Transportation of weapons-grade plutonium to and from Los Alamos National Laboratory puts New Mexicans at risk, according to panelists who presented to the interim Legislative Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee on Friday. Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen said the panel presentation came in response to the federal fiscal year 2022 budget, which includes surplus plutonium disposition. There are current plans to move weapons-grade plutonium from Pantex in Texas to LANL, where it will be turned into a powdered plutonium oxide and then transported to South Carolina. In South Carolina, it will go through more processing before being sent back to New Mexico to be stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad. The entire process requires transporting this plutonium about 3,300 miles across a dozen states using trucks.
Los Alamos has a starring role in a shift in U.S. nuclear policy that’s two presidential terms in the making. Nuclear watchdog groups in the state are concerned about the United States’ evolving nuclear agenda, which will see a sharp increase in plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). LANL recently released its $13 billion expansion proposal to accommodate increased pit production at the site. The expansion is part of a wider push across the country to ramp up the nuclear warhead manufacturing machine, according to Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.
“We’re on the cusp at the moment of awakening the wolf in the domestic dog,” Mello told NM Political Report, adding that nuclear facilities across the country have increased production shifts and doubled staffs. “Everyone is hiring like crazy,” he said.
Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents. While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say. The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or — in the worst cases — after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed. Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.
In mid-2013, four federal nuclear safety experts brought an alarming message to the top official in charge of America’s warhead production: Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s sole site for making and testing a key nuclear bomb part, wasn’t taking needed safety precautions. The lab, they said, was ill-prepared to prevent an accident that could kill lab workers, and potentially others nearby. Some safety infractions had already occurred at the lab that year. But Neile Miller, who was then the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, says those experts specifically told her that Los Alamos didn’t have enough personnel who knew how to handle plutonium so it didn’t accidentally go “critical” and start an uncontrolled chain reaction. Such chain reactions generate intense bursts of deadly radiation, and over the last half-century have claimed nearly two dozen lives.