.News Update 5/23/08

DOE Says DARHT Fully Operational; Questions Remain

May 23, 2008

The Department of Energy announced that the large x-ray machine at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is ready to conduct experiments used to certify the nuclear weapons stockpile. The Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility (DARHT) Facility has undergone several years of reconstruction work to fix voltage breakdown problems in the second axis that were first discovered in 2003. The second axis would allow 3-D images of test explosions to be produced. These tests include detonating mock triggers, both for existing and new warhead designs.

During the experiments, which are called hydrotests, DARHT generates a 17-million-volt beam of electrons, which are slammed into a high explosive target. Two X-ray machines digitally photograph the interior of the materials being compressed to simulate a nuclear warhead explosion and hazardous and toxic materials are released into the environment. The tests are considered by DOE to be non-nuclear because the materials that are used cannot sustain chain reactions, but they do contain materials such as depleted uranium, beryllium, lead and plutonium-242.

The rebuilding effort cost $90 million and took five years to complete. DARHT is a $350 million facility, which began construction in 1988. Construction was halted in 1995 when CCNS and the Los Alamos Study Group sued DOE because the required environmental studies had not been done. The estimated cost of DARHT at the time was $124 million.

DARHT has been criticized as being too expensive and behind schedule.

In 2005, the DOE Inspector General found that LANL was behind schedule in developing technology that would protect employees and the environment from exposure to hazardous materials used in the testing program.

One problem identified in the 2005 audit was that LANL had not completed the development and implementation of an improved filtration system on the DARHT facility. Currently, an aqueous foam is used to filter the release of materials. However, the audit found that this strategy is neither the most efficient nor the preferred method for protecting employees and the environment. A senior LANL scientist told the auditors that "foam containment dramatically increased hazards to the workers involved at the firing point and increased the time and costs associated with executing hydrotests." Moreover, using the foam increases the amount of low-level radioactive waste generated by the testing.

The original plan for DARHT included the development of metal vessels to contain the tests. The vessels could then be removed from the site and cleaned at a remote facility, thereby improving the turnaround time for each test. However, LANL never fully developed the vessel design and is behind schedule to incorporate them into the program. The audit recommended that LANL expedite its work on the containment vessels.

The plan for the future nuclear weapons complex transformation does not call for the end of open-air hydrotesting at LANL until 2009.

CCNS made numerous requests for additional information from DOE and LANL about whether the tests will be conducted in vessels or open air. We received no response to our questions.

Scott Kovac of Nuclear Watch New Mexico states, "DARHT will only be a success when all tests performed there are fully contained."

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