. One technician tested positive, but received only a minute amount, said the DOE spokesman.

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