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Alaska fire threatens air force nukes

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(October 16, 1992) On 12 August the US Air Force notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that four nuclear power units called RTGs were caught in a forest fire north of Fort Yukon, Alaska.

(379/80.3724) WISE Amsterdam - Since that time, weeks of intensive investigation by activists and journalists have shown that actually 10 of the power packs, weighing over two tons each and containing a total of about 30 pounds of strontium-90, have been surrounded by a month-long fire at a location called Burnt Mountain. Burnt Mountain, as it happens, is inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the world's only United Nations-sponsored wildlife protection regime.

RTGs, or radioisotope thermoelectric generators, containing plutonium-238 have been used in spacecraft since the early 1960s, but it is not generally known that an even larger number of nuclear power packs containing strontium-90 have also been deployed on the ground and the ocean floor by industry and the military. US-manufactured RTGs have powered Coast Guard buoys, offshore oil well equipment, and remote seismic and oceanographic instruments from Antarctica to Saudi Arabia. In 1988, the Soviet Union complained that two RTGs weighing six tons each had been discovered on the ocean floor near Soviet communications cables in the Sea of Ohkotsk. Energy Department documents and regulatory licenses suggest that between 100 and 150 terrestrial RTG units have been operated by US agencies and commercial licensees over the past two decades.

RTGs are not nuclear power plants and they do not generate steam. Instead they contain bimetallic thermocouples that convert the heat from radioactive fission directly into electricity. In remote locations, their advantage over diesel-powered generators is that they require no fuel or maintenance support. Earlier models were manufactured by 3M and General Electric; over the past decade, Teledyne n a US$3.2 billion-per-year defense contractor which specializes in electronics, nuclear systems, and strategic alloys n has held an exclusive lead in RTG development.

The strontium-90 energy source for the terrestrial units is one of the deadliest and most troublesome isotopes in the waste stream from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons production.

As Star Wars projects began proliferating in the mid-1980s, the Air Force began to show a greatly increased interest in strontium-powered RTGs. During a 1984 series of House Armed Services Committee hearings, RTGs were said to "Have the great potential of building unattended stations with a large amount of power," and DOE recommended them over other power sources for remote sites.

Several years a major role for RTGs was proposed when the Distant Early Warning line of radars across Canada was being replaced by the present North Warning System, but Canada chose diesel units rather than nuclear. In Alaska, however, the Save Igloo and Top ROCC radar systems, head-quartered at Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage, developed remote sensing stations at more than a dozen locations, and 25 RTGs are now known to be operating as power sources across the state.

Alaska has long been used as a staging ground for dangerous experiments with nuclear technology. Two under-ground weapons tests were conducted on Amchitka Island in 1965 and 1969 in spite of the threat of groundwater infiltration into the explosion sites. In 1971, a third test with a yield approaching five megatons was the largest underground test ever conducted by the United States.

Even earlier (1957-58), weapons physicist Edward Teller was promoting an operation called Project Chariot that would have dug a channel at Cape Thompson near Point Hope on Alaska's northwestern coast with a series of six "peaceful" nuclear explosions. Even though those explosions never occurred, the former US Atomic Energy Commission had distributed fallout materials in the area in a series of biological experiments. Other aspects of Project Chariot, however, were carried out. In a series of articles in the Anchorage Daily News which began on 6 September, evidence was presented showing that, in the Chariot experiment, fallout collected from the Nevada Test Site was buried four feet deep within 30 miles of an Inupiat village. About 15,000 pounds of soil are now contaminated in the Point Hope area, and strontium-90 scattered across the state is being investigated. Jay Blucher, the reporter who wrote the series, has also written a feature article about the RTG emergency at Burnt Mountain, but by late September his editors were still refusing to print it.

Many mysterious questions about the current emergency remain unanswered. Blucher's investigation has shown that Air Force emergency teams which were sent in to assess the situation wore radiation badges and protective suits, but Bureau of Land Management smoke-jumpers were sent in unprotected. Meanwhile, Air Force spokespeople are saying there has been no radiation release at Burnt Mountain, but many of the Air Force's claims have already proven to be untrue. One colonel, for example, told Atoms & Waste early during the investigation that it was a "non-incident type thing" in which no damage was received even by the surrounding cables and electronic equipment. This is now known not to be true. Also of concern is that while it is said that the RTGS can withstand fire temperatures of 1350 degrees C for 30 minutes, potential damage from lower temperatures over longer periods of time is harder to assess.

The revelations from Point Hope and Burnt Mountain have resulted in concern and protest from the native people of the north, who have or-ganized widely in opposition to arctic nuclear experiments as far back as Project Chariot. In particular, Jonathon Solomon of the Alaska Porcupine Caribou Commission on 24 September wrote Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski with a request for an immediate radiation survey of Burnt Mountain and the immediate removal of all nuclear materials from the site. Solomon's letter represents the widespread sentiment of the Gwich'in people in the Burnt Mountain area.

Even beyond these concerns are two growing imperatives:

  1. to reverse the nuclear-military colonization of the Alaskan outback, and
  2. to establish a public-interest policy over the recycling of the byproducts of the arms race into proliferating applications like RTGs, irradiation facilities, and space-nuclear technology.

Source: From a draft version of an article by Kemp Houck to be published in the next Atoms & Waste (US).
Contact: Atoms & Waste, 310 Domer St. #1, Takoma Park, MD 20912; tel: +1 301 589 892; fax: 589 5894.