Plutonium Detected at Hanford Nuclear Reservation Baffles Scientists
Low-yield Nuclear Weapons Endorsed by a LANL Scientist
Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the State of Washington was established
in the desert of southeastern Washington 55 years ago as the plutonium-processing
plant for the Manhattan Project. It is now the country's most
expensive environmental-cleanup project, with contractors and
the Department of Energy struggling to minimize contamination
from plutonium and other radioactive byproducts.
This past June
a range fire scorched 191,000 acres in and around Hanford. Unusually
high levels of plutonium were seen in air samples taken by the
Environmental Protection Agency and state health department officials
in the Tri-Cities communities south of the Hanford facility a
day after the fire was brought under control. Five of the air
samples tested came back with plutonium levels up to 1,000 times
higher than expected. Scientists cannot explain exactly why the
levels were so high. DOE officials stated it was not a health
Scientists, Hanford cleanup contractors, and other officials
at the site claim there are no health risks from the newly detected
plutonium even though officials admit they can't say exactly where
the most recently discovered radioactive dust came from, how long
it's been there, or how it moves around. Some scientists are expressing
concerns about the assurances by government officials because
there is some uncertainty about where all the nuclear waste is
buried on the 560-square-mile highly contaminated Hanford Reservation.
Ted Poston, an environmental surveillance manager with the Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory, a research station at Hanford said,
"In spite of the fact that we've had a nuclear industry for over
50 years, when it comes to how environmental contaminants behave
in a range fire . . . there's a lot we don't understand."
the many radioactive contaminants at Hanford that cleanup crews
want to contain, cesium-137 and strontium-90 are particularly
Strontium-90 is chemically similar to calcium, and
will accumulate in milk, in the body, or can be taken up by trees.
It is a beta-emitter of particles that can last more than 300
years. Beta rays can pass through paper and travel a few feet.
At Hanford, strontium-90 is commonly found in Russian thistle.
Here in New Mexico, chamisa has been found with high levels of
Cesium-137 is a gamma-emitter, which, like an X-ray,
can pass through the body. It can become a vapor if it gets hot
enough, then cool, condense and fall to the ground. It also mimics
potassium, and can be taken up by plants.
is a byproduct of nuclear weapons production, remains in the environment
for 240,000 years, and once it's trapped in dust or dirt, it stays
there, becoming resuspended by the winds.
The June range fire
raced up to and around Hanford's 200 Area, which contains contaminated
water as well as a dumpsite contaminated with uranium. A 1975
federal report showed that strontium and cesium could be stirred
up by wind following fires that destroyed dust-controlling plants.
But Greg Parker, Fluor Hanford's director of radiation protection,
said it makes sense that plutonium was found. The soil is contaminated,
and it's no secret that plutonium is all over the site. Fluor
Hanford is a cleanup contractor.
M. Younger, Los Alamos National Laboratory's chief weaponeer,
foresees a U.S. strategic arsenal of conventional and nuclear
weapons of low and high yields. In a recent paper he states that
accurate, low-yield nuclear weapons could be better suited to
attacking buried, concrete bunkers and mobile missiles than today's
U.S. arsenal of silo-busting weapons. The so-called "earth-penetrator"
weapons would burrow down 1,000 feet before they explode.
paper titled "Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century," Younger writes
that, "Such a reliance on high-yield strategic weapons could lead
to 'self-deterrence,' a limitation on strategic options and consequently
a lessening of the stabilizing effect of nuclear weapons." Critics
say Younger's proposals are part of a lobbying campaign by some
nuclear weaponeers to continue working on new nuclear weapons,
claiming they will inflict less damage and radioactive fallout.
Frank von Hippel, a physicist and a Princeton University professor
of public and international affairs said, "This is all premised
on the notion that you can cross the nuclear threshold if you
don't make too much of a mess. This isn't deterrence, this is
trying to use these things."
Younger's reasoning for manufacturing
precision low-yield weapons is that they could be less expensive
and easier to build than trying to maintain the full, current
arsenal of sophisticated, high-yield weapons at a time when weapons
designers are leaving the nation's weapons labs.
cringe at Younger's ideas but say the debate on nuclear weapons
is long overdue. Von Hippel says, "It would be great if this was
a first word in a discussion of what nuclear weapons are really
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