The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
September - October 2007
Should Lawrence Lab be blowing up uranium in the open air?
The Lawrence Livermore National Lab is seeking a permit to explode up to 5,000 pounds of uranium-238, also known as depleted uranium, per year in its bomb tests at "Site 300". This is the Lab's high-explosive testing range, on 7,000 acres approximately six miles southwest of downtown Tracy and 15 miles southeast of Livermore near I-580.
According to the permit application submitted on April 4 to the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District, the Lab wants to increase its annual high-explosives limit eight-fold, from 1,000 to 8,000 pounds, and its daily limit more than three-fold, from 100 to 350 pounds. These explosions will contain the uranium-238 as well as 60 other toxic and nuclear materials. The bomb blasts would be detonated on flat above-ground open-air firing tables with no control technology employed to contain or reduce airborne emissions. This is in contrast to a different type of tests conducted in the Site's "contained firing facility".
The Lab estimates that the health impacts from its operations directly impact a 50-mile radius - one that includes more than seven million people. This facility is within 50 miles of San Francisco, Stockton, and even Santa Cruz.
Uranium-238 can be very dangerous to living systems as a heavy metal, a catalyst, and a radioactive material. Many are beginning to question whether such research is appropriate anywhere in California. The Bay Area, in particular, has become much more densely populated since Site 300 was first opened back in 1955. The cities nearest the Site - Tracy, Livermore, and Mountain House - are growing especially rapidly. Currently a 5,500-home development is planned within a mile of the Site boundary, and Tracy has annexed land up to the fence line.
Central Valley agriculture is at risk as well. Although Livermore Lab acknowledges that some radioactive and toxic materials would be released into surrounding air, soil, and water, with the bulk of the impact within 50 miles, it claims that this will have no significant impact on the environment, area residents, or endangered species.
Site 300's soil and groundwater is already extremely contaminated with radioactive and toxic debris from past testing. In 1990 Site 300 was placed on the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of most-contaminated sites in the country. Site 300 contains numerous toxic hot spots, including a two-mile-long underground water plume polluted by depleted uranium and tritium (radioactive hydrogen). Full clean-up is estimated to require hundreds of years.
Even with the contamination, Site 300 is not a wasteland. The Lab's own documents describe Site 300 as one of the largest native grasslands in California. This important biological community is home to dozens of important and endangered species such as red-legged frog and tiger salamander. Sadly, some of the breeding ponds for the red-legged frog are contaminated with tritium.
Last year the Department of Energy budget request to Congress included language that hinted at a closeout of testing activities at Site 300. The DOE is the owner of Livermore Lab and Site 300 and is responsible for most activities that occur there. Meetings between members of Tri-Valley CAREs (a Livermore Lab watchdog group) and officials at DOE Headquarters in Washington, DC, seemed to confirm this positive direction. Officials stated that testing at Site 300 was "duplicative and unnecessary" and that residential encroachment made the site less viable as a high-explosives testing range.
It appears that there has been a recent unexplained shift in policy under the auspices of "national security". The Lab refuses to give any additional justification for the need for expanded testing activities. This shift could be a part of the larger move within the DOE nuclear-weapons complex to begin production of new nuclear weapons.
San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District
Urge the district to deny Livermore National Lab's application for a permit for increased open-air testing at Site 300.
Volunteers are needed, throughout the Bay Area, to host house parties, circulate sign-on letters, and write letters to the editor. To join in the Sierra Club's efforts to stop this permit, contact or call (510) 848-0800
For more information and ways to take action, see Tri-Valley CAREs or call (925) 443-7148.
© 2007 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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