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Citizens Watch Newsletter August 1999

Livermore Lab Gets Rocky Flats Plutonium: Shipments Proposed 'til 2002

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' August 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

On July 30, a jubilant Kaiser-Hill press release announced the "offsite shipment of all plutonium pits from Rocky Flats to the Pantex Plant and Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories by June 1999 (16 years ahead of DOE's commitment in the Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement)."

Kaiser-Hill runs Rocky Flats under contract to the Dept. of Energy (DOE). Plutonium "pits" are the cores of nuclear bombs -- so called because the plutonium is situated in the bomb the way an apricot pit sits inside the fruit. Rocky Flats is the notorious Colorado facility shut down by the FBI in 1989 due to massive environmental problems and plutonium contamination.

And, they are celebrating because they shipped some of this plutonium to Livermore. Ahead of schedule.

Phone calls to the Rocky Flats plant yielded some additional information. Apparently plutonium pits began coming to Livermore quietly in 1995. Livermore Lab was the site chosen to disassemble, melt and recast the deadly metal. Subsequently, that 1995 plutonium was shipped back to Rocky Flats for storage.

Another load of plutonium pits came to Livermore Lab in June of this year -- the truck going first from Rocky Flats to Los Alamos in New Mexico and then to Livermore. All Rocky Flats would say is these were "special" pits used as "stockpile reliability evaluation program units" for bomb shelf-life experiments and testing machine techniques. The Rocky Flats' spokesperson alluded to possible further experiments to be conducted on the pits by Livermore and, perhaps, disassembly of some of the pits afterward at the Lab.

DOE and Rocky Flats officials refused to say whether there were other shipments or how many plutonium pits were sent from Rocky Flats to Livermore Lab.

DOE went so far as to require Tri-Valley CAREs to submit all its questions about Rocky Flats plutonium in writing. The Department then refused to answer any of them. None of our questions involved bomb design details. All were aimed at finding out the potential hazards to which we in the community are subjected. We will soon submit a Freedom of Information Act request.

More Plutonium Coming to Lab

Rocky Flats' plutonium pits are, unfortunately, only the beginning. Recently Tri-Valley CAREs received documentation from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) that DOE proposes to ship up to 89 "classified plutonium metal items" to Livermore Lab, beginning in October of this year and continuing until February 2002.

According to a letter from DOE to DNFSB, plutonium parts at Rocky Flats that are bonded to other hazardous materials, such as beryllium, may cause problems that cannot be handled by the casting and oxidation facilities at DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where two huge plutonium processing canyons are located. Therefore, DOE proposes to send these particularly troublesome plutonium parts to Livermore.

Livermore Lab is listed as either the number one or number two-favored option to receive 56 Plutonium/Tantalum targets, 6 Plutonium/Vanadium hemishells (half-pits), 2 Plutonium/Depleted Uranium hemishells and 25 Plutonium/Beryllium hemishells. Beryllium, in particular, is used in bombs along with plutonium to maximize the neutron output. DOE's proposal makes no mention of any safety measures, precautions or risk-reduction methods to be employed.

Lab to Burn Plutonium in Furnace

The proposal does specify that the Lab will put any plutonium it receives that had been bonded to what DOE calls "classified substrate materials (e.g. Beryllium, Vanadium, Depleted Uranium)" into a furnace. This dangerous action is intended to separate the plutonium from the other materials. The process is called HYDOX (short for hydride-oxidation). Each item will be placed in a burner, where high temperatures will create a "heat bath." A vacuum will be created in the compartment around the plutonium hemishell or target and its substrate material. Hydrogen will then be pumped in. Plutonium metal plus hydrogen gas at high-temperature creates plutonium hydride. The plutonium will subsequently be turned into an oxide, according to DOE.

Tri-Valley CAREs has a number of internal Livermore Lab documents that demonstrate dramatically how the process of oxidizing plutonium spews tiny particles, clogs filters and results in emissions to the environment. The goal, says DOE, is to create nuclear waste -- specifically transuranic (TRU) and mixed TRU waste (some of it will become "mixed waste" due to plutonium contamination left in the substrate material). DOE plans, eventually, to ship the wastes to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico for disposal.

Why Livermore Lab?

The documents we obtained offer simply that Livermore Lab has the "research, development, and demonstration missions to declassify/disposition classified TRU waste." This implies there is an experimental element to the proposal, creating a further hazard if, indeed, difficult to handle plutonium parts are brought to the Lab to "research" or "work the bugs out" of the method used to turn them into wastes for disposition.

The Lab's plutonium facility, where these operations would occur, covers approximately 4 acres of ground; contains 880 pounds of plutonium, nearly enough for 100 modern nuclear bombs; lies adjacent to more than one earthquake fault; has documented problems with its air filters; sits within sight of nearby homes; is located in the SF Bay Area with more than 6 million people living within a 50-mile radius; and has been shut down (again) not long ago due to 25 plutonium safety violations. In fact, the building is just now resuming "normal operation."

Further, the HYDOX process that will be used to turn the targets and hemishells into TRU and mixed wastes is not even mentioned in the waste permit the state just issued to the Lab. As best we can tell, the state is completely failing to regulate this risky activity, even though it has the responsibility for mixed waste. (One more reason we are challenging the permit and demanding an environmental review.)

The community has every right to know about DOE's plans for Rocky Flats' plutonium. How much is already at Livermore? What experiments are being performed on the pits shipped to the Lab this past June? Exactly what is being planned for the future? Will the public have a voice?

Consider how crucial these issues are as you take your next breath and your next drive on the freeway. Stay tuned!

Livermore Lab Flunks DOE Waste Audit

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' August 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Livermore Lab has halted all shipments of radioactive waste to the Nevada Test Site (NTS) after failing an internal Dept. of Energy (DOE) audit in July.

The audit team spent a week checking the Lab's waste-handling methods and practices. As a result, DOE issued 33 corrective action orders. According to team members, the Lab keeps incomplete records on its radioactive waste materials and fails to conduct required surveys of the waste on schedule. Additional details on the 33 violations are expected in the report, which was not yet available as of this writing. Lab officials said they hope to resume shipments within the next three months.

Livermore Lab officials said they sent 26 shipments of "low-level" radioactive waste to NTS last year. The shipments included 24,083 cubic feet of radioactive material, enough to fill a room 10 feet wide, 10 feet high and 240 feet long, according to a news report.

Previous inspections have revealed serious problems with Livermore's shipments to NTS. A DOE "Tiger Team" report cited an incident where wastes were sent back to the Lab under guard by the Highway Patrol. The reason: Livermore Lab could not demonstrate it really knew what was in the barrels.

In 1990, Nevada officials found 1,640 drums of Livermore Lab's plutonium-contaminated waste sitting at the test site on a concrete slab, all unauthorized. Again, the wastes were poorly characterized, and upon examination, some barrels were found to contain hazardous chemicals as well as plutonium. These "mixed transuranic wastes" had been shipped in violation of Nevada's state environmental laws.

Two facts stand out in sharp relief. First, Livermore Lab must reduce its production of radioactive waste. Dumping waste in someone else's backyard is never a solution. In this case, NTS sits on ancestral lands claimed by the Western Shoshone.

Second, Livermore Lab doesn't comply with its written waste procedures. This should serve as a wake-up call to the California state officials who gave Livermore a permit for a new hazardous and radioactive waste facility based largely on the Lab's assertion it would follow established procedures. Instead, the state should conduct an Environmental Impact Report.

The state is still considering our appeal of the permit (see June 1999 and July 1999 editions of Citizen's Watch for details). We are expecting a ruling later this year. You can help in this effort by sending a letter to the governor requesting that the permit for Livermore Lab be withdrawn and an environmental report prepared. Write to: Governor Gray Davis, Attention Lynn Schenk, Chief of Staff, State Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA 95814. Or, check our web site for a letter you can simply print out, sign and mail!

Worldwide Call to De-alert Nukes

by Sally Light and Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' August 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

On August 6, the 54th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, a letter signed by over 250 organizations, legislators and noteworthy individuals worldwide was sent to U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin demanding the two leaders immediately de-activate the more than 5,000 nuclear weapons in their respective nations that are currently on hair-trigger alert.

The letter has among its signatories notables such as U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), Senator Doug Roche (Canada), Maj-Britt Theorin (Member European Parliament) and Dr. Helen Caldicott (internationally known physician from Australia). Other signers include prominent lawyers, additional elected officials from around the globe and many environmental and peace organizations throughout the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Central America. The world's two largest environmental organizations, Friends of the Earth International and Greenpeace International have both endorsed the letter. Locally, Tri-Valley CAREs is among the sponsoring organizations.

The letter expresses grave concern that Year 2000 (Y2K)-related computer failures in nuclear systems may lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

The letter highlights three past examples, in 1980, 1983 and 1995, when disasters were averted only at the last moment. The 1980 incident involved a U.S. computer chip malfunction, sending alert signals; the 1983 incident involved Russian satellites mistaking glare from cloud tops for a U.S. missile launch, and disaster was prevented only by the refusal of the local commander to believe the warnings were genuine; and the 1995 incident involved a U.S. research rocket launched from Norway which set off a full-scale Russian alert. In this latter incident, it took Russian decision-makers eight minutes, operating in high emergency mode, to realize the launch was not part of a surprise strike by the U.S.-less than four minutes before their "launch on warning" deadline for ordering a nuclear response. The possibility of computer malfunction leading to a nuclear response is enormously increased by Y2K.
Since no nuclear weapons state can guarantee its nuclear weapons computers are proof against such errors during the Y2K rollover to the year 2000, the logical and responsible thing is for all nuclear-armed nations to take their weapons off alert status and to decouple nuclear warheads from delivery vehicles, say the de-alerting advocates. This will provided the margin of confidence needed to assure decision-makers in the event a Y2K computer error indicates a nuclear launch has been made by one nation upon another.

The appeal also cites as an exacerbating factor the current, tense political relations between Russia and the U.S. over the U.S.-led NATO bombings, because, as a result, Russia has withdrawn high-level cooperation with the U.S. on Y2K nuclear compliance problems. The letter's 250-plus signers are clearly laying the issue at the feet of the two presidents, asking them to rise to the occasion and to overcome this breakdown in international communication and cooperation.

The letter concludes: "The immediate stakes are so high, and the potential for global catastrophe so clear, that mutually verified de-alerting... must take precedence over all other considerations of politics and national security."

Print Bites: All the News That Fits to Print

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' August 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

*** A Piece of Good News. Altamont Landfill operator, Waste Management, announced it will remove 9,500 tons of lead-contaminated soil erroneously deposited in the dump. The announcement follows on the heels of a special hearing by the Board of Supervisors at which Tri-Valley CAREs and others testified. The Supes then ordered Waste Management to conduct the cleanup, imposed fines of $1,000 per day after an August 17 deadline and threatened to revoke the company's permit if it did not comply. The tainted soil came from the SF Giants' China Basin ballpark, and was dumped in the Altamont facility, which is not authorized for hazardous waste, after the state Dept. of Toxic Substances Control mistakenly reclassified it as non-hazardous. Resolution had been stymied since March by arguments among the 3 responsible parties over who should pay the estimated $1 million to clean it up. Waste Management now says it plans to recoup costs from the other 2 parties, and will not increase fees for its household garbage customers. Cleanup is expected to take 3 to 5 weeks. Thanks are due to the Supes and the citizenry who spoke out.

*** Kudos Grand Jury. The Alameda County Grand Jury released a report July 26 recommending that the Alameda County Public Health Dept. play a more active role in monitoring radioactive emissions from the Lab. The Grand Jury called on county officials to increase funding for its health dept. to study and publicize contamination from Livermore Lab that has found its way into the surrounding community. The report lauded the county health dept.'s efforts to secure additional monies through an EPA grant to place several air monitors around the Lab, initiate a pilot project to study residents' gardens where plutonium-laden sludge from the Lab may unknowingly have been used as fertilizer, analyze plants in Livermore for organically-bound tritium uptake and produce a web site and other materials to disseminate information to the public. Tri-Valley CAREs, SF Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility, Western States Legal Foundation and International Medcom are partners with the county in the EPA proposal.

*** Turn Up the Volume. More than 3,000 diverse, united supporters of "free speech radio" rallied July 31 in Berkeley to increase pressure on the Pacifica Foundation, and to save the venerable KPFA station with the quirky format that Bay Area progressives know and love. At stake is whether Pacifica will corporatize KPFA into irrelevance by forcing it to carry more mainstream programming. Protesters have been camped outside KPFA's front door since the July 13 lockout of the station's staff. The supporters' various efforts have caused Pacifica to end the lockout, but the station's future is still in doubt. Persistent rumors, backed in part by an unauthenticated email exchange, suggest Pacifica may try and sell KPFA.

*** Hiroshima Repeated? Just days before the August 6 anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the city's mayor warned that the world is forgetting the horror of the nuclear bomb and is thus more likely to use it again. Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba said, "The threshold is being lowered. People are forgetting... Nuclear weapons are an absolute evil. We must abolish them."

*** Intelligent Life in the Universe? Congress voted to move forward with a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system "as soon as technically feasible." The Administration is negotiating with Russia in an effort to redefine the terms of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 that outlaws BMD systems such as the U.S. is contemplating. This Sept. the Pentagon is scheduled to conduct a BMD test over the Pacific Ocean. In the face of this insanity, the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space has initiated international call-in days from Sept. 13 to 15. Readers are encouraged to phone the White House at (202) 456-1111, or the Congressperson of your choice at (202) 224-3121, on any or all of those dates.

Money Matters

Tri-Valley CAREs is a unique organization, known primarily for its good work ...
  • watchdogging the DOE nuclear weapons complex;
  • advocating for cleanup of the radioactive & toxic Cold War legacy;
  • promoting peace & standing firm against "stockpile stewardship";
  • safeguarding our community from continuing nuclear pollution;
  • demystifying science-speak, making it intelligible through our publications including this one; and
  • increasing genuine public participation in government decisions that profoundly affect our lives.

There is one way, however, in which Tri-Valley CAREs is not at all unique - we have to pay the printer, the phone bill, the postal fees and the other expenses that are part of our effective advocacy efforts.

Here is where you can help!

We limit our fundraising appeals to twice a year, and we never share or sell our mailing list. Please give generously.

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