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Test site profile revamped

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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