Particle Beams

"Luminous Quanta of Divine Intelligence…" dispelling the nuclear delusion

Posts Tagged ‘nuclear waste

Nuclear weapons: the Razor’s Edge

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Our officials have a big problem: during the Cold War, they created tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and now, faced with the threat that terrorists could make dirty bombs out of unsecured nuclear materials, and the spread of nuclear weapons to less stable countries like North Korea, they don’t know how to get rid of them. It’s a mess. In Russia and in the United States, the waste created and dumped during those years will cost billions and billions of dollars to clean up, and no profit to be made from it. According to David Culp, the people in the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, to say nothing of people in Congress, are so tired of talking about the insurmountable problems posed by the mounting waste that they don’t even want to think about it anymore. But unfortunately, they are still producing it.

President Obama has puzzled supporters and critics alike, ever since he made his fabulous commitment in Prague in 2009 to move to eliminate nuclear weapons and then knuckled under to Republican pressure to start modernizing the stockpile, at terrific expense, if he hoped to have their votes for the NewSTART treaty with Russia.

Last February, news leaked out, and spilled all over the Internet, that the President had convened a meeting of top Pentagon heads to analyze the safety of reducing the stockpile even further than NewSTART levels. Disarmament folks got all excited, but then the mollusk clamped shut around this pearl, and nothing more was said. In April, the President’s budget continued to fund modernization, a project expected to cost more than $80 billion over the coming decade.

Huh? What happened to the disarmament president now, we whined? It was a heartbreaking setback.

But in fact, Obama had not actually said that he was planning on holding further negotiations with Russia. Indeed, he said nothing in response to the rumors, and the “implementation” document, as it was called, remained classified. It was an election year, and perhaps campaign politics dictated that it was not a good time to throw an atomic debate into the mix. That was Culp’s interpretation. In a talk at the Quaker House in Santa Fe on June 16th, the lobbyist on nuclear disarmament for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) presented an optimistic picture of past and potential future progress in the disarmament arena.

Since the end of the Cold War, he said, we have reduced our arsenal by 75 percent. We stopped the Reliable Replacement Warhead and the Robust Nuclear Penetrator. By we, he said, he meant grassroots voices, especially those of the people in New Mexico.

And now we’re going to stop the B-61, he said, distributing paper and pens for writing letters to our Senator, Tom Udall.

I recently wrote an article for La Jicarita, a northern New Mexico publication on regional environmental politics, in which I took a dim view of NNSA’s recent budget proposal that includes massive funding for the refurbishment of this warhead, at a projected cost of $10 billion. This, while Congress votes to cut people off Food Stamps! In the light of this exorbitant budget proposal to perpetuate the nuclear machinery at any cost, Culp’s optimism seemed shockingly unrealistic. But he’s been doing this work for more than 20 years.

Then this morning in Berlin, President Obama stepped out and confirmed that he is still working to curtail nuclear proliferation, and that he plans to negotiate with the Russians about further reductions of the two nations’ respective stockpiles.

Obama met with Putin just a few days ago, so one might infer that Obama had checked out Putin’s response before making this powerful public commitment.

Obama spoke of the conclusions of Pentagon officials involved in the “implementation” discussion that had sparked the February mania amongst disarmament watchdogs.

Even more important, perhaps, than the specifics about disarmament, whose fulfillment we must yet await — and the opposition is lining up as we speak; a debate between right-wing analysts will be held this evening entitled “Cutting the Pentagon’s Budget is a Gift to our Enemies” — was Obama’s overarching theme, that we live in the world together, and that we must find ways to create opportunity for everyone:

“For we are not only citizens of America or Germany — we are also citizens of the world.  And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.

“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. We may strike blows against terrorist networks, but if we ignore the instability and intolerance that fuels extremism, our own freedom will eventually be endangered.  We may enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the world, but so long as hundreds of millions endure the agony of an empty stomach or the anguish of unemployment, we’re not truly prosperous.

“I say all this here, in the heart of Europe, because our shared past shows that none of these challenges can be met unless we see ourselves as part of something bigger than our own experienceOur alliance is the foundation of global security.  Our trade and our commerce is the engine of our global economy.  Our values call upon us to care about the lives of people we will never meet.  When Europe and America lead with our hopes instead of our fears, we do things that no other nations can do, no other nations will do.  So we have to lift up our eyes today and consider the day of peace with justice that our generation wants for this world.”

These words are the beginning of a vision of the world as one interrelated unit that is essential if we are to get out of the box of fear and hatred of one another, competition and wished-for supremacy, and begin to work together for a better, safer world.

If nuclear proliferation and global warming don’t stimulate an urgent will for the nations of the world to overcome our differences and subscribe to a single mission, to rescue the world from the razor’s edge on which it wobbles perilously, then surely there is no hope for humankind.

Just at the critical moment, Obama has done his part to reframe the debate into one of larger vision. “We must care about people we don’t even know,” and “see ourselves as bigger than our own experience.” It’s a big leap from Manifest Destiny and the American exceptionalism we’ve heard in some of Obama’s speeches here at home. This is a wider embrace, and though it may be hard for some of us to see ourselves as allies with our erstwhile fanatic enemy, allowing ourselves to think of the citizens of Germany and America as people who share a common past is an exercise that may one day make it possible for both sides of the aisle to join hands in recognition that we are all citizens of one country.

Is Washington ready to embrace this shared mission in a spirit of hope and possibility? Is the world ready to join us?

And what about the pundits, and the critics, and the watchdog organizations, the disarmament advocates as well as the deterrence proponents? Is it possible for us to rally in support of these fine words, this high-minded intent, instead of disintegrating into opposition?

It all remains to be seen. We know what Obama is up against. I’d like to take him at his word and rally behind him. Now is the time to stop blaming him for what he has been unable to do, and acknowledge that his intention is true. Without widespread public support, he will go down in history as a president who tried.

We need him to be a president who succeeded.

I look forward to your comments!



LAS CONCHAS FIRE: Apocalypse Delayed

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Towering flames in the Jemez Mts.

July 6, 2011

The Las Conchas fire, started on June 26 by a downed power line, has been near-apocalyptic in its dimensions and its danger. Firefighters said they’d never seen the likes of it. Within eight hours it whipped from 100 acres to 30,000, propelled by 35 mph winds. It burned from the forest floor to the tops of the trees, devouring everything in its wake, roaring through the canyons to the mesas, racing up and down the wooded hillsides of the beautiful Jemez Mountains and right up to the boundaries of the Los Alamos laboratories, where it threatened areas in the 40 square mile facility stocked with all manner of radioactive and toxic wastes, most notably barrels of transuranic wastes stored above ground in Area G, the most contaminated section of the entire property.

The smoke in the sky and air, the heat of the day amplified by closed windows and fast burning fires, the scarlet moon reflecting the scarlet dropping below a limp grey veil, the stuffy nights, the morning cough. These things are the result of the dry drought-stricken forests burning with intense heat, tall flames propelled across the canyons and mountains toward the rim of the famous nuclear laboratory whose intense efforts during the Manhattan Project spawned the atom bomb, and whose wastes continue to accumulate in nooks and crannies beyond the footsteps and unseen by the eye in hidden places all across the Lab’s 40 square miles, and beyond.

The blaze stopped within short miles of its western boundary and moved North, where eventually it consumed 16,000 acres of the sacred lands of the Santa Clara Pueblo instead of releasing into the air untold quantities of noxious and radioactive chemicals.

And we give thanks. We thank Divine Providence for a change in the fast-blowing winds that could have pushed relentlessly forward toward the infernal boundary. We thank courageous firefighters, here and all over this region, and we appreciate the advanced technologies that they used to channel the flames away from one of the worst places fire can go. We thank the Lab for whatever steps it has taken to suppress fire and contain its poisons. And we thank the regulatory agencies who keep pushing a recalcitrant band of nuclear experts whose environmental work is markedly underfunded by the government, and the corporate bosses, who own the facility.

We must thank all conscious beings who prayed for the winds to change and the rain to fall, among them the Native American tribes whose prayers have probably protected us from innumerable catastrophes these nigh seventy years of the Lab’s existence. And that must include the people of Santa Clara Pueblo, forced by circumstance to make this enormous sacrifice to spare us all the worst consequence of the fire. In a just world, they would be reimbursed for their loss. They didn’t invent the atomic bomb, nor bring all these people and industry to the wild Pajarito Plateau. We did that.

Finally, we thank the activists. These people, recognizing the intense dangers posed to our environment by the activities at the Lab, have not been satisfied with small victories that might lull the average person back to sleep. They seem to work tirelessly, perusing stacks of documents, researching alternatives, and attending all of the endless hearings seeking the stronger controls that could be achieved by the regulatory process that exists, but is constrained at every juncture from true effectiveness.

The work of the activists is what protects our local security more than any other, but it may not be enough to make this place safe once again.

The fire could easily have reached many of the outlying technical areas still contaminated with depleted uranium residues from weapons testing; with high explosives of countless varieties, and PCBs; with plutonium,  not only stored in barrels but widely distributed throughout the canyons and the sparse vegetation from careless disposal during the 40s and 50s; and all of daughters of the ancestral Uranium brought here from the western Indian lands to fuel the lab’s experiments.

No one really knows exactly how to clean up all those”legacy” toxins in the soil and in the water, taken up by the plants and small animals, and discharged into the air as fine particulates blown by desert winds to distant places; and no one wants to spend the taxpayers’ money to protect our health from these things. Instead, billions and billions of dollars continue to be spent on refurbishing old weapons and “modernizing” others, a euphemism from what is much the same thing as making new ones.

Obama’s administration plans to spend $180 Billion on such modernization over the next ten years, if there’s any money left in the till by August. Los Alamos is one of three labs that expects new funding for their role in the three-part process of producing nuclear weapons. Here it plans to construct a new facility, the Chemistry and Metallurgic Research Replacement  and Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) for the purpose of manufacturing many more plutonium pits, the core triggers of nuclear weapons. Other necessary parts for the weapons will be produced in Kansas City, with a new facility in the middle of town, and at Oakridge in Tennessee. With all these expensive projects, it’s hardly any wonder there is no money for clean up the existing mess. Only to create more mess! There is not a single nuclear project that does not generate more radioactive waste.

The contamination we see at the Lab has invaded many other sites. Hanford, one of the three original atomic labs, is the worst superfund site in America. It sits on the shores of the Columbia River, which it has polluted, along with its glorious salmon. Rocky Flats, the former site of plutonium pit production, has been buried with all its contaminants under what is now titled deceptively a “natural preserve,” as if anything that hides a nuclear dump can be called natural. The Idaho National Lab at Idaho Falls has polluted the Snake River, one of the largest tributaries of the Columbia River. Across the country, 104 nuclear power plants leak steadily into the air which, blown by the winds, drops its nanoparticles wherever they go. Dust from old uranium mines stands below ground and above ground in piles of “mill tailings.” The Las Vegas, Nevada, test site endured some 982 atomic and thermonuclear tests. The list goes on.

And this is only the United States! Not many people have heard of Chelyabinsk, where the Soviet Union’s atomic reactor Mayak was placed. For over six years, the Mayak complex systematically dumped radioactive waste into the Techa River, the only source of water for the 24 villages which lined its banks. It has been called the “most contaminated spot on the planet.” What about all those Marshall Islands, where the U.S. and France conducted numerous tests? What about the nuclear power plants in China, India and across Europe, and the test sites those countries have used? What about Israel, with its still unmentionable and uncounted 250 nuclear weapons? Are we counting the depleted uranium bomb blown up in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan? And of course we have all shared the strange fruits of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, all said to be much less fatal to citizens than they have turned out to be.

“We are all connected,” say the Bioneers, proponents of positive solutions to ecological problems. They do not tackle, nor even approach, the topic of planetary irradiation. But it is that nuclear radiation, of all things, that must prove how tightly we are bound together. Radiation does not stay within any known boundaries. Depleted uranium has been found in the Andes Mountains and in the glaciers. Chernobyl infected Eastern Europe and even sent atomic emissaries across the Pacific.  One country’s explosion is another’s fallout. And it is so clear that we will either die connected or we will figure out, collaboratively and connected, how to survive.

But the hour grows late for our salvation. The Las Conchas Fire continues to burn, approaching 130,000 acres, the worst fire in New Mexico’s history. We have been spared the worst scenario for now. But if the monsoons don’t come, who knows what fires will follow? As the Southwest slips deeper into drought, who knows how these fires may spread? The endless buckets of water poured in the sizzling flames have taken a toll on our already stressed water supply. Will the taps go dry in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in the not-so-distant future? Will the lovely farms of Northern New Mexico fry?

Will the Lab improve its environmental clean-up on a pathetically low budget, less than one percent of the total?  Or will it drag its feet, as has been its history?

Will it strengthen its fire-suppressant capacity? Los Alamos has been cited by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board and by the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General, for the Lab’s failure to meet regulatory standards for fire suppression.

Yet in the latest proposal for the $6 billion CMRR, to be built on an earthquake fault in the soft volcanic tuff of the Valle Caldera region, the Lab has offered to reduce its budget for the new facility by eliminating the fire sprinkler system in the Nuclear Facility where six metric tons of plutonium will be stored.

Plutonium is so inflammatory that it doesn’t need a fire to burst into flames. Exposure to water and air can produce that infernal result. Like depleted uranium, it is pyrophoric. It self-ignites, and is released as a radioactive gas.

We are killing ourselves and our planet with our weapons-based approach to national security. Real security can only be had by breaking  this obsession with “building a strong defense” at the expense of life.

Life. The thread that connects us. The one thing we cannot create in a lab.

What's left of the Forest









LANL takes the credit for stopping the fire? See this article from the NY Times, Previous Burn, Restoration Work Helped Spare Los Alamos From Catastrophe