Groups Ask LANL to Explain Plutonium Inventory Discrepancy

* Three organizations that monitor operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) recently asked LANL to account for 1,687 pounds of missing plutonium before resuming operations. The plutonium is missing as a result of a discrepancy in the accounts for the amount of plutonium in the waste at LANL. It is enough to produce 150 nuclear weapons.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) and Nuclear Watch of New Mexico issued a letter to LANL Director Pete Nanos saying the discrepancy is, "unacceptable by any imaginable standards and constitutes a crucial security, environmental and safety issue."

The discrepancy was first reported in a 1996 memo that was produced as part of former Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Hazel O'Leary's openness initiative. The memo indicated that while DOE headquarters estimates 1,345 pounds of plutonium in waste at LANL, other estimates, including LANL's, indicate 3,032 pounds of plutonium in waste, a difference of 1,687 pounds.

This plutonium accounting discrepancy is the largest in the nation, followed by the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, which holds a discrepancy of 862 pounds. The letter states, "If the LANL number is anywhere close to correct, then there may be very serious implications regarding the lack of due care in minimizing losses of an extremely expensive, proliferation-sensitive and dangerous material."

The groups criticize DOE for allowing the discrepancy to remain unresolved for eight years. The letter states, "It is completely unacceptable for a discrepancy of 150 bombs' worth of plutonium to remain on the books eight years after it was first discovered."

The letter recommends that LANL and DOE resolve the issue before work is allowed to continue at LANL, particularly at facilities that use plutonium. The letter states, "Since you have already stood down LANL on other security and safety issues, we request that you seize this moment and immediately appoint an independent task force to investigate this issue until it is resolved."

Nuclear weapons work at LANL has been at a standstill since July 16 due to safety and security breaches. First, two disks containing classified information were lost. Then a student intern suffered a retinal lesion following an accident with a laser.

LANL has been the object of much scrutiny since the stand down began. Senator Pete Domenici, an ardent supporter of LANL, issued a letter saying, "As the proudest defender of the laboratory, I can tell you that the defense can no longer be sustained unless the laboratory changes."

Domenici joins activists nationwide in calling for reform of safety and security policies at LANL. As Joni Arends, of CCNS, says, "The current work stand down at LANL is a perfect opportunity for New Mexicans to demand accountability of LANL and DOE before LANL is allowed to reopen. By requiring that LANL account for this missing plutonium, New Mexicans have the opportunity to protect not only our own health and safety, but that of the entire nation."

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