Plutonium Found in Livermore Park

In January, after years of public pressure from Tri-Valley CAREs and local residents on Livermore Lab demanding that the Lab determine how high levels of plutonium got to a park near its facility, Livermore Lab released additional sampling results from the park.

High levels of plutonium were found at numerous sites in the park, near (but not in) a creek which runs through the Lab, along the ball field and by a little grassy hill between the park and the sidewalk. Somewhat elevated levels of plutonium were also found behind an apartment complex between the Lab and the park. Most of the plutonium was found in the top two inches of dirt. The way the plutonium is distributed suggests that it may have traveled by air to the park, possibly released from the Lab during leaks or in the course of normal operations.

Plutonium is a man-made, radioactive metal used to create the atomic explosion that is at the core of a modern nuclear weapon. Plutonium 239, the bomb-grade isotope found in the park, has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years. The Lab has around 880 pounds of it on hand, enough for nearly 100 modern nuclear weapons. There is no safe level of plutonium exposure. A microscopic particle, if inhaled, can cause cancer and other diseases.

Plutonium pollution was first discovered in Big Trees Park in 1995 when the EPA analyzed a single dirt sample there, one of 3 taken near the lab. The agency expected all three to be at “background,” (.001 to .01 picocuries of plutonium per gram of soil) and to use them as a comparison for known plutonium contamination at the Lab. All 3 samples came up dirty, (between 16 and 160 times “background”) and the one from Big Trees Park contained the highest level of plutonium. Big Trees is about one-half mile west of Livermore Lab. Since then, other test results turned up even higher levels of plutonium, including a finding of 1.02 picocuries per gram, up to 1,000 times higher than attributable to global fallout. Lab officials have rushed to assert that there is no harm to human health or the environment from the plutonium, and that no cleanup or follow up action is warranted.

Tri-Valley “CAREs is demanding that sampling should be done of other likely “hot spots,” including east of the Lab where plutonium has been found in off site air monitors. Samples should be analyzed for particle size to help determine the amounts of plutonium escaping through the filtering system. Livermore residents also demand that “Hot spots” should be cleaned up. There is no excuse for the Lab leaving elevated levels of plutonium in a park. The Lab should institute changes in its filter maintenance and operational procedures in the plutonium facility to help minimize further releases.

Finally, Tri-Valley CAREs recommends that the plutonium facility should rapidly be phased out of operation.

For more information, contact Tri-Valley CAREs at (925) 443-7148.

Article excerpted from Tri-Valley CAREs’ February 1999 newsletter, Citizen’s Watch