Synthesis/Regeneration 9   (Winter 1996)

We Won! or, How LANL's DARHT Got Stuck in the Mud

by Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group

It is Friday, February 17, 1995. Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) members, attorneys, and LANL/DOE officials are standing in Pajarito Plateau mud at the southern edge of a canyon about a mile north of the entrance to Bandelier National Monument. Looking south, we can see the rim of the next ridge, from which ponderosa pines gracefully punctuate the skyline, and just below, on a slightly lower mesa, maybe 1000 feet away, are the standing walls of Nakemuu, best preserved of all the Anasazi ruins, and one of the ancestral homes of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Directly behind us are two 240-foot-long halls, three stories high, set at right angles, their 4-foot thick reinforced concrete walls imposing but today seeming naked and abandoned as workmen clear the area and pack up materials and tools. What is going on here?

The answer is as simple as it is unprecedented: This is a tour of the DARHT site confirming the halt to construction ordered by Senior US District Court Judge Edwin Mechem in an injunction granted to LASG and our recruited colleagues, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS), plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in November of 1994.

DARHT—Los Alamos National Laboratory's (LANL's) $124 million Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility—has been the Lab's top construction priority. DARHT is designed to take stop-action flash radiographs of imploding mock nuclear weapons primaries (the grapefruit-sized hollow spheres made not of plutonium or highly-enriched uranium but of depleted uranium or other non-fissile metals) using intense beams of x-rays produced by two huge accelerators. These explosions would not produce a nuclear yield but would scatter radioactive and toxic heavy metal shrapnel up to 1500 feet away.

DARHT would be the flagship of DOE's new "Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship" program (SBSS). According to repeated claims of DOE and LANL officials, DARHT is "urgently needed to maintain the safety and reliability of the US nuclear weapons stock pile." Yet on December 8th at the DARHT scoping meeting in Santa Fe, Dr. John Immele, head of nuclear weapons programs at LANL, conceded publicly that no problems of aging that affect safety have ever been found. But elsewhere, DOE/LANL maintained DARHT is so urgently needed that construction of the facility would have to go forward while the environmental impacts analysis and consideration of alternatives required under federal law for major projects was only just begun. It was this latter claim that LASG and CCNS attacked, represented by Grove Burnett and the Western Environmental Law Center, by filing suit against DOE on November 16, 1994.

We won the lawsuit, a David and Goliath victory over the DOE and were granted what we are calling "the ruling from heaven." In a decision that represented a sweeping victory for us on all fronts, Judge Mechem found the LANL and DOE claims completely without substance, holding that there was no excuse for DOE's attempts to exclude DARHT from environmental review, the project did require an environmental impact statement (EIS) there is no safety or reliability crisis in the US stockpile, and construction of the facility must be halted until completion of the EIS.

The implications of the decision go far beyond DARHT, however. This was the first independent review of the justifications advanced by DOE for its expansive (and expensive) SBSS program, and the result was a resounding vote of "no confidence." As LASG has repeatedly pointed out, DOE is attempting to create an artificial crisis over the safety and reliability of the US nuclear weapons stockpile. The crisis would justify continuing to fund a nuclear weapons infrastructure capable of designing and certifying new post-Cold-War weapons in the absence of underground nuclear testing. The qualifier "science-based" in the SBSS title reflects the fact that DOE is committed to aggressively advancing the knowledge and understanding of nuclear weapons in all relevant areas: design of fission primaries (DARHT's principal purpose); design of fusion secondaries (aided by the over-$1 billion National Ignition Facility); and advanced computer modeling and computational capabilities.

We mothballed DARHT for the last nine months. The DOE has finished the EIS and moved to dissolve the injunction. Judge Mechem explicitly retained jurisdiction of the case in order to resolve any disputes between the parties over the adequacy of the DARHT EIS. DOE utilized the narrowest scope for the EIS and continues to push for rapid completion of this "essential" project. LASG and CCNS are seeking to extend the injunction pending completion of the Programmatic EIS next summer. Look for us back in court soon!

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | S/R 9 Contents