LANL Plutonium Reported in Santa Fe Drinking Water, While Dignitaries Celebrate First Plutonium Pit

7/6/07 through 7/14/07

The Santa Fe Water Quality Report for 2006 was delivered with the June water bills. The report stated that there was a "qualified detection of plutonium 238" in Buckman Well Number 1. This means that plutonium from the development and production of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was detected in Santa Fe drinking water supplies. However, the actual amount of plutonium contamination could not be determined by the test performed. The Water Quality Report is issued each year as required by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In 2006, all contamination detections were below federal and state drinking water quality limits.

Plutonium is the main ingredient in the core or trigger of a nuclear weapon, known as a plutonium pit. At the same time that the detection of plutonium is being reported, LANL is once again taking its place as the nation's plutonium pit manufacturing facility. Dignitaries were invited to a celebration for certifying the first plutonium pit to be accepted by the government for use in the nation's nuclear-weapons stockpile since 1989, when Rocky Flats was raided by the FBI for environmental crimes. According to Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a Santa Fe based NGO, this new pit cost approximately $2.2 billion.

In the production of plutonium pits, contaminants are released into the environment through air and water emissions and radioactive and hazardous waste is generated. The first plutonium pit was manufactured at LANL for use against Nagasaki, Japan during World War II. At that time, the waste was dumped in unlined and shallow trenches.

Approximately 12,000 cubic meters of plutonium contaminated waste remains in unlined burial areas on the LANL site, which is a source of the groundwater contamination. LANL is located above the regional aquifer, which flows towards the Buckman Well Field, where the City of Santa Fe gets 40% of its drinking water.

Registered Geologist, Robert H. Gilkeson, said that intermittent and low level detections can be an early indication of an approaching contaminant plume.

Gilkeson said, "There is an emerging environmental emergency. Detections of LANL radionuclides in Santa Fe drinking water wells have been published by the Department of Energy in environmental reports since the late 1990s, but the detections have not been adequately investigated. The contamination must be addressed now with monthly sampling using the most sensitive analytical methods."

In addition, a recent independent study of the area surrounding LANL found elevated and potentially harmful levels of radioactivity in materials which humans are routinely exposed to, such as dusts and plant life. The Government Accountability Project performed the study, with technical assistance from Boston Chemical Data, Inc. They will hold a public press conference to discuss these findings on Tuesday, July 10 at the Hotel Santa Fe, beginning at 11 am.

Joni Arends, of CCNS said, "LANL contaminants are impacting the surrounding communities. What is national security if we do not have clean air, water and soil? LANL contamination must be prioritized as the threat and the mission transformed to clean up past operations. The time for nuclear weapons is over."

Important note regarding plutonium:

  • The isotope plutonium 238 (Pu-238) is used predominantly as an energy source and very little is present in a plutonium pit. The main ingredient in a pit is Pu-239. Detections of all three isotopes of plutonium have been reported in Los Alamos County and the city of Santa Fe drinking water wells by the Department of Energy and LANL. The isotope Pu-238 is far more short lived than other plutonium isotopes and therefore more radioactive. At LANL Pu-238 is processed at TA-55, along with other isotopes and the waste is disposed of with Pu 239 and 240 as transuranic waste.

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