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Sidebar: Where is This Stuff Coming From?

Where is This Stuff Coming From?

DOE’s December 2012 environmental assessment on the proposal reveals that 70 percent of the metal the department wants to release would come from two of its facilities, Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York (4,988 metric tons) and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago in Illinois (4,808 metric tons). Brookhaven, which is responsible for substantial radioactive contamination of surrounding communities, began operating in 1947 and has a number of particle accelerators and nuclear reactors used for research in high-energy nuclear physics and other applications. Fermi also specializes in high-energy particle physics, which involves working with ionizing radiation.

Most of the rest would come from the Y-12 National Security Site (1,886.2 metric tons), one of three main facilities at the Oak Ridge complex in Tennessee; SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (1,089 metric tons) between San Francisco and San Jose; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (338.7 metric tons) east of San Francisco; and Los Alamos National Laboratory (350 metric tons), near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Y-12 started working in 1943, making it one of the oldest facilities in the nuclear weapons complex. The uranium used in the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched there, and it remains a significant player in the nation’s nuclear arsenal; Y-12 is the government’s main site for processing and storing enriched uranium, U-235, which is used to sustain nuclear reactions. Various nuclear weapons components are manufactured and tested there, and a 2005 report profiling Y-12 for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health describes the site as one with a significant “history of prevalent workplace contamination.”

SLAC is a 426-acre facility run by Stanford University under contract to DOE. It engages in photon science, particle physics, and accelerator physics to study the behavior of atomic and subatomic particles as well as the effects of radiation on different materials. This work involves using a wide range of radioactive elements, some of which are highly radiotoxic.

Lawrence Livermore, one of two of labs that design the nation’s nuclear weapons, has a long history of massive environmental contamination—including releasing as much radiation into the open air as the Hiroshima bomb. The 790-acre premises and its off-location weapons testing site are both classified as Superfund sites. Despite the fact that the Cold War is over, nuclear weapons production and testing continues to expand at the lab and includes the use of plutonium and other radioactive materials.

Los Alamos, which opened its doors in 1943 to develop the atom bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, is the other lab that designs America’s nuclear weapons. In the 69 years since the nearly 44- square-mile complex first began disposing of nuclear waste in connection with its mission, Los Alamos has been the source of extensive radioactive contamination of soil and water, both on site and in surrounding areas. A November 2009 report by Radioactive Waste Management Associates notes that in its early years, Los Alamos released unfiltered plutonium and other radioisotopes through hundreds of stacks, and untreated liquid waste was dumped into nearby canyons and unlined pits.