Reading Room

Citizens Watch Newsletter October 1999


National Ignition Facility: Over Budget and Under Fire

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

The Dept. of Energy has admitted that the National Ignition Facility (NIF), under construction at Livermore Lab, is $300 million over budget and a year (or more) behind schedule, as reported in last month's Citizen's Watch. NIF is intended to produce laser-induced nuclear fusion explosions in a reactor.

According to staff scientists in the labs, NIF has severe,  underlying technical difficulties that hamper the development and production of even some of its most fundamentally necessary parts. Some of these deficiencies may be "show stoppers."

DOE and Livermore Lab's official pronouncements attempt to paint a different picture. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson angrily criticized Livermore Lab in early September, saying the Lab had hidden NIF's financial problems from him. But, he then tried to blame the whole fiasco on mismanagement. Moreover, while Richardson vowed to put together an "independent panel" to look into the situation, he has yet to announce the panel's membership or charge.

Subsequently, DOE and Livermore management have tried shopping the story around that NIF's woes are all because scientists didn't realize that construction causes dust. It's not that delivery - to specification - of laser glass is mired in doubt. The only problem is the Lab's sudden discovery that NIF will require a "class 100" clean room for installation of the glass parts, goes this story. There's your cost overrun and schedule delay, says top management.

A number of knowledgeable Lab scientists laughed out loud when asked about NIF's clean room "problem." It turns out that Livermore employed a class 100 clean room back in the mid-1980s in order to install the glass for NIF's predecessor, the NOVA laser - whose purity requirements were significantly less strenuous. No surprises there, say workers.                

Congress starts inquiries

The House Science Committee has formally asked that  its chief investigative arm, the General Accounting Office,  undertake a thorough review of NIF's cost overruns and how, when and where management tried to hide them, NIF's failure to meet target dates and its technical and other problems.

The House and Senate Conference Report on the government's Fiscal Year 2000 budget contains sharp language requiring Secretary Richardson to submit "a new cost and schedule baseline" for NIF before  June 1 of next year. And, if DOE  misses the deadline, it "should prepare an estimate of the costs necessary to terminate the project," says the report.                

Lab reveals its fall-back position

Most recently, Livermore and DOE management have proposed to "downsize" NIF, from 192 laser beams to 96. However, the 96-armed NIF would still add about $100 million to the NIF's Congressionally approved construction budget of $1.2 billion. Moreover, the 96-armed beast would not meet NIF's current construction schedule either. The Lab's own estimates have the pared-down NIF coming on line in 2004, still a full year behind schedule. In this "rap," DOE and Lab management speak of coming back later and finishing up the NIF by 2008 with additional Congressional appropriations.

The NIF's problems serve to focus attention on NIF's nuclear weapons mission. George Miller, head of the weapons program at Livermore Lab, is the new, acting laser chief as well. And, while a 96-beam laser may achieve sufficient energies, temperatures and densities to meet most of the desires of the weapons program, it would forego, for certain, the scientific goal of "ignition" for which it is named. Nature, a renowned, international science journal summed it up neatly: NIF is a "sandbox" for weapons designers, it said.


Criticality Accident in Japan Revives Memories at Livermore

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

On the morning of Sept. 30, workers at the Conversion Test Building, JCO Ltd., in Tokaimura, Japan poured about 35 pounds of 18.8% enriched uranium in solution into a tank designed to handle 5.2 pounds. Workers saw a blue flash as the mixture went "critical," undergoing a runaway nuclear chain reaction. Three workers were severely irradiated, two began drifting in and out of consciousness. Forty-six others were also irradiated, and are under observation. 150 were evacuated, and 310,000 residents were told to stay sealed up indoors. The nuclear chain reaction was not brought under control until the evening of Oct. 1. Fission products most certainly escaped into the surrounding area.

Instantly, news reports in the U.S. contained statements by DOE and other nuclear industry spokespersons to the effect that "it can't happen here." In fact, criticality accidents can occur -- and have -- in the U.S., thirty three of them (out of 60 worldwide). Nuclear processes are generally complex, involving the performance of multiple steps -- during which any number of mishaps could trigger an accident.

The following is a brief summary of one such criticality accident, the result of a Livermore Lab weapons experiment gone awry.

On March 26, 1963 four weapons scientists were performing a "stepwise" neutron multiplication experiment, moving pieces of enriched uranium progressively closer together on a mechanical assembly in a vault, while viewing it from a nearby room. The multiplication began normally enough. Suddenly, and without warning, the assembly went "prompt critical."

The sounds of an explosion reverberated through the intercom. The television screen went blank for a few moments, then  came back on - showing flames. Pieces of uranium were "melting and breaking apart," according to the account in Health Physics, vol. 10, 1964. Of the approximately 104 pounds of uranium involved in the experiment, 22 pounds melted all over the floor of the vault and 33 pounds burned.

Alarms sounded, and the four workers ran outside. Lab staff worried about a second criticality as the enriched uranium burned out of control. More than 12 hours later, the Lab attempted to "recirculate" air from  the vault, but had to stop after 2 minutes. It was not until the following day that Lab workers were able to enter the vault to better evaluate the potential for further criticality explosions in the molten metal.  

Three days later, on April 1, "cleanup" operations began inside the vault. (See the accompanying story that follows.)

A First-Hand Account of the Aftermath of the 1963 Livermore Criticality

by Jack Truher
from Tri-Valley CAREs' October 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

In 1963, I was a young experimental criticality physicist whose office was a few steps away from the radiation vault in which the accident occurred.

Initial cleanup involved removal of radiative debris and components from the combustion of some 103 pounds of enriched Uranium, plus burned Beryllium and graphite components.

After bulk removal was complete, I worked for a few hours in the vault in full rubber radiation protection gear, breathing filtration, etc. Untrained for such cleanup, I was among a small contingent of young staff, mostly professionals, who were handed buckets and brushes and ordered to scrub down radioactive residue from damaged or complex experimental apparatus. Each of us could only work in this environment for perhaps 45 minutes per day without exceeding radiation standards. Our efforts were almost completely futile. After a few days of such wasted effort, management became aware that they had no effective scrubdown plan. Some staff (not me) began a pattern of not appearing ...

My last appearance in the contaminated vault was interrupted when a 55 - 60 year old radiation safety veteran appeared in the vault without any protective equipment. Without saying a word, he removed his trousers and shirt, throwing them over some bars in a distant corner of the radiation vault. Dressed only in his underwear, the silent veteran turned on the wall-mounted, emergency fire hose at high pressure, spraying a robust stream of water directly on the blackened apparatus, the surrounding walls, etc. He was immediately drenched in radioactive water and traces of black Uranium oxide. The resulting runoff water drained to what appeared to be an industrial floor drain. I assumed then that this runoff drain led to the public sewer or municipal storm drainage system. I was not aware of any contained sumps for this building -- although their existence was possible...

Confronted with what I viewed as reckless cleanup behavior, I removed myself from the radiation vault. I was never rescheduled to assist further with the cleanup. No further communications were made to me about any aspect of the cleanup.

End Note:  An article in a 1964 Health Physics journal is the only unclassified account of the criticality accident known to exist. It was written by Livermore Lab staffers who suggested the cleanup was unremarkable, stating, for example, on p. 191, "The off-site environment was in no way compromised by the excursion."   Jack Truher believes this report may amount to a "cover up."


Print Bites: All the News That Fits to Print

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

*** The Re-Disorganization of DOE. Committing a blunder that will have far-reaching effects, Congress passed a bill to "reorganize" the Dept. of Energy by giving the weapons program an elevated, semi-autonomous status and a new name -  the National Nuclear Security Administration. The "new" agency will oversee its own environment, safety & health,  just like it did in the bad-old-days when it was called the Atomic Energy Commission. This is progress? In the end, our Rep., Ellen Tauscher, disappointed us by actively opposing the efforts of her fellow Democrats in the Commerce Committee to stop this bad bill from becoming law. We are planning future actions to try and counter this abysmal piece of legislation. Stay tuned.

*** Plutonium "is Just All Right With Me." The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has released a draft report analyzing potential "pathways" by which the plutonium got from Livermore Lab to Big Trees Park, about 1/2 mile west of the Lab. Among other deficiencies, ATSDR used data sets provided to them by Livermore Lab and ignored other data sets, such as the 1995 soil testing done in the park jointly  by EPA, the Dept. of Health Services and the Lab. ATSDR concludes the most likely "pathway" is neither airborne nor waterborne (via a nearby creek that also cuts across the Lab) but, instead, is the result of some unknown person applying plutonium contaminated sludge he or she picked up from the city sewage treatment plant. To add insult to injury, ATSDR concludes that no further action is necessary. If you would like a free copy of a 4-page fact sheet prepared by Tri-Valley CAREs, Western States Legal Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility - just give us a call. We can also provide a copy of ATSDR's draft report. (Public comment on the report is due in October.)

*** It's Hypocritical. Livermore Lab detonated its fourth "subcritical" nuclear test deep underground at the Nevada Test Site on Sept. 30. It was the seventh such test conducted by the U.S., blasting plutonium with high-explosives in an alcove 960 feet below-ground. The DOE press release called the test, "fully consistent with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." Yet, when Russia recently responded to U.S. subcritical tests with a series of similar experiments at  Novaya Zemlya, many Republican Senators in the U.S. glommed on to them as a reason (excuse) why we should not ratify the CTBT. Can anyone phone these Senators and say "hypocritical"?  Moreover, the Livermore test was code-named Oboe 1 to signal that the Lab intends to detonate more of the same, five or more over the next 12 months. Tri-Valley CAREs' Sally Light organized a spirited nonviolent protest on the day of the test. To find out what you can do today -- please see  our CTBT action alert in this newsletter.

*** Radioactive Zippers, Anyone? DOE has contracted with British Nuclear Fuels Limited Inc. (BNFL) to haul, scrub and recycle radioactively-contaminated nickel from the Oak Ridge Nat'l Lab in TN. Further, BNFL Inc. is reported to have a scrap metal contract for DOE's Paducah, KY plant where 60,000 tons of the contaminated metal sits outside in mountainous heaps. Concurrently, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is holding hearings geared toward choosing a level below which radioactively-contaminated scrap can be released for recycling nationwide. Because NRC memos indicate the agency has pre-determined the general outcome, and is not open to rethinking the wisdom of radioactive scrap recycling, Tri-Valley CAREs and other public interest groups across the country are boycotting the NRC process.


 Opportunity Abounds!

from Tri-Valley CAREs' October 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

+  Tri-Valley CAREs' Board of Directors is looking for a few good (hearted) men -- and women. The Board guides Tri-Valley CAREs' organizational development and oversees its fiscal health. Requirements include a genuine desire to help the group succeed; knowledge of -- or willingness to learn -- how to read a basic budget; and, the ability to work cooperatively. Board members are Janis Kate (President), Francis Macy (Secretary), Martha Priebat (Treasurer), Don King and  Marylia Kelley. Board training is our commitment to you. Can you commit to quarterly meetings and thoughtful participation? Call  Janis  at (925) 443-4372 or Marylia at (925) 443-7148.

+  Tri-Valley CAREs welcomes a new addition to its staff-- Administrative Assistant, Ann Seitz. Ann is a long-time peace and justice advocate, and brings numerous skills and ideas to the group. Call her at (925) 443-7148 and say "Hi."

+  Tri-Valley CAREs has enjoyed the good fortune of wonderful interns, most recently 13 year-old Erek Dyskant. Erek will soon be moving to Illinois and new adventures. During his internship, Erek created a new, searchable data base for our thousands of files. Do you have a skill you would like to donate? Do you need college credits as an intern? Call us!

+  Tri-Valley CAREs seeks an experienced fundraiser with a background in grant writing and major donor campaigns. Position is contract,  can be long-term and hours are flexible. If you are that person, call Marylia at (925) 443-7148 for further information.


Citizen's Alerts

from Tri-Valley CAREs' October 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

October 8 - 11
Healing Global Wounds
Nevada Test Site gathering
(702) 647-3095 (760) 852-4175

Join the Western Shoshone in demanding an end to nuclear poisoning of their traditional lands. Network with activists against Yucca Mountain, WIPP, subcritical nuclear testing and more. Start each day with a sunrise ceremony at the campsite. Test site/Yucca Mountain action planned for Oct. 11.

October 9 - 11
Abolish Nuclear Weapons
U.S. and Native Nations' Organizing Conference
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(925) 443-7148 for details

The U.S. Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons extends a warm invitation to all abolitionists to attend the long-awaited national organizing conference. The goal is to develop a coordinated and effective campaign, drawing on all elements of the anti-nuclear movement. The conference will build on the Mission Statement and Declaration adopted by over 60 groups at the Santa Barbara meeting last Feb. For details, call Sally Light or Marylia Kelley at the number above.

Wednesday, October 20
Nuclear Fuel Rods
Public Meeting, 7 PM-9 PM
Shrine Event Center
170 Lindbergh Ave.
(near Livermore Airport)
(925) 443-7148 for details

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the GE Vallecitos nuclear facility are sponsoring this public meeting-due to pressure from Tri-Valley CAREs, Alameda County and others-to get answers to the public's questions.  NRC and GE plan to truck 10 irradiated nuclear fuel rods to Pleasanton this Nov. Further, this is just one part of an ongoing project, with more nuclear fuel to come. Please see the enclosed flier for details. Come to the meeting, and bring your questions!

Thursday, October 21
Tri-Valley CAREs meets
7:30 PM, Livermore Library
1000 So. Livermore Ave. (at Pacific)
(925) 443-7148 for details

Contribute to creating peace, justice and a healthy environment by joining Tri-Valley CAREs. New and long-time members alike are welcome-and needed. Our meeting agenda will focus on NIF, plans to bring more plutonium to Livermore, what the accident in Japan means to our work and more.

Saturday, October 23
Abolition 2000 No. CA gathering
10 AM-4 PM, Hart Senior Center
915-27th St., Sacramento
(916) 443-4553 for details

Come and help us move forward with regional activities to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Food, strategies, stories and a report back from the U.S. abolition conference will be included. Bring a bag lunch and a cup.

Upcoming in November
Public Hearing on NIF
Between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16
(925) 443-7148 for information

Despite our repeated calls, the Dept. of Energy still has not chosen a date for a court-mandated public hearing on the National Ignition Facility (NIF). DOE will say only that it is "likely" to hold the hearing between Nov. 10 and Nov. 16.  DOE is under a judge's order -- issued in the lawsuit brought by Tri-Valley CAREs and 38 other plaintiff groups -- to conduct a "Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement" on NIF construction and operation. A  public hearing is part of this process.

As we go to press, DOE proposes to release the draft report "maybe next week" and to hold the hearing in the Nov. 10 - 16 time frame. This means we will have precious little time to  publicize the hearing date. Please help by: (1) calling our office with your email address so we may add you to our action alert list; and (2) checking your Nov. Citizen's Watch as soon as you get it-the hearing could be imminent. Thanks.

**Update -- As of October 25 -- DOE still has not released the draft environmental report and now says the NIF public hearing will be in early December -- date still not certain. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 1
Town Meeting
"Radiation and Risk"
7 PM-9 PM, City Council chamber
3575 Pacific Ave., Livermore
(925) 443-7148 for details

Mark your calendar now. Tri-Valley CAREs, Western States Legal Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility are sponsoring this important event. We have invited some of the country's top experts on radiation risk and how to assess it. This  Town Meeting follows last year's successful series, "Radiation and Your Health." If you have questions, concerns, or simply an interest in how radiation affects us-and how various agencies calculate risks-this event is for you. Details forthcoming in the Nov. edition of Citizen's Watch.

December 30-January 2
"Millennium 2000: Walking the Ways of Peace"
Religious action for disarmament
Las Vegas and Nevada Test Site
(702) 646-4814 for details

Nevada Desert Experience is sponsoring this  event featuring speakers, workshops and a midnight, Dec. 31, candlelight procession onto the test site.

Late-Breaking News

from Tri-Valley CAREs' October 1999 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Our friend, Natalia Mironova, leader of the Movement for Nuclear Safety in Chelyabinsk, Russia has been arrested along with 4 students in a protest against the importation of nuclear waste. The activists filled a bathtub with water and "radioactive" fish (to symbolize nearby, polluted Lake Karachai). Seems our friends performed this "play" at the entrance to the governor's office in Chelyabinsk. They also presented thousands of signatures on petitions. The action attained its goal of bringing public attention to the problems of radioactive waste, states the MNS press release. Photographs are available on the web at www.chat.ru/-bureau.

A radioactive leak inside a South Korean nuclear power plant exposed 22 workers to radiation. The accident spewed about 12 gallons of "heavy water" around the facility, according to the Korean government's report.

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