Citizen Solidarity at Both Ends of a Proposed U.S. “Fukushima Freeway”
Californians learn that the two industries which most threaten human survival are facing off in New Mexico's 'Nuclear Alley.'
By James Heddle – EON – June 7, 2018
Target: ‘Nuclear Alley,’ New Mexico
Recently – un-reported in the scandal/crisis-pre-occupied American main stream media – New Mexico has become the epicenter of an on-going national controversy: how to responsibly manage the tons of radioactive waste accumulated at all the nuclear energy reactors around the country so far in the Nuclear Age.
Why, New Mexicans and others around the country are asking, has this region suddenly become the potential target destination for all of America’s radioactive waste?
New Mexico cattle rancher Ed Hughs is one of the many around that state and the country who think so.
Hughs told a recent Roswell, New Mexico NRC meeting to rousing applause, that together with his neighbors he had just successfully fought off a proposed deep bore hole nuclear waste depository next to his ranch in Quey County, NM.
“There are a lot of questions that have not been answered. One of the questions, how do you retrieve if there are accidents? How do you monitor? How do you repair? Those questions have not been answered. So I guess in summing up I want to say that the Holtec and Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, and I agree with an earlier statement that, you know, you aren't bad people in the sense that you are trying to do us harm, but you are making a huge mistake…. You are in fact proposing to bring death to New Mexico.”
Yucca Redux and the ‘Fukushima Freeway’
The U.S. Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 promised commercial utilities that the Department of Energy would be responsible for their lethal high level waste beginning in 1998. However due to the failure to find a permanent repository and the as yet unsolved technical problems of safely storing waste lethal for millenia, the government has been unable to deliver on that promise and is liable for lawsuits filed yearly by utilities who charge the government millions of dollars for their annual waste storage costs. In an effort to stop this financial hemmoraging from utility waste storage payments and to give the impression that something is being done to address the issue, HR 3053 was written. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018, HR 3053, known as the Shimkus Bill, recently passed the House and is now in the Senate. California Senator Diane Feinstein has long been advocating for an interim 'solution' to the nation's commercial radioactive waste problem and is now sheparding the Shimkus Bill through Senate discussions.
HR 3053 calls for restarting the failed Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada, and establishing a system of Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites for radioactive waste around the country until Yucca is operational. As San Onofre Safety explains, the bill will not solve our radioactive waste management problems and will make the problems much worse.
First on the list of possible ‘temporary’ CIS nuke dumps is a site proposed by Holtec International and the local Eddy-Lea Alliance just outside Hobbs, New Mexico. It’s just over the border from Andrews, Co., Texas – where another high level nuke waste dump is also being proposed by Waste Control Specialists, which already operates a controversial toxic materials dump in the area.
In early may, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a series of five so-called ‘scoping’ meeting around New Mexico to take public comments on the Holtec/Eddy-Lea site proposal.
Proponents of the dump tout it as a regional economic boon and a patriotic service to the nation.
Opponents see it as a public health, environmental and economic disaster waiting to happen that could ruin the region’s thriving dairy ranching, pecan growing and oil drilling industries.
Planned to eventually hold more metric tons of waste than Yucca Mtn. itself will be designed for, the Hobbs site could well become – if the Yucca site never gets built – America’s de facto national dump site, and make the region a national ‘nuclear sacrifice area.’
The region targeted for the proposed ‘interim’ radioactive waste storage sites is already known to the region’s population as ‘nuclear alley.’
Welcome to Nuclear Alley
Nuclear Alley is on the edge of one of the world’s richest and – currently on pace to be – most productive petroleum patches: the Permian Basin, which straddles the New Mexico-Texas border.
We traveled there recently to cover the NRC scoping hearings on the Holtec proposal for our forthcoming documentary series on the shutdown and decommissioning of California’s last remaining nuclear energy plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. We also wanted to express our support for the individuals and groups resisting the ill-conceived consolidated interim storage agenda.
Along with the coming cascade of waste from other scheduled nuclear power reactor shutdowns around the country, California’s radioactive waste could well be headed for New Mexico…if the proposed Holtec and WCS ‘Consolidated Interim Storage’ sites are licensed by the industry-captured NRC.
Oil Patch Central
To get to this region we flew into Midland, Texas. The thriving city is a prime beneficiary of the area’s present oil- and gas-fueled economic boom. As we got off the plane, we entered a bustling airport space dominated by a battery of digital billboards showing glitzy ads – not for consumer goods – but for the region’s thriving, readily available, fracking and oil drilling services and products. Here's a sampling:
From Midland we headed to Eunice, New Mexico, an epicenter of New Mexico’s Nuclear Alley. To get there, we drove through endlessly flat countryside dotted every few yards stretching to the horizon with temporarily dormant or busily functioning oil pumps.
Rose Gardner is a feisty Hispanic grandmother and co-founder of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies organization in opposition to the Holtec dump.
In keeping with her name, she runs a flower shop on the Main Street of Eunice.
The local landscape of Eunice is dominated by the presence, just five minutes up the highway, of Waste Control Specialists’ toxic waste materials site – where WCS is proposing adding a new CIS ‘parking lot’ nuclear dumpsite.
Just next-door to WCS is the Urenco uranium enrichment facility, which supplies much of the fuel for the country’s nuclear power reactors. [A January, 2018 NRC Inspection Report noted both a security violation and the loss of criticality controls at this Urenco plant. ]
Both proposed sites are about 40 miles from the now infamous Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), where more than 171,000 waste containers are stored in salt caverns 2,100 feet underground.
Touted as the demonstration ‘Flagship’ model for the feasibility of long-term deep geological radioactive storage facilities for nuclear weapons waste, and advertised to last for thousands of years, WIPP experienced underground fires and explosions on February 14, 2014, after only 15 years of operation.
The disaster caused a major radiation release of plutonium and americium that contaminated at least 22 workers. The release was tracked by monitors and acknowledged by DOE as far away as 26 miles.
Reports the LA Times, “the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.”
But, says the Southwest Research and Information Center’s Dan Hancock, “There is no question the Energy Department has downplayed the significance of the accident.”
Diagnosed as being caused by the use of the use of ‘organic cat litter’ in the storage barrels, the WIPP disaster was dubbed a ‘comedy of errors’ by commentators around the world. Not to worry. Sustaining such huge potential costs (that are charged to the state of New Mexico) WIPP is now again accepting waste – presumably packed with the right brand of inorganic kitty litter.
Guiding us on a tour of the local Eunice roadside attractions, Rose showed us a sprawling, sun-baked trailer park, on land owned by a local politician. The bleak dusty field is home for many of the workers at the town’s two dominant facilities.
If WCS succeeds in getting an NRC license for a CIS site here, the workers’ ranks will expand, and so will the trailer park owner’s profits. That’s one of the ‘economic benefits,’ Rose noted to us wryly, that are loudly touted by the region’s CIS advocates.
“This crap that could kill us!”
Speaking at the NRC’s first regional meeting in Roswell, Gardner told the standing-room-only crowd,
This isn't the right thing to do. It's an injustice to this state, to this community….. Most of the people in this area are like me, Brown-skinned or darker. We're already poor. We don't have insurance. We speak another language and we're at least 50 percent here. And that's an environmental injustice because they're basically saying it's okay… because those people aren't going to speak up, because they can get run over just like they've been run over for the last several hundred years.
I'm here to tell Holtec, ‘Hell No, we don't want it!’ I am so sick and tired of all these big companies coming into New Mexico or close to my town in Eunice, wanting to give us all this crap. This crap that could kill us!
New Mexico as ‘National Sacrifice Area?’
Leona Morgan, a fiery young Diné [Navajo] community organizer and co-founder of New Mexico’s Nuclear Issues Study Group, expands on Rose’s points.
"Starting with uranium mining and milling,” she says, “to modern weapons production, uranium enrichment, and storage of low-level and transuranic wastes, New Mexico has been targeted as a national sacrifice zone for too long,”
"New Mexico is the birthplace of nuclear colonialism,” Morgan points out. “We have been impacted by just about every step in the nuclear fuel chain! We did not generate this waste from nuclear reactors that is intended to come here. So why should we take it? As a state with many indigenous nations and people of color, and being at the tail end of several measures of quality of life, it is environmental racism at its core to keep dumping on New Mexico. And it’s time to stop!"
Speaking to the NRC meeting in Hobbs, New Mexico, Morgan gave a greeting in her native language and went on to remind the group that they were assembling on land originally stolen from the Mescalero Apache and Comanche tribes. “The things I want to talk about,” she said, “have to do with indigenous rights across the nation.“
“How many of you from the NRC or any of the regulating Agencies are aware,” she asked, “of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? Or, for that matter, any of the elected officials here, how many of you know about this document called the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed in 2008?”
She scanned the crowd.
“Okay, let the record show no hands going up. How many of you are aware of the Organization of American States' Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?“
She glanced around at the blank official faces.
“Okay, again, nobody's hands went up. This was passed in 2016 and so I'd like to read directly from this Declaration.”
She went on to quote language from the Declarations’ Articles declaring that
Article 19: Indigenous peoples are entitled to be protected against the introduction of abandonment, dispersion, transit, indiscriminate use or deposit of any harmful substance that could negatively affect indigenous communities' lands, territories, and resources.
Article 22: The indigenous law and legal systems shall be recognized and respected by the national, regional, and international legal systems
“The reason I'm reading this,” she told the meeting, “is because it cites that the Federal Government needs to recognize tribal law.”
“Specifically with my tribe, the Navajo nation, we have a law against the transport of radioactive materials through our lands.
“So, if this transport should occur, it's directly violating our tribe's laws that were put in place because of all the history and the health impacts of the horrendous things that the United States did, not just going back to the genocide of our people but more recently, the exploitation of uranium on our lands.
“And so we have a law against uranium mining and we have a law against transport because we've already suffered the impacts from these industries for United States imperialism and capitalism. And so that did not benefit our people. We wrote these laws for the protection of our future generations, however, they are not being respected here.”
Based on indigenous historical experience, it would be a pleasant surprise if such legal provisions were ruled to be within the scope of the NRC’s consideration of the Eddy-Lea/Holtec license application for their proposed project.
Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!
The Eddy-Lea Alliance Project’s point man and lead salesman is John Heaton, a former member of the NM state legislature and current Chairman of the Alliance.
The Alliance is a limited liability corporation made up of 8 people appointed by the Councils of Hobbs, Lea, Eddy and Carlsbad counties. According to its promotional material it was “Formed Under the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) for Economic Development Purposes in 2006 & to Respond to Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) Proposal from DOE.”
Heaton qualifies as what Eric Hoffer called a ‘True Believer’ in his 1951 best seller of that title. Heaton’s energetic sales-pitch is persuasive…at least to the uninformed.
As Heaton tells it, seeing opportunity in a recommendation by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’ Nuclear Future for creation of ‘consent-based’ Centralized Interim Storage sites around the country, the Alliance believed it had secured what Heaton calls ‘an ideal site.’ It’s located 35 miles outside the town of Hobbs, and about equidistant from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) outside Carlsbad.
Although ‘consent-based siting’ was recommended by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission, the DOE has not finalized rules for how a state or community gives or denies consent. Already some cities have forced construction of highway bypasses around their metropolitan jurisdictions.
New Mexico’s ‘High Nuclear IQ’ vs. ‘Fear Mongering’
Heaton describes the proposed Eddy-Lea site as ‘dry’ and ‘seismically stable.’ In addition he says, because of all the existing neighboring facilities in Nuclear Alley, “we have what I call an area of the country with a very high nuclear IQ. The local population understands nuclear materials,” he claims, “and know they can now be handled competently.”
“This is deja vu for us,” an irritated Heaton told the NRC in its Hobbs meeting. “We went through this same thing with WIPP. We went through all the fear mongering. WIPP has shipped more than 12,000 shipments and traveled over 14 million miles. That's like going to the moon and back 28 times, without a serious accident and absolutely no release.”
However, there are many members of that regional ‘high nuclear IQ population’ Heaton refers to who also remember that – touted as the country’s flagship deep geological nuclear waste repository, designed to remain secure for ten thousand years – WIPP suffered an explosion and release of plutonium in 2014, after a mere 15 years of operation.
An ‘Ideal Site’ for Holtec
Having secured their ‘ideal site,’ the Alliance issued an RFP to potential contractors and chose Holtec. “Because,” Heaton says, “ they are a great company with a fabulous record [and] have the best, safest, most secure system in the world.”
Joy Russell is a Holtec Vice President and nuclear engineer who is proud, she told us, of being both a West Point graduate and a co-designer of the Holtec transport cask modeled by the scaled-down inflatable replica being toured around the state by opponents as the growing Halt Holtec campaign gathers momentum.
She boasts that her company has been in the radioactive waste storage business for over 30 years, and that “sixty per cent of nuclear plants in the U.S. use Holtec dry storage equipment.”
“We have an impeccable safety record,” Russell told an NRC community meeting in Roswell, NM. “None of our equipment has ever experienced a safety issue, ‘leak,’ as you so call it.
But, I would like to point out,” she told the Roswell auditorium – packed 5-1 with opponents of the proposed project – in a tone dripping with ill-concealed condescension, “spent nuclear fuel is not a liquid, it can’t ‘leak’.”
Opponents cite a number of disquieting facts, which call Heaton and Russell’s confident public relations assertions into question.
A group of New Mexico and Texas organizations, including the Nuclear Waste Study Group, the SEEDS Coalition, and Alliance For Environmental Strategies, started a ‘Halt Holtec’ campaign. They toured an inflated, scaled-down model of the kind of transport cask proposed by Holtec that would carry thousands of shipments of highly radioactive waste shipments through the nation’s towns and metropolitan areas on dilapidated highways, bridges and railway lines for the next 20 years or more.
One significant result of their campaign is that on Monday, May 21, the Albuquerque City Council, in a 4-3 vote, approved what it called a ‘memorial’ against the transportation of nuclear waste through the Albuquerque metropolitan area.
Similar measures by other municipalities and counties along the potential shipment routes around the country are in the works. The closest town to the proposed site, Jal, just passed its refusal to allow transport.
Details and additional Cask Tour dates will be posted online at: www.facebook.com/HaltHoltec
The Halt Holtec Campaign has quickly gathered strong momentum surprising both to its organizers, and the Holtec dump proponents, whose claim of ‘wide-spread regional public support’ has been totally debunked by the actual turnout of strong opposition to the project. Public statements have so far run 5-1 ‘against’ the proposed site in all five New Mexico NRC meetings.
“Groundwater, folks, is the life blood of the ranching business. If you don't have groundwater you'd just own dirt.”
At the recent series of NRC community meetings, this opposition was strong from a wide cross section of New Mexico and Texas demographic sectors, including Native American Tribes, growers, ranchers, the Jewish and Christian faith communities, and the powerful oil and gas fracking industry.
A regional leader of that booming industry is the Fasken Oil and Ranch company, which has been in business since 1913. Their representative, Jimmy Carlisle, explained his company’s position to the visiting NRC officials.
"I work for Fasken Oil and Ranch based in Midland. We are an oil and gas company, but we also are a major landowner in the State of Texas.
We own some 200,000 net acres in the State of Texas. Our largest ranch is a 165,000 acre contiguous ranch just north and west of Midland.
The WCS site definitely comes into play in this discussion. The Holtec side, however, has the same issues … groundwater issues.
On our ranches [we depend on ] everything we look at: we look at vegetation, we look at soil characteristics, we look at moisture in the soil, but the thing we watch the closest is the quantity and the quality of our groundwater.
Our company is the first one really in West Texas that made the determination to get off of use of fresh water in our drilling and fracking operations and we started recycling produced water and using brackish water as a result.
So we believe firmly that the freshwater issue is a major significance that has to be addressed."
Stressing that the State Engineer’s Office lacks definitive maps of the ground water aquifer locations in New Mexico, Carlisle told the NRC panel, “We’re not alone in this fight.”
Explaining that it had taken ‘less than two hours to get four letters of opposition from major landowners in West Texas, Carlisle concluded,
"Groundwater, folks, is the lifeblood of the ranching business. If you don't have groundwater you'd just own dirt. Think about that for a second.
The bottom line is we believe that this [Holtec] application and the WCS application need to be withdrawn."
A group letter from oil industry representatives to Holtec warned that Holtec and the Eddy-Lea Alliance would ‘need more money than God’ to compensate them if their project damaged the thriving drilling industry in the oil- and gas-rich Permian Basin, which is currently on pace to become the world’s most booming region of petroleum production.
“I don't intend to let this thing run over us.”
Randy Prude, an influential County Commissioner from Midland, Texas, told the Roswell NRC meeting that he had spent $2,000 of his own money to fly Fasken representative Jimmy Carlisle and other opposition speakers to the event.
“I intend to organize all the ranchers and all the commissioner's courts and everybody in all the governments in all this whole region,” Commissioner Prude went on.
"I will tell you, I am an odd duck, I am a Republican — (laughter) and this is not a Republican or a Democrat issue, this is an important issue to all of us….
"I just cannot tell you the horror that could happen if we ever have an accident. And so I intend to organize all of our governments that are willing to listen.,,,.
"I am going to get to all the ranchers and all the ranch oil men to contact their commissioners and their mayors and their representatives, house representatives, senators, and so forth, and I don't intend to let this thing run over us."
The Permeable Permian
The contentions by dump proponents that the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site is ‘dry and seismically stable’ were repeatedly debunked by facts presented by opposing speakers.
Activists visiting the site, despite Heaton’s attempts to stop them, discovered clear signs that it is a playa where seasonal rain water collects, feeding the ground water deposits and aquifer below.
The region’s most famous tourist attraction – the Carlsbad Cavern – was formed by such a subterranean body of water, the Capitan Reef Aquifer.
“It's hard to think of a worse place to choose for placing an interim waste site,” consulting geologist Dr. Steve Schafersman told the meeting.
"The area is surrounded by aquifers, some close, some far. The sediments and the sedimentary rock are porous and permeable. The thin barrier they claim is on the top is not sufficient. It's just like the WCS site, which is really no better. So this is not a good place to put a hazardous waste site, especially one for nuclear waste.
"There are soluble rocks below the site, limestone and rock salt. There is karst limestone in the area, which is a soluble limestone that develops caverns, the caverns collapse and sinkholes develop.
"It is conceivable that a sinkhole would collapse and take down the depository with it, which would be a terrible, colossal tragedy. In addition there is the soluble Salado formation below that.
"In West Texas unplugged wells carry fluids to this formation, the salt dissolves, and sinkholes develop. This is a matter of fact."
An Earth-Shaking Announcement of Seismic Significance
Several of the opposition speakers referred to a recently-published, peer-reviewed study in the March 16, 2018 issue of Nature, with the catchy title, ‘Association between localized geohazards in West Texas and human activities, recognized by Sentinel-1A/B satellite radar imagery.’
The study by Southern Methodist University geophysicists Jin-Woo Kim and Zhong Lu reported literally earth-shaking findings.
It showed that, in the last two and a half years, large sections of the four Texas counties they studied, spanning a 4000-square-mile area, had shown ‘vertical deformation,’ that is, sunk or uplifted as much as 40 centimeters or nearly 16 inches.
"The ground movement we're seeing is not normal. The ground doesn't typically do this without some cause," said co-author Zhong Lu, a recognized global expert in satellite radar imagery research.
"These hazards represent a danger to residents, roads, railroads, levees, dams, and oil and gas pipelines, as well as potential pollution of ground water," Lu declared.
Co-author Jin-Woo Kim notes that, "This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement."
In fracking, liquid is injected into bore holes under pressure, then extracted, causing uplift while the wells are in operation, and subsidence when they are abandoned.
The researchers’ Nature article states,
…the rapid subsidence is likely induced by the freshwater impoundments from the nearby abandoned wells. During our field trip, we observed numerous recent ground fissures…. These growing fissures can allow the rainwater to swiftly flow down to the Salado formation and promote the dissolution of the salt layers. [ Thus causing subsidence. ]
Although their analysis focused on just that one 4000-square-mile area, Kim says, "We're fairly certain that when we look further, and we are, that we'll find there's ground movement even beyond that.”
The area they’ve studied so far lies just adjacent to the two proposed storage sites in New Mexico and Texas.
The Oil Drilling and Fracking Connection – Oil & Nuclear Waste Don’t Mix
Evidence of the links between oil and gas extraction and earth movement are clear. Researching an unprecedented swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas, a 2016 Stanford University study published in Science found a direct connection between a quake series in Texas in 2012 and 2013, which included the largest on record, and the high volume injection of wastewater into oil and gas fracking wells that happened between 2005 and 2007. The high pressure forced water into fault zones and triggered the subsequent quakes, the study showed. Read more
One of the people Commissioner Randy Prude flew in to speak at the Roswell meeting was Cody Rogers. “I am an ex-Navy nuke,” he told the NRC. “I have operated nuclear reactors for eight years. I am a huge proponent of nuclear power. I think we need it. We have 99 operating nuclear reactors. We do not have anywhere to dispose of the spent fuel. This is a major, major problem and we have to fix it.
“I know we need a site’” Rogers told the group. But the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site, he said emphatically, “is not it.”
“We [the U.S.] are on the cusp of being the world's largest energy producer, okay. We are going to control oil very soon. We are going to control our own destiny. So West Texas is one of the most valuable places in the world right now, especially in the United States, and, because of this I implore you to look up the study from SMU. West Texas is sinking…fast!
“I know we need a site. This is not it. If this thing sinks and we get something like the WIPP accident, that was never supposed to happen, the environmental impact is forever, and if we lose West Texas oil, natural gas, the people of Roswell, the people of New Mexico, the people of Texas, the United States, we're done.
” We're not going back to Saudi Arabia and getting their oil. We need independence and this site is sinking and I truly believe that we need to look at that and study its environmental impact.”
Cody Rogers seemed to be channeling President Trump, in a June 29, 2017 speech. “The truth is we now have near limitless supplies of energy in our country,” Trump said. “We are really in the driving seat, and you know what: we don’t want to let other countries take away our sovereignty, and tell us what to do, and how to do it. That’s not going to happen. With these incredible resources, my administration will seek not only the American energy independence that we’ve been looking for, for so long – but American energy dominance.”
It's difficult to miss the irony here: the two industries which most threaten human survival are at loggerheads in the Permian Basin.
Reputations and Rap Sheets
Opponents of the twin dump proposals stress that entrusting the economic and environmental future of this area to companies with corporate histories like those of Holtec and Waste Control Specialists is a highly risky proposition.
With aging reactors closing down around the country in an accelerating cascade – and with no ‘national permanent geological repository’ for their accumulated highly irradiated fuel rods in sight – decommissioning and radwaste storage are on pace to become major growth industries for some time to come.
Holtec’s visionary head Dr. Krishna Singh is positioning his huge company, based in Camden, New Jersey, to dominate both industries, as well as to be a leader in the manufacture of small modular reactors (SMRs), the failing nuclear energy industry’s latest bid for survival.
Back in October 2010, based on the results of a criminal investigation of bribery conducted by its Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) debarred Holtec International, Inc. for sixty days and fined it $2 million.
According to a TVA document,
Holtec agreed to pay a $2 million administrative fee and submit to independent monitoring of its operations for one year. The TVA Board’s Audit, Risk, and Regulation Committee and TVA management fully supported the OIG’s recommendation to create a suspension and debarment process and submit Holtec to that process. TVA’s Supply Chain organization and Office of General Counsel worked collaboratively with the OIG to achieve this milestone in TVA history. Why wasn’t the company permanently debarred? A subsequent Department of Justice document seems to suggest that a TVA employee may have been bribed by Holtec to falsify a financial disclosure report. Read more.
Meanwhile, just miles away on the other side of the state border in Texas, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) and its new French partner Orano each have their own checkered pasts.
WCS was founded in 1989 as a landfill company by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who controlled it until his death in 2013. During that time, Simmons used his financial muscle and political connections to morph the site into a licensed low level waste dump with some highly questionable maneuvers.
His generous support for then Texas Governor, now Energy Secretary Rick Perry, no doubt eased his path. Critics allege that “Radioactive Rick” Perry appointees at key regulatory agencies bent rules on WCS’s behalf. Allegations include the Texas Water Development Board’s altering of maps that formerly showed that Simmons’ waste facility is located over part of the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies and supplies drinking and agricultural water for eight western major bread basket states. Another water body, the Dockum Aquifer lies nearby as well. Many Texas environmental officials resigned in protest.
For its part, WCS’s new partner Orano, parent company of Orano USA, is a recent reincarnation of the radically reorganized French government-owned struggling reactor maker AREVA, after years of business losses brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
These are the strange bedfellows hoping to profit from the nuclear energy industry’s decline by making New Mexico’s ‘nuclear alley’ America’s de facto radioactive waste repository for the foreseeable future.
There are several things wrong with this scenario, not the least of which, as noted, is that poor and minority residents make up a large portion of the population in and around ‘Nuclear Alley.’
Until and unless the existing Nuclear Waste Policy Act is changed by currently proposed, but not yet enacted legislation, licensing of these CIS sites will be illegal. This is because the Act requires that a permanent repository is approved before any consolidated interim storage site can be licensed.
If the NRC were to license the sites without a permanent repository being established, they would likely become in effect the permanent national dump, because utilities would probably stop lobbying for – and lawmakers could be less inclined to authorize funding for – establishing a permanent central repository.
If that happens, thousands of shipments of deadly radioactive waste will be moving daily along rail and truck transportation corridors, through our nation’s population centers, for decades to come.
A Shell Game of Nuclear Russian Roulette on Wheels
Critics of the proposed 'interim storage' plan stress the incredible mulitiplication of risks of attempting to move this unstable lethal waste twice – once across the country to interim and then again to permanent storage.
Eddy-Lea/Holtec project proponents are fond of citing the transport record claimed by the Navy, which proudly states that it has been shipping both new and used nuclear fuel cross-country by rail for over 60 years without mishap.
The Navy admits that, “All shipments [are] classified (security) and invoke the Department of Transportation (DOT) National Security Exemption (49CFR173.7b).” It claims that 850 spent fuel containers have been safely shipped from March, 1957 to the present.
However, no radioactive labels and placards are ever used in these boxcar and flatcar shipments, and there is no advance notification given to authorities along the route, so reports of any incidents that may have occurred would also be classified – secret for ‘security reasons.’ Since radioactive gases and waves are invisible, it's likely that the public would never know even if there had been leaks.
Those 850 shipments over 6 decades are far fewer than the estimated 17,000 shipments it would take to move the projected 173,000 metric tons of radioactive SNF from US nuclear plants to the Eddy-Lea/Holtec site across the entire lower 48 states in the coming years.
Government documents show that other details of Navy shipping methods make them significantly different than those anticipated for the Shimkus Bill’s proposed nation-wide rail, highway and barge transport network:
· Transport has been along only one specific rail route;
· The Navy uses a different containment system than the Holtec transport cask;
· Each Navy transport cask holds just 1/10th of what is planned for each Holtec spent fuel canister.
Itemizing Nuclear Transport Risks
Kevin Kamps from the Washington DC-based group Beyond Nuclear traveled to New Mexico to show his organization’s solidarity with the Halt Holtec movement and to share knowledge gained from a professional life spent campaigning for nuclear safety.
His hand-out list of the documented high risks involved in transporting highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel, whether by train, truck, or barge, on rails, roads, or waterways included “high-speed crashes into immovable objects, like bridge abutments, or high-temperature long-duration fires, or long-duration underwater submergence.”
“Intentional attacks,” he warned, “such as by anti-tank missiles or shaped charges, could also breach shipping containers and release their contents into the environment.”
Since Holtec has claimed in its license application that any and all NRC certified canisters can be accommodated at this facility, Kamps explained, not only rail-sized shipping containers must be worried about, but also legal weight limits for the truck casks which would travel on interstate highways throughout the country.
“X-Ray Machines that can’t be Turned Off”
Contrary to Holtec VP Joy Russell’s reassurance that, since spent fuel shipments aren’t liquid, “they can’t leak,” all shipments would emit dangerous gamma and neutron radiation for several yards in every direction, dissipating with distance. Because of the large expense and added weight necessary to provide shielding against these gamma and neutron emissions, the NRC has set ‘allowable’ limits.
“But,” Kamps reminded the meeting, “Allowable does not mean safe. Any exposure to ionizing radioactivity carries a health risk, and these risks accumulate over a lifetime.”
According to NRC guidelines, at six feet away from the container's exterior surface, a dose rate of 10 millirem per hour is allowed – about one to two chest x-rays' worth per hour.
At the exterior surface of the container, the allowable dose rate increases dramatically to 200 millirem per hour. That's 20 to 40 chest x-rays' worth.
But workers, such as truck drivers, locomotive engineers, inspectors, security guards, and the like, who come in very close physical proximity into the shipping container would be exposed to the highest radiation dose rates.
Even innocent passersby and bystanders in the general public would also be exposed, including those who live close to transport routes exposed to large numbers of shipments going by over time.
Some people, Kamps noted, such as pregnant women, should not be exposed to any radiation dose that can be avoided due to the high risk of harm caused to the fetus in the womb.
He reported that the state of Nevada, based on federal government data, has documented 49 incidents of accidental surface contamination on these highly radioactive waste shipments between the years of 1949 and 1996.
And in France, Areva Corporation has had many hundreds of externally contaminated shipments, a full one-quarter to one-third of all shipments bound for the La Hague reprocessing facility. On average, these French contamination incidents emitted 500 times the allowable radiation dose rates. One even emitted 3,300 times the allowable dose rate.
De Facto National Dump in Disguise?
But, perhaps the greatest danger to be considered by New Mexicans, Kamps, warned, is the “question of temporary versus permanent.”
This is the danger, Kemps says, of so-called centralized or consolidated interim storage facilities becoming actually de facto permanent surface storage parking lot dumps.
Holtec-ELEA have applied for a permit to NRC to store irradiated nuclear fuel here for 40 years. But this time period could, as they admit, be extended to 120 years.
But, Kamps’ research shows that, on page 12 of a January 27th, 2017 report that Holtec prepared and submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Andrew Griffith over company Vice President Joy Russell’s signature, Holtec’s response to the DOE request for proposal on centralized interim storage, stated that “the CIS should have a minimum service life of 300 years.”
“How can 40 years be called temporary, let alone 300?” Kemps asked the gathering. “That's longer than the United States has been a country.”
“So, just to end with some political reality,” he said, “If this waste comes out here, it would turn out to be one New Mexico member of the United States House of Representatives versus 434 others for it to ever move again. And in the U.S. Senate it would be a vote of 98 against 2.”
“So,” Kemps concluded, “folks had better think about this deeply before it's allowed to come out here.”
‘Chernobyl in a Can’
Expanding on the theme of transportation risks, EON producer, Mary Beth Brangan pointed out that “Every one of these canisters that would be coming would contain roughly as much cesium alone, as was released in the Chernobyl accident. Every canister.
“And so just keeping that in mind,” she continued, “I was looking at just three years from 2013 to 2016 of oil train accidents which might give us an idea about how heavy loads fare on our nation's railways.
“In 2013, there were 11,636 accidents, 8740 injuries, and 700 fatalities. In 2014, 12,226 accidents, 8788 injuries, and 765 fatalities. In 2015, 11,814 accidents, 9087 injuries, 749 fatalities. And, in 2016. 10,927 accidents, 8050 injuries, and 805 fatalities.
“And those were trains carrying oil, not Chernobyl in a can.
“My partner and I are here,” Brangan told the meeting, “because we're very, very concerned about this. And I want to assure you there are other Californians who do not want to send their radioactive waste here.
“We don't want to do that for a great many reasons but the first one is its environmental racism, and we really object to the concept of putting any more of the burden of the nation's radioactivity on your communities,” she said to appreciative applause.
We were not the only concerned Californians who came to the NRC’s New Mexico scoping meetings to say, "We don't want our radioactive waste dumped on you."
Another was Southern California urban planner and community organizer Torgen Johnson, whose efforts helped shut down San Onofre’s reactors. He flew in to the Albuquerque meeting to show support for the Halt Holtec Campaign and network with regional organizers.
“The New Mexico people hammered Holtec and the NRC,” he reported. “They didn’t need our help, but they welcomed our solidarity. It was so great and encouraging to hear these well-informed, passionate and articulate people expressing the same concerns we have at the other end of the potential rail line.”
Johnson says he heard testimonies from down-winders of the 1945 Trinity test with long, tragic family histories of cancer and health impacts. Being among them, he says, deepened his understanding of the human rights, social justice and environmental issues at stake, and his commitment to continued public education about them.
What impressed him, he says, is the realization of the “Link between the low income, red and brown people in New Mexico and wealthy white people in Southern California – both being victimized by the plans and decisions of Holtec and the NRC.”
“Its a representative cross-section of America” he says, “united against the onslaught of the nuclear waste disposal industry.”
Sharon and Ace Hoffman, whose efforts had also contributed to the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear plant, attended several of the meetings to share their experience and voice their solidarity with the Halt Holtec movement.
“We are very happy that San Onofre is closed,” Sharon Hoffman said. “It is a really bad place for the waste. But that doesn't mean that we solve the problem by moving it to a different place. We have to look at the transportation. We are talking about moving the most dangerous stuff on the planet all over the country. And if we moved it all today, we would have more tomorrow.
“So the real question here is, when are we going to shut down all these plants and stop making more waste? That's really the problem.
“This is a beautiful place, “ she concluded. “And it might be contaminated forever. This is not something that you want to take on for the rest of the country. Yes, you can help the rest of the country. You can say, stop making this, and then let's figure out together the best thing to do with what is left.”
“I am a stakeholder,” Ace Hoffman told the assembly. “I am from Carlsbad. Not Carlsbad, New Mexico; Carlsbad, California, which is about 15 miles as the crow flies, or the plutonium flies, from San Onofre. So it was very important to me that we do something about this waste.”
Based on his experience of the NRC’s actions during the controversy about shutting down San Onofre, Hoffman warned his New Mexico counerparts, “don't expect anyone to be telling you the truth about what is possible or what is going to happen. And I strongly advise — even though I would love to get rid of the waste, and I would love to find a sucker that will take it — don't be that sucker.”
From the Mouths of Babes…
But it was the little daughter of artist and prominent Halt Holtec campaigner Noel Marquez who perhaps best summarized New Mexico’s majority view that emerged from the 5 meetings held around the state on the Elea-Holtec proposed dump site.
When the moderator, Chip Cameron offered to hold the mike for her, she responded, “I can hold it myself. Thank you.”
Handling the mike with confident ease, she continued, “My name is Pakeia Marquez and I am 11 years old. I'm here on behalf of unborn kids and born kids like me. I think this whole situation is very important because it affects everything and everybody. It affects the plants and wildlife around here.
“I have recently been writing an essay about ecosystems. I read that ecosystems can be very easily poisoned through water, air, and soil. Water, if all this radiation leaks into the water, everything that's living needs water. It's going to suck up all of that, and it's going to get poisoned. Who is going to, like, you know, reimburse us for it?
“You may think you might be solving a problem, but really you're just creating more problems to solve, and they might just be forever, and you might just not be able to solve them.
“Please remember that I cannot vote,” she told the NRC officials. “So please do vote against this horrible mistake. Thank you.”
The applause was loud and long as Pakeia Marquez made her way back to her seat.
James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan. Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nuclear Alley U.S.A.
June 4, 2018
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018, HR 3053, known as the Shimkus Bill, passed the House last month on its way to the Senate.
It calls for restarting the failed Yucca Mountain Project in Nevada, and establishing a system of Consolidated Interim Storage (CIS) sites for radioactive waste around the country until Yucca is operational.
First on the list of possible ‘temporary’ CIS dumps is a site proposed by Holtec International and the local Eddy-Lea Alliance just outside Hobbs, New Mexico.
Its just over the border from Andrews, Co., Texas – where another high level nuke waste dump is also proposed.
Beginning with the Trinity Test that began the Atomic Age in 1945, and followed by other bomb tests, as well as the devistating impact of uranium mining on its Native American population, New Mexico is already seen by some as a de facto 'national nuclear sacrifice area.'
The region in which the proposed dump would be located is already known to the local population as 'nuclear alley.'
The Uranco uranium enrichment plant is nearby. It supplies much of the fuel for U.S. power reactors.
Just down the road is the troubled Waste Issolation Pilot Project, WIPP. Touted to contain radioactive waste safely for a thousand years, it suffered a fire and explosion after only 15 years of operation, releasing plutonium and other deadly radioactive materials into the environment, and contaminating at least 22 workers.
Proponents of the Holtec/Eddy-Lea dump project tout it as an economic boon for the region. Opponents see as it a public health and environmental disaster.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) scheduled five meeting around New Mexico to record public opinion on the issues.
The EON team traveled there to cover those meetings as part of our forthcoming documentary series segments SHUTDOWN – The Case of San Onofre. If the dump is opened, it could become the destination of the waste currently being buried on the beach at San Onofre.
We wanted to see if, as the Holtec dump proponents claim, there is strong local support for the project. And we wanted to express our solidarity with those in opposition.
We found that, in fact, all around the state, public opinion runs 5-1 against the project.
Planned to eventually hold more metric tons of waste than Yucca itself will be designed for, the Hobbs site could well become America’s de facto national dump site, if Yucca never gets built.
At a recent series of Nuclear Regulatory Commission community meetings on the proposed site, opposition was strong from many of New Mexico and Texas public sectors.
One of them was the currently booming oil and gas fracking industry, but opposition from the region's tribes, ranchers, growers and general population is also overwhelmingly 'against.'
They have mounted a growing 'Halt Holtec' campaign whose motto is 'We Don't Want It!'
Below are a series of excerpts from some of the NRC meetings we covered. The opinions expressed are representative of majority sentiments around the state.
We were not the only Californian's who traveled to New Mexico to express solidarity with local opposition efforts. More on that in our blog post, 'The California-New Mexico Connection.'
For more info: Facebook.com/HaltHoltec NoNuclearWasteAqui.org nuclearnewmexico.com sric.org SeedCoalition.org NIRS.org BeyondNuclear.org/centralized-storage
James Heddle – EON – May 24, 2018
[ Also posted on Reader Supported News ]
"The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history.” Forbes Magazine, February 11, 1985
“The Age of Nuclear Power is winding down, but the Age of Nuclear Waste is just beginning.” – Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., President, Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility
A Planet is a Terrible Thing to (Radioactively) Waste
Lost in the fog of roadside distractions that assault us daily – White House chaos, a pornographic POTUS, Russia-gate, Kushner-gate, Saudi-gate, Torture-gate, Mueller-gate, School Shooting-gate(s), Tariff-gate, Stormy-gate, Facebook-gate, Cambridge Analytica-gate, Bolton-gate, Comey-gate, Syria-gate, Cohen-gate, etc. – its no surprise that the most existentially lethal, long-lived scandal to ever confront humanity is nowhere in the public consciousness.
Call it Radioactive Waste-gate.
High-Level radioactive waste (HLRW) from nuclear energy and weapons production contains uranium and plutonium and other toxic isotopes, which are well known to cause genetic damage, impaired immune systems, cancers and often, agonizing death in all living things – including humans.
An assembly of spent nuclear fuel, (SNF) can contain 10 to over 200 fuel rods – stacks of uranium pellets about the thickness of a finger, held together by zirconium cladding, a thin metal wrapping the thickness of heavy duty aluminum foil.
Benign sounding ’spent nuclear fuel’ (SNF) from nuclear reactors is incredibly radioactively and thermally hot. It has to be removed because after fissioning for months in the reactor to produce heat for electricity generation, it becomes too radioactive to efficiently cause chain reactions. So therefore, when it becomes “spent” and considered “waste” after being used, it is thousands of times more radioactive and more thermally hot than when it goes into the reactor.
High burnup fuel (HBF) is fuel that has burned about twice as long in a nuclear reactor as lower burnup fuel.
The longer the fuel bundles have been ‘burned’ to produce electricity in the reactor, the ‘hotter’ the rods become both in temperature and in radioactivity.
This increased burnup, although profitable to the nuclear industry, causes fuel cladding to become so brittle it can shatter like glass. It can also increase gas buildup, increasing potential for explosions at lower temperatures. Yet the NRC doesn’t think extra precaution with this fuel is necessary to handle, transport or store it.
Many of the human-made poisons in these fuel rods remain deadly for longer than humans have yet existed.
Once exposed to radioactive contamination substances like wood, metal, soil and water can never really be completely ‘cleaned up.’
Nobody really knows for sure the total amount of nuclear waste accumulated worldwide since the birth of the Atomic Age in the 1940s. The agency most likely to know, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) admits its estimates “are characterized by unavoidable uncertainty.”
After decades of producing the stuff, we still can’t accurately know how much we’ve got. That speaks volumes about the character of the international technocratic nuclear establishment.
A sampling of just 10 nuclear energy countries in 2007 estimated over 173,100 metric tons. A metric ton is about 2,200 pounds, so, in English, that translates to thirty-eight million, eight hundred and twenty thousand pounds of radioactive materials in just those nations.
By conservative estimate, millions of metric tons of high-level radioactive waste from seventy-plus years of nuclear weapons and energy production have now accumulated around the world.
According to World Mapper, around 8910 tonnes of heavy metal nuclear waste are generated each year. This waste mainly comes from nuclear power stations. Three territories produce over 1000 tonnes a year: the United States, Canada and France. Canada also produces the most waste per person living there, although Sweden is not far behind.
In the U.S. alone, the Department of Energy (DOE) currently ‘manages’ more than 250 types of highly radioactive so-called ‘spent nuclear fuel (SNF)’ totaling about 2,500 metric tons, most of which is stored at four locations: the Hanford Site in Washington State, the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Fort St. Vrain Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation in Colorado.
But even the way radioactive waste is measured – ‘Metric Tons Heavy Metal’ or MTHM – is deceptive, intentionally or not. A DOE footnote reveals that not all radioactive elements are included in the total count:
Metric ton of heavy metal [MTHM] is a commonly used measure of the mass of nuclear fuel. Heavy metal refers to elements with an atomic number greater than 89 (e.g., thorium, uranium, and plutonium) in the fuel. The masses of other constituents of the fuel, such as cladding, alloy materials, and structural materials (and fission products in spent nuclear fuel), are not included in this measure….
How well these materials are ‘managed’ is indicated by the fact that 3 of the locations listed above are included among the 1322 Superfund sites on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List in the United States that are yet to be ‘cleaned up.’
Remembering that (even without the ‘other constituents’) a metric ton is about 2,200 pounds, that really means much more than a mind-numbing five million, five hundred thousand pounds of radwaste – that will remain lethal to all living things for longer that human civilization has yet existed – are scattered around the country with no known way of (maybe) isolating them from the environment for more than a few decades…at most.
And then, according to the EPA, there is also “more than a hundred million gallons of hazardous liquid waste’ from nuclear weapons production, and counting.
Tip of the Nuclear Waste ‘Iceberg’
But that’s not all. Thousands of additional metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel are currently in ‘temporary storage’ at nuclear energy reactor sites around the country in 35 states. According to the U.S. Energy Administration (EIA), “241,468 fuel assemblies, with an initial loading weight of about 70,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU), were discharged from and stored at 118 commercial nuclear reactors operating in the United States from 1968 through June 2013.”
The EIA reports, “There are 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 99 nuclear reactors in 30 U.S. states…. Of these nuclear plants, 36 have two or more reactors.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), “A typical nuclear power plant in a year generates 20 metric tons [ or forty-four thousands pounds, minus ‘other constituents’ ] of used nuclear fuel. The nuclear industry generates a total of about 2,300 metric tons [ or four million, two hundred and ninety pounds – minus ‘other constituents’ ] of used fuel per year.”
The NEI estimates that if all U.S. used fuel assemblies were stacked end-to-end and side-by-side, they would cover a football field twenty-one feet deep. This seems like a very ‘conservative’ assessment.
In just the last five years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), eighteen aging, embrittled reactors at fourteen nuclear power plants have either been shut down or scheduled for shuttering this decade. That means that even more radioactive fuel assemblies will eventually have to be stored at each existing reactor site for an indefinite period.
That's because, in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government agreed to take possession and responsibility for all nuclear energy reactor waste by the mid-1990s. That hasn’t happened, because no ‘permanent deep geological repository’ has been established. So the accumulating radwaste is what the industry calls ‘stranded’ at the nation’s reactor sites, and the boiling mad electric utilities are successfully suing the federal government – i.e. us taxpayers – for failing to comply with its promises.
That, in a nutshell, is the ‘nuclear constipation conundrum.’ Is there a radiological proctologist in the house?
Joined at the Hip From Birth – The Nuclear Weapons-Energy-Waste Nexus
“Perhaps today was the most exciting and thrilling day I have experienced. Our microchemists isolated pure element 94 (plutonium) for the first time…It is the first time that element 94 has been beheld by the eye of man.” – Glenn Seaborg
In 1939, alarmed that Hitler’s scientists were nearing success in developing an atomic bomb, a group of scientists including Albert Einstein (who, like others, later regretted it) and Edward Teller signed on to a letter to President Roosevelt advocating that the U.S. start its own nuclear bomb program.
On December 14, 1940, Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg and three colleagues created plutonium for the first time by means of deuteron bombardment of uranium in a 60-inch cyclotron at the University of California in Berkeley. Soon after, it was discovered that an isotope of the new element, plutonium-239, could undergo fission and be used as fuel for an atomic bomb.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Plutonium Project was started at the University of Chicago. Its goal was to learn how to create a chain reaction using plutonium-239 and make a bomb. Taken over by the Army the next year, it became the Manhattan Project and the rest is history.
It took just six kilograms of fissionable plutonium to fuel the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki less than five years later.
Nobel Laureate physicist Niels Bohr was asked if sufficient uranium-235 and -238 could be separated to produce nuclear bombs. “It can never be done,” he replied, “unless you turn the United States into one huge factory.” Years later he would say to Edward Teller, “You have done just that.”
In his article, “The Plutonium Problem” in Helen Caldicott’s recent anthology Sleepwalking to Armageddon, Bob Alverez points out that,
Nuclear power involves dual-use technologies that can be used to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the first major U.S. generator of nuclear-power electricity in the 1960s was a dual-purpose reactor operating at the Hanford site producing plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
One out of five power reactors in operation throughout the world currently is based on original designs to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 2015 the International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that nuclear power plants generated 380,500 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, which contain roughly 3,800 tons of plutonium. (pp 42-43)
The “Atoms for Peace” Propaganda Ploy
As Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska show in their 1999 book, Nuclear Power Deception, “Cold War propaganda rather than economic reasoning was a driving force behind the rush to build a commercial nuclear power plant in the United States.”
Having come out of World War II as global Top Dog, U.S. military planners wanted to keep it that way. They saw nuclear weapons superiority as their path to what they have now come to call global ‘full spectrum dominance’ of land, sea, air and space. But, what if the Soviets got their first? Not wanting to be seen as the nukemongers they were, they came up with a cover story: ‘Atoms for Peace.’
The ‘Nuclear Power Deception‘ authors note that Atomic Energy Commissioner Thomas Murray stated in 1953 that peaceful applications of the power to the atom ‘increases the propaganda capital of the U.S. relative to the Soviet Union. [NPD p3 ]
But, corporations and utilities were at first reluctant to undertake the technical and financial risks of building a privately owned nuclear power industry. Their reticence was overcome by huge government (i.e. tax payer) subsidies and indemnification. It came in the form of tax-breaks and the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which limited the industry’s financial liability. Any overages were to be covered by the public purse. But even that was limited to far below what is now known to be the likely financial cost of a major disaster on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima.
Parenthetically, it is telling that, even today, more than half a century later, the nuclear power industry is still dependent on government subsidies for its continued existence. Utilities like those in New York and Illinois are currently seeking – and receiving – ‘bailouts’ from state governments and ratepayers to keep their ageing, embrittled, dangerous, obsolete, uneconomical power reactors running. This, in a capitalist, so-called ‘free market economy’ supposedly based on survival-of-the-fittest ‘competition.’
One of the conclusions of the Makhijani and Saleska study is that
Nuclear power became established in the market place at a low price in the 1960s as a result of government subsidies, lack of adequate attention to safety systems, and an early decision by manufacturers to take heavy losses on initial orders. Costs increased when these advantages were reduced.
Even then, the leading competitors G.E. and Westinghouse decided to enter the market at a loss, fearing other developing generation approaches – including solar – would make nuclear power obsolete. A General Electric vice-president of the time explained,
If we couldn’t get orders out of the utility industry, with every tick of the clock it became progressively more likely that some competing technology would be developed that would supersede the economic viability of our own. Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes and that if we didn’t force the utility industry to put those stations on line, we’d end up with nothing.
So, from the very beginning – even for many insiders in what was to become known as ‘the Nuclear Priesthood’ and ‘the Cult of the Atom’ – the push to deploy a national fleet of large energy reactors seemed like a cockamamie idea.
Makhijani and Saleska cite a 1948 Atomic Energy Commission Report authored by leading nuclear scientists of the time, including Enrico Fermi, Glenn Seaborg, and J.R. Oppenheimer that warned against ‘unwarranted optimism,’ pointing out the ‘many technical difficulties’ that would have to be overcome.
Chief among those, they knew, was the unsolved and perhaps insolvable problem of what to do with the radioactive waste.
Early ‘Loud Guffaws’ and Skepticism Were Ignored, but Warranted
“It is safe to say,” then GE Vice President, C.G. Suits opined in 1950, “…that atomic power is not the means by which man will for the first time emancipate himself economically. Loud guffaws could be heard from some of the laboratories working on this problem if anyone should, in an unfortunate moment, refer to the atom as the means for throwing off man’s mantle of toil. It is certainly not that! …This is expensive power, not cheap power as the public has been led to believe.” [NPD p3]
By 1985, Suits prediction had proven correct. Forbes Magazine (no radical rag) would conclude on the basis of copious evidence, "The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history.” Forbes Magazine, February 11, 1985. That observation is born out in spades today by subsequent developments.
The count varies depending on the criteria used, but, combining ‘broken arrow’ weapons accidents and nuclear reactor accidents there have for sure been over 100 serious nuclear accidents since the 1950’s.
The Guardian, working from various sources, has identified 33 serious events at power reactors around the world since 1952.
According to the 2013 World Nuclear Industry Status Report, the 2011 triple-meltdown at Fukushima takes the cake for the worst nuclear power disaster in history. Its total atmospheric releases so far are estimated to be between 5.6 and 8.1 times that of Chernobyl, which formerly held the record. And it continues to pour nuclear pollution into the Pacific Ocean with no end in sight. Despite government and industry assurances, the Fukushima disaster is still out of control, eight years on and counting.
The cumulative effect of all these radioactive releases over the last eight decades is that the biosphere and the gene pool will never be the same.
Fukushima Fallout Continues
By official tally, the US carried out 1054 nuclear tests, and two nuclear attacks between 16 July 1945 and 23 September 1992. There were probably more. According to the Arms Control Association,
Since the first nuclear test explosion on July 16, 1945, at least eight nations have detonated 2,056 nuclear test explosions at dozens of test sites from Lop Nor in China, to the atolls of the Pacific, to Nevada, to Algeria where France conducted its first nuclear device, to western Australia where the U.K. exploded nuclear weapons, the South Atlantic, to Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, across Russia, and elsewhere.
Most of the test sites are in the lands of indigenous peoples and far from the capitals of the testing governments. A large number of the early tests—528—were detonated in the atmosphere, which spread radioactive materials through the atmosphere. Many underground nuclear blasts have also vented radioactive material into the atmosphere and left radioactive contamination in the soil.
The Pacific was the epicenter of many of the atmospheric bomb tests by France and the US. Between 1946 and 1958, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese are still suffering devastating health and genetic consequences for which Washington could never adequately compensate them, even if it wanted to. Which it doesn’t.
The traces of those tests still remain in the form of Cesium-137 as well as other heavy fission products. A half-life of 30 years means that C-137 remains dangerous to all living things and to humans for a generation or more. Because it is chemically reactive and highly soluble, it can contaminate large volumes of water, like, say, the Pacific Ocean.
Since Fukushima in 2011, the Pacific has once again become the epicenter of radioactive pollution, with gallons of radioactive water now seeping daily into the ocean eight years after the still-on-going disaster began, and with thousands of tons of tritium-contaminated water accumulating in tanks on-site.
Since the level of C-137 from the atmospheric testing era is known, any rise detected by current measurements is certain to be coming from Fukushima, and measurements are going up.
For several year now, citizens’ groups like Fukushima Response and Mothers for Peace up and down the west coast have been working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to measure C-137 contamination levels in seawater samples. In a crowd-funded project founded by Woods Hole scientist Dr. Ken Busseler, citizen scientists periodically gather 5-gallon samples and ship them to him for analysis. The results are posted on the project’s website, OurRadioactiveOcean.org.
According to the Project’s March report, “It is important to note that, prior to these events in 2011, there was already measurable amounts of radioactive fallout in the ocean left over from the testing of nuclear weapons that peaked in the 1960’s. For cesium-137, levels in Pacific Ocean surface waters were generally below 2.0 Becquerels per cubic meter (Bq/m3). We now see cesium-137 levels above this level at locations along coastlines in California, Oregon, Washington, British Colombia ,and Hawaii, as well as higher levels offshore…. This increase, as well as our finding of cesium-134 in these elevated samples, provides clear evidence that Fukushima contamination has reached our shores.”
Confronting the Nuclear Constipation Conundrum – The Planetarian Perspective
Its a global societal problem, and the definition of insanity is to keep doing what doesn’t work. So, for starters, let’s just stop making more.
As we have seen, the international nuclear establishment has a very big constipation problem, as the current phrase has it, ‘going forward.’ But it has already left a huge collective deposit of radwaste in the planetary biosphere.
Nuclear weapons testing, uranium mine tailings, ‘routine’ reactor emissions and leaking, irremediably polluting radioactive waste sites have already permanently contaminated the planet with plutonium – a literally ‘manmade’ toxin – not to mention all its many naturally-occurring isotopic relations.
There is no known way to reverse or remediate this. But there are known ways of not making it worse.
Hardened On-Site Storage – A Least-Worse Choice for the Time Being
Back in 2002, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), coined the phrase "Hardened On-Site Storage, or HOSS.” the basic concept of which he unveiled at an east coast conference on radioactive waste convened by the prominent advocacy group Citizens Awareness Network (CAN).
CAN commissioned Dr. Gorden Thompson to develop the concept and in 2003, his Institute for Resource and Security Studies published a report entitled “Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security.”
Thompson’s report noted that, unlike a SNF storage pool which require constant cooling water, electrical power and operator attention, a dry cask ISFSI is passively safer because the modules are convection cooled by air circulation.
“Nevertheless,” the Report continued, “these modules are not designed to resist a determined attack. Moreover, ISFSI modules are comparatively easy to attack, because they are stored in the open air in a closely-spaced array. Thus, nuclear power plants and their spent fuel can be regarded as pre-deployed radiological weapons that await activation by an enemy. The US government acts as if it were unaware of this threat.”
Possible modes of attack listed by the 2003 Report included: commando-style raids; land-vehicle bombs; anti-tank missiles; commercial aircraft; explosive-laden smaller aircraft; and a low-kilotonne nuclear weapon. Since the Report’s publication additional possible modes have emerged including cyber attack, directed energy weapons, and remote-controlled drones, but appropriate security measures at reactor sites still remain woefully inadequate to defend against them.
HOSS Concept Refined
BeyondNuclear.org’s Kevin Kamps reports that, in the years since Makhijani’s and Thompson’s early work, the HOSS concept has been collaboratively developed by over 300 nuclear safety advocacy groups from all 50 states into a unanimously approved statement of guiding principals.
Pool Design – Require a low-density, open-frame layout for fuel pools, to provide air-current cooling.
Protect the pools – The pools must be protected to withstand an attack by air, land, or water from a force at least equal in size and coordination to the 9/11 attacks. The security improvements must be approved by a panel of experts independent of the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. [ Because they depend on outside power for their operation, and so are vulnerable to grid blackouts, as Fukushima showed, pools must have reliable back-up power sources on-site. ]
Harden the ISFSI – Waste moved from fuel pools must be safeguarded in hardened, on-site storage (HOSS) facilities as close as safely as possible to the point of generation.
Above Ground and Bermed, Not Buried – HOSS facilities must not be regarded as a permanent waste solution, and thus should not be constructed underground
Minimize Transport – Moving waste to interim, away-from-reactor storage should not be done unless the reactor site is unsuitable for a HOSS facility and the move increases the safety and security of the waste.
Monitored & Retrievable – Fuel must be able to be retrieved, as well as constantly monitored in real-time for radiation, temperature and pressure, with records easily accessible by the public.
Design criteria: (1) Resistance to severe attacks, such as a direct hit by high-explosive or deeply penetrating weapons and munitions or a direct hit by a large aircraft loaded with fuel or a small aircraft loaded with fuel and/or explosives, without major releases. (2) Placement of individual canisters that will make detection difficult from outside the site boundary.
Require periodic review of HOSS facilities and fuel pools – An annual report consisting of the review of each HOSS facility and fuel pool should be prepared with meaningful participation from public stakeholders, regulators, and utility managers at each site.
Dedicate Funding to local and state governments to independently monitor the sites: Funding for monitoring the HOSS facilities at each site must be provided to affected local and state governments. The affected public must have the right to fully participate.
Prohibit Reprocessing – The reprocessing of irradiated fuel has not solved the nuclear waste problem in any country, and actually exacerbates it by creating numerous additional waste streams that must be managed. In addition to being expensive and polluting, reprocessing also increases nuclear weapons proliferation threats.
The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board
In 1987, the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board was established to ”…evaluate the technical and scientific validity of activities [related to managing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste] undertaken by the Secretary [of Energy], including
- site characterization activities; and
- activities relating to the packaging or transportation of high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel."
Made up of 11 Presidential appointees with distinguished records in their fields and no employment ties to the DOE, the Board has robust investigatory powers, and, while it has no decision-making authority, is able to comment on DOE proposed decisions before, not after, they are made.
These are brilliant, presumably well-intentioned people, at the top of their professional games, with a clear mandate to address in a clear-minded, objective, science-based fashion the radwaste challenges that will be facing humankind into the deep future.
In a December, 2017 report, the Board made a series of recommendations based on its recent investigations. Among them was that all storage containers should be moniterable for hydrogen gas pressure build-up, and be able to have such pressure released if found. None of the thousands of existing canisters currently stored at US reactor sites have that capacity.
At a recent day-long meeting, the Board heard power point presentations from an international panel of experts on the problems involved in long-term storage. It was not a pretty picture. In the subsequent Q&A period Board Member Dr. Efi Foufoula-Georgiou, a Hydrology and Earth Surface Processes specialist and Distinguished Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Irvine, posed a pivotal question to the assembled panel. Pointing out that the many remaining technical uncertainties about geological sequestering of radwaste are creating political and institutional delays in moving forward, she asked, “Are the ecological challenges smaller, equal to or bigger than the institutional, social challenges?”
The experts on the panel essentially responded, “‘Hey, you know, the technology is evolving. We can’t stop doing what we’re doing, just because, after more than seventy years, we still don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re all very smart people. If something goes wrong, we’ll study it and come up with something….’ One might say, that’s the story of the Atomic Age.
Ironically, by law the Board will cease to exist the same year the DOE begins loading HLW or SNF into a central repository – just when you’d think their continued oversight would be most needed!
Into the Deep Future – Abandonment vs. Rolling Stewardship
Fortunately, the officially approved ‘experts’ are not the only ones working on these challenges. As they have throughout the Atomic Age, grassroots citizen organizations and their independent scientific advisors are thinking hard about them, too.
At a recent national Radioactive Waste Strategic Planning Conference hosted in Chicago by Illinois-based power industry watchdog group the Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS.org), and attended by activists from around North America, Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility ( http://ccnr.org/ ) argued passionately that the radioactive waste conundrum is a trans-generational challenge to the entire global society, which can only be met by clearly established international norms.
Consistent with the HOSS principles, Dr. Edwards has developed the concept of ‘Rolling Stewardship.’ He contrasts it with current approaches, which he characterizes as mere ‘abandonment.’
He lays out his argument like this:
- · Abandonment is based on the concept of amnesia: let’ s forget it!
- · Rolling Stewardship is based on the persistence of memory: look after it!
- · Rolling Stewardship allows timely corrective action to be taken when needed.
- · Rolling Stewardship imparts all relevant information to the next generation.
- · A 20-year “changing of the guard” transfers responsibility and resources.
- · Rolling Stewardship ensures monitoring, robust packaging, and retrievability.
- · It implies re-characterization of the wastes and repackaging when necessary
- · This is not a solution – it is a responsible waste management scheme.
- · Rolling Stewardship is required until a genuine solution can be found.
- · A permanent solution might involve destruction or neutralization of the wastes.
- · We know how to look after this waste and we must be prepared to do it.
Dr. Edwards explains how to tell them apart:
The Concept of Abandonment
1. Humans have never permanently disposed of anything.
2. Assumes a permanent solution to waste problem exists.
3. Monitoring the waste ceases after abandonment.
4. Retrieval is difficult or impossible.
5. Containers will inevitably disintegrate.
6. If leakage occurs timely corrective action is not likely.
7. Abondonment will eventually result in amnesia.
8. Difficulty in communicating to unknown future societies.
9. No intention to truly solve the problem of nuclear waste.
The Concept of Rolling Stewardship
1. Human can contain waste securely for decades at a time.
2. Recognizes a solution to the problem does not yet exist.
3. Continual monitoring of waste is essential.
4. Retrieval is anticipated and actively planned for.
5. Periodic repackaging is an integral part of the process.
6. If leakage occurs timely corrective action will be taken.
7. Rolling Stewardship is based on persistence of memory.
8. Information is readily transmitted to the next generation.
9. Ongoing reminder that the problem remains to be solved
Quoth the Radioactive Raven, ‘Forevermore.’
One can always hope, of course, stocasticity happens. It’s conceivable that some future transmutational technology will emerge to morph plutonium and all its deadly relatives into gold, or an elixir of immortality. (The quest for this elixir well be the topic of another article.) But, from what we’ve just reviewed – except in the minds of perpetual nuclear True Believers – there seems little basis for optimism.
What does seem clear, though, is that there will never be a truly ‘post-nuclear future’ or a really ‘nuclear free world.’
Maybe we can get to a nuclear energy and weapons free world, – and we must work for that no matter what the odds – but at this point it looks like there will never again be a radioactive waste free planet. This is heavy karma. No other civilization has both disrupted the global climate and poisoned the planetary gene pool.
The great American philosopher W.C. Fields advised, “There comes a time in human affairs when we must seize the bull by the tail and stare the situation squarely in the face.”
After over seven decades of nuclear denialism, denial is no longer an option.
Its time we took Fields’ advice and seize the radwaste bull by the tail.
It’s our legacy to all future generations and it’s our responsibility to agree on the least-worse, least environmentally and racially un-just way of managing radwaste…forevermore.
James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan. Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production. He can be reached at email@example.com
A New ‘Screw Nevada’ Bill Passes the House
James Heddle – EON
On Thursday, May 10, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 2018 – HR 3053 – by a vote of 206 to 179, with 94 Democrats and 85 Republicans voting ‘Nay.’
Now, what some Nevadans have dubbed, ‘The Screw Nevada Bill 2.0,’ will go to the Senate, perhaps in this Session.
According to the Las Vegas Sun, just as with the first attempt to push it as the national high-level radioactive waste repository, opposition in Nevada continues to be strong.
In a letter to House leaders, the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce made the quite logical point that,
Nevada is ranked by the U.S. Geological Survey as the fourth most active seismic area in the United States. The potential for seismic activity in the region raises serious questions about the logic and prudence of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Seismic activity in the region is another reason why Yucca Mountain is not a feasible or practical site for the storage of nuclear waste.
And in their own letter to the House, Las Vegas business owners made it clear that,
We stand with the many concerned citizens, small-business operators and bipartisan members of the Nevada delegation in staunch opposition to any attempt to restart the repository licensing process and will work tirelessly to ensure that radioactive waste is never stored anywhere near the world’s entertainment capital in Las Vegas.
The Shimkus Bill
Named for its author, Illinois Rep. Congressman John Shimkus, the legislation seeks to renew the licensing and funding process to re-open Yucca Mt., and authorize a so-called Centralized Interim Storage (CIS) program that would trigger massive, on-going shipments of high-level radioactive wastes on the country’s poorly-maintained network of highways, bridges and rail lines, through major population centers, for many years to come.
Grassroots nuclear safety advocacy groups have variously dubbed the plan ‘Mobil Chernobyl’ and ‘the Fukushima Freeway.’ Each of the 10,000 plus shipments would contain roughly the same amount of radioactive Cesium as was released by Chernobyl, and as much plutonium as was in the Hiroshima bomb.
To some, it may seem ironic that, as China moves ahead on its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, known as the ‘New Silk Road’ – a trade and transport network across Eurasia, Africa and beyond – forces in the U.S. are hard at work to establish a network of ’new nuke roads’ all across America.
Revisiting the Sad, Silly Saga of Yucca Mountain
In Nevada, just across the California border, sits a volcanic formation called Yucca Mountain. It’s in a region of ongoing volcanic and earthquake activity, on land long held sacred – and still claimed as tribal land according to the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley – the Western Shoshone and the Southern Paiute. Largely composed of a porous material called volcanic tuff, the mountain is permeable to water penetration and sits in close proximity to an aquifer extensively used by regional inhabitants – both native American and white – for their drinking and agricultural water supplies.
Yucca is located about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas in what’s called the Great Basin, south of the Nevada Test and Training Range in the Nevada National Security Site, where over a hundred atmospheric and underground nuclear bomb tests were carried out for decades. It is, in large part, already a national nuclear ‘sacrifice area.’
In the government’s search for permanent deep geological repositories in which to bury the country’s energy and weapons waste that it pledged to take possession of and responsibility for, the government’s original goal was to identify and ‘scientifically characterize’ at least two sites, one east, one west of the Great Divide.
As the process played out over the years, however, it came to be more one of politics than of science. Of the nation’s 99 licensed, operating reactors, less than a dozen are West of the Mississippi. The so-called ‘NIMBY’ or ‘Not In My Backyard’ syndrome kicked in big time. Eventually just three potential sites were identified, all in the west: in Texas, Washington and Nevada – with the latter being at the time the state with the least political clout.
Thus, in 1987, came to be passed the first, now infamous “Screw Nevada” bill.
Though Nevada has no nuclear power plants of its own, its Yucca Mountain site became the sole target for waste from all the nation’s nuclear energy and weapons-producing states. Millions of dollars were spent in an attempt to justify ‘scientifically’ a site that had actually been chosen politically.
But then, for a while at least, the political balance of power changed. Enter Nevada Senator Harry Reid.
As an erstwhile Democratic power broker, Reid secured a pre-election promise from then-candidate Obama to shutter the Yucca project in return for electoral support. Once in the White House, President Obama actually kept his promise. In 2009, the project was effectively terminated: its staff scattered to other employment, its equipment sold off, its infrastructure allowed to sink into desuetude, the site effectively abandoned. Just a big, expensive hole in the volcanic tuff, a monument to the nation’s on-going nuclear follies.
Then the political balance of power picture changed again with Senator Reid’s retirement and the GOP/Trump ascendancy.
Back in 2014 the unashamedly ‘captive regulatory agency,’ the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), had set the stage for a potential Yucca revival by releasing a long-delayed report concluding that the Department of Energy had “demonstrated compliance with NRC regulatory requirements” that would limit leakage from the repository for the long-term.
A New York Times headline of the day trumpeted, “Calls to use Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste site, now deemed safe.” Rep. Congressman John Shimkus – from the nation’s most densely nuclearized state, Illinois – exulted, “Today’s report confirms what we’ve expected all along: Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years.”
The Distinguished Gentleman from Illinois then introduced H.R 3053, the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2018, which passed the House today.
Close analysis of the Shimkus Bill reveals that, if passed in its present form, it will:
– Preempt or jeopardize existing federal, state and local water and air rights, and rights to oversight, input, transparency, and other rights, including congressional oversight.
– Remove storage and transport safety requirements needed to prevent radioactive leaks.
– Provide inadequate funding to transport and store nuclear fuel waste.
– Make federal reimbursement for nuclear waste storage discretionary instead of mandatory.
– Allow ownership of nuclear fuel waste to be transferred to the Department of Energy (DOE) at existing nuclear utility sites, making them vulnerable to insufficient funding for nuclear waste storage. Current DOE nuclear waste sites have repeatedly leaked radiation into groundwater and air partly because of this. https://sanonofresafety.org/
Once upon some indefinite future date, when Yucca is deemed ready to take all that waste from ‘interim’ sites, it is slated to be moved again, for ‘permanent isolation’ in the site’s volcanic tuff.
There are many problems with this rosy scenario, of which more below. But chief among them, according to many critics – including former NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky – is that “The NRC staff did not explain, and no one in the media seems to have caught on, that its favorable conclusion reflected the Energy Department’s pie-in-the-sky design for Yucca Mountain—not the repository as it is likely to be configured.
In his 2014 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, ‘Yucca Mountain redux,’ Gilinsky explains,
The [actual] likely repository configuration doesn’t come close to meeting NRC requirements. The key design element in question is something the Energy Department calls a “drip shield.” This is a kind of massive, corrosion-resistant titanium alloy mailbox that is supposed to sit over each of the thousands of waste canisters in Yucca Mountain’s underground tunnels. In NRC’s definition, it is designed “to prevent seepage water from directly dripping onto the waste package outer surface.”
The name drip shield itself is a giveaway that there is a water problem at Yucca Mountain. There is indeed a lot more water, and it is flowing faster, than the Energy Department imagined when it picked the site, which is why it added the drip shield to the original design. Without the titanium shields, dripping water would corrode the waste canisters placed in the repository and release radioactive waste, and the moving underground water would carry it to the nearby environment.
Using the corrosion data in the Energy Department’s license application, one can calculate that this corrosion would take not the “million years” cited by Mr. Shimkus, but about 1,000 years.
Nonetheless, the NRC-approved DOE plan – in an apparent attempt to make up-front costs more palatable to Congress – does not call for the installation of the ‘drip shields’ until a hundred years have passed.
Gilinsky concludes, “If you look more closely into the situation, you can’t escape the conclusion that it is highly implausible that the drip shields will ever be installed. In fact, as a practical matter, it may not even be physically possible to install them.”
Will the DOE, or the US government even exist in a hundred years? Will the know-how, institutional memory, technology, manufacturing base and funding still be available at that distant date to build the necessary infrastructure to allow robots to enter the highly radioactive, probably geologically degraded and possibly collapsed repository tunnels to perform the intricate operations required to install hypothetical ‘drip shields’ that have not as yet even been designed or fabricated?
And what deadly, irremediable leakage into the environment will by then have occurred?
Ian Zabarte, spokesperson for the Western Shoshone, calls this environmental racism.
Meanwhile, the bureaucratic, technological, budgetary and political impediments to actually restarting the project are legion, and sure to delay any real progress for years, if not decades.
Based on its record, there’s no use expecting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to act in the interest of public safety. Gilinsky points out that,
A truly independent regulatory agency—one truly representing the public interest—would not have been silent on the low likelihood that drip shields will ever be installed and would have insisted on getting the Energy Department’s calculations on what happens if the drip shields don’t get installed. What it comes down to is this: The NRC is going along with a shell game to advance the political fortunes of the Yucca Mountain project.
CIS – A Nuclear Shell Game – Fighting ‘Fukushima Freeway’
So just imagine, if you dare, the following proposed harebrained scenario known as ‘Consolidated Interim Storage’ or CIS:
For decades to come, ultra-heavy shipments of thousands of metric tons of high-level radioactive waste will become a common daily occurrence on America’s already rickety roads, railways and collapsing bridges, headed for the Southwest.
They will pass un-announced – but probably easily identified by those who know what to look for – through our nation’s towns and densely populated urban areas, vulnerable to human error, accidents and terrorist attacks.
Their deadly radiation fields – extending for a yard in every direction – will shower train passengers and motorists, unlucky enough to share those routes and be close enough, with DNA and immune system damage.
The shipment carriers will pull into gas stations, truck stops and roadside rest areas, exposing the luckless families, children and pregnant women nearby using those same facilities.
Then, if they do manage to reach their temporary, ‘interim’ waste consolidation sites without catastrophe, they will eventually hit the road again, on their way to the mythical Yucca repository.
Eighty percent of Nevada residents and elected officials strongly oppose this Yucca reboot plan. As before, their legal and technical opposition will prevent the plan from going forward for many years. Additionally, a new railroad line would need to be built through several mountain ranges at great expense. Will Congress provide the funding?
But, what might be more immediately enabled, are two proposed ‘interim storage facilities’ currently seeking NRC license approval on either side of the New Mexico-Texas border. A few politicians are promoting these sites as ‘good for the local economy,’ but public opposition is strong among those who know about the plan – including the region’s growers, dairy ranchers and especially oil men for whom the region is a fracking and drilling cash cow.
Both proposed sites are in what locals call ‘Nuclear Alley,’ just down the road from the Urenco uranium enrichment plant and the infamous Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIIP), site of the recent nuclear ‘cat litter’ explosion.
If approved as part of the Shimkus Bill’s Consolidated Interim Storage provision, these ‘parking lot’ dumps could well become the nation’s de facto permanent radioactive waste depository, in the very likely event that Yucca never gets built.
More on that in future articles, except to note that the dire implications of CIS and its ‘Fukuishima Freeway’ failed to be acknowledged in the House’s approval of HR 3053.
For more, check out the Nuclear Information and Resource Service’s Don’t Waste America page.
James Heddle is a filmmaker and writer who co-directs EON – the Ecological Options Network with Mary Beth Brangan. Their forthcoming documentary SHUTDOWN: The California-Fukushima Connection is now in post-production. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Why the combination of Fear, Uncertainty, and Humanitarian Idealism may destroy most life on earth…unless We the People say ‘NO,’ and make it stick.
By James Heddle – EON. [ An earlier version of this article is on Counterpunch.org. ]
I want to say – and this is very important – in the end, we lucked out! It was luck that prevented nuclear war. Khrushchev was rational. Kennedy was rational. Castro was rational. [Holding up his thumb and forefinger slightly apart.] Rational individuals came that close to total devastation of their societies…and that danger exists today.
Former U.S. Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara – talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis – in ‘The Fog of War,” a documentary film by Errol Morris
“Today we still have over 20 thousand real world nuclear weapons. Enough to blow up everybody on the planet several times over. Those weapons pose the immediate problem of a danger of terrorism, the immediate problem of the possibility of nuclear war.… I believe we are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race. It breaks my heart. Today, the danger of a nuclear catastrophe is actually higher than it was during the cold war. Let me say that again…”
Former U.S. Sec. of Defense, William J. Perry, January, 2016
A nuclear war anywhere will disrupt—and possibly destroy—civilized life everywhere.
The Cuban Missile Crisis at 55 – James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang
There is such a thing as being too late…. We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation… Now let us begin… let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1967
[ Editor's'note: As this version goes to post, the Trump people have just issued a super-hawkish revised Nuclear Posture Review advocating 'usable' tactical nuclear weapons, and are considering a 'tactical, Bloody Nose' nuclear attack on North Korea.]
Present Threat Level: ‘High’
The current Silicon Valley meme is that Artificial Intelligence, or AI, may – someday – pose a danger to human existence. But plain old human intelligence already does pose that threat. And it has for some time.
Some critic reportedly quipped that “NATO exists to deal with problems created by its own existence.”
Whether or not you agree with that assessment of NATO, it’s hard to deny that this dictum accurately applies to the long much-celebrated geo-strategic system of so-called ‘nuclear deterrence.’
The creation of ‘command & control’ structures by nuclear weapons states – purportedly designed to reduce the threat of nuclear war – are more than likely to produce precisely the outcome they are allegedly created to prevent.
That’s the sobering wake-up call message of Daniel Ellsberg’s important new book THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE – Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.
Still at it, after all these years
At eighty-six years of age, Ellsberg – perhaps the world’s most celebrated whistleblower for his Viet Nam era Pentagon Papers revelations – is still going strong, and now working urgently to share even more crucial information, long kept secret from the American public and the world.
He is a man who walks his talk. I last saw him on a hot day last August, lying on the tarmac with about a hundred other protestors at the gate of Livermore Laboratory, California’s nuclear weapons design shop, which bills itself as ‘The Smartest Place on Earth.’ Their bodies were outlined in chalk, commemorating the Atomic Shadows left by the vaporized victims of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Virtually every weapon in the U.S. Doomsday Machine’s arsenal has been at least partially designed at Livermore, under the aegis of the University of California, Berkeley. For many years, a rally, march and ‘die-in’ [ video ] has been organized there every year on Hiroshima Day by a coalition of groups headed by TriValleyCARES and its Indefatigable Director, Marylia Kelly. Ellsberg has been a long-time rally speaker and protest participant. [ video ] On this occasion, he was lying there, chatting with his old friend Fr. Louis Vitale, as they waited to get arrested – the umpteenth time for both of them.
Evolution of a Nuclear War Planner – Into the ‘realm of madness’
It started in Detroit, Michigan, where his engineer father was a designer of the long, moving assembly lines then being initiated, first for motor cars, then – as WWII geared up – for war planes. As a high school student at the up-scale Cranbrook boarding school, he was one of the first of his generation to learn about the then new concept of ‘cultural lag.’ Introduced by sociologist William Ogburn, the term drew attention to the fact that technological innovations advance faster than the cultural, moral and political systems needed to manage them. It was a concept to be epitomized in spades in the coming Atomic Age.
Later, as a Harvard graduate economist with a focus on the then hot topics of ‘decision theory’ and ‘game theory,’ as well as a former Marine officer with combat experience in Viet Nam, Ellsberg, in his late twenties, was recognized by those who notice such things as having a great set of qualification for a war planner.
Moving from an Honors Fellowship at Harvard to a consultant job at the RAND corporation, in an office with an ocean view in Santa Monica, and colleagues like the famous (or infamous) Herman Kahn, was a natural transition.
This was in the early days of the now wide-spread practice of ‘contracting’ out government functions to private corporations. RAND was one of the first of such firms, the number of which is now legion.
The young Ellsberg’s quickly demonstrated abilities soon put him into circulation as a trusted private consultant in the highest circles of the Washington national security establishment with eventually some of the highest ‘clearances’ and a unique breadth of access to information known only to a few.
What he discovered horrified him. With youthful idealism (and perhaps more than a dash of youthful hubris), he set out to change it.
This book tells the story of some of his impressive successes. But it’s also the story – as the sub-title ‘confessions’ indicates – of some of the ways he now believes his efforts may have inadvertently helped to make things worse.
“RAND analysts, of whom I was one,” he writes, “sought to bring about less insane planning for nuclear war. We failed.” As he now sees it, the institutional systems in which they were embedded, “still held us prisoners within the realm of madness.”
His purpose now is to contribute to wide public knowledge beyond the myths, deceptions and cover-ups, which we have long been fed.
“We need,” he says, “a new understanding of the real history of the nuclear age.”
Eventually moving from RAND to the Defense Department, Ellsberg once briefed presidents and high officials, and – were he to do so again today – he says the item at the top of his list would be what is, in effect, Washington’s historically consistent first-strike policy:
The basic elements of American readiness for nuclear war remain today what they were almost sixty years ago. Thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, aimed mainly at Russian military targets including command and control, many in or near cities. The declared official rationale for such a system has always been primarily the supposed need to deter – or if necessary respond to – an aggressive Russian nuclear first strike against the United States. That widely believed public rationale is a deliberate deception….
The required U.S. strategic capabilities have always been for a first-strike force: not, under any president, for a U.S. surprise attack, unprovoked or ‘a bolt out of the blue,’ but not, either, with an aim of striking ‘second’ under any circumstances, if that can be avoided by preemption. Though officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning (LOW) – either on tactical warning of an incoming attack or strategic warning that nuclear escalation is probably impending – has always been at the heart of our strategic alert. [Emphasis added.]
But it gets worse.
As an advisor to Kennedy, Ellsberg had the opportunity to query the Joint Chiefs of Staff (over the President’s signature) if they had done estimates of how many human beings would be killed if U.S. nuclear war plans were carried out against the then Sino-Soviet Bloc. He was stunned by the answers.
“The total death toll as calculated by the Joint Chiefs,” he was told, “from a U.S. first strike aimed at the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact satellites, and China, would be roughly six hundred million dead. A hundred Holocausts.
“From that day,” he writes, “I have had one overriding life purpose: to prevent the execution of any such plan.”
A Global Machine with no ‘Off’ Switch
As part of his unusual ‘go anywhere, ask anything, see everything’ mandate, Ellsberg was told of the existence of a plan that the military kept secret from the President, the Secretary of Defense and all other civilian authorities. It was called JSCAP ( pronounced J-SCAP) for Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan. Out of it had developed, by 1960, the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the single strategic plan governing the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal including all Strategic Air Command (SAC) bombers, land-based ICBMs and all the Navy’s submarine based nuclear missiles.
In 1961, SAC alone had around seventeen hundred bombers, each carrying thermonuclear – i.e., hydrogen, bombs – many of them between five and twenty-five megatons in explosive power, or ‘yield.’
Each twenty-five megaton bomb – with 1,250 times the yield of the fission bomb that destroyed Nagasaki – was the equivalent of twenty-five million tons of TNT, or over twelve times the total bomb tonnage we dropped in World War II. Within the arsenal there were some five hundred bombs with an explosive power of twenty five megatons. Each of these warheads had more firepower than all the bombs and shells exploded in all the wars of human history. [His italics. ]
In the event of a so-called ‘general war’ with the Soviet Union, the SIOP called for the simultaneous launch of all those world-wide systems. The pre-determined targets, he learned, would not only include every major city in the Soviet Union and all its satellite allies, but all the cities in China and all its allies
Oh, and Then There’s Nuclear Winter
Two decades later, in 1983, it was discovered what none of them – Ellsberg, his RAND colleagues, the Joint Chiefs, the President, or his science advisors – had known about in the ‘60s: the phenomenon of ‘nuclear winter.’
In retrospect he realized,
It is the smoke, after all (not the fallout, which would remain mostly limited to the northern hemisphere), that would do it worldwide: smoke and soot lofted by the fierce firestorms in hundreds of burning cities into the stratosphere, where it would not rain out and would remain for a decade or more, enveloping the globe and blocking most sunlight, lowering annual global temperatures to the level of the last Ice Age, and killing all harvests worldwide, causing near-universal starvation within a year or two…. Which meant that a large nuclear war of the kind we prepared for then or later would kill nearly every human on earth (along with most other large species.)
But there was more.
The SIOP included no way to separate blanket attacks on both Russia and China once the ‘Go’ order has been given…and there was no desire to do so.
Ellsberg quotes a report from the memoir of colleague John Rubel about his experience at a 1960 briefing at SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. It was attended by Defense Department officials, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders from around the world, and presided over by SAC Commander General Thomas Power. On a huge screen in the darkened command center, successive overlays portrayed the cumulative bombing of all the SIOP’s targets. In conclusion, a briefer reported that fallout alone would eventually kill half the population of China, in addition to those killed in the initial blasts.
A voice out of the gloom from somewhere behind me interrupted, saying, “May I ask a question?” General Power turned…in his front-row seat, stared into the darkness and said, “Yeah, what is it?” in a tone not likely to encourage the timid. “What if this isn’t China’s war?” the voice asked. “What if this is just a war with the Soviets? Can you change the plan?”
“Well, yeah,” said General Power resignedly, “we can, but I hope nobody thinks of it, because it would really screw up the plan.”
Ellsberg tells of leaving the Pentagon one afternoon with a colleague to do ‘operational research’ at a showing of the then just-released, now classic, Stanley Kubrick film ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ They were surprised at how accurately the film portrayed the impossibility of reversing the order, once the system has been triggered by a single, rogue commander.
Rewriting the War Plan
Ellsberg had set his sights on changing that plan, and, to some extent, he succeeded.
Under Kennedy and McNamara, he was assigned to redraft the general war section of the BSNP or Basic National Security Policy, civilian guidance for war planning.
In the late afternoon of April 7, 1961, he finished his first draft and realized it was his thirtieth birthday. “I remember thinking: for the rest of my life, I won’t have done anything more important than this.”
Among many other significant changes, the re-draft he wrote called for
- elimination of the SIOP as the single, automatic response
- elimination of the automatic inclusion of China and Soviet Satellite states
- creation of a command and control system for issuing reliable ‘stop’ or ‘recall’ orders.
A final version was sent to the Joint Chiefs on May 5, 1961. He reports,
“My” revised guidance became the basis for the operational war plans under Kennedy – reviewed by me for Deputy Secretary Gilpatric in 1962, 1963, and again in the Johnson administration in 1964. It has been reported by insiders and scholars to have been a critical influence on U.S. strategic war planning ever since.
[ For texts of related memos and drafts, see ellsberg.net/BNSP. ]
But, after all, it was still a nuclear war plan. He notes, “In years to come, the memory of this accomplishment did not bring me the same satisfaction it brought when I was thirty.”
Delegation or Decapitation? – That is the question
Given POTUS Trump’s growing reputation as a ‘malignant narcissist’ running rogue in the Oval Office, there has been much media and Congressional concern expressed of late about the presumption that just one man, – whether rational or crazed – is the only one with access to the ‘nuclear football,’ its launch codes and ‘having his finger on The Button.’
Harvard Professor Elaine Scary has written a fascinating, in depth, scholarly analysis of this notion in her impressive THERMONUCLEAR MONARCHY – Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.
But it turns out, according to another alarming revelation in Ellsberg’s book, that, from the very beginning of U.S. nuclear war planning, One-Finger-on-The-Button has by no means been the case.
According to Ellsberg, “… the hand authorized to pull the trigger on U.S. nuclear forces has never been exclusively that of the president, nor even his highest military officials.” [His emphasis.]
The operative policy, from Eisenhower and Kennedy on down, has been to delegate ‘Execute’ authority to subordinate commanders, – even, depending on circumstances, far down the chain of command – to avoid ‘decapitation’ – elimination of centralized authority.
“This delegation has been one of our highest national secrets,” writes Ellsberg. “The same was true for the Soviet Union, now Russia.”
And, one can assume, to this day, for all other nuclear weapons powers.
Ellsberg writes from three complementary perspectives:
— as an ‘insider’ with top level security clearances working to discover and mitigate what he sees as ill-conceived, omnicidal policies;
— as an analyst/historian striving to understand how such a system has come into being;
— and as a whistleblowing reformer working to alert and mobilize an informed public to dis-assemble the very system he spent much of his professional life helping create.
His is a rich and complex narrative. Here are some of its key points.
Inside the Cuban Missile Crisis – ‘The most dangerous moment in recorded history’
Ellsberg, the insider, throws new light on the myths and misinformation surrounding this pivotal historical event. It's too complex a story – as Ellsberg’s narrative shows in depth – to do more than summarize here. [ See: Ellsberg.net/Doomsday/cubanmissilecrisis for his files. ] It happened in 1962, but it’s take-home lesson is as current as today’s headlines.
The essence of it is this: none of the participants at the time had a full and accurate picture of what was really going on.
It wasn’t until decades later that the full facts came into focus. McNamara’s thumb and forefinger, held barely apart, tell the story. Global nuclear Armageddon had been avoided by “that much.”
In retrospect, it was a tragi-comedy of errors, projections, and miscalculations on all sides – a microcosm of the Doomsday Machine Dilemma.
Yet, the fate of the earth hung in the balance…just as it does in the several nuclear confrontations emerging today.
On Monday, October 22, 1962 President Kennedy went on national TV to announce the discovery that Soviet ballistic missiles were being shipped to Cuba, and that, in response, he was imposing a naval ‘quarantine’ around the island nation. He said that the launch of any missile from Cuba “against any nation in the Western Hemisphere” would trigger “a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
Watching Kennedy’s speech from his Malibu home, and knowing full well what “a full retaliatory response’ would mean, Ellsberg headed for Washington.
The global context was this:
In April, 1961, a CIA sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs had failed.
In August, 1961, the long-standing Berlin Crisis had ended with the partition of that German city between Soviet and Allied forces, and the erection of the Berlin Wall.
U.S. and Soviet forces were arrayed against each other across Europe, with American nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs had long been itching to invade Cuba on any pretext. Remembering the Bay of Pigs, both Cuban President Castro and Soviet Premiere Khrushchev knew this and took the threat very seriously. Khrushchev had sent the missiles to prevent such an invasion. U.S. intelligence thought there were thirty-eight.
On arrival in DC, Ellsberg was tasked to “Write a memo on what thirty-eight missiles could do to our strike-back ability.” The conclusion was, given the balance of American and Soviet nuclear forces, not much. The Soviet Union would still be turned into a large smoking hole from the U.S. ‘full retaliatory response.’
Throughout the next thirteen tension-filled days, Ellsberg and most of those around him believed that Khrushchev knew he was way out-gunned and would ultimately ‘blink,’ ‘back down’ and remove the missiles. On October 27, 1962, he did.
It was the day afterward that Ellsberg discovered that Defense Secretary McNamara and others around Kennedy had put the chance of Armageddon happening much higher, like maybe 1 in 10. Later, McNamara revealed, “the Saturday before the Sunday in which Khrushchev announced withdrawal of the missiles… and a U-2 [U.S. spy plane ] was shot down…I remember leaving the White House at the end of that Saturday. It was a beautiful fall day. And thinking that might well be the last sunset I saw. You couldn’t tell what was going to follow.”
Ellsberg was appalled. “One in ten?! Nuclear war…And we were doing what we were doing?!”
‘What they had been doing’ included:
- the blockade itself, at the risk of armed conflict with Soviet warships;
- forcing Soviet submarines to surface with depth grenades
- a large-scale airborne bomber alert with significant risk of accidents involving nuclear weapons;
- continuing reconnaissance, even after several spy planes were fired on over Cuba and one shot down on Saturday; and
- full preparations(“if they were wholly a bluff,” he says, “they fooled us”) for invasion and airstrike
He thought, “Who were these people I was working for? Were they all insane?
Subsequent research by Ellsberg and others has now revealed that the real situation was much worse than any U.S. officials knew at the time.
In fact, there had been 162 Soviet missiles already in Cuba, not 38. Some of them were tactical, short-range nuclear missiles to be aimed at invading U.S. forces and the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Soviet submarines being bombarded with U.S. grenades were – unknown to Washington – equipped with nuclear torpedoes.
Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev had any intention of triggering a nuclear war. They were both bluffing, hoping to get a better deal. No invasion of Cuba was planned. But none of their subordinates knew that. Castro, believing a U.S. invasion to be inevitable and that Cuba would be made to ‘disappear,’ had written to Khrushchev urging a full Soviet nuclear response on the U.S. once the expected invasion was underway.
Finally, when Khrushchev and Kennedy both realized that their brinksmanship was spiraling out of their control, they worked urgently together to defuse it. Contrary to popular myth, neither country ‘won’ or ‘lost.’
Global nuclear destruction had been averted by just ‘that much.’
A tiny country, previously attacked by the United States, believes another attack is imminent and contemplates ‘the nuclear suicide option.’ Sound familiar?
The Fire Every Time – Incinerating Civilians
Ellsberg, the historian, traces the growth of the omnicidal nuclear mindset from British and American bombing strategy evolved in WW II.
When the war began on September 1, 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, President Roosevelt issued an appeal to all of the states involved, to avoid the ‘human barbarism’ of targeting civilians, who he described as “innocent human beings who have no responsibility for, and who are not even remotely participating in, the hostilities that have now broken out….”
With then recent historical atrocities in mind, no doubt like the one immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting ‘Guernica,’ he went on,
I am therefore directing this urgent appeal to every Government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents. I request an immediate reply.
Britain, then Germany, quickly agreed. In fact, none of the countries involved saw this an unusual request, for Roosevelt was simply affirming what was then considered an accepted international norm of warfare: avoid harming non-combatants.
By war’s end, this supposed norm, violated first by Britain, then the U.S., had not only been abandoned, but completely reversed.
Militarists had come to regard war from the air as the one sure path to victory, and civilian officials had come to see cities – that is, civilians – as legitimate targets.
But that was not all.
It had been discovered that – given the right atmospheric and wind conditions – saturation bombing of a city could create ‘firestorms ’ – in effect altering local weather as what would come to be called a ‘force multiplier’ – incinerating entire urban populations and destroying all existing structures.
One such event, was the firebombing of the German city of Dresden, later portrayed by an American prisoner of war survivor, Kurt Vonnegut in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five. But there were many others. More than half a million German civilians were killed. Creating intentional urban firestorms had become the principle objective of aerial warfare, under the rationale that ‘terror bombing’ would destroy moral and end hostilities sooner, thus ‘saving lives’ in the long run.
With the German defeat, U.S. attention shifted to Japan and ‘scientific’ firebombing of cities was honed to a fine art under General Curtis LeMay. Using his new approach, reports Ellsberg, “It would be possible, LeMay thought, ‘to knock out all of Japan’s major industrial cities during the next ten nights.’ And he set out to burn the next most populous seventeen cities in succession. After that, the next fifty.”
Creating firestorms, like the one that destroyed Tokyo, with ‘conventional’ explosives required many planes. With atomic weapons like those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you could do the job with just one bomber per city. But, aside from subsequent deaths caused by exposure to radioactive fallout, the deadly results were basically the same.
Later, LeMay would boast, “we scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
Firebombing and mass murder from the air – with or without nukes – had become the American way of war.
In the early 1950s, in the Korean war, LeMay recalled in a 1988 interview, "We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea…."
The legendary Gen. Douglas MacArthur – no stranger to mass slaughter – testified in a 1951 Congressional hearing, “The war in Korea has already almost destroyed that nation of 20,000,000 people. I have never seen such devastation. I have seen, I guess, as much blood and disaster as any living man, and it just curdled my stomach, the last time I was there. After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited.”
Taking Bets on Atmospheric Ignition
The high risk attitude of what might be called – with a nod to C. Wright Mills – ‘crackpot nuclearism,’ was born in the New Mexico desert with the July 16, 1945 Trinity Test, the world first atomic bomb. It has dominated nuclear policy ever since.
Some of the Manhattan Project scientists were doing calculations aimed at predicting whether or not the planned test would ignite the planet’s entire atmosphere thus ending life on earth. There were arguments and conflicting conclusions. Nobody was quite sure either way.
On the eve of the test, Enrico Fermi offered to take bets on if atmospheric ignition would occur. “I am now in a position,” he said, “to make book on one of two contingencies: 1) that the explosion will burn New Mexico; 2) that it will ignite the whole world.”
The odds Fermi offered are not recorded, nor if anyone took his bet. The consensus apparently was that both outcomes were unlikely…but possible. The test went ahead anyway.
The Threat of Use is Use – a Terrorist Threat
The gun in the hand of the robber aimed at the victim’s head – whether or not the trigger is pulled – is being ‘used.’ The same is true of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
One often hears that The Bomb was only ‘used’ twice, by President Truman on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, as Ellsberg documents, every president since – right down to the current occupant of the Oval Office – has used the Doomsday Machine in the same way the robber uses the gun, as a credible threat to impose his will.
Even one tactical nuclear weapon attacking a heavily populated area could kill hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. “Thus,” Ellsberg concludes, “virtually any threat of first use of a nuclear weapon is a terrorist threat. Any nation making such threats is a terrorist nation. That means the United States and all its allies, including Israel, along with Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea.”
Dissent as a Family Trait
Ellsberg discloses many institutional secrets discovered in the course of his career. But there is a personal one he saves until almost last. As noted above, his father had been a distinguished engineer and factory designer involved in the war effort. During the whistleblower days, when Kissinger had labeled him ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ Ellsberg says he had little contact with his father. Much later the two had a conversation in which the son learned that the father, too, had not only had many of the same top security clearances, and had worked on building the A-bomb, but had also been a dissenter.
At the top of his career, the elder Ellsberg had been engaged to design a plant that would produce material for an H-bomb, the hydrogen bomb. It was to be a thousand times more powerful than the A-bombs used on Japan. In fact, the A-bomb is now simply used as the detonation trigger for the H-bomb.
“That was it for me,” his father recalled at the age of 89. “I went back to my office and I said to my deputy, ‘These guys are crazy.’”
“There was another thing about it I couldn’t stand,” his father continued. “Building these things generated a lot of radioactive waste…. That stuff was deadly for ever.”
Ellsberg recalls there were tears in his father’s eyes as he went on huskily, “I couldn’t stand the thought that I was working on a project that was poisoning parts of my country for forever, that might make parts of it uninhabitable for thousands of years.”
His father – unlike the many others engaged to make the H-bomb – resigned rather than participating in the project.
Asked what had made him feel so strongly, his father responded, “You did.”
Turns out that back in 1946 the young Ellsberg had come home crying, carrying a copy of John Hersey’s just-published book Hiroshima, a report on the horrors of atomic warfare. Recalled his father, “You said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to read this. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.’ So I read it, and you were right.”
Non-Violent Co-existence or Violent Co-annihilation – That Is Still the Question
Being a nuclear war planner and risk analyst means developing the capacity of imagining the unthinkable. It's a great skill set to have. Especially if, like Ellsberg (and others), you have awakened to the omnicidal danger of the doomsday machine you have participated in creating.
Now, when many despairing pessimists are concluding that the Doomsday Machine Syndrome has taken on an autonomous life of its own, and that it’s political, economic, and military institutionalization on a global level has made deconstructing it ‘realistically unthinkable,’ Ellsberg’s informed conviction that deconstruction IS not only possible, but doable within a year’s time, is invigorating to the soul. Human ingenuity has created multiple doomsday machines; human ingenuity can take them down.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s erstwhile ‘brain,’ infamously described the prime agenda item of the Trump/GOP wrecking crew as ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ In fact, they’re doing it as we watch. Proving precisely that, what humans have put together, humans can pull asunder.
Ellsberg’s bold, ‘unthinkable,’ essentially revolutionary agenda is nothing less than the deconstruction of the Doomsday Machine itself.
According to his vision, Truman’s proverbial ‘buck’ both stops and starts here, in America, the birthplace of the Doomsday Machinery, the only country to have not only actually dropped The Bomb, but to have ‘used’ The Bomb for the last seventy-plus years, in over two dozen credible international threats (which he documents), as a gun to the heads of other nations of the world.
He addresses the common argument that ‘You can’t uninvent nuclear weapons.’
That has been a widespread and effective argument against a total unilateral abolition over the past seventy years. True, you can’t eradicate the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons and delivery systems. But you can dismantle a Doomsday Machine. And that, at minimum, is what we must hasten to do. There is no need or justification for us to wait for the Russians to do it to theirs first or in step with us, though that global imperative applies just well to them.
Here’s his Six-Step Program:
- A U.S, no-first-use policy
- Probing investigative hearings on our war plans in the light of nuclear winter
- Eliminating our ICBMs
- Forgoing the delusion of preemptive damage-limiting by our first-strike forces
- Giving up the profits, jobs, and alliance hegemony based on maintaining that pretense
- Otherwise dismantling the American Doomsday Machine.
Being a realist, he observes that, “Both parties as currently constituted oppose every one of these measures.” Further, he admits, “the news is equally bad when it comes to the prospects of reversing American energy policy in time and on a scale to avert catastrophic climate change.” He concludes,
The steps I have indicated are only a beginning toward the ultimate delegitimation of nuclear weapons and nuclear threats. But none of the necessary changes can occur without an informed public, suitably alarmed by a situation that properly evokes horror, fear, revulsion, and incredulity, accompanied, hopefully by the determination of the highest order and urgency to eliminate it.
The White House as Madhouse
At the time Ellsberg worked at RAND, U.S. war planners had long been obsessed by belief in a series of ‘gaps:’ a ‘bomber gap;’ a ‘missile gap;’ a ‘deterrent gap.’ Kennedy himself had campaigned and been elected on the fiction of a ‘missile gap,’ with the Soviet Union being erroneously claimed to possess ‘strategic superiority.’
Ellsberg found that none of these supposed ‘gaps’ had actually existed. They were really claims cooked up by competing branches of the military aimed at securing a bigger share of the defense budget, and a more important role in the ‘Big Game.’ RAND’s whole program had been based on delusion.
He writes, “To recognize that was to face the conclusion that RAND had, in all good faith, been working obsessively and with a sense of frantic urgency on a wrong set of problems, an irrelevant pursuit in respect to national security.” Yet RAND’s program continued for years after the gap concepts had been debunked.
Donald (My-Button-is-Bigger-than-Your-Button) Trump is not only continuing the trillion dollar nuclear weapons upgrade begun under Obama, but calling for 10 times as many thermonuclear devices as are already in the US arsenal.
In 2017, American Special Forces boots were on the ground in 146 countries. A new study by the Costs of War Project maps 76 countries in which the U.S. is currently at war. That’s a lot of flash points, any one of which could potentially trigger a nuclear exchange.
One wonders what delusional ‘risk assessments’ are currently being used by today’s generation of war planners to rationalize this level of institutionalized insanity.
Toward A New Nuclear Consciousness and Abolition Movement
The five ‘original’ nuclear powers – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – have since been joined by Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. So now there are nine known national Doomsday Machines – one for every nuclear weapons state – all on hair trigger alert for some future wargasm, maybe just around the corner.
And then there are the other – presently operating – DNA-destroying radioactive, electro-magnetic and chemical pollution doomsday machines, as well as the carbonization-of-the-atmosphere doomsday machine already causing catastrophic climate change…not to mention the on-going Sixth Great Extinction.
I chose to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day immersed in Ellsberg’s book. It may not have been the most pleasant holiday season I’ve experienced, but it was definitely the most informative and enlightening.
It’s my bad habit, with a read I like, to underline sentences, star paragraphs, and dog-ear pages that seem especially important. I found myself doing that on almost every page.
Ellsberg’s website contains massive documentation supporting his book’s disclosures.
has joined former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn to write a groundbreaking Wall Street Journal op-ed series
on the issues. They have also co-founded the Nuclear Security Project.
Toward the end of their lives, both McNamara and Castro also became ardent nuclear abolitionists.
These are good signs. Crackpot nuclearism may yet be overcome.
The Doomsday Machine – my nominee for ‘the most important book of 2017’ – is at once an empowering, and a cautionary tale about the ‘power of one’ to catalyze change in a labyrinthine, entrenched, corporate/government bureaucracy … AND, about how the many paths to doomsday can be paved with good intentions.
Get it. Read it. And don’t mourn, organize and pass the word! Spread awareness of both the risks and the mitigating possibilities. Informed, concerted public action has made a huge difference throughout the Atomic Age, and it can again.
As the UN’s recent historic vote by more than 120 nations to ban the possession, use, or threatened use of nuclear weapons, and the Nobel Peace Prize award to ICAN make clear, the once powerful no nukes abolition movement is again resurgent.
Maybe, just maybe – as Reverend King was warning way back in 1967 – it’s still not too late…
These Jan. 14, 2018 weekend headlinies show the urgency:
His first Nuclear Posture Review: more nukes, more posturing.
By Ashley Feinberg – Huffpost
Group Warns Implementation of Trump’s Plan Makes Nuclear War More Likely
Nuclear deterrence continues to dominate international relations. Yet there is no proof it ever worked, nor that it ever will
by David P Barash – Guardian
Jen Heyden – Daily Kos