Depleted Uranium Found Scattered at Site 300

DU problems at Livermore National Lab
repeated in New Mexico

From Tri-Valley CAREs

In June of 2016, Tri-Valley CAREs obtained documents revealing that hunks of uranium-238 (also called depleted uranium or DU) were unexpectedly found strewn around the ground at a currently operating, open-air “firing table” at the Livermore Lab’s Site 300 high-explosives testing range near Tracy. Employees were routinely sampling groundwater in the summer of 2014 when they spotted DU littering the surface soil. The Lab found 27 pieces of uranium-238 measuring three inches in diameter or greater. They weighed 80 pounds. There is no question that explosive testing was the cause of the contamination. We do not know, however, how much DU is still out there in finely divided particles. We also don’t know the total number of tests–or the amount of DU they contained. Nor do we know how far, or in which directions, the DU has traveled on the wind. We do know that uranium-238 is an alpha-emitter with a radioactive half-life o 4.5 billion years. And we know that the Lab conducts “controlled burns” around this firing table, raising the issue of resuspension of DU particles.

Site 300 was founded in 1955 and this particular firing table began operating in 1962. The documents state that the DU contamination occurred before 2007. They speculate that the uranium-238 chunks may have been present since the 60s and 70s when the Lab conducted two to three detonations per week at this firing table. The documents fail to explain, however, how the “remedial investigation” of this area, completed under the Superfund law in the 1990s, missed finding such a large, and visible, hazard. Firing tables are outdoor, gravel-based detonation pads on which the Lab sets off bomb blasts to test how well a new or modified weapon design performs. Photos we have obtained show that these blasts are huge, with dust and debris dwarfing nearby structures. All blasts contain numerous hazardous materials. Those containing uranium-238 are a triple threat to human and ecological health because, in addition to it radioactivity, DU is a toxic heavy metal and a chemical health risk

DU contamination had been discovered previously at a firing table in the east-central portion of Site 300, at an area called Building 812. This new DU find is situated near the site’s western boundary, at the Building-851 firing table. Tri-Valley CAREs reviewed the Lab’s “Draft Work Plan” to characterize surface soils around the Building-851 firing table, and we submitted comments on June 10. Notably, the work plan proposes only 40 soil samples, all of which would be within 700 feet of the firing table. No scientific justification was offered for the limited radius. It was merely stated that a wider investigation would have to include an inconvenient consult with the US Fish & Wildlife Service due to the presence of endangered species. We noted that the Lab could have begun that consultation anytime following the discovery of DU in the summer of 2014 and chose not to. Other deficiencies in the work plan include a complete lack of analysis of uranium particle deposition via rainwater runoff channels (ephemeral streams) as well as the regular practice of controlled burning vegetation throughout the firing table area where the 80 pound pieces of DU were found.

Find comments and supporting documentation at Next, we have called for a daylong Superfund meeting that will include the DOE, Livermore Lab, EPA, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and Regional Water Quality Control Boards. We have requested briefings on the DU contamination covering how and when it occurred, how it may have spread over time, how it will now be characterized and–importantly–how issues of risk and cleanup will be determined. We will press DOE, the Lab and the regulatory agencies to hold a public meeting. We will also request a special community tour. And, we will report to you through our electronic updates, website, social media and newsletter. Stay tuned!


Hazards at LANL

Map of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) showing the Las Conchas Fire and other hazards

In New Mexico we have similar problems with DU contamination, especially at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and Socorro. At both sites, DU was spread around through open-air depleted uranium weapons testing. In 1979, LANL reported that approximately 110 tons of natural and depleted uranium had been exploded in the open air. 10% of this, or about 11 tons, was particalized. LANL and the surrounding area are probably contaminated with uranium (and various hazardous materials that were also in the tests). Since then, LANL has refused to stop exploding natural and depleted uranium in the open air.

Meanwhile, there have been multiple major wildfires that burned over these same areas, burning contaminated vegetation and sucking up the DU particles themselves in massive firestorms. Smoke from at least one of these fires spread across three states. DOE has chosen not to investigate if, and how much uranium was carried off site and where it eventually landed.


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