Plutonium Detected at Hanford Nuclear Reservation Baffles Scientists

Low-yield Nuclear Weapons Endorsed by a LANL Scientist

*The 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 concern.

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."

Among the many radioactive contaminants at Hanford that cleanup crews want to contain, cesium-137 and strontium-90 are particularly troubling.

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 strontium-90.

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.

Plutonium-239, which 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.

*Stephen 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.

In a 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.

Arms-control advocates 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 for."

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