By ANDY LENDERMAN | The New Mexican
July 18, 2007
Documents show higher toxin discharge; health risks unclear
POJOAQUE — Airborne releases of plutonium at Los Alamos National Laboratory could be about 59 times higher than what was officially reported during the Cold War, a health scientist told the public Wednesday evening.
But it’s still unclear if that translates to a public-health risk, health scientist Thomas Widner said.
Documents uncovered by the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment project show plutonium processing work related to nuclear weapons resulted in a release of 42.83 curies of plutonium from 1948-1955. The lab’s official report for that time period was 0.724 curies of plutonium. A curie is a unit of radioactivity.
“There are clearly discrepancies,” Widner said to a crowd of several dozen people at Homewood Suites Hotel in Pojoaque.
These airborne plutonium releases came from the D Building and the DP West Building, where plutonium processing work was performed at the time, Widner said.
The 42.83 curies number needs to be confirmed, Winder said. “It’s not cast in stone, but I’d be surprised if it was any lower than that,” he said.
That plutonium release would be larger than plutonium released at the Department of Energy’s Hanford, Savannah River and Rocky Flats sites combined, he said.
“The reason we’re concerned about this is because people lived so close,” Widner said.
Some early post-World War II and current housing is located a quarter-mile or more from the original plutonium processing area at the lab, according to an interim report produced by Widner’s team.
Inhaling or ingesting plutonium can lead to an increased risk for cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Widner’s team — a private contractor hired by the CDC — is also looking for other information about airborne plutonium releases from other sources. That’s in addition to other hazards they are examining, like uranium and chemical releases.
“We wish we had the data for all the years,” he said.
Widner’s San Francisco-based company, ChemRisk, is leading an effort to comb through millions of lab documents from 1943 to today in an effort to identify releases of radionuclides and chemicals from the lab.
At the end of the project, in about two years, the team will present its information to the CDC, which could recommend what’s called a dose reconstruction for people or workers who live in the area. A dose reconstruction involves a team of scientists who determine what kind of radiation was released, where it went and how much radiation a group of people were exposed to, Widner explained.
But the roughly $10 million project, which began in 1999, isn’t done gathering information.
The interim report offers a lengthy historical perspective on Los Alamos and the work done there during the Cold War, including a section on the Trinity Test, where the world’s first nuclear bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. New Mexicans in the vicinity of that July 1945 test, including some ranching families, were apparently exposed to radioactive fallout.
Contact Andy Lenderman at 995-3827 or firstname.lastname@example.org.