News & Politics

Next Stop, Nevada!


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

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.”

Related Stories:

I’ll Cut the
Fence, You Grab the Plutonium
” by Geoffrey Gray

Nuclear Waste
Makes Haste
” by Teal Krech

Bracing for
Yucca Mountain’s Nuclear Forever
” by R. C. Baker

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