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By Jon Campbell
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Several tons of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium-enough nuclear material to potentially destroy a sizable chunk of the southwest United States and wreak more havoc downwind-will be moved from the cave-hidden Technical Area 18 at the Las Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico over the next three years, according to internal documents obtained by the Voice.
The Department of Energy's new choice of home for the fissive material will be the Nevada Test Site, a barren desert wasteland about 100 miles from the Las Vegas strip. The test site in Nevada is also the home of Yucca mountain, which will receive at least 77,000 tons of nuclear waste over the next 38 years.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, the branch of the Department of Energy that controls nuclear labs, denies that any official decision on the proposed move has been made. "It's still in the system," Bryan Wilkes, an NNSA spokesperson, told the Voice today. Other sites are being looked at, Wilkes says, and the Nevada Test Site is only one of many "preferred alternatives." The ultimate decision, he says, rests in the results of several environmental impact statements.
But an official DOE letter dated June 28, 2002, sent from Las Alamos Director John Brown, in New Mexico, to NNSA Deputy Administrator Dr. Everet Beckner, in Washington, reveals that the folks at TA-18 have already started to pack their bags for Nevada.
"Las Alamos agrees with NNSA that the best overall decision to meet the post-September 11 challenges for the long-term security of nuclear activities associated with TA-18 is to move the CATI/II materials [weapons-grade material] and their associated equipment to the Nevada Test Site," Browne writes. The letter also outlines, in six bulleted points, specific plans for the move.
The Project on Government Oversight, a military watchdog that's been investigating the safety of nuclear sites in the U.S., applauds the move. But CATI/II materials are especially attractive to terrorists, says senior POGO investigator Peter Stockton.
"This is the stuff you can make improvised devises or dirty bombs from," he says, and suggests that transporting the goods could be more dangerous than storing them.
The move to the Silver State would make TA-18 cheaper to protect and geographically safer to defend, experts say.
"It's finally a sign that someone is taking nuclear security seriously," says Notra Turlock, former Director of Intelligence for the Department of Energy. He also says September 11 has raised the stakes on securing nuclear stockpiles and mitigated the bureaucratic battles between the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.
"It's a good step towards safety," he says.
Nevertheless, local public interest groups in Nevada, still fuming over the Yucca Mountain, are outraged about the new plan. Storing it in their backyards, they argue, makes them sitting ducks.
"You have to put the nuclear stuff somewhere, but [Nevada] don't want to see any more then we've already got," says John Hadder, the northern Nevada Coordinator for the non-profit Citizen Alert. "The focus should be on why these materials are a threat, and what we can do to reduce them," says Hadder. "Not just move them from place to place."
" Nuclear Waste Makes Haste" by Teal Krech
"Bracing for Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Forever" by R. C. Baker