Burning questions draw explosive answers

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By Roger Snodgrass

Long-time residents of Los Alamos say they seldom notice the periodic booms that punctuate the silence of their mountain settlement.

But newcomers and some of the neighbors across the river and down in the valley have complained that the blasts lately have rattled their windows in Santa Fe and beyond Espaola and that they can hear the sounds of explosives testing from the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos.

These complaints were included with 24 questions submitted to the laboratory in May by community groups including Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group and neighboring pueblos.

On Wednesday, the official in charge of open-air burns and detonations at Los Alamos National Laboratory answered many of the specific questions about what explosives work the lab is currently doing, how the practice is monitored and regulated, and how it is changing.

Jay Dallman, the head of the lab’s Dynamic and Energetic Materials Division gave a picture of a shrinking footprint and a declining role for burns and detonations at the laboratory in recent years.

He gave a presentation to the Community Radiological Monitoring Group, an ongoing community forum mediated by the New Mexico Environment Department where regional environmental issues with the laboratory are regularly discussed.

Dallman said the laboratory conducts an average of 600 experiments a year that involve explosions, but that the majority of these tests involve less than 20 pounds of explosives.

The laboratory calculates that 99.9 percent of the explosive material is consumed in the detonation. Efforts are made to clean up afterward and to resurface the area with clean soil

For comparison, Dallman said, 100 pounds of high explosives has an energy equivalent of eight gallons of gasoline or two cars traveling about 60 miles.

Much recent activity he said has been associated with reducing the laboratory’s inventory of explosives under an agreement with the Department of Energy Inspector General.

In June 2006, an IG audit found a number of problems at both Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories involving management of an accumulating inventory of explosive materials.

Specifically at LANL, the audit found significant amounts of high explosives that were unlikely to be used. A collection of 63 anti-personnel rockets that had not been tested in at least 10 years, for example, were being held without plans for future use. Further, required examination related to the safety and stability of the materials was not being performed.

“For example, Los Alamos inventory reduction effort found about 32,000 pounds of bulk powders and propellants and 359 munitions units such as rocket motors, warheads and missiles – some of which had been stored at the site for over 40 years – had not been examined to determine whether they remained stable and safe for use and/or continued storage,” the auditors found.

In reporting progress, Dallman said that 4,000 pounds of classified High Explosives were treated in 2007 and 20,000 pounds of rocket motors were moved off-site, with another 10,000 pounds sent for reuse to the Navy’s China Lake Facility.

These High Explosive reduction activities are expected to ramp down during the next fiscal year.

He said the laboratory has reduced the number of facilities permitted for explosive waste treatment to five places and is moving toward more containment, notably at the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) facility, where a confinement system has been introduced for mock nuclear weapons experiments. Long-term plans are heading in the direction of containment.

“I am a proponent for contained firing,” he said.

Participants at the meeting included several officials from the New Mexico Environment Department, including the Hazardous Waste Bureau and Air Quality Bureau.

An additional concern that came up during the meeting had to do with areas where the laboratory has been operating under an interim permit that has not been updated in 30 years.

Among other issues, Dallman said that sonic disturbances have been studied and submitted to computer programs for modeling.

Dallman said some things have changed because of public concerns. Compared to a crack of thunder, measured at 140 decibels, nothing noisier than 130 decibels can now go outside the boundary of the laboratory.

Currently, the maximum size for an experiment is 400 lbs. of explosives he said, but a year ago there were larger blasts, including at least one that was 800 pounds.

He said tree-thinning after the Cerro Grande Fire, along with the loss of juniper and pine trees from the subsequent beetle infestation, may have opened the terrain and changed the sound of the lab’s explosions, but this has been modeled in programs that take weather and terrain into account. They are experimentally compared to predicted effects in the local communities.

“One hundred and thirty decibels has a startling effect,” he said, “but it is not physically harmful.”

The meeting was held at Fuller Lodge .s

For more information:

The meeting was recorded and the audio will be posted on the Cultural Energy website, http://www.culturalenergy.org .