Reading Room

March 1999 Citizens Watch Newsletter

Livermore Lab's Plutonium Filters: Another Accident Waiting to Happen?

by Sally Light
from Tri-Valley CAREs' March 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Since December, 1998, Tri-Valley CAREs has received documents from the Department of Energy (DOE) concerning Livermore Lab's High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in its plutonium facility, called Building 332. These documents came in response to our April, 1998 request for information under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It is worth noting, however, that DOE did not provide any documents until we filed a FOIA lawsuit after waiting 9 long months (see, especially, the November 1998 Citizens' Watch for lawsuit details). It is increasingly clear, now, why DOE was so reluctant to release the documents to us.

These documents reveal a long history of serious problems associated with Bldg. 332's HEPA filters, which are supposed to protect Lab workers and the public by preventing the release of plutonium into the air.

Analysis of the documents we have received shows that at least one type of HEPA filter in Bldg. 332 is not totally qualified for nuclear applications. Further, HEPA filters, which are made by hand from glass paper and glue, may fail when wet, hot, cold, under too much air pressure, and/or when used beyond the recommended maximum of 8 years (some of Bldg. 332's filters are 20-30 years old!). Among the documents are many memos from Livermore Lab's own filter experts outlining a litany of serious technical concerns about the plutonium building's filter system and containing chilling warnings about potential and actual failures.

Other issues include problems with how to treat, store and dispose of old filters (encrusted with plutonium). The lack of knowing what to do with used filters may further encourage the unwise, over-long use of HEPAs at the Lab.

Some of the documents we received describe accidents that splattered plutonium around Bldg. 332, which includes many rooms and, in its entirety, covers most of four acres. One Lab memo acknowledges that HEPA problems allowed measurable plutonium releases to the outside air in 1979-80.

In general, a HEPA filter works on the same principle as the filter in a coffee maker, and, like fine grounds in the bottom of the coffee pot, some particles get through the HEPAs. Thus, even when operating perfectly, filters do not capture 100% of the plutonium. If the HEPAs are allowed to get old, crusty, brittle and failure-prone, as the ones in Bldg. 332 demonstrably are, then this may have implications as to one possible pathway by which plutonium has gotten into the surrounding community, including in Big Trees Park.

Further, there is a risk of major plutonium releases if a fire - always a risk with plutonium - occurs in Bldg. 332, causing the "blow out" of plutonium-laden filters when fire sprinklers turn on (this scenario is not just speculative, as a "blow out" of multiple HEPA filters did occur in the plutonium facility at DOE's Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado).

The documents we have also indicate that, historically, there has been little guidance from DOE headquarters as to HEPA filters for the entire nuclear weapons complex. Instead, each facility within the nationwide complex has largely been left on its own, although there are indications in the documents that both DOE and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board have begun showing more interest.

Livermore Lab memos also describe the long-standing inadequacy of DOE funding for research into both filter problems and their remedy. At least one memo shows a Livermore employee trying hard to juggle and stretch what little money there was in order to even partially address existing HEPA problems.

Tri-Valley CAREs will continue to monitor the serious HEPA filter conditions at Livermore Lab's plutonium facility, as well as other problems there, including the epidemic of plutonium criticality safety violations (please see several prior editions of Citizens' Watch for details on LLNL's safety violations, including a resultant months-long shut down of Bldg. 332 in 1997-98).

We also urge our readers to write Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson, 1000 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, D.C. 20585, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. 20515, as well as letters-to-the-editors, etc., demanding that Bldg. 332 be closed while an immediate, thorough, and open investigation of these serious risks to public health and the environment is undertaken.

De-Alert Nuclear Weapons in 1999? Here's How You Can Help

Tri-Valley CAREs and the nationwide Alliance for Nuclear Accountability have designated this month as Back from the Brink: Nuclear Weapons De-Alerting Action Month. We ask you to join us in efforts to educate ourselves and the public about the urgent need to de-alert the nuclear arsenal.

It's 1999, and still the U.S. and Russia remain ready to launch more than 5,000 nuclear warheads on less than half-an-hour's notice. This hair-trigger alert policy leaves the world at grave risk from nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.

We have developed an action kit to provide steps that you can take right away to help on this important issue. Through this focused effort we hope to raise public awareness about the potential for accidental nuclear war and pressure President Clinton to de-alert U.S. weapons and request that other nuclear weapons states take reciprocal actions this year.

We will have action kits at our March 25th meeting. And, please mail the four new postcards in this month's Citizen's Watch.

Time to De-Activate Nuclear Weapons

by Beatrice Brailsford

from Tri-Valley CAREs' March 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch -- offered as part of "Back From the Brink: De-Alerting Nuclear Weapons Action Month"

Nuclear war is less than fifteen minutes away. Far-fetched? In 1995 we came within four minutes. When Russian radar picked up a U.S. science rocket launched from Norway, the "black suitcase" that Boris Yeltsin would use to launch an attack was activated for the first time in history. 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.


Throughout the Cold War, both superpowers understood that their militaries' command-and-control centers would probably be destroyed when the first bomb fell. So if retaliation (as opposed to first strike) was going to occur at all, it had to occur after an enemy launch but before the first bomb fell. This hair-trigger posture is called launch-on-warning, and it remains in effect today. (The U.S. and Russia both say their weapons are now aimed out to sea. But it takes only seconds to return a missile to its original target.)

Re-targeted, nuclear-armed missiles can travel between Russia and the U.S. in about 25 minutes. It takes about 15 minutes to detonation if they're launched from off shore submarines. All in all, the U.S. and Russia are ready this evening to launch more than 5,000 nuclear warheads in half an hour. In the best case, the time needed for detection, communication, and command leaves a handful of minutes for the exercise of the judgment and integrity that might save the world.

De-Alert Nuclear Weapons

De-alerting, or de-activating, nuclear bombs increases the time needed to launch them-by hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. Physically altering bombs so they cannot be immediately launched can greatly reduce the risk of war by miscalculation and eliminate first strike threats and the risk of accidental nuclear war-even if a de-alerted bomb might stay in a country's arsenal for now.

There are a wealth of verifiable steps that can be taken to make the world a safer place as we move toward disarmament. A sequence of steps can steadily increase the time it takes to launch a warhead. Pinning open firing switches on missiles is a relatively easy way to de-alert them, but it's also difficult to verify and easy to reverse.

Storing warheads separately from their delivery systems at locations remote from them under multilateral monitoring would be more difficult to reverse because there would be political as well as technical barriers. The distance between a warhead and its missile can be increased as the world grows more confident that de-alerting lessens the nuclear danger. De-alerting, though, should not impede or replace nuclear disarmament. Instead, it can be carried forward in parallel with it and would be a concrete demonstration of the nuclear powers' commitment to the complete disarmament required by Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the U.S. has signed.

Post-Cold War Catastrophe

Nuclear war by accident or miscalculation has always been a real possibility. For instance, in 1979 and 1980, false alarms swept U.S. nuclear forces because of computer chip failure and human error. They could have led to a mistaken launch.

We are closer to inadvertent nuclear war today than we ever were during the Cold War. Russia is politically unstable, and its economy is in shambles. Its infrastructure continues to deteriorate, including its early warning and nuclear command systems as well as its nuclear forces and equipment.

Russia's current situation is not just Russia's problem. In the winter of 1995, Russia's detection and command systems, though stretched very thin, did not snap. If they had, the U.S. would have compounded a mistaken launch with one of its own. We would have had a nuclear war, not because of political conflict, but because of mutually reinforcing miscalculation-made in minutes.

The danger of accidental devastation may be increased considerably by the potential effects of Year 2000 computer problems on military radar and nuclear weapons command and control systems worldwide. This potential is only months away.

A Compelling Precedent

Today's nuclear dangers cry for bold steps now. There is a compelling precedent that the first step can be taken by the U.S.

In September 1991, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, President George Bush ordered a stand-down of U.S. strategic bombers, which had, for decades, been prepared to take off in minutes. Their bombs were later unloaded and stored. Some missiles were taken off alert in just a few days, and orders for some new weapons were canceled.

President Bush took these dramatic actions unilaterally, without even consulting Congress. They allowed President Mikhail Gorbachev to reciprocate within the week and garrison the Soviet Union's rail-based missiles, de-activate submarines, and lower the alert level of his country's strategic bombers. Within months, both nations had withdrawn most of their tactical weapons from forward positions (though the U.S. remains the only nation with nuclear bombs on foreign soil). A time of turmoil was made safer by two leaders' unilateral, reciprocal moves.

Let Reason Prevail

Last September, Tom Daschle (D-SD) posed this question to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate: "Reasonable people can only ask the obvious question: with the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War over for nearly seven years, how can the U.S. and Russia continue to be one bad call away from a nuclear disaster?"

The answer, too, is obvious. We can't. It's time to make the next move, and the U.S.-with the most powerful military on earth-can lead the way. All nations must begin de-alerting their nuclear weapons immediately. Every weapon in every arsenal must be subjected to at least one effective de-alerting measure as soon as technically feasible, certainly as far before the Year 2000 as possible.

Site 300: Risks and Remedies

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

Sitting in the hills between Livermore and Tracy, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab's site 300 appears at once pastoral and menacing. Inside the 11 square mile security fence are deer, San Joaquin Kit Fox, Large-Flowered Fiddleneck and natural springs. Also dotting the landscape are large bunker-like "magazines" housing exotic high-explosives and the gravel-lined firing pads where mock-ups of nuclear weapons are exploded.

Invisible, lying in the soil and groundwater, are the chemical pollutants: solvents like TCE, newly-discovered perchlorate, nitrates and RDX, a high-explosive compound. Moving unseen, as well, through soil and groundwater are the radioactive materials: uranium and tritium, forming a plume nearly 2 miles long and as yet uncontained.

Site 300 was placed on the EPA's Superfund list of worst contaminated sites in the country in 1990 (Livermore Lab's main site had already "joined" the list in 1987).

Because the Superfund law contains provisions for public involvement, this means that we folks in Tracy and the greater Bay Area have an opportunity to beneficially affect events at site 300.

How clean is clean? Should the site be returned as nearly as possible to its original state? Should the radioactive tritium plume be halted before it pollutes more groundwater? Should radioactive wastes in unlined dumps be isolated from the groundwater to prevent additional contamination? Should ongoing bomb activities at site 300 be allowed? Should the site be converted to peaceful, nonpolluting purposes? What percentage of Livermore Lab's annual budget of $1 billion should be devoted to remediating contamination at the main site and site 300? (Hint: currently it's around 2%.)

On March 18, you will have an opportunity to voice your opinion regarding the importance of cleaning up site 300, the level to which cleanup should be conducted and the implications of potential future contamination at the site. A public meeting will be held from 6 PM to 8 PM at the Tracy Public Library, 20 Eaton Street, in the Lincoln Park area of Tracy. The Lab will explain its recently published draft "Site-Wide Feasibility Study" for site 300 and then elicit your questions and comments.

Tri-Valley CAREs will be there with an information table. Come by, say hi to our members and staff and pick up handouts. Some brochures and fact sheets are available in both English and Spanish. Our technical advisor for the Superfund cleanup, Peter Strauss, will be on hand to answer questions. Rene' Steinhauer, our community organizer, will be available to assist with translation to Spanish for those who wish it.

For copies of our site 300 fact sheet, our Community Guide to the site or any other of our publications, call Roxanne Johnson at the Tri-Valley CAREs' office (925) 443-7148.

Citizen's Alerts

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' March 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch
Thursday, March 18
Public Meeting on LLNL Site 300 Cleanup
6 - 8 PM, Tracy Public Library
20 Eaton Ave., Tracy
(925) 443-7148 for details

Sponsored by Livermore Lab and the state and federal agencies overseeing the cleanup, this public meeting marks an important point in the process of dealing with the toxic and radioactive pollution at the site. The Lab has just produced a draft "Site-Wide Feasibility Study" to explain the various remedies being considered to clean up the massively contaminated soil and groundwater at site 300, some of which has migrated off site.

Your participation is needed to let the Lab and the agencies (e.g. EPA) know that you want to see the pollution cleaned up, and with the proper resources allocated to do the job right. See article on p. 2 for details. Tri-Valley CAREs' monthly meeting has been moved to one week later, March 25, to give our members an opportunity to attend this public meeting. We hope to see you there.

Thursday, March 25
Tri-Valley CAREs meets
7:30 - 9:30 PM, TVC office
2582 Old First St., Livermore
(925) 443-7148 for details

Please note the date and location change for this month's meeting. New friends and long-term members alike are welcome to participate. We will discuss de-alerting nuclear weapons, and will hear from Marylia Kelley who will be freshly-returned from a 4-day workshop in Washington, DC on this topic. We will have info and action kits and more to hand out. We will also move forward on our strategies for stopping new nuclear weapons projects at Livermore Lab and achieving genuine cleanup and conversion. Come and share info from the March 18 public meeting in Tracy and learn about upcoming events. Together, we are making a difference.

Thursday, April 1
Tri-Valley CAREs' mailing party
7 - 9:30 PM, TVC office
2582 Old First St., Livermore
(925) 443-7148 for details

Join us for an evening of socializing and sticking labels on newsletters. No experience necessary. The more volunteers, the more fun we have and the faster the work gets done!

Friday, April 2
"Good Friday" at Livermore Lab
Demonstration and Service
6:45 AM, gather at LLNL
East Ave. and Vasco Rd. (off I-580)
(510) 548-4141 or (510) 832-4347

The theme of this year's multi-denominational Good Friday observance is "Confessing the Idolatry of Our Nuclear Weapons." Cindy Pile will deliver the keynote address, and Earl Johnson will read some of his haiku. Marylia Kelley will offer an update on what's going on behind the Lab's barbed-wire fence. A procession to the main gate will follow, with those choosing to risk arrest kneeling, standing or sitting peaceably in the gate. After the service, refreshments will be served and informal workshops will then be held at Livermore Garden Apartments' Rec Room, 5720 East Ave., a short walk from Livermore Lab.

April 25 - 28
"DC Days" 1999
Sponsored by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability
(925) 443-7148 for details

Tri-Valley CAREs will send a contingent of community advocates to "speak truth to power" at the annual "DC Days," sponsored by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a network to which we belong. We will attend trainings on key issues of nuclear weapons and waste, form teams and embark on a whirlwind three days of visits with decision-makers in Congress, DOE, EPA, etc. Interested? Call Marylia Kelley for details. Please phone before March 22, as we want to lock in the cheapest air fare possible. Young activists are encouraged to participate. If under 18, bring a parent.

Getting Involved

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

Creating positive social change is a community affair, for every one's talents and skill are important. We each bring something valuable to give; our time and ourselves to name but two things. And, having given of ourselves, we each receive gifts of inestimable value in return; knowing that we are helping to bring peace and to heal the earth, to name two of these. So, how can one get more involved?

1. Come to a Tri-Valley CAREs' meeting, or, perhaps, to a mailing party.

2. Participate in a public meeting, demonstration or other event of your choice.

3. Become part of our newly-forming phone tree or fax tree. Or, receive action alerts from us by email.

4. Volunteer to help in our new office.

5. Write letters to the editor, or to Congress.

6. Donate money.

7. Your idea here.

What's most important is to choose an action that you feel good about, and then to follow through and DO it!

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