Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

America’s Own Loose Nukes

The government can’t simply bury its uranium-233 problem.

If you knew that more than 200 pounds of nuclear bomb material may be missing from government nuclear facilities in the United States, would that worry you?

Recently, three activists, including an 82-year-old nun, broke past the barriers of one of the world’s largest and most modern nuclear explosive storage facilities. But long before that incident, a little-known nuclear security problem was festering at a nearby 69-year-old building – the site of enough bomb-grade uranium to fuel dozens of nuclear weapons.

This facility, Building 3019 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is eligible for listing on the National Historic Registry, and can’t meet current protection requirements. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Energy has been slow to do anything about it. The federal government is dragging its feet and failing to remove and safely dispose of large quantities of uranium.

Not only that, it appears that more than 200 pounds of the bomb-grade uranium-233 – enough to fuel about 10 nuclear weapons – may be unaccounted for.

Your bank keeps careful track of the whereabouts of your money, down to the last red cent. For obvious reasons, the government is supposed to do the same with weapons-grade nuclear material. But as I detailed in a new report on this type of uranium, our nuclear facilities may have done a poor job of keeping track of this dangerous material. That’s a risky situation when you’re talking about the building blocks of the most destructive weapons known to humankind.

If as little as 19 pounds of this type of uranium fell into the wrong hands, it could destroy downtown Washington or another big city. And here’s something even more outrageous: the government is now planning to simply dump most of this concentrated nuclear explosive material, as is, straight into the ground. But this type of uranium requires the world’s most stringent safeguards to prevent theft. It’s a problem that the government can’t simply bury.

Uranium-233 was initially made by the government to fuel several nuclear weapons that were exploded in the open air and underground. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the government tried using uranium-233 as a potential fuel for a new generation of power reactors. The material proved too costly, however, and using it in reactors led to a slew of technical problems. By the late 1980s, the government and nuclear power industry stopped using this type of uranium as a reactor fuel, kicking the problem down the road.

Alarmingly, to save costs, the Department of Energy plans to waive critical safeguard and waste disposal safety requirements for a large part of this dangerous material. That would allow for direct shallow-land disposal in Nevada by August 2014. Such action would set a bad precedent for the Obama administration’s international efforts to lock down loose nukes, and throw U.S. nuclear safety requirements under the bus.

We need to expect better of our government than to dig a hole and simply trash important safety and security requirements for this type of uranium. If an elderly nun can break into a nuclear facility, a would-be terrorist could certainly acquire a hazmat suit and a back hoe  and start digging into a landfill containing bomb-grade material. And even if we don’t have to worry about terrorists, we should worry about this lethal substance seeping into our water supply, our arable land, our children and grandchildren.

The government must ensure that all uranium-233 is accounted for, stored securely, and disposed of safely, so it can never be used in a nuclear weapon.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. 

 

More articles by:
October 17, 2018
David N. Smith
George Orwell’s Message in a Bottle
Patrick Cockburn
When Saudi Arabia’s Credibility is Damaged, So is America’s
John Steppling
Before the Law
Frank Stricker
Wages Rising? 
James McEnteer
Larry Summers Trips Out
Muhammad Othman
What You Can Do About the Saudi Atrocities in Yemen
Binoy Kampmark
Agents of Chaos: Trump, the Federal Reserve and Andrew Jackson
Karen J. Greenberg
Justice Derailed: From Gitmo to Kavanaugh
John Feffer
Why is the Radical Right Still Winning?
Dan Corjescu
Green Tsunami in Bavaria?
Rohullah Naderi
Why Afghan Girls Are Out of School?
George Ochenski
You Have to Give Respect to Get Any, Mr. Trump
Cesar Chelala
Is China Winning the War for Africa?
Mel Gurtov
Getting Away with Murder
W. T. Whitney
Colombian Lawyer Diego Martinez Needs Solidarity Now
Dean Baker
Nothing to Brag About: Scott Walker’s Economic Record in Wisconsin:
October 16, 2018
Gregory Elich
Diplomatic Deadlock: Can U.S.-North Korea Diplomacy Survive Maximum Pressure?
Rob Seimetz
Talking About Death While In Decadence
Kent Paterson
Fifty Years of Mexican October
Robert Fantina
Trump, Iran and Sanctions
Greg Macdougall
Indigenous Suicide in Canada
Kenneth Surin
On Reading the Diaries of Tony Benn, Britain’s Greatest Labour Politician
Andrew Bacevich
Unsolicited Advice for an Undeclared Presidential Candidate: a Letter to Elizabeth Warren
Thomas Knapp
Facebook Meddles in the 2018 Midterm Elections
Muhammad Othman
Khashoggi and Demetracopoulos
Gerry Brown
Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics: How the US Weaponizes Them to Accuse  China of Debt Trap Diplomacy
Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker – Peter Lehman
The Brazilian Presidential Elections and “The Rules of The Game”
Robert Fisk
What a Forgotten Shipwreck in the Irish Sea Can Tell Us About Brexit
Martin Billheimer
Here Cochise Everywhere
David Swanson
Humanitarian Bombs
Dean Baker
The Federal Reserve is Not a Church
October 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Climate Crisis is Upon Us
Conn Hallinan
Syria’s Chessboard
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Atrocities in Yemen are a Worse Story Than the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Middle East Delusions Persist
Justin T. McPhee
Uberrima Fides? Witness K, East Timor and the Economy of Espionage
Tom Gill
Spain’s Left Turn?
Jeff Cohen
Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail