History project points to fuller investigation

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By Roger Snodgrass

POJOAQUE – The history of toxic releases at Los Alamos has not come out whole. Rather, it has been excavated piecemeal, room-by-room, box-by-box, paper-by-paper and clue-by-clue.

Over the last 10 years that the Los Alamos Historic Document and Retrieval Assessment (LAHDRA) project has been pulling pieces of facts from oblivion, the project team has slowly illuminated one of the dark corners of recent times.

The work has accomplished a great deal toward an initial screening estimate of risk factors, but there may be a lot more work to do, if the final report recommends that a full dose reconstruction should be called for at Los Alamos.

Each year the project brings to the community news that has not always been good, but represents a fuller accounting that can be used to reconcile and substantiate the past.

One of the key metrics, project director Tom Widner said Wednesday during an annual meeting at the Cities of Gold convention center, was the number of document summaries, now 8,170, representing the most relevant nuggets from the quest.

As the current project draws to a close, Widner reported progress and summarized some of the major issues that have caught the team’s attention, including much higher-than-anticipated airborne plutonium releases at the laboratory, beryllium usage that may have had public health consequence and tritium releases that seem to have been much larger than thought.

Soil-based evidence of much higher releases of airborne plutonium at the Los Alamos site during its earliest years during and after World War II continues to be corroborated.

The history of Los Alamos has seen a steady increase in estimated amounts of plutonium released – from an early calculation of .724 curies which was increased ever so slightly in 1973 to 1.2 curies.

Then again, according to the project account, historical information from Edwin Hyatt in 1956, duplicated by John Nyhan in 1990, raised that figure to 43 curies, and with known corrections, to 47 curies.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Widener discussed more fully additional plutonium releases that may have come from the DP West complex, where the plutonium process was centered after 1945.

A document uncovered by the project suggested that even greater correction factors needed to be applied because of errors in the stack sampling at DP West, which significantly underestimated the emissions.

When those correction factors were applied, Widner said, the total estimated plutonium releases for only eight years, has now been raised to 58 curies.

By comparison, releases from three other Manhattan Project sites combined were only 39 curies.

Additionally, the Los Alamos releases were in close proximity to human habitation.

For example, a trailer park was located about 1,000 meters from DP West, and some people there grew vegetables in radioactive soil, Widener said.

Yet to be added to the total are accidents, waste disposal sites, burial ground fires and additional releases from the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Building and the Plutonium Building.

“The site total of plutonium could go well above 58 curies,” Widner said.

Also, on the program for the meeting was a brief presentation by Peter Malmgren, who has been documenting Los Alamos history from the perspective of the people who helped build the place, the workers, the janitors, machinists, the service people and craftsmen.

Since he started gathering oral histories in 2000, Malmgren said, several themes have presented themselves, including patriotism, pride in work, many different kinds of discrimination and health and safety.

Around the room, evocative quotations from the oral history project were paired with archival photographs provided by LANL archivist Roger Meade.

Widner said a report supplement would be produced later this year and a final report was due in 2009 for both public view and independent review.