Hearings to probe impact of weapons lab

LIVERMORE, Calif. – While it’s been known for some time that the U.S. government is developing new, earth-penetrating nuclear bombs and “mini-nukes,” a new draft environmental impact statement by the nation’s primary nuclear weapons design laboratory suggests the Bush administration’s weapons program may be bigger than imagined.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s last environmental impact statement was issued in 1992 and is now obsolete. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which owns the lab, is now required to conduct a fresh survey and to issue a new Site Wide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS) for the lab. Moreover, to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, DOE must hold public hearings and solicit public comment on its plans.

Livermore Lab is located about 45 miles east of San Francisco and is managed by the University of California.

The environmental review of the Livermore complex comes against the backdrop of the Bush administration’s 2002 “Nuclear Posture Review” and “National Security Strategy of the United States” documents, which advocate preventive war and the preemptive use of any weapon (including nuclear) for any reason of its own choosing.

The draft SWEIS was released in February and its 2,000-plus pages provide a rare glimpse into the lab’s operations. It lays out a full buffet of dangerous new programs, called “proposed actions,” to be implemented over the coming decade, including the following:

• More than doubling the plutonium storage limit at the lab, from 1,540 pounds to 3,300 pounds, enough for more than 300 nuclear bombs.

• Making Livermore the place to design and test new technologies for producing “pits,” the sealed radioactive plutonium cores that serve as triggers for nuclear warheads. This technology is intended to be used at the Modern Pit Facility, a modern bomb-core production plant, which has not been built, nor has the final location been chosen. It would be capable of producing up to 450 new pits per year (and 900 if run on double shifts, which would approximate the combined nuclear arsenals of France and China – every year).

• Vaporizing plutonium at the lab and shooting laser beams through the hot plutonium to separate its isotopes for use in various weapons experiments. To do this, the lab plans to increase the amount of plutonium that can be used in any one room at any given time threefold, from 44 pounds to 132 pounds.

• Adding plutonium, highly-enriched uranium and lithium hydride to the mix of experiments to be conducted in the National Ignition Facility (NIF) mega-laser when its construction is completed, adding to the facility’s cost and environmental risk.

• Manufacturing radioactive tritium targets for NIF on site, which will increase the amount of tritium allowed to be “at risk” at a time in any one room by nearly tenfold, from just over 3 grams to 30 grams.

• Preparing for a return to full-scale underground nuclear testing in Nevada by developing new diagnostics at Livermore to enhance U.S. “readiness” to conduct these tests, which were halted in 1992.

Peace and environmental activists are gearing up for the public hearings.

“At the end of this month, the public will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to influence nuclear weapons policy and the future direction of Livermore Lab,” said Marylia Kelley, the executive director of the Livermore-based Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment). “Will we be silent and let them develop new nukes? Hell, no.”

Retired staff scientist Marion Fulk said, “I know first-hand that Livermore Lab has not been able to keep its contamination inside the fence line. It’s already a Superfund cleanup site. If these programs go forward, there will be more accidents, spills and releases of plutonium, tritium and other radioactive materials into the environment. Cancer is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Tara Dorabji, the outreach director for Tri-Valley CAREs, said, “Every peace advocate’s voice is needed at the public hearings. It is our responsibility to show up and use the opportunity to oppose new nuclear weapons and the dangerous new lab programs that enable them.”

Public hearings will be held on April 27 at the Double Tree Club Hotel in Livermore; on April 28 at the Holiday Inn Express in Tracy, Calif.; and on April 30 at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. For more information, call Tri-Valley CAREs at (925) 443-7148, e-mail loulena@trivalleycares.org, or visit the group’s web site at www.trivalleycares.org.