Tuesday, September 28, 2004


Remember that brief, decade-long interval of sanity when it was possible to believe that the age of nuclear proliferation was over? Since then, the godfather of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is known to have sold nuclear-weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, and several other nations besides, but we are hamstrung in our efforts to interrogate him by a reluctance to offend his patron, Gen. Musharraf, who offers the administration its only hope of capturing Osama bin Laden. Thus a certain amount of post facto scrambling is called for: Newsweek reports, for example, that Pentagon analysts are drawing up plans to take military action against Iran before it can implement a working nuclear arsenal, a task that is doubly daunting because most of our troops are bogged down in nuclear-free Iraq. North Korea, on the other hand, already has at least two and perhaps as many as six bombs, an unfortunate reality that may compel the tough-talking Bushies ("Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies") to pursue a policy of Clintonian containment.

Amid this escalating horror, one question is never asked. Who contains us?
If you thought all the talk about new nuclear weapons was just hot air, the proposed environmental plan for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a cool reminder that the Energy Department is moving ahead with plans to ramp up production of plutonium pits and other materials for a rejuvenated nuclear weapons program.

It has been more than 10 years since Livermore's "Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement" has been updated, and the National Environmental Policy Act required that Energy produce a review to cover Livermore's planned operations for the next 10 years. The proposal offers a rare glimpse into the government's plans for the top-secret weapons lab.

If Energy gets its way, Livermore will be allowed to house twice the plutonium and work with nearly 10 times the radioactive tritium it does now, reports the February 21 Contra Costa Times. The lab will also start research on how to manufacture plutonium pits (nuclear weapon cores) using modern robotic manufacturing techniques. The lab currently cannot separate large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium or fabricate the dense metal into pits, things that Los Alamos National Laboratory (Livermore's "sister" lab) is able to do.

The nearly tenfold increase in tritium-handling capacity, reports the February 26 Tri-Valley Herald, would allow Energy to resume nuclear weapons testing in 18 rather than 36 months if President George W. Bush ends the 12-year moratorium on nuclear testing. Tritium is used in the sensitive instruments used to evaluate nuclear explosions . . . .

Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Livermore watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs, says that in the mid-1990s her organization was told that Livermore would never fill targets on site because the lab is just too crowded. "Lo and behold," she says, "that is what they want to do. And every time they increase their tritium workload, more tritium gets into the environment."

"The most important thing in all this," says Kelley, "is that this is a 10-year planning document--and it demonstrates that this administration is planning a long-term future for making weapons at the lab."

She says it's ironic that while Livermore is planning to double the amount of plutonium it can handle (from 1,540 to 3,300 pounds), some Energy officials want to "de-inventory" Livermore because of security problems . . . .

Kelley adds that more than 7 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the complex, and there are several airports in the area with flight paths carrying planes directly overhead. "This is not a place where you can house plutonium and defend it easily," she says, noting that in addition to overflights the danger posed by either terrorists or disgruntled employees is very real.

"If you want to maintain the current arsenal, you do need some plutonium capacity, but what exists at Los Alamos is far in excess of what's needed. But if you're hell-bent on new weapons, what's planned for Livermore is exactly what you'd do."

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