Plutonium Missing at California Weapons Lab

By Marylia Kelley
(Reprinted from the Nukewatch PATHFINDER, Spring, 1996)

Livermore Laboratory cannot account for 12 pounds of plutonium--enough for several bombs--but this is not a problem according to Lab officials. Lab representatives went to great lengths to attribute the missing 12 pounds of measurement notes and radioactive decay over the past 30 years. Their latter explanation fails to take into account that the isotope in question, plutonium 239, has a radioactive half-life of over 24,000 years. A half-life is the amount of time it takes half the atoms of a radioactive substance to disintegrate. Moreover, if random weighing errors were solely to blame, logic suggests they would not all be shortages.

A more credible explanation is that some portion of the 12 missing pounds found its way into our environment--both up the stacks and down the drains of the facility. Various accidents, leaks and spills have already been documented, including one that sent one-half gram of plutonium: to Livermore's sewage treatment plant. During the latter part of the '60s and the '70s local residents were allowed to take the contaminated sludge home for use in their gardens as soil conditioner. Further, soil samples analyzed last year by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Laboratory revealed dramatically elevated levels of plutonium at the Lab itself and offsite in a Livermore city park--Big Trees Park--west of the Lab. And, the DOE Tiger Team found unexplained high levels of plutonium in air monitors east of the Lab.

Another possible factor contributing to the 12-pound loss may be that larger pockets of plutonium dust exist within the pipes and duct work of the plutonium facility than have been discovered as yet. Too, while Livermore Lab officials do not believe that any plutonium has been stolen, neither could they entirely rule out the possibility. In essence, none of the potential explanations, from lousy bookkeeping to deposition of plutonium particles in our air and lungs, is good. At best, Livermore and the other facilities in the nuclear weapons complex have been too cavalier with this dangerous material.

Livermore Lab's inventory discrepancy came to light as part of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's declassification initiative. Nationwide, 6,050 pounds of plutonium are missing out of 111.4 metric tons of the deadly metal acquired since the mid '40s. According to new DOE figures, 93.5% of U.S. plutonium has come from U.S. government reactors, 5% from 14 other countries and 1.5% from U.S. civilian nuclear plants. About 89% of that 111.4 metric tons remains in inventory, while 3.1% has been used in the Nagasaki bomb and nuclear tests, 3.1% is waste, 2.5% is unaccounted for, 1.1% has been lost due to fission transmutation, 0.5% was transferred to other countries, 0.4% decayed and 0.1% was transferred to civilian industry.

This report reprinted from CAREs Feb. 1996 Citizen's Watch. To obtain a copy of the DOE summary, which includes additional information on the declassification activities and plans, contact Tri-Valley CAREs @ 5720 East Ave., #116, Livermore,CA 94530.

Marylia Kelley works with Tri-Valley Citizens Against A Radioactive Environment, Livermore, CA.

Spring, 1996, "Nukewatch"
P.O. BOX 2658
MADISON, WI 53701-2658