Monday, May 5, 2008

U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS DEVELOPMENT: Test site profile revamped

Las Vegas Review-Journal
Feb. 16, 2008
U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS DEVELOPMENT: Test site profile revamped

Little-known Super Kukla delineated

Government officials are revamping the historic profile of the Nevada
Test Site to include details about a little-known project that played
an important role in the nation's Cold War quest to develop nuclear bombs.

Documents obtained by the Review-Journal show that the site of the
Super Kukla "prompt burst" reactor in Area 27 of the sprawling
nuclear proving grounds, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was given
final closure approval in September by the Nevada Division of
Environmental Protection after it had been demolished and its
contaminated remnants entombed in place.

The disposal and closure operation cost $2.3 million, but the
Department of Energy saved $3 million by using this safe, cleanup
method, said Kevin Rohrer, a National Nuclear Security Administration
spokesman in North Las Vegas.

The bulk of contamination from radioactive materials, PCBs,
beryllium, metals and volatile organic compounds was disposed in
various, authorized sites for toxic or radioactive waste. But areas
where remnants couldn't be completely removed from the shielded,
bunker facility were grouted and sealed in place, according to the
281-page corrective action closure report and supporting documents.

Information about Super Kukla currently is being added to the
activities included in the Nevada Test Site's profile for use by
former test site workers and survivors of others who are seeking
compensation for illnesses under a Labor Department program.

John Funk, a former Nevada Test Site worker and chairman of the
nonprofit Atomic Veterans and Victims of America Inc., alerted the
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in late October
that the so-called "site profile" document had glossed over Super
Kukla. The document is supposed to include pertinent, historical
information about all tests and activities involving radioactive
materials or releases at the Nevada Test Site.

"It didn't say what it did or what it was," Funk said Friday.

The name Super Kukla stems from the popular television puppet show,
"Kukla, Fran and Ollie," that was canceled in 1957 after 10 years on the air.

A nuclear effects reactor named Kukla, after the troupe's earnest,
clownlike puppet leader, was built first in 1959 at California's
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Later it became Super Kukla,
a so-called "prompt burst" nuclear reactor that was constructed in
1964 in a remote area of the Nevada Test Site to explore the initial
phase of a criticality, or nuclear chain reaction.

A reactor dubbed Fran was built in 1962. It was operated by Lawrence
Livermore scientists at the Nevada Test Site until mid-1967 when it
was dispatched for its last three-year stint at the national lab in
Idaho. NNSA officials and spokesmen at the national labs in
Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos, N.M., could not document the
existence of a third reactor, supposedly named Ollie.

Las Vegan Troy Wade, former defense programs chief for the Department
of Energy during the Reagan administration, however, had knowledge of
the Kukla-class reactors.

"We used them to make measurements of things like basic physics
measurements that would then relate to the safety of the nuclear
weapon," Wade said in a telephone interview this week.

Wade said the neutron-pulse reactors were not secret or so-called
"black projects." Nevertheless, information about their role in
national security during the Cold War has only been sparsely reported
over the years in internal publications produced for facilities in
the nuclear weapons complex.

After Super Kukla operations ceased in 1979, its core and highly
enriched uranium components were returned to the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The uranium rings, which weighed nearly 600 pounds each, were some of
the largest highly enriched uranium items ever produced at the Y-12
plant, according to a 2004 employee publication. Declared as surplus
in 1995, the rings were cut into pieces in 2003 and blended down to
low enriched uranium to be sold as fuel for nuclear power plants.

In a 50th anniversary science and technology publication for Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, the Super Kukla reactor was said to
have "simulated the hostile environment of a nuclear exchange."

By the mid-1960s, "with the large buildup of Soviet nuclear weapons
and delivery systems, the U.S. faced some serious "what-if"
questions," the lab's magazine reported. "If a nuclear exchange
occurred between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, U.S. warheads would
have to contend with defensive countermeasures such as a
nuclear-tipped interceptor or antiballistic missile, which could
deliver a blast aimed at destroying or disabling a U.S. warhead
before it reentered the atmosphere."

Wade said Super Kukla was also very important in giving scientists
the ability to design nuclear weapons so that they would be safe in
storage "particularly in those areas where there were going to be
people close at hand, like on submarines and ships at sea."

While Super Kukla operations ceased as the last decade of the Cold
War approached, scientists at the Los Alamos lab continued to evolve
the testing technique with what's called the Criticality Experiments
Facility that's destined for the Nevada Test Site. The effort is
continuing so that scientists can study the stockpile as it ages to
ensure that it remains safe.

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