Saturday, October 24, 2009

The New York Times Believes Everything It Hears

Or at least Michael Cooper does.

That jeep, carefully transported back from Trinity Site, a five-hour drive even today, contaminated by the first nuclear test to be buried in Material Disposal Area (MDA) B. Yes indeed. And a faint whiff of MDA F, where explosives are allegedly buried.

The cleanups at Los Alamos have gone in fits and starts. Back in the 1970s, a group of well-meaning people in the Health and Safety Division interviewed some of the old-timers about waste disposal practices and looked at some of the records, which were not in the detail now required by law. They wrote down what they learned, or thought they learned, which became the basis for the definitions of environmental hazards at the Lab.

Then nothing happened for a long time. I came into the program in the early 1990s. One of the areas I was responsible for was MDA F. Unlike those 1970s interviewers, I had actually worked with explosives engineers and knew how they do things. Firstly, they love a big bang. Waste explosives? They knew how to get rid of them. Burying them would be stupid. Although these would probably have been insensitive high explosives, the vagaries of impurities and inhomogeneities, weathering, and the compaction of a burial pit would have argued for the high possibility of a very bad outcome if that was how you got rid of them. Much better to blow them up. And sometimes, with the right explosives in the right form, burn them.

When I came to Los Alamos in 1965, big bangs were a regular occurrence. Some were experiments to determine various properties of materials for use in nuclear weapons. Some tossed uranium around. Now the bangs are done in carefully constructed containers, the history of which also contains some nice stories that won't appear in this post.

But the reports said that explosives were disposed of in a pit on Two Mile Mesa, now known as MDA F. What to do? We certainly couldn't drill, one way of figuring out what was in an MDA, because we might hit the explosives. But the story sounded fishy to me. When we got the aerial photos, craters were evident quite close to MDA F. It turned out that 500-pound shots were not uncommon there. Since Two Mile Mesa was just across the canyon from the Administration Building, there was a story about one of those shots that blew the papers off Director Norris Bradbury's desk one cloudy day when the shock wave got funneled toward the north. And there were documents and the agreement of the few old-timers who were still around.

I suspect that the 1970s interview contained a comment by the old-timer that they disposed of explosives out there. The interviewer, accustomed to the practice of burying things in pits, took this to mean that the explosives were buried and wrote that down. The Los Alamos environmental restoration program, and now the New York Times, live with that to this day.

And we laughed about that jeep many times. Is it possible that the Manhattan Project workers transported that jeep back? They would have needed a closed truck large enough to handle a jeep, and they would have had to be willing to contaminate that truck. They did enough construction at Trinity Site that they must have had the heavy equipment to excavate a burial pit there to drop the jeep into. But they were working under extreme circumstances and did extreme things. So a jeep in MDA B is not outside the limits of probability.

Ah well. At least we're down to a jeep. The story started out with a tank, but somewhere along the line, they must have decided that "tank" referred to an underground storage vessel, not a war machine. That was pretty much what we figured.

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