Reading Room

Citizens Watch Newsletter October 2000

Senate Restrains NIF, Conference Committee Lets it Loose

by Marylia Kelley
for Tri-Valley CAREs' October 2000 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

The National Ignition Facility survived the budget ax this year, but just barely.

NIF foes succeeded in bringing the facility's proliferation risks, technical problems and still-hemorrhaging budget to the attention of Congress, marking the first time that the institution providing the funds truly noticed the mega-laser. This is a significant achievement that can be built upon and may yield positive results over the long haul, for many lawmakers did not like what they saw.

NIF advocates came away from the budget battle with a notable chunk of additional construction money, giving the beleaguered facility a much-needed shot in the arm, in their view. Certainly, the added funding does provide a respite for NIF - to the dismay of our organization and many others.

As reported in our July 2000 edition of Citizen's Watch, the NIF debate began in the House with a valiant effort led by Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), offering a last-minute amendment to cut NIF construction that lost on a voice vote.

The action then moved to the Senate. Several factors there allowed for a more penetrating look at NIF.

In August, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released its report. That study was highly critical of NIF and pegged its pre-completion costs at $4 billion. (See also the September 2000 Citizen's Watch and the new NIF postcards, available soon on our website.)

Too, a variety of issues held up the vote on Senate Appropriations, which served to give staffers and Senators alike a small piece of time in which to educate themselves on NIF. A number of them studied technical materials on the mega-laser from several sources, including DOE, Livermore Lab, GAO, Tri-Valley CAREs and other non-governmental organizations.

Two champions quickly emerged to restrain NIF, Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Harry Reid (D-NV). (See also excerpts from their speeches, below.)

Working with other Senate colleagues, they crafted an amendment to put a "cap" on NIF's construction budget, limiting it to the $74.1 million in the DOE's original budget request and slamming the door on an extra $135 million that DOE had begun seeking after the NIF cost overrun became public.

Additionally, the amendment required the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to undertake a study of NIF's technical difficulties and its utility (or lack thereof) for maintaining the safety and reliability of the arsenal. The NAS study was also to investigate alternative methods for achieving that goal, and to offer recommendations on whether NIF should be canceled or scaled back.

The powerful chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Pete Domenici (R-NM), concurred with their efforts. On September 7, the amendment to cap NIF construction passed the Senate on a voice vote.

Whenever differences exist between a House bill and a Senate bill, the matter goes to a special "Conference Committee" for resolution. Since the Senate had now placed a limit on NIF construction not found in the earlier House version, the Conference Committee was the next stop on NIF's wild ride.

At this point, the Conferees chose the wasteful and profligate spending path, offering NIF $199 million for construction in fiscal year 2001. Of that, $69 million will be held back pending NIF's compliance with specified milestones. Equally disappointing, however, was that the Conference Committee did not retain the Senate provision requiring the NAS study, allowing instead more of the "same old" wherein DOE will review itself to determine if NIF milestones are met. This leaves entirely too much room for DOE and Livermore to hide serious, ongoing problems with NIF and to manipulate the outcome of the reporting requirements.

While the $199 million is $10 million less than Livermore Lab and DOE had hoped to get, it is being touted by Livermore management as a victory for NIF. Ironically it will likely turn out to incur financial losses for the Lab overall. For, not all of the NIF construction funding is actually new money.

Forty million dollars is slated to come out of the NIF operating budget at Livermore Lab. In other words, this will constitute a lateral move from one Livermore pot of NIF money to another. Laser operators and other non-construction employees are generally paid out of the operating budget -- now to be gutted in favor of construction. No matter what the Lab PR staff says publicly, privately employees are worried.

Further, the Conferees directed Livermore Lab to take $25 million from its non-NIF programs as part of the deal to boost NIF construction. The Committee's report does not specify from which Livermore programs the cuts will come, apparently leaving DOE and Lab management to make that decision.

This may become a dark year indeed for Livermore Lab's smaller programs, especially those that have a significant civilian, rather than predominately military, application. Management is unlikely to look first to the subcritical nuclear testing program for NIF funds. Instead, astrophysics, geophysics, basic sciences and other, similar and already underfunded endeavors at Livermore Lab will feel the budget ax first, most keenly and with disproportionate pain.

So, rather than being a straightforward matter of NIF avoiding the ax this year, in reality it is more truly a deflection, a change in the angle of the ax's descent.

Suggested action: Call Reps. Paul Ryan & Dennis Kucinich and Senators Tom Harkin & Harry Reid to thank them for their efforts to bring some common sense and financial restraint to the NIF project. Let them know you care about cutting NIF and why. Otherwise, DOE and Livermore Lab managers will be the only voices they will hear. They can all be reached through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Quotes From the Senate

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Sept. 5, 2000 on NIF funding:

"Leaders from DOE and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab came to me at a time when many Members of the Senate, including Chairman [Pete] Domenici, were somewhat skeptical that NIF was actually needed. They assured me that NIF was absolutely vital to national security and that it would be brought in on time and within budget. Based on that, I came to bat for NIF and convinced many of my colleagues to support it. I regret it.

"In my estimation, DOE lied to me. They sold me a bill of goods and I am not happy about it. It is now several years later and the project is hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule... Enough is enough.

"There is plenty of skepticism in the scientific and national security community as to whether we will ever be able to get the information we need to certify our stockpile from NIF. I believe there are other, cheaper ways to get this job done and I think that it is time to go back to the drawing board and find a new path forward."

Senator Tom Harkin:

"As many of my colleagues are aware, this is a deeply troubled program. The General Accounting Office recently issued a report that detailed management turmoil, cost overruns, slipping schedules, and unsolved technical problems. I am deeply concerned that we will pour more and more money into NIF, money that could be used for other scientific purposes. NIF appears to be mostly a jobs program for nuclear weapons scientists.

"We have had a lot of problems with NIF. They have repeatedly tried to hide the true costs of the project. In fact, DOE and lab officials told GAO that they deliberately set an unrealistically low initial budget because they feared Congress would not fund a realistic one... They lied to us. They simply lied to us. They admitted it to GAO. Now they want more money. Is this what we reward?

"So what is this NIF? Why is it necessary?... It may be true that NIF would provide useful data for simulating nuclear weapons explosions. But we don't need that data to maintain the nuclear weapons we have today. For decades, we have assured the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons with a careful engineering program... We don't need a $4 billion facility at Lawrence Livermore to do what we are doing right now. We can and will continue these surveillance activities of our stockpile.

"The kind of detailed information on nuclear explosions that NIF could provide is needed only to modify weapons or design new ones. But we don't need to design any new nuclear weapons. ...but that is what they intend to do with it. ...NIF may itself be a proliferation threat."

-- From the statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) on September 7, 2000 on the floor of the Senate to introduce the amendment to limit funding for the construction of the National Ignition Facility.

New NIF Postcards

On this site you will find a set of 4 postcards following up on the August 2000 General Accounting Office audit of the National Ignition Facility. The GAO study shows that Livermore Lab & DOE officials engaged in deception, lies and cover-up of NIF's myriad problems. (See also last month's Citizen's Watch.) The postcards call for a criminal investigation into the NIF scandal. To use them, tear along the perforated lines and:

(1) Find the two cards marked Senator. Fill in their names. In CA, write Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. The cards are already addressed.

(2) Find the card marked Representative. Fill in your Congressperson. In the Livermore Valley, write in Ellen Tauscher. The card is already addressed.

(3) Fill in your address and sign all four.

(4) Put a 20 cent stamp on each & mail.

(5) Take a moment to appreciate that you have just done a good thing.

Thank you for helping us bring a measure of accountability for the lies, fraud & abuse that permeate the NIF program. Together, we will curtail this new nuclear weapons design facility. Call our office for additional cards. Bulk quantities for mailings, tabling and other events are available on request.

Secret Sites Poisoned in Atomic Quest

adapted by Maryia Kelley from a 3-part series in USA Today
for Tri-Valley CAREs' October 2000 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Lewis Malcolm began working at the steel mill in the 1930s and felt "lucky to have a job." In March 1948, the first rail cars full of uranium and thorium arrived at the Simonds Saw & Mill Co. in New York. Workers were told only that they would be rolling a "new metal." In fact, they made the fuel rods for the plutonium production reactors at Hanford.

"There was a lot of dust. We thought there might be problems... They always told us there was no danger," Malcolm explained.

Only weeks away from a painful and protracted death from kidney failure, Malcolm ruminated on his life recently, and said he "wasn't so sure" he had been lucky those many years ago.

"Most of the guys are dead now. Cancer, kidneys, lung problems, you see a lot of that," John Smith said of the workers at Ohio's Hanshaw chemical plant, where uranium was secretly processed during the 40s and 50s for the nuclear weapons program. Documents reveal that radioactive dust in the Hanshaw plant was measured at 200 times the safety limit of the day. Employee exposures ranged up to 374 times the then-allowed dose limit.

The U.S. employed a vast network of private companies in its quest to develop the atomic bomb, and in subsequent early-Cold War production. These secret sites were largely abandoned as the major government-owned, contractor-operated facilities of the nuclear weapons complex came on line -- Hanford, Savannah River, Rocky Flats, Livermore Lab and so on.

The contamination at these formerly-used, private sites was an official secret, the records documenting worker and community risks classified and hidden from those who were simply left to suffer the consequences. And, the poison legacy remains to threaten new generations.

USA Today, in a recent series from which this article is drawn, reported on nearly 100,000 pages of government records, many declassified for the first time. These documents show that the U.S. hired around 300 private companies in its early bomb production enterprise, and that nearly one-third of them handled large amounts of radioactive and toxic material even though basic protective equipment and information on hazards was often lacking.

While many of the biggest sites are in the Midwest, according to the Department of Energy some twenty of the 571 formerly-used bomb sites are in California.

Further, the records show that the government, on many occasions, sent its health physicists to document worker risks. They gave false assurances to the workers, and hid the results which often included exposures hundreds of times above the already-lax safety standards.

Also documented, and strictly classified, was evidence of widespread pollution of the air, soil and water around these private facilities.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, hired by USA Today to analyze worker dose records, called the situation "appalling," and said that the magnitude of the exposures calls into question the oft-held assumption that Soviet nuclear weapons production was more polluting than those same activities in the U.S.

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA), which assisted USA Today reporters in the investigation, called on the DOE to provide full information and compensation to all workers and communities that may have been harmed. (See also the related story on the Congressional debate over the substantially more limited compensation being considered for workers on page 3.)

ANA, a nation-wide network to which Tri-Valley CAREs belongs, also called on the government to provide a complete inventory of all toxic and radioactive materials used or currently found at all nuclear weapons sites - whether government or privately owned.

To the thousands whose lives have been put at risk, and to the unknown numbers who have paid the ultimate price -- loss of health and their very lives -- we owe no less than the whole truth.

To future generations, we owe adequate cleanup, our deepest apologies, and the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

Copies of the USA Today 3-part series are available from Tri-Valley CAREs' office on request.

Sick Workers Wait

by Marylia Kelley
from Tri-Valley CAREs' October 2000 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

While throwing millions more at NIF, the Conference Committee remains mired in debate over whether to compensate the workers made ill by exposure to toxic and radioactive materials in the nation's bomb factories and labs.

Some workers suffered acute exposure, some chronic. Some were "dosed" with excess radioactivity, some by hazardous chemicals. What they have in common is that they are sick and dying, and some are already dead. Many have problems with insurance and medical bills, leaving little to bequeath to a surviving spouse.

Earlier this year, DOE Secretary Bill Richardson reversed over a half-century of official agency denial, admitting that atomic workers had been put in harms way. The DOE proposed compensation for an estimated 3,000 past and present employees, a number that we said accounted for only a fraction of those made ill. Still, it represented an historic first step. (See our May 2000 Citizen's Watch for details on DOE's plan.)

Now, Congress appears reluctant to find even the start-up funding needed for the program. For weeks, conferees have debated the issue without resolution. Reportedly, the House Republicans on the Conference Committee are balking at the proposal's price tag of $1.7 billion over ten years.

State governors intensified a letter writing campaign in support of a compensation bill. Most recently, Gov. Gary Johnson (R-NV) wrote and urged passage of the proposal, calling it "long deserved." Gov. Gary Locke (D-WA) also weighed in on behalf of the program earlier in the week. The governors from Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and So. Carolina have sent missives to the Committee as well.

Meanwhile, the sick workers wait... and die.

Citizen's Alerts: Calendar Section

Sunday, October 15
"Rehearsing Doomsday"
7 PM Pacific Time, CNN
(check schedule for confirmation)

Produced by George Crile - whose prior documentary "The Missiliers" aired recently on 60 Minutes II - "Rehearsing Doomsday" promises a probing look at the nuclear stockpiles of both the U.S. and Russia. According to reports, the documentary will "expose the hypocrisy of current nuclear policy" through in-depth interviews with military leaders, field officers and key politicians. Activists and groups are encouraged to hold "house parties" and watch it together, write letters and "bird-dog" candidates by attending their campaign events and questioning them on disarmament issues.

Tuesday, October 17
An evening with Brian Watson
7:30 PM, Mt. Diablo Peace Center
55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek
(925) 443-7148 or (925) 933-7850

Brian Watson, a member of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Poulsbo, WA, was arrested last year blocking the Bangor Trident Submarine Base. The verdict: Brian's action were necessary and required to prevent nuclear war. This legal finding was based on U.S. treaty obligations, the Nuremberg principles and the recent World Court decision on the illegality of nuclear weapons. Come and hear Brian's inspiring story - and learn how this defense is being used in various places around the globe to curb nuclear weapons.

Thursday, October 19
Tri-Valley CAREs meets
7:30 PM, Livermore Library
1000 So. Livermore Ave.
(925) 443-7148 for details

New friends and old-timers alike are welcome. The agenda will include the latest on compensation for workers, the National Ignition Facility, the 571 newly-disclosed bomb production sites, the status of the public health assessment for Livermore, mini-nukes and much more. Refreshments, handouts, lively discussion, actions, volunteer opportunities and more will be available.

Thursday, November 2
Tri-Valley CAREs' study group offers "Nuclear Weapons and Your Health"
7 PM, Tri-Valley CAREs offices
2582 Old First St., Livermore
(925) 443-7148 for details

Everything you ever wanted to know about nuclear weapons and possible health effects but were afraid to ask. Join us for a presentation, questions and "round table" discussion. In the coming year, we will be hosting informal "study groups" approximately every other month. The goal? Take a single topic for the evening and delve into it deeply. Learn, share and enjoy pizza. Our next study group will look at the cleanup of Livermore Lab's site 300.

Back to Citizen's Watch Index