Los Alamos National Laboratory
is Sending Deadly Depleted Uranium into the Air We Breathe
A Special Report for Sun Monthly by Marilyn Gayle Hoff
had been originally published in Sun Monthly at
date unknown, no copyright claimed..
Back in 1943, a memo to Manhattan Project’s General Leslie Groves from Drs. Conant, Compton and Urey extolled the lethal possibilities of radioactive materials “as a Gas Warfare Instrument. The material . . . ground into particles of microscopic size and . . . distributed in the form of a dust or smoke or dissolved in liquid, by ground-fired projectiles, land vehicles, airplanes, or aerial bombs . . . would be inhaled by personnel. The amounts necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small.”
Incubating well before the first nuclear weapon exploded, this old dream of radiological weapons — weapons that kill or harm by means of radiation — is now a full-blown reality wherever munitions made of depleted uranium (DU) catch fire. DU munitions now proliferate in the U.S. arsenal. Bullets or bombs made of DU range in size from 20 millimeters (7/8-inch diameter) to 120 millimeters (10-inch diameter), a variety obviously intended for diverse ends.
“Depleted uranium has contaminated the Earth and global atmosphere,” said Leuren Moret, a whistle-blower formerly of Laurence Livermore National Laboratory. She added up 340 tons of DU exploded in the first Gulf War; an undisclosed amount reducing targets in Bosnia and Kosovo to radioactive rubble; 1,000 tons bestowed upon Afghanistan; and as of 2004, before U.S. bombing intensified and vastly ballooned the total, well over 2,000 tons decimating Iraq.
But on its way to nailing U.S. ambitions abroad, DU needs to be stored, designed, manufactured, and tested here at home. Discounted Casualties, a book by Japanese journalist Akira Tashiro, listed 26 American states housing DU firing ranges, DU weapon factories and/or DU storage facilities. Three in New Mexico — Sandia Lab in Albuquerque, the Energetic Metals Research Test Center (EMRTC) three kilometers from Socorro, and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) within sight of Santa Fe — were listed as research-and-development and test-firing sites for DU weapons, exploded in the open air. The EMRTC at Socorro admitted it used about 40 tons of DU between 1972 (the start of DU testing) and 1993. Until very recently the uses of DU at Los Alamos have escaped public notice.
DU Is an Extremely Effective Weapon
After the first Gulf War, Doug Rokke, with 35 years of military experience and a PhD in health physics, was dispatched to the Middle East as a U.S. army contamination expert in charge of Gulf War I uranium cleanup. He spoke of his tour of duty in an interview titled “The War Against Ourselves”:“DU is an extremely effective weapon. Each tank round is 10 pounds of solid uranium-238 contaminated with plutonium, neptunium, americium . . . generating intense heat on impact. When uranium munitions hit, it’s like a firestorm inside any vehicle or structure, and so we saw tremendous burns, tremendous injuries. It was devastating.”
If contaminated with plutonium, neptunium and americium, the uranium in munitions is not technically DU. Transuranic elements like plutonium occur almost never in nature and are born chiefly in nuclear reactors. From this deadly radioactive spent reactor fuel also comes uranium for munitions, flavored with its extreme contaminants. Straight from the mines, natural uranium has likewise gone into munitions. Public-relations-minded military brass nonetheless call all uranium munitions “depleted.”
DU consists entirely of uranium, chiefly the isotope U-238. It is “depleted” during a process called “enrichment,” which extracts traces of the more fissile isotope U-235 to make nuclear fuel rods and, originally, A-bombs. The DU remainder is 99.8 percent U-238. Natural uranium is 99.3 percent, half of a percent difference. The United States stores a million unquiet tons of DU “waste,” gives it away free to U.S. munitions makers, and peddles it around the world.
Uranium is pyrophoric, meaning spontaneously combustible. Put pure uranium powder on a sunny Phoenix pavement some July afternoon and it will burst into flames. It is 1.7 times denser than lead. Its zero-sum price tag and self-sharpening combustibility persuaded the generals to choose depleted uranium over equally dense tungsten for munitions purportedly limited to penetrating tank and bunker armor. At this task DU artillery fire has no peers, burning neat holes through tank armor and incinerating all within.
DU is shot from the 120 millimeter barrels of tank guns, from A-10 Warthog airplanes and from unrevealed smaller weapons. The munitions are shaped like bottles, the shell fatter than the bullet, to keep the DU from touching the barrel as it shoots out. Friction of a DU bullet against its barrel could explode the weapon.
Fine aerosols of uranium oxides and nitrides form when DU weapons ignite, since flaming uranium also bonds with atmospheric nitrogen. About 33 percent of DU dust is soluble. What becomes of these incinerated aerosols indefinitely suspended in the atmosphere, spread by wind or, if precipitated, borne by water, sunk to groundwater, or stirred up again by wind, footsteps and wheels? Asaf Durakovic, of the Uranium Medical Research Center in Canada, wrote: “There is no existing study measuring the distance traveled by such particles.” To avoid studies, which would provide real answers to these questions, nuclear promoters embrace “models.”
Last summer a report in the July 15 Taos Horsefly stated that Los Alamos National Laboratory is permitted to burn, per year, three-fourths ton of depleted uranium (DU) in the open air and tempered this shocking news with the soothing information, based on a model, that smoke from such conflagrations would travel only 50 meters.
Models are computer programs, built within parameters that reflect the careful choosing of which data to consider or stress and which to ignore or downplay. Model makers who wish to lullaby the populace can select their parameters accordingly, like the model that reckoned the deaths and illnesses caused by Chernobyl to be statistically insignificant when seen as a percentage of the total world population.
Thus a postfire risk-assessment model professed to study the distance smoke would travel from a fire, while its parameters excluded how the fierce, shifty, spring winds whipping the Cerro Grande forest fire through Los Alamos in 2000 actually did blow smoke, pollutants and particulates 55 miles northeast to Taos — one of many affected communities snubbed by its calculations. Models can disregard how residents of LANL’s neighbor San Ildefonso Pueblo are forbidden to cut their own contaminated timber. And stressing that an atom of uranium, a heavy metal, has the world’s biggest naturally occurring nucleus, a model can conclude that particles of DU smoke are too weighty to travel any farther than the length of my driveway.
According to whistle-blower Leuren Moret, “There are too many variables to consider in a model. It’s like statistics — you can make it say anything you want.”
Such DU dispersion models, said Moret, are “not considering particle size.” Flaming DU burns at 3,000 to 6,000 degrees Centigrade, producing “a large number of extremely small particles in the nanoparticle range.” A nanoparticle is 0.001 microns, or a billionth of a meter. In the pull of gravity, a particle so minute is as light as air. The particle remains “suspended as atmospheric dust [unless] it is rained out, snowed out or removed by moisture such as fog and deposited in the environment,” said Moret. “This contaminates air, water, soil and food with ionizing radiation, internally exposing all living things.”
To avoid litigation and bad-for-business publicity, the U.S. nuclear industry dresses its activities up pretty, a strategy called “greenwash.” Nuke promoters tout DU cooking utensils and convert the badly contaminated, decommissioned Rocky Flats plutonium processing site in Colorado into a wildlife refuge playground. Even while generals deny carpeting Iraq and Afghanistan with fine uranium dust, they rationalize that uranium is barely radioactive and claim that its alpha radiation cannot harm us internally because it can’t penetrate skin — which means, explained retired Manhattan Project and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Marion Fulk, each alpha particle dumps its intense energy all at once into a tiny area, making it “very wicked.” Here the parameters of the generals’ model exclude wounds and the human need to eat, drink and breathe. “1.3 billion people have been killed, maimed and diseased globally from the nuclear weapons and nuclear power projects,” said Moret.
The orchestrated campaign to downplay depleted uranium comes with shifting themes: don’t mention depleted uranium; don’t acknowledge using depleted uranium; acknowledge using it only to penetrate the armor of tanks and bunkers; assert that the dust from exploded uranium falls down and goes nowhere; imply that the “depletion” of uranium renders it harmless; never mention that not all uranium munitions are depleted; stress that depleted uranium, no big deal, is the least radioactive of all radioactive elements; argue that since alpha radiation from DU can’t penetrate the skin, it can’t harm the body; claim that any radioactive particles that do enter the body will be swiftly expelled; never admit to any connection between exposure to DU and illness, birth defects, death or Gulf War Syndrome, the infamous malady afflicting veterans of Gulf War I.
“There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment,” reads a post–Gulf War I report by LANL. “Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal. If DU penetrators proved their worth during our recent combat activities, then we should assure their future existence . . . through Service/DoD proponency. If proponency is not garnered, it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability.”
British environmental writer Keith Parkins commented, “It is not in the interests of the military-industrial-complex to admit the link between Gulf War Syndrome and depleted uranium, or to admit that those who were on the battlefield will suffer long-term health effects, as to do so would be to deny the use of the latest military toy.” Such an admission would also throw open a floodgate of litigation.
I asked David Fuehne of LANL’s Environmental Stewardship Division if it was true that LANL considers DU nonhazardous. On behalf of LANL he replied, “A given mass of DU is less radioactive than a similar mass of most radioactive materials. The hazards of exposure of DU are primarily due to its chemical toxicity. All heavy and dense materials, such as lead and uranium, can be harmful if inhaled or ingested in significant quantities.”
Marion Fulk countered, “U-238 radiates 12,600 disintegrations per second per gram. Do you consider that safe? I don’t.” Beyond DU’s chemical and radiological toxicity, Fulk said, “the finely divided nanoparticles can breech the cells, and when they enter the cell they will act as catalysts for any reaction thermodynamically available to go downhill toward entropy. It’s like putting the cells in a Waring blender — you get the same chemical composition, but no life.”
Depleted Uranium and Gulf War Syndrome
What else do the Americans want?” spoke Sayed Gharib from Tora Bora, Afghanistan. “They killed us, they turned our newborns into horrific deformations, and they turned our farm lands into graveyards, and destroyed our homes. . . . we have nothing to lose.”
When asked if the United States and Britain were using DU in the post-9/11 war on Afghanistan, United Kingdom Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon told the UK Parliament, “It is not being used at present.” But a recent random sampling of 17 geographically scattered Afghans by Dr. Asaf Durakovic disputed this denial.
Durakovic is a former U.S. Army medical advisor, fired after he found uranium in the urine of U.S. and Canadian Gulf War I veterans in 1999, seven to nine years after exposure. In his recent study, the uranium he found in Afghan subjects closely matched uranium from Afghan War bomb-attack craters. He reported, “The results were astounding: the [Afghan] donors presented concentrations of toxic and radioactive uranium isotopes between 100 and 400 times greater than in the Gulf veterans tested in 1999.”
Symptoms suffered by these irradiated Afghans — fatigue, serious immunodeficiencies, kidney damage, leukemia, cancer, and on and on — closely paralleled the so-called Gulf War Syndrome, a catastrophe that the Pentagon strives to blame on oil fires, vaccinations, post-traumatic stress disorder, and chemical and biological weapon releases, never mentioning DU. In the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fewer scapegoats compete with DU for the toxic blame. And uranium in the urine nine years beyond exposure disputes the mollifying claims by nuclear apologists that radionuclides (radioactive substances) are swiftly expelled by the body.
As U.S. Army contamination expert Doug Rokke, who now battles serious health problems, described his uranium cleanup operation, “When we first got assigned to clean up the DU and arrived in northern Saudi Arabia, we started getting sick within 72 hours. Respiratory problems, rashes, bleeding, open sores started almost immediately.” Nobody warned soldiers fighting in U.S. invasions about the toxicity of DU weapons, and nobody warned or shielded New Mexico village volunteer firefighters, who battled the Cerro Grande forest fire close by LANL’s blazing DU firing ranges, even while the ranges’ extreme contamination went up in smoke.
Of the 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War I, where only 148 died in combat, 11,000 are now dead. “By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on Permanent Medical Disability,” stated Arthur N. Bernklau, executive director of Veterans for Constitutional Law in New York. Compare this 56 percent disability rate with the 10 percent disability rate for Vietnam veterans poisoned by Agent Orange. Boosted by our present wars, the number keeps growing. Terry Jamison from the Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that “Gulf Era veterans” on medical disability since 1991 number 518,739. Bernklau said, “The long-term effects have revealed that DU is a virtual death sentence.”
Depleted Uranium: There Is No Safe Dose
Depleted uranium” is a handy moniker, useful for masking its ecocidal talents, which the generals have always known full well. Witness this 1995 U.S. Army technical report: “If depleted uranium enters the body, it has the potentiality of causing serious medical consequences. The associated risk is both chemical and radiological.”
The half-life of U-238 is the current age of Earth — 4.5 billion years. Half of what now exists will still be around 4.5 billion years hence. Compared to its deadly radioactive offspring, some with half-lives of mere minutes, it decays very slowly and transforms, element by element, through many lethal radioactive steps before settling down as lead. Citing this poky rate of decay, the generals publicly dismiss DU as nontoxic, even as they downplay how much they use it.
But its virtual immortality means that once its particles camp out inside your body, they and their radioactive decay progeny will steadily bombard your cells with radiation forever. Doug Rokke said, “A portion of this stuff is soluble, which means it goes into the bloodstream and all of your organs. The insoluble fraction stays — in the lungs, for example. The radiation damage and the particulates destroy the lungs.”
Consider a nanoparticle of insoluble uranium oxide, 1/10,000 the diameter of a red blood cell. Small enough to elude the filtering celia in your air passages, it can lodge in your deepest lung sacs. According to physicist Marion Fulk, an average man inhales at least 100 billion nanoparticles per day. The likelihood keeps growing that several or multitudes of those particles will be uranium.
Scientist and radiation expert Dr. Rosalie Bertell testified, “DU is a very powerful alpha particle emitter, with each particle carrying a force of about 4.2 MeV (million electron volts). It requires only 6 to 10 eV (electron volts) to break the DNA or other large molecules in the body.”
“If you damage a cell, you’d better kill it,” Fulk said to me. For if just one alpha particle merely manages to deform just one cell still able to reproduce, that cell could quit your body’s team, aspire to untrammeled growth and become instead your parasite, your cancer. Such cell damage arises from what the nuclear industry shrugs off as “low level” radiation.
Nuclear power opponent Dr. Judith Johnsrud wrote me, “I am appalled that DU would be incinerated anywhere. . . . Despite DOE and DoD attempts to claim that depleted uranium is not hazardous to human health, I would have to conclude that any alpha emitter which is inhaled (or ingested) and thus becomes an internal emitter cannot help but pose a hazard. . . . Recent research in the field of radiation microbiology has quite clearly established that a single radiation track through a cell is enough to cause a subsequent damage, including but not limited to cancer.”
“By any reasonable standard of biomedical proof,” asserted molecular biologist Dr. John W. Gofman, formerly of Lawrence Livermore Lab, “there is no safe dose.”
Uranium in your gonads can distort your genetic heritage, and in semen it can contaminate sexual partners. “The military admitted that they were finding uranium excreted in the semen of the soldiers,” said Doug Rokke. “If you’ve got uranium in the semen, the genetics are messed up.” In a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study of 251 families in Mississippi, 67 percent of soldiers came back from the first Gulf War to beget children with serious illnesses or deformities.
Dr. Jannan Ghalib described photos of Iraqi babies born after Gulf War I: “This one, no head. This one, legs fused together. Another, no limbs and tiny buds on the misshapen chest. Then a face with no eyes, just flaps of skin over the empty sockets. Another with a huge water swollen head with no brain.”
Carol H. Picou, a military nurse deployed to the battle zone of the first Gulf War, has tested positive for uranium poisoning. “I have long term/short term memory deficit. I have toxic encephalopathy — a disease of the brain. I have developed thyroid deterioration. I have developed suspicious squamous cancerous cells of the uterus. My muscles have deteriorated. I have no control over my bowels or my bladder at all anymore. I had my tubes tied. I was afraid I would have a child born with birth defects. This baby [she referred to a photo of a Gulf War I veteran’s child] is missing his ear and his eye, and his heart is on the wrong side. What happened over there?”
DU’s Stand-In Role at LANL
LANL hasn’t hidden its involvement with the world’s most dangerous element, plutonium — its desire to expand production of plutonium pits (nuclear bomb triggers) has occasionally taken up some local column inches. But LANL’s employment of depleted uranium in several kinds of explosive experiments got nary a whisper of public mention until last year when a coalition of environmental organizations read the fine print in two “burning” permits.
“regulations do not include standards for radionuclides”
The burning of DU at LANL is very, very, very serious,” asserted Leuren Moret. Asked if the burns were filtered, she explained, “Nanoparticles [released when DU ignites] go through all air filters, including HEPA filters — High Efficiency Particulate Air filters.” LANL’s open-air “burns” of DU employ no filters.
A coalition of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group (EVEMG) and Tewa Women United — represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center — appealed in 2004 to the State Environmental Improvement Board to rescind the two burning permits granted LANL by the Air Quality Bureau (AQB) of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). Joni Arends of CCNS sent me copies of these permits, along with a question-and-answer dialogue between the coalition and the AQB.
The permits authorized a total of 18 “burns” per year involving depleted uranium at Technical Areas (TA) 11 and 36. Though the TA-11 permit kept mum on the nature of its so-called burns, the TA-36 permit described its burns as “simulated accident scenarios involving transportation containers of High Explosive materials (‘HE’) and depleted uranium using a sled track.” The recipes of ingredients per each DU burn at both sites were remarkably similar:
• 88 pounds of depleted uranium per burn
• 99 or 100 pounds of high explosives per burn
• plenteous fuel: either 1 ton of wood, or 7 1/2 tons of wood, or 800 gallons of fuel oil per burn
The permits allow these 1,584 pounds of DU per year to get “burned” upwind of Espanola, Taos, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, White Rock, Embudo Valley, many Hispanic villages and nine Native American pueblos. About 235,000 people live within 50 miles of Los Alamos, a radius barely excluding Taos. I wondered if burning uranium, high explosives and fuel together might cause the DU to disperse even more widely. Such quantities of inflammables couldn’t be mere bonfires.
The AQB permits allowed the burns to be monitored “visually” or in compliance with air quality standards for regulated toxic emissions. Depleted uranium, though listed in the contents of the so-called burns, is not listed as regulated by the permits. All monitoring, record keeping and dispersion modeling of these “burns” would be performed by none other than LANL.
“What authority does NMED have to permit and regulate highly explosive materials and depleted uranium?” asked the written query of CCNS and EVEMG. Air Quality Bureau’s reply: “AQB does not have such authority, except regarding emissions of regulated air pollutants.”
In response to a coalition request that the Air Quality Bureau install its own air quality monitors near the burning sites, AQB replied, “The AQB does not have the authority to act on your request to install radiation monitors, but will contact EPA.” AQB added, “LANL does not have to quantify actual emissions when monitoring each scenario.”
Can an official state bureau issue permits for the burning of substances that the bureau itself denies it has authority to regulate or permit? I was bemused to find, in the New Mexico Register of 2002, that while New Mexico had adopted most EPA air quality standards as its own, explicitly excluded were emissions of radionuclides and radon from uranium mines and DOE facilities. I asked an acquaintance at the AQB if that policy still held.
The response: “Yes. New Mexico has not accepted delegation for the National Emissions Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for radionuclides. This means that the NESHAP still applies, but that it’s up to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to enforce it. The New Mexico air quality regulations do not include standards for radionuclides.”
Given that the nuclear industry is possibly New Mexico’s largest polluter, with its uranium mines, Trinity site, White Sands testing range, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, the Energetic Metals Research Test Center firing range in Socorro, and Sandia and Los Alamos National laboratories, why would New Mexico’s official watchdog agency not “accept delegation” to enforce emission standards for a principal pollutant this industry spews? Rita Trujillo of the Air Quality Bureau explained: “It’s a specialized field. We don’t have the expertise in-house to take on the radioactive NESHAP.”
To stop the “burns,” the coalition wanted the Environmental Improvement Board to rescind LANL’s permits for high explosives, since New Mexico chooses not to regulate radionuclides, such as uranium. It is uncertain whether New Mexico has ever established a precedent of regulating uranium as a chemical toxin.
“We had to come up with a number”
The nearest Environmental Protection Agency official overseeing New Mexico is George Brozowski of the Region-6 Office in Dallas, Texas. I asked him if the EPA issues radionuclide permits for LANL’s open-air DU burnings. “I do not issue them a permit,” he said. 40CFR 61 (Code of Federal Regulations), Subpart H, covers the burns, he explained, “under site-wide requirements.”
“But Subpart H mentions only the monitoring and record keeping for so-called release points, meaning building stacks and vents, right?” I said. “So how do you monitor open-air fires?”
He said that LANL had AIRNET (air sampling network) monitoring stations set up throughout the lab environs.
“Meaning they police themselves?” I asked. “You take their word for it?”
“Correct.” But every two years Brozowski visits LANL and checks out “points of interest” such as DU burning sites.
The 2003 LANL report to the EPA distinguished between “point sources” (a building’s smokestacks and vents) and “non-point sources,” meaning the open air. Since 1995, “LANL’s air sampling networks (AIRNET) were used, with EPA approval, to calculate off-site impacts resulting from diffuse and fugitive emissions of radioactive particles and tritium oxide from non-point sources.”
Brozowski referred me to David Fuehne, acting group leader for the Meteorology and Air Quality group in LANL’s Environmental Stewardship division. I asked Fuehne if TA-11 and TA-36, the DU burn sites, had their own AIRNET monitors. Fuehne replied, “AIRNET monitors pull a sample of the air stream,” making them very effective at measuring elusive alpha radiation. He said samples are analyzed once a week. He bumped my next questions to Lorrie Bonds Lopez, chief of staff of Risk Reduction and Environmental Stewardship at LANL.
“Why is LANL burning DU?” I asked Bonds Lopez.
“It’s all for waste disposal, routine burning. It’s not even really DU, just DU-contaminated waste.”
“Then why do both permits say 88 pounds of depleted uranium per burn?”
“We had to come up with a number for the permits,” she explained. “Burning is just the easiest way to get rid of leftover high explosives.”
“But the sled track permit, said to be for simulating accident scenarios — is that waste, too?”
“It’s not a sled track, it’s a drop tower.”
I said, “But I didn’t see a drop tower mentioned in either permit. The one permit said sled track.”
“Well, that one is experimental.” She asked what my interest was in DU.
My main concern, I told her, was DU weaponry.
“DU is not a weapon,” she corrected me. “Enriched uranium is a weapon. Not DU.”
“I mean DU as it’s used in tank penetrators.”
“Got it.” She very soon discontinued our conversation.
In the May 15, 2005, Taos Horsefly, reporter Jane Odin quoted LANL’s website, which stated that the AIRNET 77 station, at TA-36 (the sled track site) and just downwind of the TA-15 hydrotest facilities, was closed down. “This sampler was . . . in an old firing site . . . a radiological control area with depleted uranium surface contamination,” stated the website. “Depleted uranium has normally been detected in samples from this site because the sampler is located on top of the source. Even though this location may represent the highest possible concentrations onsite, it does not provide an indication of the amount of material being resuspended or transported offsite.”
On behalf of LANL officialdom, David Fuehne wrote that AIRNET-77 was shut down for “operational reasons,” claiming other stations remained nearby, one as close as 0.4 mile.
“a detonation would destroy any facility”
Because LANL was listed as a DU munitions test-firing site in the book Discounted Casualites, I wanted to learn what exactly a sled track was. Did the DU waste alleged by Bonds Lopez come from munitions tests? Here’s a blurb from the EMRTC website about its sled track in Socorro: “The Sled Track is a 300-meter (1,000-foot) monorail system used for dynamic testing of warheads, penetrators, and shape charges. The Sled Track vehicles can achieve velocities up to 550 m/sec (1800 ft/sec) and provides a dynamic means for precision impact control for target penetration studies, development of hard target penetrators, and proof of concept testing.” During DU munitions tests, a DU warhead is mounted on the sled, warhead to the fore, and sent hurtling at 1200 mph against something very solid.
But Bonds Lopez had insisted it was a drop tower. “The drop tower can provide data on the impact properties of materials and can be used to simulate impact on small structures,” says the British Cranfield Military Academy website. “An instrumented drop weight assembly is propelled down the tower . . . to crush, stretch or puncture the sample material or structure.”
Whether sled track or drop tower, in “accident scenarios” a combination of DU and high explosives get subjected to massive impact in the presence of a whole lot of fuel. And explode?
I didn’t wonder for long if “simulated accident scenario” might be a euphemism for munitions test. It isn’t. When I e-mailed David Fuehne, via LANL public affairs, asking where the DU waste allegedly being burned came from, he contradicted Bonds Lopez. He wrote that the permits did not refer to DU waste burning: “The DU being used at the TA-36 sled track and the TA-11 drop tower sites is not waste material generated by other LANL activities.”
The drop tower insisted upon by Bonds Lopez is at TA-11, covered by one permit. The sled track is at TA-36, covered by the other permit. Though the TA-11 permit never mentions its drop tower, both DU “burning” permits are actually for “accident simulation scenarios.” In these scenarios the DU acts as stand-in for plutonium in a fully assembled nuclear weapon, explained Feuhne, a recipe deemed to replicate the Bomb’s behavior, without going fissile, in an accident. “During transportation and handling a real weapon is not armed,” he continued. “Therefore, there will not be a nuclear yield in the case of an accident. However, the explosives may burn or detonate, dispersing plutonium (e.g., accidents in 1960s).
“Smaller velocity impacts (e.g., during mounting) are simulated at the TA-11 Drop Tower (real weapons are not used). Similarly, higher-velocity impacts (e.g., plane crash) are simulated at the TA-36 Sled Track. . . . Materials such as explosives and depleted uranium are necessary to simulate weapon response to test conditions.”
Fuehne concluded, “There are no alternatives to open burning for these tests. A detonation would destroy any facility that housed the quantities of explosives tested.”
During the last several years LANL has reported “no burns” at TA-11 and TA-36, even after obtaining similar permits. The coalition has learned that LANL apparently applies for up to 10 other permits covering airborne emissions, but not covering explosions. Permits for explosions come purportedly from a different agency.
No matter if the DU is catching fire via explosions or burning, said Leuren Moret, “the end result is the same. They are releasing large amounts of DU oxides into the air, which carry very, very long distances, and they’re fully aware of the harm they’re doing.”
Marion Fulk considered Feuhne’s description of “accident scenarios” more plausible than the “waste burns” alleged by Bonds Lopez. Fulk explained that when nuclear labs burn uranium, it is burned slowly in containers, to convert it to chemically stable oxides and reduce the danger of spontaneous uranium fires. The precisely similar proportion of DU to high explosives in each permit also argues against mere waste burns. “They’ve got things measured out to some purpose,” said Fulk. “That’s a huge amount of DU to end up in fine particles and get dispersed all over the country.”
Fulk explained why explosions disperse toxins more widely than do burns: “The higher the temperature, the higher the pressure of the gas that’s formed, which will expand more rapidly. Because it’s expanding faster, there is less time for condensation into larger particles.” That is, the hotter and more explosive the “burn,” the more nanoparticles will ride the winds and slip invisibly, silently, easily into anybody’s lungs.
Actual Munitions Tests
“100,000 kg (220,000 lbs) of DU”
When the appeal to rescind the “burn” or accident simulation permits for TA-11 and TA-36 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (88 pounds of DU in each of 18 burns) came before the state Environmental Improvement Board early this year, LANL (and DOE) officials twice moved that the appeal be dismissed. Twice LANL’s request was denied, paving the way for public hearings on these permits to be held March 6 and 7, 2006, one day apiece in Espanola and Los Alamos. LANL also proposed that expert testimony on the dangers of DU be barred from these hearings. (The permits, after all, did not regulate DU.)
Public hearings on LANL activities are nothing new. Environmental impact hearings, nuclear transportation hearings, and water and air quality hearings come regularly to northern New Mexico, bloodlessly conducted by LANL or DOE officials smug in the knowledge that whatever any member of the public might say, LANL will do as it pleases. So, faced with hearings in which depleted uranium could be discussed, why did LANL in an apparent defeat decide to withdraw the appealed permits, effectively canceling these hearings? Did LANL decide that the need to keep depleted uranium behind its smokescreen outweighed its need to win this round?
And/or are the 18 open-air DU accident simulation explosions per year (if they all detonate) simply red herrings, dwarfed by LANL’s significantly larger appetite for DU in other concoctions? Seven years ago, Brookhaven National Laboratory nuclear physicist Vladimir S. Zajic estimated, “100,000 kg (220,000 lb) of DU were expended at Los Alamos since the beginning of operations.” This 100-metric-ton number came in a survey (never mentioning accident simulation scenarios) of test-firing sites for DU munitions.
“the Military Munitions Rule”
LANL is chiefly run by private contractors under the Department of Energy (DOE), but the Department of Defense (DoD) performs the testing of nonnuclear munitions on firing ranges. At LANL? Well, radiological DU munitions proliferate in the U.S. arsenal; they do not fission and are thus nonnuclear; and LANL lists “munitions experiments” among its activities.
Government agencies like DoD and DOE have long enjoyed “sovereign immunity” from liability for environmental damage. Congress passed the Federal Facilities Compliance Act of 1992 in order to subject government to the same environmental regulations as private industry, but instructed the EPA to make special accommodation with the DoD for munitions testing. The result was the Military Munitions Rule, which defined hazardous, that is, regulated, military waste as that which has been “abandoned.”
Explosive residue that lands inside a firing range is not considered abandoned, and one way to keep the site itself from abandoned status (which would require a cleanup) might be emission permit applications. Residue that exits the range is considered abandoned, and here again nobody seems to count airborne nanoparticles. “Munitions used in weapon’s research, development, testing, and evaluation programs,” according to the rule, are being put to their “intended use” and are not considered abandoned even while their waste carpets a firing range and fills the air. Thus no agency, federal or state, regulates any “intended use” open-air depleted uranium munitions testing performed by DoD at LANL.
Fake Nuclear Explosions
“open-air explosive tests involving depleted uranium”
The 1999 Sitewide Environmental Impact Statement (SWEIS), a DOE publication, draped a multitome window dressing over LANL’s foreordained expansion, or “Expanded Alternative.” The SWEIS proposed to expand plutonium pit production and the capacity of Area G, LANL’s nuclear waste dump, which borders — like the TA-36 sled track firing range — on the White Rock bedroom community.
The SWEIS also proposed to boost LANL’s yearly “expenditure” of depleted uranium at technical areas TA-14, TA-15 and TA-36 (the sled track site). “These facilities conduct open-air explosive tests involving depleted uranium and weapons development testing,” said the 2003 LANL Radionuclide Air Emissions report to the EPA in its list of “primary facilities responsible for radiological airborne emissions.”
The SWEIS “Alternatives” table for “high explosives testing” proposed an expanded DU “expenditure” from 2,900 pounds per year to 6,900 pounds per year “over all activities,” namely hydrodynamic tests (to expand from 30 to 100 per year), dynamic experiments, explosives research and testing, and munitions experiments. In one example of LANL’s conflicting numbers, the next page’s “Parameters” table for these sites instead proposed a tripling of DU expenditure from 2,882 pounds per year to 8,666 pounds per year, with a 5,950 pounds per year preponderance of DU earmarked for TA-15.
TA-15 is home for the DARHT (Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test) facility, with only one of its two long perpendicular arms now operational, since 1998. Before DARHT, between 1963 and 2004, hydrodynamic tests were performed by the PHERMEX (Pulsed High-Energy Radiation Machine Emitting X-Rays) facility, also at TA-15. Hydrodynamic tests are now touted as necessary for “stockpile stewardship,” or making sure old weapons still work. “However, in the event that this nation decides . . . that new nuclear weapons should be developed . . . DARHT could . . . assist in the development of weapons,” said the 1995 DARHT Record of Decision. Coincidentally, after Congress recently refused to fund new nuclear bunker busters, it did fund stockpile stewardship.
In hydrodynamic tests, accelerated particles race the length of DARHT to take split-second x-rays of exploding mock nuclear “primaries.” In real bombs these primaries are basically A-bombs, with plutonium at their cores, triggers for the H-bomb phase. Since if plutonium itself were used in these explosions, there would quickly be no DARHT facility, no LANL, etc., here again DU is plutonium’s favored stand-in.
These “hydroshot” explosions take place outside of DARHT’s 5-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls after the area has been cleared of personnel to a radius of 2,500 feet. Almost all such tests have blown up in the open air. But the 1995 DARHT Record of Decision decreed that environmental mitigation, or containment, of these explosions, be phased in over 10 years.
A 2004 LANL report by Jacek Dziewinski and Kurt Anast tackled the Record of Decision requirement that DARHT hydrotests be 40 percent contained, in spherical steel vessels, beginning with year six of DARHT’s operation (it’s now year seven). Clearly such containment vessels still inhabited only the drawing board in 2004. According to Dziewinski and Anast, one shot’s residue in these vessels could total 150 pounds of high explosives and 250 pounds of DU.
“LANL did not fully implement its program to develop vessel containment,” states a September 2005 DOE inspector general’s audit. LANL instead recently started “containing” these shots with foam housed in a tent, such as in the April 1, 2005, “Hydroshot 3625” touted in the Los Alamos National Laboratory Newsletter of April 11. The “contained” explosion pictured in that issue towered over the DARHT building. In a photo of the aftermath of a tent-contained shot, a tattered flag of fabric hangs from one surviving broken stick. Apparently data collection is easier through foam than through steel. But contaminated foam cleanup can take up to two months, slowing the rate of hydroshots at DARHT. Thus in 2004 only seven of a scheduled 10 DARHT shots got fired. (Again, the 1999 SWEIS proposed 100 hydrodynamic tests per year.)
“Hydroshot 3625!” Have there indeed been 3625 hydroshots since the 1963 PHERMEX start-up? And have most hydroshots indeed exploded 250 pounds of DU, almost entirely in the open air, rivaling over the years the more than 340 tons of DU that battered Iraq in Gulf War I?
The 1999 SWEIS nowhere mentions any DU whatsoever to be expended at TA-11 (the drop tower), snubbing its accident simulations. Does this mean the DU allotted in the “Parameters” table for TA-36 (the sled track) was not for accident simulations either? Those 2,650 pounds per year of DU for TA-36 could total 30 annual fake accidents. Or, if expended as a 10-pound munition, that SWEIS amount could give us one explosion for every working day of the past six years of the Expanded Alternative. Or is LANL again simply “coming up with numbers”? And would those numbers logically exaggerate or would they downplay any toxic activities?
Extremely Hot and Explosively Expanding
Depleted uranium munitions are not nuclear weapons. Nuclear explosions by definition split the atom in an instantaneous, chain-reacting, destructive blast whose mind-boggling power still casts a black shadow over our time. DU explosions are extremely hot and explosively expanding fires. Both types of explosion spread radiation or radioactive substances into the environment. Both are thus radiological weapons.
Depleted uranium weapons pale before the inconceivable power of a thermonuclear bomb (albeit DU is a major bomb component and fissions during a nuclear explosion). The localized cremations and widespread eternal poisoning of DU can’t compare to the instant, complete, overwhelming devastation of nuclear weapons, which for all the 60 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were deemed unthinkable to use . . . until this administration’s lust for “usable” nukes.
The generals have never considered the use of DU unthinkable. These days DU far surpasses plutonium as the current greater agent of ruination because — touting a “depletion” that is wholly relative — the generals employ it with an absolute absence of inhibition, achieving devastation with sheer huge numbers and the passage of time, since radioactivity increases as uranium decays to hotter progeny. While those grapefruit-sized plutonium pits, core of the Bomb, wait in the wings, hopefully forever, the world now swims in DU. And the United States lavishes it on our designated enemies in profligate amounts. To what end?
When Philip Berrigan’s protest group was arrested in 2000 for attempting to dismantle two Warthog airplanes, they said in their statement defending their actions, entitled “Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium”: “Attack a village with an A-10 Warthog and leave a trench. Attack a village with an A-10 Warthog firing depleted uranium and leave a poisoned graveyard — the people dead, plants dying or sterile, the earth eternally toxic.”
We Have Everything to Lose
We often hear, during an Orange Alert or a Fox News program, that an evil terrorist attack might wreak destruction not with a complicated doomsday A-bomb but instead with a simple “dirty bomb.” These terrorist dirty bombs, we’re told, can poison the populace and render vast areas ecologically dead and unlivable through the spread of radiation. Well, the fearmongers are talking about bombs made of high explosives and DU, the same recipe being exploded at LANL in the open air and the same kind of evil weapon, by the thousands of tons, with which the United States is devastating the innocent civilians, women and children of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the troops we send over there.
Former U.N. Commission on Human Rights member Karen Parker lists the internationally accepted humanitarian laws violated by DU weaponry: “The effect of a weapon must be limited in territory to the actual field of combat. Weapons must not continue to harm or kill after the war has ended. Weapons must not be unduly inhumane. Weapons must not cause long-lasting, wide-spread environmental damage.” And in 1996, the World Court said that under humanitarian law, countries must “never use weapons that are incapable of distinguishing between civilian and military targets,” a test the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs — and DU weapons — clearly fail.
People qualify for their coveted jobs at LANL, so often devoted to harm, by pledging to keep secret what they’re up to. Their reward is the “Q” security clearance, a big incentive not to tell the rest of us DU is deadly. Engaged in tasks dangerous to their own health, they seem to believe their own models, where local sickness attains insignificance compared to the total world population. This level of abstraction could soon render the total world population insignificant.
Helen Caldicott recently ruffled some feathers by calling LANL weapons experimenters war criminals. And Doug Rokke called DU weapons “criminal”: “We can’t do it. We can’t do it. It’s a crime against God. It’s a crime against humanity to use uranium munitions in a war, and it’s devastating to ignore the consequences of war. These consequences last for eternity.”
Even more than plutonium, depleted uranium has achieved the status of the ancient gods whose names you must not speak. A measure of how little human society has progressed is how much our bright, polite servants of annihilation pose as a priesthood of the nuclear cult, as they deny the consequences of what they do. But let’s call DU what it is: Devastation Unlimited.
LANL tests massive amounts of DU weaponry on sites bordering its own bedroom community. The bright idea for this weapon from hell may well have originated there. While blowing in the winds of our neighborhood, this weapon also travels abroad to destroy the futures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia/Kosovo, ballooning the whole world’s ever-growing “background radiation.”
U.S. leaders prowl about for new theaters to display their shock-and-awe sound-and-light show, playing on the nightly news like the latest hot video game. Coming to a neighborhood near you, courtesy of your local nuclear weapons lab. But as a little unfortunate collateral damage, great numbers of innocents sicken and die cruelly, their land sterilized, their genetic heritage imperiled, and appalling proportions of our troops return home sick, disabled and unable to beget normal children. A similar fate threatens the downwinders of DU-contaminated firing ranges, factories, storage facilities, open air “burns,” explosions and forest fires.
Isn’t this worth mentioning?
And is it not a crime?
Much credit goes to Sheri Kotowski of EVEMG, Joni Arends of CCNS, Scott Kovac, operations and research director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, and Beryl Schwartz of Peace Action New Mexico for providing me with so much of the information I needed to do this research. Thank you!