* New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently issued a letter to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham requesting that operations at Technical Area (TA) 18 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) be ceased until safety and security issues there can be resolved.
TA-18 houses five critical assemblies, which use plutonium and highly enriched uranium in experiments. TA-18 was named by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board as the location at LANL that poses the greatest threat to surrounding communities should an operator accident occur there.
Governor Richardson said, "The probability of a worst case accident [at TA-18] may be arguably low. Nevertheless, the possible consequences are simply too severe to ignore. LANL is currently suffering a loss in congressional and public confidence. I contend that it would not well serve DOE or [LANL] to proceed with criticality experiments when the [Board] has registered such serious and unresolved concerns."
In the late 1990s, TA-18 failed mock terrorist attacks that could have released enough nuclear materials to produce a crude weapon. As a result, then DOE Secretary, Governor Richardson requested that TA-18 be closed and the special nuclear materials there moved to the Nevada Test Site. Although he required the materials to be moved by September 2004, shipment did not begin until September 30.
The Santa Fe City Council recently passed a resolution requesting that each shipment to Nevada be escorted through the City of Santa Fe, given the extremely dangerous nature of the cargo being transported and the potential for accident along the shipping route.
Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), which is part of a coalition to close TA-18, has contacted additional communities along the shipping route in New Mexico and Arizona to pass similar resolutions.
CCNS's request comes following an accident in August in Arizona in which a truck carrying uranium tetrafluoride from Savannah River Site to Nevada leaked onto the roadway. Although the materials released were not radioactive, CCNS argues that the incident is proof that greater oversight of radioactive materials shipment is necessary to protect public health and safety. CCNS argues that oversight is particularly important when shipping materials from TA-18, which are weapons grade.
Although materials and equipment from TA-18 are being shipped to Nevada currently, LANL estimates that at least one critical assembly will continue to operate for several more years.
Governor Richardson requested in his letter that all such experiments be stopped in the interest of safety.
Richardson said, "I strongly request that DOE and LANL halt any planned criticality experiments at TA-18 until all safety issues are thoroughly resolved and verified as such by the Board. It is imprudent for LANL to conduct such high-risk experiments until it is certain that they have addressed all of the above-mentioned issues in a comprehensive manner. In short, DOE and [the Board] should intervene and make operational safety as certain as it can be or cease TA-18's criticality experiments at this time."