Jun 11, 2009

Radioactive Releases Documented at LANL

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.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

“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.”

Yea we learned a lot. We got rid of the science and now we have an army of public affair, legal and government relation hacks to shield us from accountability. We used to be the "crowned jewel" of the national laboratories, now we're the "best-monitored" Pu pit production site of the military-industrial complex. We sure have come a looooong ways.

Anonymous said...

We don't care about no stink'n releases. Progress always comes at a price. Look at the number of millionaires we now have living in Los Alamos. That's progress! And sure, while the natives may get restless at times about what we do, they can't deny they'd still be wallowing in poverty were it not for us--the best and brightest who moved here to make the world safer. It's because of us they now have plenty of cleaning and picking-up jobs to choose from. That too is progress, damn it!

Anonymous said...

Does this good news mean that Bechtel will be able to hire some more lucrative outside enviro cleanup sub-contractors through COMPA? You know, people who are FOBs (Friends of Bechtel)?

Yummy!!!

RILEY BECHTEL

Anonymous said...

Just drink the water....

Anonymous said...

This news is so scary. Now I know why the people up on the hill have more brain tumors and thyroid cancers. I know many downwinders who have died of cancers of all kinds, but the story from Los Alamos always was "releases were very low." Now we know the truth. New Mexicans have been harmed by the laboratory. And now they want to turn it into a plutonium factory. It should be shut down and cleaned up. How many more people have to die?

Anonymous said...

"the people up on the hill have more brain tumors and thyroid cancers."

Statistically insignificant, as has been proven by numerous studies. Sorry, I know it is no consolation to those suffering from cancer, but the data simply don't back up the claims.

"I know many downwinders who have died of cancers of all kinds"

The term downwinders is used to designate people downwind from nuclear tests, not from LANL.

People died from cancer long before fission was proved. You need actual data to back up your claims.

I am sure I will be accused of being a lab manager and a heartless bastard as well, but the facts are facts....

Greg said...

There is a habitual problem with standard scientific statistical paradigms when applied to hazardous situations. If we loosely characterize the canons of science -- appropriate, in most most cases -- as requiring evidence that can be distinguished from random events at about two standard deviations from the norm, a great many highly dangerous situations and events would be classified as likely "random," by default, if we just looked at the data statistically.

The problem is exacerbated with small populations and relatively rare events, like brain cancers. It would take an extreme apparent elevation from the expected mean rate of incidence for that incidence to achieve statistical significance with a small sample.

Where there is mortal danger human beings apply their assessment of risk with the opposite null hypothesis -- that is, we want to know with high probability there ISN'T that mortal danger.

Where sample means are elevated above the larger population, it is even harder to prove LACK of elevated risk than it is to prove NO elevated risk.

It seems to me that we encounter a version of this problem in the public discussion of global warming and in many other situations that would require requiring positive action and commitment or change of some kind, which we collectively and individually naturally avoid.

It would be more accurate to ascribe this kind of error to institutional political activity than to our individual psychology. I used the latter framework more as metaphor. As a society, I think we think in these dysfunctional patterns primarily because we are paid and cozened into doing so. Material interests are at the bottom of our stupidity.

Greg Mello

Anonymous said...

"Where there is mortal danger human beings apply their assessment of risk with the opposite null hypothesis -- that is, we want to know with high probability there ISN'T that mortal danger."

Only when it's convenient for us to ask the question and take action on the answer. Otherwise there'd be a lot less cars on the road.

"It seems to me that we encounter a version of this problem in the public discussion of global warming and in many other situations that would require requiring positive action and commitment or change of some kind, which we collectively and individually naturally avoid."

Or maybe intelligent people recognize that no human activity is completely devoid of risks and potentially unforseen consquences. We have moved to a place where "prove that you will do no harm" is being mandated before action can occur. Ironically, it's guys like you that created such a mentality, so please don't complain about what you've wrought!

Frank Young said...

Try to convince yourself that this is statistically insignificant.

"The black star in the middle shows the tracks of alpha rays emitted by a particle of plutonium 239 in the lung tissue of an ape. These rays do not travel very far, but once in the body, they can penetrate more than 10,000 cells within their range. This set of alpha tracks (magnified 500 times) occurred over a 48-hour period. The plutonium particle that emitted them has a half-life of 24,400 years."

Anonymous said...

So? We know that Pu is an alpha emmitter, and we already know the energy of the alphas and so the range in a given material. What does the image add to the discussion except visual hyperbole? Many of the early Pu workers at LANL had body burdens, and many of them lived to very old ages. Some evidence exists of Pu at that level actually extending life. So what?

Frank Young said...

The image ends the discussion. No anonymous opinion nor uncited study refutes it. Plutonium wrecks surrounding cells for as long as it is in the body, which is essentially the rest of your life. There is no way to know when or if this damage will lead to cancer or some other illness. Anyone who suggests this extends life needs their head examined.

Anonymous said...

So, suppose that all of you are correct. What kind of world do you think that we would be living in today if the US and the Allies has lost WWII? Suppose that we didn't proceed with the super, and Stalin had it, do you believe that he would not have used it on the US?

It is regrettable that any people get sick or die from the work at the lab however, think about how many rely on the protection of our nuclear umbrella. Having worked and lived here for over 30 years, I have bet my life and that of my family on the general safety of the lab and helped to prevent a WWIII.

I read with interest the verbal analysis of the elevated dangers for the local population. Did you even consider that the majority of workers here grew up somewhere else? What were they exposed to for the first 30 or so years of their lives elsewhere?

All in all, I would say that we have paid a small personal price for our freedoms and sovereignty. All one need do is to look at the lives of the millions in Asia, South America, Mexico, Africa, Cuba, the FSU and think that but for the grace of God, there go I. We are indeed a blessed nation, and have life on a silver platter compared to these other countries. The fact that we can even disagree and have these discussions on the blog speaks to privileges that people in China can only dream about. Witness the suppression of discussion of the anniversary of Tienanmen Square.

We have problems, yes. But let us be grateful for what we do have, and be able to do the right thing with regards our defense and preparedness. As Ronald Regan said, "Nobody ever attacked a country because it was too strong."

Frank Young said...

I don't think anyone is saying we shouldn't have manufactured plutonium, at least I'm not. Nor am I saying the high price some nuclear workers have paid was not worth it. It is time, however, to be open about how much was released, who was exposed, and what the effects are.

Anonymous said...

We are no longer fighting World War II. The major global threat is terrorism, which continued proliferation of nuclear weapons does nothing to combat. This nation's and other nation's stockpiles actually make the world more dangerous due to potential theft of a nuclear weapon or nuclear material by terrorists.

While some may view the deaths of innocent bystanders as an acceptable price for allied victory in WWII, the fact remains that the laboratory still hasn't cleaned up its mess despite having been given two decades and many billions of taxpayer dollars to do so.

The recent fine by NMED for LANL's contamination of the deep aquifer through a faulty well that has been known about and documented for years once again illustrates LANL's cavalier attitude toward environmental stewardship. If LANL can't be trusted to live up to its moral responsibility to clean up its old messes, how can we even imagine that it will clean up its current and future messes related to plutonium manufacture?

The simple immediate solution is to fund LANL cleanup, close down existing operations until fence-to-fence cleanup is complete, and then reassess the need for an archaic Cold-War relic like LANL.

The many brilliant scientists at LANL who are actually engaged in useful science will be able to find work at other national laboratories to help solve the nation's energy needs. Others engaged in stockpile maintenance can go elsewhere to work on that need as well.

In a few years without LANL it will be apparent that there is no further necessity for a LANL beyond the end of the Cold War. And in that interim period, the area around Los Alamos will have been cleaned up and restored. Closing LANL will be a win-win for the nation and the region.

Like the previous poster said, how many more people must die in support of an outdated, unnecessary institution?

Anonymous said...

Regarding the people downwind from LANL who died of all kinds of cancers. My paternal grandfather died of colon cancer, paternal grandmother ovarian cancer, maternal grandfather had rectal cancer is now in remission.

All of these people lived on the east coast, none downwind from a nuclear reactor, none worked for any sort of nuclear enterprise. My paternal grandfather a CPA, maternal g.f. a factory union worker.

My point being, cancer is an ugly disease that can occur anywhere and in anyone. Sometimes it is more genetic and lifestyle based than anything else.

I agree with 7:30 pm, linking "downwind" cancers to the lab's activities is a stretch at best.
Yet these same people get into their cars everyday and travel the roads of NM, where the risks are much higher of getting killed than any sort of cancer-related illness caused by LANL nuclear activities.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity 2:13, would it be acceptable for someone to randomly shoot one New Mexico citizen, making the odds of being shot about 1 in 1,500,000? These odds are better than risk of driving? By your logic, that is just fine.

I understand that there are risks that must be taken for national defense. However, what is the excuse for exposing Frank to a leaking pipe and not even having the decency to tell him what was in it?

Anonymous said...

2:00 pm: "The major global threat is terrorism, which continued proliferation of nuclear weapons does nothing to combat."

What a joke! How can you take your own statement seriously? The "major global threat" IS the "continued proliferation of nuclear weapons", which unilateral nuclear disarmament by the US cannot stop, and against which the US stockpile and deterrent are effective. So-called "terrorism" is an annoyance at worst. Contrast 9/11 with a NK nuke in a container in the Port of Los Angeles. Geez - get a clue.

Frank Young said...

Thank you - whoever that was, especially for the first paragraph. I was thinking along the same lines.

Anonymous said...

8:22 pm: "would it be acceptable for someone to randomly shoot one New Mexico citizen, making the odds of being shot about 1 in 1,500,000? These odds are better than risk of driving?"

Nice try at diversion of the discussion. Statistics apply to random events, not the intentional event that you postulate. The fact that Frank agress with you only means he also doesn't understand statistics. But, his agenda is well known.

Anonymous said...

Shutting down LANL and cleaning up its mess is not tantamount to unilateral disarmament. LANL's future in Plutonium pit manufacture has nothing to do with detection of a nuclear weapon in a container in the Port of Los Angeles. Geez-get a clue yourself.

LANL is not a necessary condition for non proliferation, although I understand your desire to keep your job, 8:26, and thus your rhetoric trying to defend LANL's continued operation. Fair enough. But please understand that many of us in the state think LANL's first priority should be to clean up its 60 year legacy of toxic dumping. To us, LANL's mess is more of an immediate threat than eliminating any role LANL might realistically play in stopping a mythical nuclear catastrophe in the Port of Los Angeles.

Anonymous said...

Yes, 10:52. “Statistics apply to random events” That’s why I said “randomly” in my thought experiment.

There is no difference in principle between shooting a bullet in a random direction and releasing radioactive material that has a statistically possible chance of harming someone. In both cases, there is a small chance of causing harm. If it makes you feel better, assume that the gun in question was being handled properly and innocently but it accidentally discharges.

There may be good reasons to take this chance. For example, if there is a war going on and the speed of building weapons is more important than safety to neighbors. In this case, you are at least implicitly comparing the risks from pollution to the costs to the nation of not having the weapon. Or during peacetime, you could compare the costs of reducing emissions to the costs of injury or death to an innocent bystander. This is admittedly ghoulish sounding but this is a common risk versus reward calculation.

However, under the latter scenario, you have avoided a large cost yourself and imposed a by-definition smaller cost on someone else. There is a moral and legal imperative to compensate the innocent victim for the cost imposed on him. This tradeoff is widely understood, and while no one wants it to happen to them, it is legally recognized and legally acceptable in many circumstances. You could, for example, establish a fund to compensate the harm to others. This is an acceptable answer, provided that the relevant data is published and the fund is administered fairly, i.e. that it actually pays victims and does not just stonewall them.

There is another scenario, however. Suppose the cost reducing emissions is lower than the harm that is caused, but you do not want to pay it. In this case, you just illegally and immorally transfer the cost from yourself to someone else without their consent. You may get away with it, and you would not be the first to do so. But you fully deserve any possible civil, criminal, or political consequences.

Based on what Frank has written, the last scenario is relevant. The cost to him ranges from a minimum of uncertainty about his dose exposure to a maximum of early death. The cost to LANL ranges from a minimum of a bioassay to a maximum of compensating his estate for his death, plus the cost of maintaining TA55 so that the pipes do not leak. Maybe that is a good tradeoff, in which case it is tough luck for Frank and good luck for the nation. However, LANL’s unwillingness to tell Frank what he was exposed to strongly suggests that LANL avoided a small cost by imposing a big cost on Frank.

And Frank, LANL will get away with it unless you go to court. Sorry, but that is the way it is.

Anonymous said...

Frank at 6/13/09 9:32 AM, powerful image that. Are you aware that the tracks in this photo are not actually documentation of tissue damage? Alpha-track detection uses a film of plastic (e.g. nitrocellulose) which is then chemically etched to enhance the visibility of the resulting radiation damage tracks. Presumably the image you posted was made by imaging a slice of lung tissue in this manner. (I say "presumably" because the internet sites that use this photo for its shock value seem to be unable to cite the actual conditions under which it was produced, e.g. how much plutonium, how long an exposure?)

The big difference between a film of nitrocellulose and actual lung tissue, of course, is that the body has mechanisms to correct much of the damage that is done by alpha emission. Hence the uncertain relationship between low doses of radiation and causation of disease. The earlier poster who pointed out that statistically, low doses of radiation (that is, slightly above background) appear to be beneficial to health is correct. The data are there, but we do not have a good understanding of why this is observed.

We do, on the other hand, have a rather good understanding of how a single bullet fired point blank at a randomly selected New Mexican would likely cause death.

Anonymous said...

8:22, no,its not acceptable to shoot someone but guess what, the odds of getting shot outweigh the odds of getting ill from "downwind" LANL activities. How many people die every year from gun-related accidents, robberies, drive-by's, etc? Are these number of deaths acceptable just so people have the right to bare arms?

I guess the price of energy will skyrocket because the risk to coal miners getting hurt in the mining industry is very high. We shouldn't mine coal anymore because how many men suffer from black lung? how many men have died in accidents? but somehow society accepts and justifies these risks as "okay."

My point being, if we are going to analyze and then scrutinize activities based on risk, then guess what, guns should be illegal and everyone should return their cars and start walking everywhere because cars are dangerous and people die using automobiles.

Moral of the story: risks are acceptable and palatable to society if it makes their lives better and more convenient.
-----------

Onto another post showing the hypocrisy:

"Others engaged in stockpile maintenance can go elsewhere to work on that need as well."

Ah yes, the work is important but NOT in my backyard. Don't make NM citizens sick but its okay if those losers in South Carolina get ill from plutonium activities at an archaic cold war relic Savannah River Site.

Anonymous said...

"low doses of radiation (that is, slightly above background) appear to be beneficial to health is correct."

So you are saying 8:54, that LANL did Frank a favor by exposing him to a leak in TA55?

Frank - I expect you to not only stop complaining, but to write a 'thank you' letter as well.

Anonymous said...

"Ah yes, the work is important but NOT in my backyard. Don't make NM citizens sick but its okay if those losers in South Carolina get ill from plutonium activities at an archaic cold war relic Savannah River Site."

That sounds like a pretty strong admission that nuclear weapons work creates conditions and byproducts that make people sick! Finally some honesty from LANL.

Anonymous said...

No it wasn't ANY admission to nuclear weapons work making workers and/or residents sick. I was merely pointing out the hypocrisy and silliness of the anti-nuke crowd on this blog: shut down and clean-up the 60 year environmental legacy of LANL so NM residents can "stop dying" from weapons-related work.

As we D&D LANL and perform environmental clean-up, the weapons work should simultaneously be moved to other locations? I would *think* the anti-nukes would want to abolish weapons work all together, not just move the so-called "problem" to another state. If these activities are linked to illnesses wouldn't it be smarter to have LANL go away all together? or as I pointed out earlier, its okay just as long as its not in MY backyard.

Anonymous said...

10:38 AM, oh yes, thank you for your attentive reading of my post.

Moron.

Anonymous said...

"If these activities are linked to illnesses wouldn't it be smarter to have LANL go away all together?"

Yes. That has been the point all along. Shut LANL down and clean up the site. Everybody wins.

Anonymous said...

7:37 pm: "Yes. That has been the point all along. Shut LANL down and clean up the site. Everybody wins."

Yep - the winners: Kim Jong Il, Ahmadinejad, Bin Laden, Chavez, Putin, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the rest of your friends. Good night, America.

Anonymous said...

If you're a Los Alamos history buff, then you'll love reading the LAHDRA document. It's worth downloading just for the pictures and info it has about the lab facilities back in the late 1940's and 50's.

You might also want to read it if you ever happened to live in the Eastern community (near the LA Airport), Royal Crest trailer park, or the Los Alamos Canyon side of the Western community in Los Alamos. Here's a hint: I hope you never swallowed any of the soil in your backyard as a kid!

Anonymous said...

I hope you never swallowed any of the soil in your backyard as a kid!

Nope. Did a lot of crazy shit growing up here, but never did that. I did drink a load of beer, though. Skied a lot. Fucked some nasty women. Rode my motorcycle way too fast. But never ate dirt.

Anonymous said...

Doug -- I nominate 6/16/09 9:02 PM
for CoW ! My sides hurt from laughing so hard.

Anon Anon

Doug Roberts said...

Yes, 9:02 is certainly in the running for COW.

Anonymous said...

Here's a hint: I hope you never swallowed any of the soil in your backyard as a kid!

So that's why I'm getting some damn big vegetable in my garden. Who woulda thunk it!?

Anonymous said...

I am so disappointed i didn't get COW. And I love cows. As you might have guessed from my post.

Doug, we should drink some beer one of these days. You know my dad. He's a dick. I try not to be...

Doug Roberts said...

8:42,

I seldom turn down an invitation to drink a beer, especially from someone who is not a dick...

Anonymous said...

I wonder if I wrote that invitation to Doug last night. Sounds like something I'd write, and I vuagely remember something like that. My drinking problem progresses the longer I work at LANL.
Shit I drank way too much, i didn't even remember what I said to my girlfriend (oops!!) Actually I do know my dad worked for Brad's wife. Although he wrote code, so maybe he did work with you, Doug! Regardless, if I ever sober up enough to make it to the tin star saloon, I'll stagger over.
wow I am hammered