Concern grows over radiation leaks at nuclear weapons lab in California

Concern is growing over the safety of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, the place where most US nuclear weapons are developed. There have been two unexplained (although minor) radiation leaks this month. A federally required environmental impact study on the lab site has been held up pending investigation of what a lab spokesman calls "geologic puzzles" involving new earthquake information.

When construction of the lab (located about 40 miles east of San Francisco) began 28 years ago, relatively little was known about the seismic complexity or potential earthquake activity of the Livermore valley. Since then, 13 earthquake faults have been located near the laboratory, one as recently as three years ago. It is thought possible that some faults may run across the lab site itself.

Moderate earthquakes in late January resulted in the leakage of about 50 gallons of water containing low-level radioactive tritium. The quake also sheared the bolts holding the frame of a $25 million laser facility and caused damage to an administrative wing of the building containing highly toxic plutonium. Direct damage totaled $2 million, with another $8 million for upgrading "things that might be flimsy, but didn't break," said a lab spokesman.

Seismologists believe that earthquakes in the Livermore area could release hundreds of times more earth-shifting energy than the January quakes.

"Geodetic evidence indicates that the depression and shearing of the entire valley is continuing today," according to the generally cautious draft environmental impact statement issued by the US Department of Energy (DOE). "Clearly, several of the faults near the [lab] site must be classified as active by any standard."

Although the final environmental study will not be released for some times, some local officials -- including five San Francisco-area congressmen -- last month urged the DOE to remove plutonium from the lab.

Meanwhile, Energy Department officials continue to investigate what lab officials called "minor leaks" of plutionium April 8 and again April 16. The amounts of the poisonous material that escaped apparently were small, but officials are concerned about how the accidents might have happened.

Last week, California health officials released the results of a study showing an unusually high incidence of "melanoma" among the 6,000 employees at the Lawrence Livermore Lab. The disease is usually associated with ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but some researchers now say it may be caused by exposure to ionizing (nuclear) radiation.

This new report probably will cause the environmental impact study on the lab site to be delayed even more, according to a lab spokesman.

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