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Citizens Watch Newsletter December 1998


Nuclear Fuel Rods Coming in 1999

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Many years have passed since 1977 when General Electric closed its main reactor at the Vallecitos Nuclear Center following controversy over its location atop an active earthquake fault. Families in the pastoral triangle of Sunol, south Pleasanton and southwest Livermore had long-since become secure in that knowledge. Some planned to buy one of the new homes under construction near the Vallecitos site. After all, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) web page lists the facility as "closed down." Not quite.

Last month, the NRC approved the shipment of ten irradiated nuclear fuel rods from the Limerick, Pennsylvania nuclear power plant to Vallecitos. The shipment became known only when NRC uncharacteristically posted a short notice to its web page, mostly to tout the extensive security measures it had planned for the nuclear cargo.

Local journalists and Tri-Valley CAREs members saw it and began burning up the phone lines, calling NRC, GE, emergency responders and activist groups across the country.

A picture began to emerge; one that revealed Vallecitos to be an extremely secretive, very active facility. Since 1977, Vallecitos has been involved in more than 50 shipments of irradiated nuclear fuel rods, containing some 513 kilograms of solid radioactive fuel, and many rolling across the nation's highways from faraway places like Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania and Hope Creek, New Jersey. At least 11 of those shipments have come in the last 5 years alone. All without any public notification.

Problems delay shipment

The Limerick nuclear power plant encountered "minor problems" during the last week in November when it attempted to load the ten 12-foot long irradiated, also called spent, fuel rods into a shipping cask, according to an internal NRC report. "There were also believed to be some irregularities, so the operation was halted," the memo continued.

Due to these unspecified "problems" and "irregularities," coupled with an imminent, already-scheduled fuel reload at Limerick, the fuel rod shipment destined for Vallecitos will be delayed until 1999, the memo said. The NRC did not disclose, however, just how soon after the New Year that shipment might come.

Further, the NRC alluded to new efforts to identify and acquire different rods "to minimize any schedule slippages in the research program."

Why are they coming here?

According to the NRC, the GE Vallecitos facility "tests the feasibility of burning fuel in commercial reactors for a longer period than is the current practice." A GE official explained that the nuclear workers cut into the rods to check the plutonium levels and to search out any cracks or flaws. This is done at Vallecitos in "hot cells," special rooms lined with thick concrete walls.

The stated goal of the program at Vallecitos is to determine if the nuclear industry can save money by allowing power plants to change fuel rods less frequently. As fuel rods sit in nuclear reactors, they are bombarded by neutrons and some of the rod's uranium 238 ultimately becomes plutonium 239. Thus, fuel rods become progressively "hotter" and more radioactive the longer they are used in a reactor. This raises questions as to whether an eventual outcome of the research program at Vallecitos will be to cut the margin of safety at U.S. nuclear power plants.

Questions & concerns

Tri-Valley CAREs members have expressed serious concerns ranging from the transportation risks to the potential hazards of the research program to issues of nuclear waste storage on the earthquake fault-crossed Vallecitos site. Underlying all these matters, is our outrage at the fundamental lack of public notification and democracy.

Nuclear transportation is never risk-free. This nuclear shipment is slated to travel some of the nation's busiest freeways, including through Reno, Sacramento, Stockton and the Tri-Valley's 580/680 freeway interchange before arriving at Vallecitos, situated along highway 84.

According to the NRC, highway accidents with nuclear fuel rods have occurred, though the NRC says there have not been documented radioactive releases from them. Transportation casks have been found with inadequate welds and other problems. And, unpredictable situations- like the collapse of the Cypress freeway structure during the Loma Prieta earthquake- do happen.

Also, GE has inappropriately, and for too long, draped a thick veil of secrecy over its operations at the Vallecitos Nuclear Center. The company and the NRC owe it to the community to hold public meetings in Livermore, Pleasanton and Sunol to explain their nuclear research programs in detail.

We know from Dept. of Energy records that the "hot cells" that DOE owns at Vallecitos are severely contaminated and in need of cleanup. Will any of DOE's "hot cells" be used for this program? What is the total number of "hot cells" at the site? What other facilities will be used? How are the nuclear rods cut open? What kinds of analyses are performed? What are the waste streams from these extremely hazardous operations? How many nuclear rods will be used in the program overall? When will this program end? What is the potential health impact on workers and the public?

These and many other important questions are yet to be answered.

GE Vallecitos spokesperson, Lynn Wallis, inferred to reporters that the nuclear risks are short term, saying that "... all spent fuel rods in the country are supposed to be hauled away by the Dept. of Energy, which is developing a massive storage repository in Nevada." This futuristic reference is to the Yucca Mountain site where, despite DOE's hype, scientists have raised serious technical questions, including about potential earthquake activity and groundwater penetration. The Yucca Mountain site has not been formally chosen by DOE as a repository and, in any event, may never open.

Any nuclear rods transported to the Tri-Valley are likely to stay here for years, decades and, possibly, for many, many generations to come.

According to news reports, Vallecitos already has about 64 nuclear fuel rods on site - stored in canisters and kept secure by a fence and an alarm system! These rods contain, among other radioactive elements, weapons-grade plutonium with a half-life of over 24,000 years. If the presence of the Verona fault crossing the Vallecitos site made it unsafe for nuclear reactors to operate, does that not raise questions about the advisability of long-term storage of numerous irradiated nuclear fuel rods at the same location?

What you can do

#1 -- Write. We are launching a letter-writing campaign, demanding that public meetings be held in our communities. We have a right to be informed! Further, we have a basic democratic right to have a voice in the decision! Is this what we want on our freeways and in our valley? Please call us for a sample letter and a list of elected officials.

#2 -- Organize. We are working with other groups along the transportation route. Possible collaborations include a "mark the route" action. Call us for details.

#3 -- Speak out. Talk to your neighbors and friends. Give a group presentation, or invite us to help you with one. Commit your thoughts to paper by drafting a letter to the editor of your favorite paper.

De-Alerting: One Step Toward a Safer World

by Arjun Makhijani, with additional text by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

De-alerting is a generic term for deactivating nuclear weapons. It is one way to address urgent needs to reduce nuclear dangers in the immediate and short term. Specific techniques range from pinning open switches of missile motors to removing warheads from delivery systems, storing them, and putting them under international monitoring.

The elimination of first strike threats and of large-scale nuclear war by accident or miscalculation are some of the most urgent priorities for de-alerting. However, de-alerting should be carried out in such a way as to represent the clearest and most significant progress towards complete nuclear disarmament, in fulfillment of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In other words, partial de-alerting measures cannot be seen as ends in themselves, any more than dismantling some nuclear weapons can be a substitute for complete nuclear disarmament.

In the immediate term, de-alerting measures can proceed even without a prior commitment to nuclear disarmament since nuclear weapons can be returned to alert status. However, de-alerting all nuclear weapons will essentially eliminate the risk of large-scale accidental nuclear war, and greatly lower the risk of war by miscalculation. Therefore, de-alerting can allow for a nuclear weapons stand-down that will allow the political room and the time to achieve complete nuclear disarmament in a safe and verifiable way.

It can also allow for a process in which the five nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT can bring the other three nuclear weapons states into a process that neither denies the existence of their arsenals, nor legitimizes them. This is important, as stable maintenance of a state of complete de-alerting will require participation in verification by all eight nuclear weapons states. Specifically, a verifiable halt to production of new nuclear weapons will be required in order to prevent clandestine deployment.

However, there is ample room for unilateral actions. For instance, partial de-alerting does not require prior agreement on verification, and can be carried out in order to test verification procedures and build confidence...

Further, de-alerting measures are complementary to existing arms reduction processes, such as those which are occurring under START I and are scheduled to occur under START II. Most of the world's countries and many other leaders and NGOs have been insistently calling for nuclear disarmament, and de-alerting is widely seen as a crucial first step. For instance, the Canberra Commission endorsed de-alerting, as have retired U.S. Admiral Stansfield Turner (former CIA director), and General Lee Butler (former chief of the US Strategic Air Command).

The recent initiative by Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa, and Sweden calls on the nuclear weapons states: "...to abandon present hair-trigger postures by proceeding to de-alerting and deactivating their weapons. They should also remove non-strategic nuclear weapons from deployed sites. Such measures will create beneficial conditions for continued disarmament efforts and help prevent inadvertent, accidental or unauthorized launches."

-- excerpted from Science for Democratic Action, by Arjun Makhijani, October 1998.

De-Alerting: An idea whose time has come

As 1998 draws to a close, a national grassroots campaign is gathering steam to press President Clinton to de-alert the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the coming year, and to challenge other nuclear armed nations to follow suit.

While the concept of de-alerting has been discussed in policy circles for some time, several things are bringing this idea to the forefront now. First, we recently learned that in 1995 the world was less than 15 minutes from nuclear war. The U.S. launched a rocket on a scientific mission from Norway, and Russian radar detected it without knowing whether it was a nuclear assault. For the first time in history, the "black suitcase" that Boris Yeltsin would use to authorize a nuclear attack was activated. It took the Russians 8 minutes to decided it wasn't a U.S. nuke- less than 4 minutes before their launch-on-warning response deadline.

Second, we are discovering that nuclear systems are not only not exempt from possible Year 2000 computer problems, they are particularly complex and susceptible, and with potentially disastrous consequences. De-alerting nuclear weapons could provide the world with a margin of safety.

Inside this issue of Citizen's Watch, we have provided four de-alerting postcards for you and your friends to send to President Clinton. We have also put the postcard graphic and text on our web site for you to download and copy on card stock. Stay tuned for more information and additional grassroots actions in 1999.


Print Bites: All the News That Fits to Print

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

** Will of the World. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Dec. 4 in support of global nuclear disarmament. By a recorded vote of 114 in favor, 18 against and 38 abstentions, the member nations adopted a resolution titled "Toward a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-World: The Need for a New Agenda." The U.S. opposed the resolution and lobbied heavily against it. Other nations, such as Canada, counter-lobbied in its favor. Of note is that the resolution was drafted by traditional U.S. allies, such as Ireland, Sweden, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia and South Africa. Further, of the non-nuclear NATO countries from which the U.S. is accustomed to strong-arming support, only one voted with the U.S., while the others abstained. The UNGA also voted to affirm its support for the opinion of the World Court on the basic illegality of nuclear weapons, underscoring the Court's conclusion that there exists an obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not only to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith, but to bring those negotiations to a successful conclusion. The UN adopted this resolution by a recorded vote of 123 for, 25 against and 25 abstentions.

** Radioactive Pork for Christmas. DOE is expected to decide the week of Dec. 20th which option to pursue for production of tritium gas for the arsenal. Vested interests in South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee are lobbying hard for options ranging from an accelerator-based production scheme (with a price tag of $9.5 billion) to using a commercial reactor for a more modest several billion-dollar figure (and negating the long-standing U.S. prohibition against mixing civilian and military nuclear programs). And, Washington state lobbyists would have the gov't reopen a plutonium breeder for the job. Tritium is the explosive gas that increases the yield of modern nuclear weapons, and it decays at an annual rate of 5.5%. Thus, another option is to simply downsize the nuclear arsenal by that rather modest amount each year and recycle the tritium from dismantled warheads.

** Yucca Mountain & the Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved in the dispute over how, when and where to store thousands of tons of irradiated fuel rods from the nation's nuclear power plants. The rods are currently stored at 72 civilian power plants in 34 states, waiting for DOE to provide a disposal site. DOE has not approved a site and is studying the feasibility of Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Gov't lawyers told the Court the evaluation could be finished by 2001, and that waste could begin to flow in 2010.

** Yucca Mtn. & the People. Calling the proposed Nevada dump unsafe, more than 200 groups have banded together to ask DOE to disqualify Yucca Mountain as a repository for high-level nuclear waste that will include radionuclides with half-lives of tens of thousands of years. The groups cited DOE's own research showing that rainwater less than 50 years old has been detected at the level of the proposed repository, and that large amounts of radioactivity would become dispersed over time. Additional concerns include seismic and volcanic activity and human intrusion. Moreover, the site is on Western Shoshone ancestral lands.

** Victory at Sierra Blanca. Activists on both sides of the U.S. - Mexico border united to defeat this proposed, low-level nuclear waste dump in Texas. Congratulations to all.

Action Alert: Subcritical Nuke Test

from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The final dress rehearsal, called a "dry run," for the subcritical nuclear test code-named Cimarron is scheduled for Wed., Dec. 9, at the Nevada Test Site, according to the Dept. of Energy Nevada Operations Office. So, as you read this issue of Citizen's Watch, the test will either be imminent, or it will have just been detonated. Call us at (925) 443-7148 to get the latest news.

Then do one or more of the following:

1) Immediately call and fax protest messages to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Call (202) 586-6210 or (202) 586-5806. Fax to (202) 586-4403 or (202) 586-1567.

2) Call Clinton at (202) 456-1111.

3) If the test has not yet taken place, join us in a demonstration at NOON on the day of the test at the Bechtel Headquarters in San Francisco at 50 Beale Street, just off Market and near the Embarcadero BART Station. Bechtel manages the Nevada Test Site for DOE.

NOTE: Since this action alert was written, and after several schedule changes due to "technical problems," the U.S. detonated Cimarron -- its fifth subcritical nuclear test -- on Friday, December 11th . Russia, likewise conducted a subcritical nuclear test at its test site in Novaya Zemlya. Protest calls and letters to the numbers above are needed. Thank you.

Legal Briefs

from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

+ We are pleased to say that we have a "settlement in principle" in our lawsuit against DOE over the agency's lack of programmatic review for its plans to clean up the nuclear weapons complex, including Livermore. We expect to make a happy announcement with the terms of a final settlement later this week.

+ In a separate action, we chose to file our Freedom of Information Act suit against DOE for its failure to provide information on the Livermore and Los Alamos Labs in federal court in Oakland, CA, rather than in New Mexico. We are awaiting DOE's response to our charges.

We're grateful

by Ester Soriano
from Tri-Valley CAREs' December 1998 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

This is the time of year when we acknowledge your tremendous support in providing Tri-Valley CAREs the resources to continue its work for peace, justice and a healthy environment. By now, if you are a subscriber to Citizen's Watch, you have probably received our Fall appeal letter announcing our exciting move to a more community-accessible site in downtown Livermore. Because we want your participation now more than ever, we invite you to join with us at our new office and help us to move our initiatives forward. If you have not yet made your gift, we would deeply appreciate your generous consideration today, especially in light of the increased expenditures we have had to cover as a result of our relocation.

Generous support this past year has enabled our presence to be felt in areas that are of deep concern to our community -- opposing continued nuclear weapons activities at the Livermore Lab; publicizing the increased health risks of radiation exposure, especially to children in our community; advocating for cleanup of pollution at Livermore Lab and in our neighborhoods; protecting the rights of the public to obtain information and to participate in decisions that affect all our lives, and much more. We are keenly aware of your trust in Tri-Valley CAREs to represent your concerns on these and other issues -- a fact we never forget.

In this, our 15th anniversary year, we wish you and your family peace and joy, and we thank you in advance for your continuing support.

Foundation Funders

This past year our foundation funders have been especially generous. Thanks to the continuing interest and support of the following foundations, who ensured our effectiveness this past year: W. Alton Jones Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, Vanguard Public Foundation, The John Merck Fund, Rockefeller Financial Services, Inc., The San Francisco Foundation, and the Ruth Mott Fund. Our efforts could not continue without their generosity and abiding interest in our work.

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