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Sites under consideration for new nuclear tests
Las Vegas Sun


December 02, 2006

The federal government is looking for a place to resume what it stopped doing 17 years ago at its notorious Rocky Flats facility in Colorado: manufacturing the metal cores at the heart of nuclear weapons.

The sites under consideration are Southern Nevada, and outside Amarillo, Texas; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Aiken, South Carolina.




The chosen site will be used for decades for above- and below-ground test detonations of nuclear bombs.

Intrinsic to the process is the manufacturing of plutonium - a task that is both industrial and high-tech that would bring jobs and educational opportunities to the region. It also conjures up memories of environmental nightmares and, opponents argue, unnecessarily escalates the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

The weapon cores, called "pits," are manufactured from an isotope of plutonium - a toxic metal formed by exposing uranium to radiation in a nuclear reactor, then chemically or mechanically isolating the metal. The federal government got into the business of making plutonium pits during the Manhattan Project in World War II. The research, design and manufacture of nuclear weapons continued over the next five decades at 16 sites scattered around the United States - many of which have left legacies of serious ongoing environmental problems.

Rocky Flats, outside Denver, was the primary manufacturing plant for all nuclear weapons, employing 10,000 people during the height of production in the mid-1980s.

In 1989 a combined raid by the FBI and Environmental Protection Agency shut down the 6,500-acre plant because of charges of environmental mismanagement and cover-ups, leaving the government only limited production at other sites.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, treaties with the Soviets and their successors and a changing geopolitical situation meant that the U.S. military did not need all of the more than 20,000 nuclear weapons already stockpiled.

But the senior Bush administration wanted flexibility to design, test and potentially use new and different nuclear weapons - requiring a new, modernized manufacturing site.

The government has been holding meetings around the country to discuss proposed changes to its weapons-production system, and is accepting comments on it until Jan. 17.

A draft environmental impact statement is expected this summer.

A decision on the system overhaul, including the location of a new plutonium plant, will come in fall 2008, officials say.

A primary issue being analyzed by the government in where to site the facility is its proximity to population. Another factor is the existing ability to handle the dangerous materials.

The biggest factor in the decision, says Theodore Wyka, a manager in the Energy Department's effort, is the ability to work within the larger effort of modernizing the nuclear-weapons production system.

"We need to have a nuclear weapons complex in place to support the nuclear weapons policy decisions" of the president, whoever that is, and whatever those decisions are, says Wyka, who represented the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration at the meeting on the modernization program Tuesday in Las Vegas. "We have to have the infrastructure in place to meet the national security requirements in terms of numbers and types of nuclear weapons."

The so-called Consolidated Plutonium Center planned by the Bush administration could manufacture 125 new warheads a year and conduct research and development for the weapons industry. Additionally, it will continue to monitor the reliability of plutonium pits and the hundreds of components in the weapons already in the stockpile.

Wyka says the environmental issues at Rocky Flats and other sites can be avoided at a new manufacturing site. When Rocky Flats and other weapons sites were selected and built - spanning World War II through the Cold War - environmental effects were not widely considered.

The federal government spent $7 billion to clean up the Rocky Flats plant, much of which today is a wildlife refuge. Spills of highly toxic chemicals involved in purifying the explosive metal and the spread of radioactive materials led to widespread contamination throughout the plant structures, the ground and water in and around the plant.

The government removed more than 3 million square feet of contaminated structures and shipped enough radioactive waste to fill a string of railcars 90 miles long in the massive cleanup effort.

The Energy Department won't repeat its environmental sins of the past, says Darwin Morgan, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman.

Decontamination and decommissioning of the plants are now planned for the beginning of a plant's development, Morgan says.

Terrie Barrie, a founding member of the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, hopes that the environmental problems associated with manufacturing plutonium pits can be avoided. She says her husband, George, suffers numerous health problems she associates with his work at Rocky Flats from 1982 until the plant closed in 1989. George Barrie, 51, is completely disabled, she says.

Several thousand ex-workers and residents near the urban plant are seeking compensation because of health problems they blame on it. Most have cancer or, like George Barrie, have chronic lung diseases.

Health issues aside, "the big controversy is whether we need this (plutonium manufacturing) at all," says Robert Nelson, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a national nonprofit group that has been critical of the Bush administration. Nelson noted that a government-commissioned review of the plutonium pits in the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons - including 900 bombs stored at Nellis Air Force Base, an estimate from the nonprofit group Natural Resources Defense Council - shows that they will remain reliable bomb triggers for decades.

Energy Department officials don't say they need the new manufacturing site to replace the aging, existing plutonium in the stockpile, but to be ready if new bombs are needed. And Nelson takes that to mean the government is planning a new generation of bombs that could lead to the resumption of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.

"We think it's a bad idea to build new warheads that will need to be tested," he says.


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