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City Councilor Journeys from Japan to "The Heart of Darkness"
Keith Matzen, Sandia National Laboratories pulsed power director, explains some intricacies of Sandia's Z machine to visitor Yasuyuki Kaneko. (Photo by Lloyd Wilson)
Albuquerque, NM — When is a nuclear test not a nuclear test? That all depends on your viewpoint. Tests are performed in miniature by Sandia's Z machine — reportedly the most powerful laboratory producer of X-rays on Earth. The large accelerator regularly examines plutonium to study the fissile material's properties. The large accelerator has done this eight times in the last three years. The U.S. government's view is that tests of a few grams of plutonium are safe, ecologically responsible, and do not violate the United States' unofficial moratorium on nuclear testing that's been in effect for more than two decades.

But there are self-appointed watchdogs in Japan, where each firing is widely reported, and the reports motivate councilors in hundreds of Japanese cities to write letters of protest to President Barack Obama.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum resets its "Peace Watch Tower" clock to zero after each Z shot. The reset indicates the amount of time since the last global nuclear weapons test.

One Sapporo city councilor, Yasuyuki Kaneko, decided to see for himself what was really going on in Albuquerque. He doubted the danger widely perceived by his countrymen. He left his wife and two small children at the end of April to fly from the Northern Japan city of Sapporo to Albuquerque to visit Sandia. He took the final step of his mission when he was escorted into the building housing Sandia National Laboratories' Z machine, viewed by the overwhelming majority of Kaneko's elected colleagues as the heart of darkness.

No Danger
"I've read your website," he said, "and I'm convinced the experiments are not dangerous."

But millions of Japanese "think it's a big explosion (whenever Z fires)," he said.

So, he said, "I have come here to see why you do your experiment with all my eyes."

He came alone because no other Sapporo councilors wanted to come. Of his city's 68 council members, he said, only three opposed sending letters to the American president. The other two dissenters, several decades older than the 42-year-old Kaneko, were reluctant to undertake the lengthy journey.

Sandia Pulsed Power Sciences Center director Keith Matzen, asked by the National Nuclear Security Administration to host the hour-long tour, answered Kaneko's question of how much plutonium was involved in a Z test shot by pulling a nickel from his pocket. "The amount of plutonium used is less than the size of this coin," he said.

Smaller than Expected
Kaneko, who has little scientific background (his college majors were economics and law), had no trouble understanding the coin comparison. He said later, "The amount is much smaller than I expected. It is not dangerous because I can touch the container in the facility. Also, they do experiments there every day (so it's not a bomb site)."

Given that he held a favorable position toward Z before he came to Sandia, would his first-hand report be greeted by skepticism at home?

"The truth is most powerful to convince someone," Kaneko said.

The Z machine is a contender to produce break-even nuclear fusion power in the laboratory. Break-even — harvesting as much energy from a reaction as put into it — is the next major fusion goal and would be a step in achieving virtually unlimited energy from sea water.


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