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The Enemy Within

by Alexander Cockburn

The September 11 Nuclear Scenario
Snoozing guards at Los Alamos, missing vials of plutonium oxides ... yes, the headlines in late June were announcing "security lapses" again at national labs and nuclear weapons plants. It seems that an Al Qaeda terrorist could roll up to the gates of the Sandia labs, haul out an RPG and catch America napping yet again. Sounding all brisk and efficient, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham acknowledged a recent critical report from the General Accounting Office and has taken standard evasive action, in the form of that whiskered veteran of bureaucratic ass-covering, the "security review." At Sandia National Labs, Dave Nokes, vice president for national security, was picked as the sacrificial goat and forced to resign.

The mess at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico has had its humorous side. Los Alamos equipment buyer Lillian Anaya thought she was ordering $30,000 worth of transducers. But she dialed a number that had been changed from an industrial equipment dealer to an auto parts shop and wound up buying a Mustang with government money instead. Or so say Los Alamos and University of California investigators, who recently cleared Anaya of any wrongdoing (though I still don't quite understand why she got the Mustang).

Let's get back to the larger picture. Who do they think they're kidding? To talk about terrorist opportunity offered by slack security just at Los Alamos and Livermore is like saying that hijackers would try to board planes only at Logan and Atlanta. There's scarcely a state in the union that hasn't got tanks or barrels of nuclear waste, or decommissioned reactors saturated with radioactive materials. Most interstates carry trucks hauling mobile Chernobyls around the country. We're talking 60 years of U.S. nuclear weapons research, development, testing and production, which has left us with staggering amounts of some of the most dangerous substances on the planet. And that's not even to mention the nuclear utilities.

The "security" scene doesn't change rapidly when it comes to nuclear materials and waste. All you can do is try to store radioactivity safely and wait for the millennia to roll by until it naturally decays. But, of, course, it's mostly stored in extremely unsafe and vulnerable conditions.

You live in Texas? There's the Pantex plant, producing nuclear weapons. In Colorado? You've got Rocky Flats. Flee to the clean breezes of the Pacific Northwest? Whoa! Here's the Hanford nuclear reservation, with its 177 waste tanks, upward of 67 of them known to have leaked, each containing a million gallons of radioactive waste. How about Idaho? Camp in the hills, cheek by jowl with the militia holdouts. Sorry, you've got the National Engineering Lab up the road, where intensely radioactive waste was converted to dry form for "permanent" storage nearly 40 years ago but now has to be extracted and repackaged.

Head for the heartland, and you'll find the Fernald plant in Ohio, whose career history includes cumulative "release" of at least 500 tons of toxic uranium dust, kept secret through most of the 1980s. Turn south into Kentucky, and there, across the horizon, is the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Watch where you drink. A 1,300-acre underground plume of technetium-99 (a uranium decay product) is migrating toward the Ohio River at the rate of several inches a day. The Department of Energy (DOE) has identified more than 5,700 such plumes of various kinds of contamination under or near its sites across the country. Head for the densely populated research triangle of North Carolina. Walk along the railroad tracks, and in the end you come to the Shearon Harris plant, a nuclear-power-generating station where they take spent fuel rods from two other nuclear plants owned by Progress Energy and store them in four densely packed pools filled with circulating cold water to keep the waste from heating up.

They're the largest radioactive waste storage pools in the country. Even the Department of Homeland Security acknowledges Shearon Harris as a ripe terror target. If your Al Qaeda operative found a way to interrupt the flow of cooling water, you'd have unstoppable pool fires and possibly a plant meltdown, with consequent peril for 2 million people residing in that part of the state. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reckons that on a best-case basis there's a 1 in 100 chance of a pool fire. And needless to say, there have been scores of screw-ups at Shearon Harris, in the form of emergency shutdowns, failures of safety monitoring systems (15 since the plant opened in 1987), rubber and other foreign material clogging the cooling lines.

Get the picture? Shearon Harris is a really dangerous place, and if you read all the security assessments and reports of past lapses, plus Tom Ridge's bleak warning, no doubt monitored by America's foes, you can see that -- as with Hanford and all the other nuclear waste dumps -- it wouldn't take much for a dedicated little crew of terrorists to inflict monstrous disaster, disaster that might well come anyway through sheer native laxity, without Al Qaeda having to lift a finger.

And don't forget, we're heading for a new phase in the itinerary to Armageddon. The DOE now proposes building a new plant to manufacture 450 plutonium "pits" (nuclear triggers) a year. Function? To arm the mini-nuke bunker busters scheduled under the Bush Administration's new nuclear strategy. Los Alamos is bidding for it, as is Carlsbad, New Mexico, Savannah River in South Carolina, the Nevada test site and Pantex.

Since the government has been doing its best down the years to damp troublesome public discussion of these dangers, concerned citizens should take advantage of the current sensitivity to weapons of mass destruction, which places like Shearon Harris most certainly are. There are dedicated groups across the United States that have been active for decades on issues of nuclear safety and have generated the information offered here.

Now that he's stepped down from his UN job, why not have a nonprofit foundation invite Hans Blix and a few other veteran inspectors to start touring the United States, assessing the risks posed by WMDs here? They could make well-publicized "surprise inspections," hold hearings, take evidence from local groups, issue public reports and build up pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to force the government to get serious about containing America's gravest and most deadly internal threat.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 2, 2003 (

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