Particle Beams

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

Posts Tagged ‘plutonium pits

Two-Minded World

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This morning as I drank my cup of tea I flipped through the pages of Sunset magazine with its beautiful pictures of gardens and nature hikes and fabulousfood; and I envied those who have gardens, who go camping in spectacular places, who can afford these furnishings, these homes.

Then I reminded myself of the many people struggling with chronic illness, or raising a child with birth defects, or suffering crushing poverty.

On the floor where it had fallen from my dining table was my unopened copy of TriValleyCARES newsletter. I reached over to pick it up.

TriValleyCARES is the watchdog group that keeps a steady eye on Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. I am getting ready to move back to California, and will be only about an hour from LLNL, in a lovely area of Sonoma County where most people forget completely about nuclear weapons laboratories. They manage to be more oblivious of the menace than people here, who live in a state that seems dedicated to the military goals of this militaristic nation, especially nuclear.

In New Mexico we have two national nuclear laboratories within an hour of one another. We have one of the largest nuclear waste disposal sites, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, WIPP. Of course we also have the Trinity Test Site, where the first nuclear bomb was exploded in 1945, a historic site. We have a plant where uranium is processed, and of course we have uranium mines, and the ever-present threat of new uranium mining. We’re surrounded.

Not that California doesn’t have its share, home to Lockheed Corporation for example. Do you live in a state where there is no contamination from nuclear reactors? I also just read that the tanks in Hanford, Washington, are leaking…

So, this is our world.

On the one hand, we have hikes up in the stunning Sierra mountains; on the other, we have nuclear weapons being designed and manufactured, and leaking their toxic garbage into our water supply.

Taking the TriValleyCARES newsletter into the bathroom, I learned something new about plutonium pit manufacture planned for the Los Alamos Lab.

It seems that pits manufactured in Los Alamos are going to be transported to Livermore to be burnished and finished and then transported back to Los Alamos!

I can’t think of anything more stupid, unless it is something I learned from the movie “The Economics of Happiness,” which I watched on my computer last night, that nations now export foodstuffs like eggs and tomatoes while at the same time importing the same foods to feed their own people!

The miles traveled by foods in a time of diminishing fuel supplies where corporations drive the compulsion to obtain what we “need” by frakking is wasteful and stupid enough, but how about sending plutonium pits back and forth on the beautiful highways of the West?

Does that sound fiscally responsible? Or SAFE?

Reading this article reminded me of something I read last night about Obama’s budget proposal. Here it is, from Democracy Now!

The Obama administration has been accused of backtracking on vows to move toward nuclear disarmament following reports it plans to spend more than $10 billion to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. The plan would extend the life of U.S. nuclear B61 gravity bombs stored in Europe and apply new tail fins to make the bombs into guided weapons. Joseph Cirincione, head of the nuclear arms control group the Ploughshares Fund, told The Guardian: “The billions of dollars we are lavishing on the B61 is criminal. This is billions of dollars spent on a weapon whose mission evaporated at the end of the cold war,” he said.

Not only is our Great Emancipator willing to spend billions on this project while agreeing to strip funds from unrelated budgets for Social Security and MediCare, but these B61 bombs are 50 megatons – three times the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima – and said to be “more useable” because they will allegedly create “less fallout” due to releasing less debris into the atmosphere.

I’m so happy that these monstrosities, which will devastate any city on which they are dropped, will release less radioactive fallout to pollute the atmosphere over the United States of America, which is always on the side of the Good, and only goes to war to promote peace.

Norman Solomon nailed it when he said, “War becomes perpetual when it’s used as a rationale for peace.”

That movie, War Made Easy, is something else I watched last night on the Internet.

This is my life, your life, in today’s crazy world. Between these two realities, we struggle to stay sane, raise children, earn a living, and read labels on bread and other staples when we stop at the grocery store on the way home.

On the one hand, we have people watching movies on huge TVscreens in their California backyards, and on the other, we have governments subsidizing – with our tax money! — the design and production of bombs of enormous murderous capacity.

In the gap between these two realities, people scattered all over the world are trying to create a “new paradigm,” and new ways of living based on that paradigm that will make it possible for us to survive on this deeply endangered planet.

The crisis is real, and it’s urgent. What are we willing to do in order to restore our planet and ensure that life is possible for our children and grandchildren?

Says Vandana Shiva, “We are either going to have a future where women lead the way to make peace with the Earth, or we are not going to have a human future at all.”

Let’s go, women of the world. Time for The Uprising.


The Pits Keep Marching On… Part II

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(Part II of last week’s article)

“The U.S. military is hard at work on a dizzying array of pricey new guided munitions to match its trillion-dollar investment in stealth fighters, bombers and killer drones. Some are super smart. Others, super fast. A few are designed to be tiny. All of them have one purpose: to blow away the target, and only the target.”

“My favorite weapon in this list is the B61-12 GPS guided 50-kiloton mini-nuke bomb. If the idea of a mini-nuke striking somewhere in your country doesn’t make you surrender than [sic] you are probably hellbent on meeting those 72 virgins.” – Steve Gill

Despite official US policy of not making new nuclear weapons, writes Andrew Lichterman, in the new book, Assuring Destruction Forever [], the nuclear complex “is being modernized to provide the capacity to maintain existing nuclear weapons and to build new ones into the middle of the twenty-first century” — like the B61-12 that so inspires Tennessee talk show head Steve Gill.

This bomb is intended for placement on the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter according to William D. Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation and author of the recent book, Prophets of War. Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.
“Despite US claims that its modernization programmes will add no new military capabilities, the new B61 bomb, if built, will allow the targeting of a wide range of targets with more accurate, lower yield nuclear weapons,” continues Lichterman [my itals].

Recall that “lower yield” means more useable:

He then quotes Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, who writes that “delivery [of this warhead] from new stealthy F-35 aircraft will provide additional military advantages such as improved penetration and survivability,” adding that the B61 replacement will achieve many of the goals of the low-yield nuclear weapons initiatives that Congress had limited or refused to fund during the Clinton and Bush administrations. It will “reinvigorate a planning culture that sees nuclear weapons as useable, and potentially lower the nuclear threshold in a conflict.” (my italics)

Needless to say, these warheads will require plutonium pits – possibly new plutonium pits designed to fit the model.

Modernization will make use of what has been called Life Extension Programs (LEPs) as a cover for what amounts to new designs; an LEP “for the W78ICBM warhead is in the planning stages,” explains Lichterman, and “The LEP for the W88 SLBM warhead, the most modern nuclear weapon in the active stockpile, is expected to begin in the latter half of this decade. . . The W80 cruise missile warhead is slated to get its LEP in the 2020s . . . .”

More plutonium pits, baby.

All modern nuclear warheads require plutonium pits. Clearly the lab is going to make them come hell or high water, CMRR or no CMRR. This is what it’s all about: producing smaller, more reliable, more useable nuclear weapons. I can’t emphasize this enough. We are talking about enhanced capacity for nuclear attack.

The reason why US nuclear policy has taken this shape despite Obama’s commitment to move toward nuclear disarmament is that Congress has been unwilling to fund new weapons, which cannot be tested, and hence there have been no new weapons for 19 years. A significant cluster of Hawks, mostly Republican, and friendly military contractors like Lockheed Martin, are very worried about this situation, mumbling repeatedly about the deterioration of the arsenal; they ascribe to the view that without new weapons our national security will be jeopardized because other nuclear nations are upgrading their nuclear arsenals.

“Currently, all nations with nuclear weapons are modernizing their arsenals, delivery systems, and related infrastructure. These programs have serious implications for nuclear disarmament. By investing in the extension, upgrading, and reinforcement of their arsenals and capacities… these governments are investing in the future of nuclear weapons, not in the future of disarmament.” – Summary of paper by Ray Acheson, Executive Director of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “Modernization of nuclear weapons: Aspiring to ‘indefinite retention’?” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Fear leads to more fear, and weapons lead to weapons. Yes, it’s the arms race all over again, with everyone feeling threatened by other nations’ nuclear weaponry and scurrying to make some of their own. And while the arsenals of countries like Pakistan and North Korea, to say nothing of Iran’s much talked about but nonexistent bomb, pose no threat to the US except in terms of regional dominance, Russia’s does.

Russia is understood to be modernizing its force because of US insistence on placing its weapons missile shield in Europe.

This is the rubric used to justify $850 billion assigned to the modernization of the nuclear complex over the next 10 years, which Republican Congressmen insisted Obama must support or they would not vote to ratify the New START with Russia (Arizona Senator John Kyl, who spearheaded this bargain, didn’t sign the Treaty anyway); and these are the weapons that require new plutonium pits.

Call it Mutually Assured Terror.

Needless to sat, these considerations have not been part of the discussion at LANL’s friendly hearings on the CMRR. Occasional allusions are made to “deterrence” and “national security”, but public discussion of the B61-12 or the W87 or W88 retrofits is not heard. The debate thus far has hinged mainly on earthquake danger and high cost, significant concerns, but not the main concern. Nor is this a subject that receives widespread attention in the media. Hence public awareness of the new arms race is slight. People have other problems, after all, like mortgages and jobs.

Writes William Hartung, in an article posted July8, 2012 at Tom’s Dispatch, “Beyond Nuclear Denial 
How a World-Ending Weapon Disappeared From Our Lives, But Not Our World”:

“. . . the only nuke that Americans regularly hear about is one that doesn’t exist: Iran’s. The nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons on missiles, planes, and submarines possessed by Russia, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea are barely mentioned in what passes for press coverage of the nuclear issue.”

Right here at the foot of the Hill on which these weapons are designed, there’s a disconnect between making plutonium pits, which most people oppose, and producing new nuclear weapons. That’s just the way the lab would like it to be. In fact, the lab would like things to return to their former secrecy. After the CMRR debacle, when LANL was compelled to listen to activists at hearings held twice a year for 7 years, there are already signs that the lab may be tightening its lips.

During the last of those hearings, held on September 26, Steve Fong, NNSA’s Project Manager, kept responding to questions with the unenlightening news that he “can’t talk about it” now that “the project is closed.”
And on October 1st, the New Mexico Community Foundation revealed that LANL has taken back the management of RACER, the community database which was mandated by a 2007 Settlement Agreement with New Mexico Environment Department to provide the public with information about lab activities that affect the life of the community. Perhaps the lab expects or knows that new staff at the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) appointed by our conservative governor will not press the issue.

After the CMRR debacle, it wouldn’t be surprising if LANL retreated back to its former secrecy. If so, that will make it even tougher for nuclear watchdog groups to bring the information to the public.

For Hartung, as for the rest of us, this is a very dangerous situation:

“The notion that Iran can’t be trusted with such a weapon obscures a larger point: given their power to destroy life on a monumental scale, no individual and no government can ultimately be trusted with the bomb.

“The only way to be safe from nuclear weapons is to get rid of them — not just the Iranian one that doesn’t yet exist, but all of them. It’s a daunting task. It’s also a subject that’s out of the news and off anyone’s agenda at the moment, but if it is ever to be achieved, we at least need to start talking about it. Soon.”

The public needs to evaluate how it wants to spend its tax money. In these belt-tightening times, should we pay for Medicare, education, “entitlement programs” that create a safety net for citizens, or do we prefer to buy more useable nuclear weapons?

I ask you.

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

Six Metric Tons and What Do You Get?

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No one can quite explain why Los Alamos Lab would need to store six metric tons of plutonium in its new building, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR), a six billion dollar project proposed for Northern New Mexico.
That’s more pork, says Greg Mello, than has ever been spent in this state except when to build the Interstate freeway here. Greg is the director of the Los Alamos Study Group which is now suing the Lab for the spiraling costs of its latest project.
Asked what all this plutonium is for, Scott Kovacs of another nuclear activist group, NukeWatch, smiled ironically when he said, “The scientists just like to have a little plutonium around to play with.”
But, six metric tons? That’s 13,200 pounds of the most toxic substance known to man — a substance created by men, incidentally. According to Helen Caldicott, a microgram ingested is enough to give you cancer.
No wonder Lab spokesman are even less willing to use the “p”-word — much less explain the reason why it intends to hold all this precious metal on the site. At a March 10 presentation to update the public about progress on the new installation, Steve Fong referered to the stuff as “nuclear materials” until questioned by Robert Chavez, a young Pueblo man who has been working on the Lab’s impact on Native American communities downwind. Only then did Fong admit that the material was plutonium, but in so many words failed to clarify why it was there.
The CMRR’s mission is sinister enough. It is being built so that the Lab can take on the task once performed by Rocky Flats in Colorado – the manufacture of plutonium pits, which are the triggers (also called “primaries”) of thermonuclear bombs.
Pits weigh in at 12 pounds each. Six metric tons, therefore, is enough for over 1000 pits. The new facility will allow the Lab to make 50 to 80 pits a year, so that’s more than a lifetime supply to have on hand.
What on earth for? We have more than 10,000 pits in storage in Amarillo, Texas, at the Pantex plant. A recent (2007) study by the Jason’s, a group  of retired nuclear physicists, showed that pits may be expected to last at least 100 years. These pits are less than 60 years old. The Department of Energy is certainly planning ahead.
But if the DOE were doing its homework, it would have planned to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the time those pits are damaged by age. The U.S. (and the Soviet Union) both signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1970, making a commitment to eliminate our nuclear arsenals as quickly as possible. To be fair, the number of weapons in the United States has been significantly reduced, from 70,000 at the height of the Cold War, to less than 10,000 today, still enough to blow up the entire planet many times over. The Russians have about the same amount, or a little more.
The New START Treaty, while not making radical changes in either arsenal, will lead to further reductions in the number of weapons on alert; it does not require that these weapons be dismantled.
Nuclear disarmament, if such it can be called, is moving at a snail’s pace; but it was thought to be moving forward nevertheless. Didn’t President Obama make a thrilling speech in Prague in 2009, vowing to end nuclear weapons? Or was that a dream I had?
It seems inconceivable that in a global environment urgent to lessen the growing danger of nuclear proliferation, this country would consider it necessary or even advisable to make new nuclear weapons. Yet it appears that that’s what is in the works. Why else have 13,200 pounds of plutonium sitting around? It’s not as if you can just pile up boxes or kegs of this stuff in some old garage at the Lab. Plutonium is fissile. You have to make sure it doesn’t heat itself up and then, um, explode. Such an explosio that would make mincemeat of that expensive new facility in which it is going to be housed, and make the city of Los Alamos a shadow of its former self. Santa Fe, southeast of Los Alamos, would receive plenty of fallout. All this without a war…
Those tons of plutonium will be stored in stainless steel kegs in a secured vault bolted to the ground with fans and a sprinkler system to keep it cool.
That’s a technical feat in itself and costs lots of money. Or so it was initially proposed. Now that there are worries that the high costs of this facility might signal its cancellation, LANL is proposing to eliminate these safety systems entirely.
When things get tight, as they are today, safety is the first thing to go.
Meanwhile the question remains: Why six metric tons of plutonium at the Lab? It’s not as if that’s the Lab’s entire supply of plutonium. There’s plenty more stored all over LANL. Some of it is in the canyon that feeds into the Rio Grande, but that doesn’t exactly count as supply.
Nationally, there’s no shortage of plutonium. Greg Mello estimates that there is 90,000 tons of this horrible stuff in weapons and storage sites all over the country.
And we’re stuck with it. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years. In human terms, that’s pretty much forever.
Six metric tons is clearly enough to numb the most brilliant of brains.

Written by stephaniehiller

April 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm