By Raam Wong, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
On Dec. 1, 1948, Los Alamos scientists detonated an explosive test that sent a radioactive cloud up over Bayo Canyon.
As he watched the plume drift over Los Alamos Mesa and settle into Pueblo Canyon, a lab health official observed that perhaps in the future it wasn't a good idea to set off explosions “without regard to wind direction and velocity.”
But such lessons were slow in coming in the early years of the lab.
A new report released this week identifies scores of accidents and chemical releases, as well as day-to-day operations from the lab's history that may have posed a public health risk.
The 558-page report is the culmination of 10 years of work by a team of researchers under contract with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers lifted the lid on scores of dusty old boxes and reviewed millions of documents to piece together instances in which the lab released radioactive and toxic materials. The report's findings will be discussed during a June 25 public meeting in Pojoaque.
The report is already prompting calls on the federal government to use the records catalogued by the researchers to conduct a full-blown study of just how much radiation past generations of New Mexicans were exposed to.
“All the other major production sites within the (Department of Energy nuclear) complex have already had a dose reconstruction done,” said Joni Arends of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.
The report concludes that a dose reconstruction is feasible with the records available.
Among the report's main findings is that past Los Alamos operations released significantly more emissions “than has been officially reported or published to the scientific community.”
The investigators unearthed one memo written in 1956 that, if accurate, indicates the lab's DP West Building emitted more airborne plutonium than all of the government's plutonium processing facilities combined.
But it was during the infancy of the lab, when scientists were racing Nazi Germany in the development of the atomic bomb, that perhaps Los Alamos' environmental and safety measures were most lax.
The 85 rooftop vents at the D Building plutonium processing facility, for instance, spewed contaminated air with no monitoring and little filtering.
Meanwhile because of the geography of the Los Alamos area, most housing had to be built very close to the lab. One apartment complex was just 200 meters from D building, while a trailer park on the rim of Los Alamos Canyon may have been exposed to radioactive gases from nuclear reactors situated on the canyon floor.
“We've learned a lot in the last 60 years,” lab spokesman Fred deSousa said Tuesday. “Today, LANL is one of the best-monitored DOE sites in the country.”
The spokesman said lab environmental programs include extensive monitoring of air, soil, water and wildlife, and outside groups and the state Environment Department perform similar testing. “We have multiple safety nets,” he said.
The lab is also subject to an agreement with the state that requires the identification and cleanup of legacy waste over the lab's 40-square-mile property by 2015.
The report released this week states that access to classified documents at Los Alamos was the most difficult that the researchers had experienced at a DOE site due to several factors, including the Cerro Grande fire and security incidents involving LANL staff.
Still, the team says it was able to significantly expand the amount of documentation that is publicly available about past LANL operations.
Those records could come into play in two landmark wrongful death lawsuits recently filed by the survivors of former Los Alamos residents who were allegedly made sick by decades-old lab operations.
The report, which is available online, includes chapters on LANL reactors, tritium processing, beryllium use, residential housing developments and the incomplete picture of radiation exposures stemming from the world's first atomic bomb detonation in southern New Mexico.
“All assessments of doses from the Trinity test issued to date have been incomplete in that they have not addressed internal doses received after intakes of radioactivity through inhalation or consumption of contaminated water or food products,” the report states.
The report also provides a chronology of past accidents and other potential release incidents, as well as a prioritization of which events may have posed the most risk to the public.
The Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment report is available online at http://www.lahdra.org/pubs/pubs.htm. A public meeting on the report is set June 25 from 5-7 p.m. at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino in room Tewa 3.