Forum of National Experts Discusses DOE's Proposed Modern Pit Facility

* A panel of national experts this week discussed the implications of the proposed modern plutonium weapons facility currently being considered for one of five sites around the nation, including Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Presenters included Kathy Wan Povi Sanchez, of San Ildefonso Pueblo, who recently returned from the meeting of the parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Geneva; Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Len Ackland, former editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; and Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico.

The Department of Energy (DOE) argues that the new plutonium pit production facility is necessary to secure the safety and reliability of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. The pit consists of a sphere of plutonium surrounded by conventional explosives. When the conventional explosives are detonated, the plutonium compresses and thus begins the nuclear reaction that creates the explosion.

The panel suggested that citizens closely examine the defunct Rocky Flats plant as an example of the dangers a pit facility could present. Rocky Flats, which is located 16 miles from downtown Denver, Colorado, produced the pits for the nationšs stockpile from 1952 through 1989. During that time, it was plagued with difficulties, including several near-disastrous fires and management, administrative, and accounting problems. In 1989, the plant was closed for major environmental violations, including plutonium contamination of groundwater.

Ackland, who currently teaches environmental journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, "[At] Rocky Flats we're going to have land that's contaminated with plutonium, but a far more dangerous legacy is the 70,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, the majority of the pits for which were produced at Rocky Flats." Ackland argued that, unless the U.S. news media stops couching the devastation that nuclear weapons present, the U.S. population will never understand the implications of a pit production facility. He said, "Trigger. Pit. These are all clever euphemisms for plutonium bombs. [These terms] are meant to obscure the fact that we are talking about weapons of mass destruction...."

Coghlan illustrated the growing dependence of the U.S. on nuclear weapons in recent years, citing a report released last month by a Congressional committee headed by New Mexico Representative Heather Wilson. The report recommended that DOE shorten the lead-time necessary to resume full-scale nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site, and research and development of the robust nuclear earth penetrator and low-yield nuclear weapons. The report also recommends an active advanced development program in order to "attract and train the next generation of weapons scientists." Coghlan says that such an agenda is directly contrary to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which the U.S. is a party. Coghlan said, "We need to do everything we can to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime."

The current major contenders for the facility are WIPP and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. However, Coghlan said that, regardless of the location, New Mexicans should say adamantly, "No modern pit facility, no where, no way."

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