Thanks to Fukushima light shed on U.S. nuclear facility located on a volcano

The light shining on the safety of nuclear energy as a result of the Japanese nuclear crisis has been of such powerful wattage that it’s even flushing safety issues with nuclear weapons labs and manufacturing facilities out of hiding. Roger Snodgrass reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

On Friday, President Barack Obama asked the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review the safety of American nuclear power plants. . . . At Los Alamos National Laboratory, nuclear safety issues have been complicated with seismic concerns, as geological studies have uncovered an increasingly precarious underground structure. 

Los Alamos, of course, is the national lab in New Mexico created for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Still a work in progress after all these years, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility is being built to the tune of a cool $4.3 billion. That’s six times the cost (adjusted for inflation) of the division of the Manhattan Project that was based in Los Alamos.

The CMRR will be used to increase the capacity to produce plutonium “pits,” which is where a nuclear weapon’s chain reaction occurs. If that doesn’t sound like disarmament, you’re right. Funding for the project by the Obama administration was intended, in part, to win Republican votes for the ratification of New START. But, in terms of pure disarmament, it not only cancels out New START, it ensures the health of the nuclear-industrial complex for many years.

Snodgrass writes:

Everet Beckner . . . formerly a high-ranking official in the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Bush administration, called Friday for a pause in the design work underway [at the CMRR. He said] “the earthquake event in Japan was outside the current window of expectations because it was larger than a thousand-year event. . . . Maybe that isn’t enough of a margin.” 

Turns out that at

. . . Los Alamos National Laboratory [LANL], nuclear safety issues have been complicated with seismic concerns, as geological studies have uncovered an increasingly precarious underground structure. . . . in the late 1990s [faults were] found to run near and even beneath some LANL nuclear facilities. . . . A survey found a number of LANL buildings to be at considerable risk of earthquake-induced collapse. 

But this information

. . . was not immediately applied to building siting and design . . . . “When they set up Los Alamos initially, they didn’t care about these things. They were looking for an isolated site,” said [Greg] Mello [of the Los Alamos Study Group], who has studied seismic issues at the lab since 1996. . . . “Since then, many people have questioned the wisdom of putting a plutonium processing facility and now a nuclear pit manufacturing facility on the side of a volcano.” 

In fact, when it comes to locating such facilities on the side of a volcano in an area prone to seismic activity, there’s no wisdom whatsoever to question.

In fact, when it comes to locating such facilities on the side of a volcano in an area prone to seismic activity, there’s no wisdom whatsoever to question.

Meanwhile, at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Washington is using the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant’s “seismic vulnerability” as one of the reasons “to build a new Uranium Processing Facility, which is projected to cost as much as $6.5 billion and won’t be available for at least another decade,” reports Frank Munger in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

Despite millions of dollars spent on upgrades, the 60-year-old production hub at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant remains seismically vulnerable and could be severely damaged or disabled by a major earthquake. Sections of the 9212 complex, where bomb-grade uranium is processed, were built during World War II, and a federal spokesman at Y-12 said it’s not possible to bring the old facility up to today’s seismic standards. 

The road not taken: the plant’s seismic vulnerability could just as easily have been used as an excuse not to build a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge — or anywhere.

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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