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“If the clash over rebuilding the nation’s nuclear arms complex has an epicenter, it lies in New Mexico on the flanks of an extinct volcano near an active geologic fault that has sent the project’s costs spiraling upward.” – William J. Broad, NY York Times, November 2010
the volcanic fingers of the Pajarito Plateau, including the Los Alamos mesa, with the Valles Caldera in background, image Soil Science Society of America
The volcano of the Valles Caldera last erupted during the Pleistocene, around 50-60,000 years ago. Yet the eruptions (roughly equivalent to 2,000 Mount St. Helens eruptions) that occurred 1.4 million and 1.1 million years ago are what earned this volcano the title of supervolcano. It’s a classification that recognizes a volcano’s potential to eject more than 240 cubic miles of earth material and trigger an ice-age or even species extinction.
Today this area of New Mexico is known as the Pajarito Plateau. Here, finger-like mesas are separated by deep canyons that result from runoff from the Sierra de los Valles, a branch of the Jemez Mountains.
February’s quiet rollout of the New START treaty between the United States and Russia has just made the intersection of the human and the geologic upon these mesas a little more vivid. They are home to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
view from Pajarito mesa, FOP 2008
In 1942 thousands of people were secretly relocated to live and work upon these remote outcroppings of land. Their task: to develop the world’s first atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project. Nearly 70 years later, with 9000+ people employed by LANL, you could say the Manhattan Project has never ended, and possibly is getting even larger.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) describes the contemporary LANL as:
“a design laboratory responsible for the safety and reliability of the nuclear explosives package in nuclear weapons. This laboratory possesses unique capabilities in neutron scattering, enhanced surveillance, radiography, and plutonium science and engineering.”
A not well publicized provision of the New START treaty is a new commitment to the “modernization” of the nation’s existing nuclear arsenal (totaling $85 billion over the next decade). This generous funding brings a purported windfall of economic support that has been described as ushering in a “dynamic era of new construction” for LANL.
In response to the financial backing, current Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration Thomas P. D’Agostino remarked: “My predecessor, former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks, put it best, saying he “would have killed” for budgets like this and for the top-level support we have gotten from the White House.”
Los Alamos pubic transportation, FOP 2008
Los Alamos is one of few places in the world whose raison d‘être has always been the nuclear (at least since 1942 when the site was taken by eminent domain). The passage of the New START treaty ensures that the city and Lab will continue to live up to their storied nuclear past.
And for FOP, this also means that the mesas of Los Alamos will continue to be one of the most potent sites of convergence between human and geologic forces in the world—into the far future.
Over the coming months and years, FOP is particularly interested in following how these new funds will translate into infrastructures. Because those infrastructures must now take into account, or be built in relation to, the unpredictable geologic forces that exist within the Pajarito Plateau. This includes building for the Pajarito, the active fault running under Los Alamos. The Pajarito’s most recent earthquake occurred on February 7, 2011.
After an earthquake in 2006 Erika L. Martinez wrote in the LANL NewsBulletin:
“…scientists from Environmental Geology and Spatial Analysis (EES-9) have uncovered faulting associated with three magnitude seven events over the last 11,000 years. The problem with earthquakes though is that they are unpredictable. The next major earthquake could happen at any time.”
a tectonic map of New Mexico, the fault running through Los Alamos on the map is represented by Pf for the Pajarito Fault highlighted in orange, more details at GeoSphere
Further description of seismic activity in the area can be found on the LANL website:
“The Los Alamos area has three faults associated with it. In addition to the Pajarito Fault, the plateau is transected by the Guaje Mountain Fault and the Rendija Canyon Fault…Data suggest that a magnitude seven earthquake occurred along the Guaje Mountain Fault between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago. A quake of similar magnitude apparently occurred on the Rendija Canyon Fault either 8,000 years ago or 22,000 years ago…”
image: Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
One can’t help but wonder how such tectonic instability will play out for the nuclear materials currently being tested, generated, and stored at Los Alamos, both in the short and long-term. Nuclear Watch of New Mexico recently noted that an additional “225,000 cubic yards of poured concrete [have been budgeted for] to mitigate seismic concerns” for new building projects scheduled to commence this year (which include an increase of on-site plutonium pit production). Richard A. Holmes, Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) Division Leader at LANL, stated in the latest public meeting on the CMRR project, “Another source of cost in the job comes from implementation of the seismic requirements…We’ve made the building stiffer, increased the amount of concrete inside of the building…”
LANL Bradbury Museum installation, FOP 2008
In addition to following how tectonic forces continue to shape life and work upon the Pajarito Plateau, FOP will also be researching the designs and infrastructures developed to isolate, entomb, transport, test, document, house, secure, and “permanently” dispose of radioactive materials generated at Los Alamos. New infrastructure approved for LANL’s fiscal year 2011 appear to be for the handling and processing of such materiality:
“Los Alamos Consolidated Waste Capability (CWC) project –upgrades or replaces both solid and liquid associated nuclear facilities…Los Alamos Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility Upgrade (RLWTF) project – repairs and replaces, where needed, 65 vaults and 4 miles of piping that collect 6,000 gallons per day of radioactive liquids…The waste facilities are all a part of the larger system of nuclear facilities used to assess, surveil, manufacture, and/or refurbish plutonium components used in nuclear weapons… The priority project among these is the TRU Waste project that provides for staging, characterization, and shipping/receiving of TRU waste bound for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad.” – Page 28, Annex D of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan Summary, FY 2011
We’ll also be learning more about where these materials go once they leave Los Alamos and move about the world.
We know already that one place where Los Alamos scientists and projects go is Area 1 at the Ua1 tunnel complex. Part of the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site), this complex is located 960 feet below ground. It is here that controversial subcritical tests occur as part of the Stockpile Stewardship Program. In subcritical tests, “Scientists generate a powerful current — roughly four times the kick of all the electrical power on Earth– to create pressures millions of times greater than normal to test materials similar to those used in nuclear weapons.”
The NNSA describes the purpose of these tests:
“Subcritical experiments examine the behavior of plutonium as it is strongly shocked by forces produced by chemical high explosives. Subcritical experiments produce essential scientific data and technical information used to help maintain the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear weapons stockpile. The experiments are subcritical; that is, no critical mass is formed and no self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction can occur; thus, there is no nuclear explosion.” – press release from the NNSA
Like all nuclear tests, the latest reported subcritical test conducted by Los Alamos was named. “Bacchus” (aka Dionysus, “the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy”), was the first subcritical test under President Obama and 24th test to-date. Two more subcritical tests are scheduled take place before September 2011.
the Cygnus 2.5 mEv x-ray machine, located nearly 1,000 feet underground in the U1a underground laboratory at the Nevada National Security Site, is used to take detailed x-ray imagery of subcritical experiments. image NNSA news
It’s not entirely clear to us what the standard procedure is for handling defense related nuclear waste. It seems that when the waste is able to be removed, it is transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for “permanent disposal.” Currently shipments between Los Alamos and WIPP occur up to seven times a week. But when it’s impossible to remove waste from places such as the test alcoves used for subcritical tests, the safest option appears to be to entomb the entire area in concrete.
While defense-related nuclear waste does have the WIPP as a place to go “for eternity,” the private and public sector continues to grapple with the reality that presently, there is nowhere to permanently store the growing quantities of high-level waste generated by nuclear power plants. Despite talk of new small modular reactor projects (which would run on reprocessed fuel from conventional nuclear power plants) a deep geologic repository, and likely more than one, will be needed to house existing and future waste. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko recently stated that a replacement facility for the cancelled Yucca Mountain waste storage site (which exists somewhat ironically at the periphery of the Nevada Security Site where much nuclear material is simply being left in the desert soil) appears to be at least 100-300 years away.
All of this gives new urgency to the question of just what sorts of infrastructures will need to be developed far into the future for ever increasing amounts of defense-related nuclear waste. Their designs and materials will need to isolate radioactive waste not only from living things, but also from massive and unpredictable geologic forces–forces from which, it seems, nothing on earth has been isolated yet.
“Highly trained technicians at the Nevada National Security Site maintain the Cygnus facility. More than 1,000 test shots have been conducted at the Cygnus facility.” - image NNSA
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