Plutonium Experiments May Begin this Month at the National Ignition Facility



Runs 1/23/15 through 1/30/15

(THEME UP AND UNDER) This is the CCNS News Update, an overview of the latest nuclear safety issues, brought to you every week by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. Here is this week’s top headline:

  • Plutonium Experiments May Begin this Month at the National Ignition Facility

Weaponeers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory may begin experiments using plutonium in the world’s largest and most expensive laser facility, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), at the end of this month. Longer-lived forms of plutonium-242 or 244 may be substituted for weapons-grade plutonium-239 in the poppy seed sized targets that will be focused and fired onto by 192 laser beams. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that over the next decade, they will conduct at least 100 experiments, or “shots,” where plutonium would be vaporized.

The classified or unclassified experiments will be conducted in the $3.5 billion laser facility, operated by the DOE’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration at the Livermore Laboratory, located about 50 miles east of San Francisco.

Over the years, the NIF mission has changed. The original plans included having plutonium shots contained in a small round containment vessel to surround the experiment. The vessel would capture the radioactive debris. But due to apparent technical difficulties getting laser beams inside the small vessel, DOE jettisoned the containment vessel plan and are now planning to do experiments in the NIF target chamber without additional containment.

Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment, or Tri-Valley CARES, a Livermore, California based non-governmental organization has brought attention to the NIF ever since it was first proposed over two decades ago. To learn more, please visit

Tri-Valley CARES filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documents about the experiments. In recently received documents, they uncovered many of the assumptions DOE made to escape addressing worst-case scenarios. For example, Livermore will be allowed to “splatter” the longer-lived plutonium inside the NIF without an effective means of containment by assuming the airborne radioactivity will not exceed legal limits. At the same time DOE says the experiments may “generate airborne contamination that exceeds the [legal limit].”

Further, DOE says the proposed experiments could contaminate the laser optics. One DOE report questions whether it is even possible to clean debris off the optics.

It appears they is using the same type of thinking for the NIF shots as it has for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a DOE disposal facility for plutonium-contaminated bomb waste, located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. DOE assumed that WIPP would not leak and as a result did not plan for such an event. But last February WIPP did leak and the underground was contaminated when one or more waste drums exploded. DOE anticipates that WIPP may reopen in 2016 at a cost of over $1 billion.

The proposed uncontained plutonium shots in the NIF could also leak and contaminate the laser facility. DOE will not conduct any additional environmental review before the experiments begin.


This has been the CCNS News Update. To learn more, please visit our website at


Update:  See January 28, 2015 Press Release:  “Tri-Valley CAREs & NRDC Ask Energy Secretary to Halt Plutonium “Shots” in NIF Scheduled to Begin Thursday at Livermore Lab – Groups’ Attorneys Cite Unaddressed Plutonium Exposure Risks and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Concerns.”


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