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Why should anyone trust LANL on nuclear safety?

In his October 20 opinion piece “Safety underpins LANL operator’s commitment to NM,” lab Director Thom Mason declares that “Our commitment to safety is inseparable from our commitment to the community,” as if the Lab is some kind of feel-good neighbor while it gears up to expand the production of plutonium pits, the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons. The essence of Mason’s argument is to trust that LANL will improve nuclear safety.

First of all, the public wouldn’t know about the lab’s long track record of nuclear safety infractions if it weren’t for the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. But the Department of Energy is trying to kill the messenger by seriously restricting Safety Board access to nuclear facilities, in direct conflict with the DNSFB’s enabling congressional legislation. That does not engender confidence in Mason’s ‘trust us’ approach. (See LANL’s dismal nuclear safety history at https://publicintegrity.org/topics/national-security/nuclear-negligence/.)

Nor should the history of nuclear weapons programs in New Mexico and across the nation engender public trust. After all, it was New Mexicans who experienced the world’s first fallout with the 1945 Trinity Test, causing increased infant mortality and an unknown number of cancers for which our fellow state citizens have never been compensated (see <https://thebulletin.org/2019/07/trinity-the-most-significant-hazard-of-the-entire-manhattan-project/>.)

Ask the downwinders of nuclear weapons tests at the Marshal Islands and the Nevada Test Site whether the government should be trusted. Why should LANL be trusted, when it used to claim that groundwater contamination was impossible, but today we know it is contaminated with chromium, perchlorates, high explosives, etc.?

More recently, how can the public trust LANL when it sent an improperly prepared radioactive waste barrel that ruptured and closed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for three years, contaminating 21 workers with plutonium and costing the American taxpayer $3 billion to reopen?

Mason promotes this feel-good ‘trust us’ approach to help clear the way for expanded plutonium pit production. Seventy percent of LANL’s ~$2.6 billion annual budget is already for core nuclear weapons research and production programs, and increasing each year. So-called cleanup remains flat at around $200 million per year (one-tenth of the nuclear weapons budget), with plans to leave the vast majority of radioactive and toxic wastes permanently buried above our groundwater. Funding for renewable energy research is approximately 2/1,000ths of the nuclear weapons budget, while the Lab has no dedicated budget line item to address climate change.

The irony is that not only is expanded plutonium pit production not needed, but also it may actually degrade our national security. There is no pit production scheduled to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing nuclear weapons stockpile. Instead, future production will be for speculative new nuclear weapons with heavily modified pit designs. The problem is that these future pits cannot be full-scale tested, or alternatively could push the U.S. back into nuclear weapons testing, which would have severe international proliferation consequences. Independent experts have found that pits last at least a century (the oldest are currently 40 years old). At least 15,000 existing pits are already stored at DOE’s Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. So why make new pits? One answer is that it will help enrich the LANL contractor, namely Triad National Security LLC, which Thom Mason heads up.

President Ronald Reagan famously declared, “Trust, but verify!” If Mason really wants the public to trust LANL while expanding nuclear weapons production, he should strongly and explicitly support verification by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that all is safe at the Lab. He should buck DOE and pressure it to rescind its order restricting Safety Board access to already troubled nuclear facilities that will face greater risks with increased plutonium pit production. Until then, New Mexicans should reject Mason’s ‘trust us’ approach to nuclear safety at LANL until such time as it is independently verified to be safe.

Jay Coghlan of Santa Fe is head of Nuclear Watch New Mexico

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