Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
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:
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
Patrick Cockburn
Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There
Frank Stricker
Can We Finally Stop Worrying About Unemployment?
Binoy Kampmark
Royal Wedding Madness
Roy Morrison
Middle East War Clouds Gather
Edward Curtin
Gina Haspel and Pinocchio From Rome
Juana Carrasco Martin
The United States is a Country Addicted to Violence
Dean Baker
Wealth Inequality: It’s Not Clear What It Means
Robert Dodge
At the Brink of Nuclear War, Who Will Lead?
Vern Loomis
If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Valerie Reynoso
How LBJ initiated the Military Coup in the Dominican Republic
Weekend Edition
May 18, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Donald, Vlad, and Bibi
Robert Fisk
How Long Will We Pretend Palestinians Aren’t People?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail