volume 1, issue 2
of nuclear watch of new mexico
Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire!
Cerro Grande Fire Illuminates Past and Present Dangers at Los Alamos Lab
A century's worth of fire suppression in the forests around Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) created ever-increasing risks of catastrophic wildfire. The Cerro Grande Fire of May 2000 was preceded by the 1976 La Mesa Fire, the 1996 Dome Fire and the 1998 Oso Fire. In 1998, the Espaņola District U.S. Forest Service published a report predicting catastrophic wildfire as a virtual certainty, and recommending extensive forest management estimated to cost less than $2.5 million. In contrast, the total cost of fighting the Cerro Grande Fire, area rehabilitation and property damage will easily top $1 billion.
LANL management had known for a number of years that wildfire was the "#1 threat" to the laboratory. Mission prioritization did not lend itself to ensuring that LANL's own security was enhanced against this threat. [LANL's budget for nuclear weapons has doubled since 1991 to over $900 million; environmental management programs have remained essentially flat. Please see p. 3.] Moreover, the lab never really saw fit to adequately clean up its contaminated canyon bottoms - hence the current threat to the Rio Grande from potential contaminant migration. [A DOE Inspector General's report found that of over $350 million spent on lab environmental restoration between '91 and '95, only 21% had been spent on actual cleanup.]
In a 1998 draft site-wide environmental study for continued lab operations - the only substantive opportunity for public comment on LANL's future mission - DOE completely ignored the threat of wildfire. Only in response to citizen comment did the final study address wildfire. The lab then took some measures (such as cutting fire lanes and clearing vegetation) to protect facilities, without which the fire could have wrought even more havoc. When the fire did break out on LANL, it eerily matched the wildfire scenario modeled in the final environmental study.
The Cerro Grande Fire was started on the evening of May 4, 2000, with the ill-fated prescribed burn in Bandelier National Park. Winds quickly pushed it out of the prescribed area, spreading rapidly in a northeastern direction. From May 7 to 10, winds were somewhat moderate, raising hopes that the fire could be held at bay at the lab's western boundary. On the tenth, however, wind speeds increased dramatically, pushing sparks a mile in advance of the fire's edge into the heart of LANL and the Los Alamos townsite, where it continued to burn until the 17th. [On the 12th, even the waste dumps at Technical Area 54 on the eastern lab boundary were threatened, but fortunately did not burn.] For the first time ever, routine lab operations were suspended (from May 8 to May 23).
As the fire entered the lab and the public became increasingly concerned, LANL public relations immediately claimed that there could be no possible health threats in the fire's smoke plume that could be attibuted to lab-produced materials. That claim was made in advance of analysis to identify specific radioactive isotopes, the prerequisite for calculating potential doses. Data from radioisotopic analysis was not available until a full two and a half weeks after the height of the fire. Gross counts of alpha radiation were detected at levels ten times above background, but this appears to be from natural radioisotopes released by the fire. [However, NWNM believes that independent technical experts should verify available data.] Additionally, the lab did not use any aerial radiation surveys that could have given the public timely and useful emergency information, relying instead on the existing ground-based perimeter monitors. Furthermore, firefighters (other than the Los Alamos County Fire Department) were not given dosimeters to measure occupational doses.
Similarly, lab officials have stated that there is no possible public health threat from contamination in accelerated stormwater runoff. Over three hundred "potential release sites" (i.e. contaminated areas) were affected by the fire, and an undisclosed number of firing sites (which can be littered with depleted uranium shrapnel). Because the uphill slopes have been stripped of vegetation, stormwater runoff in the canyons is expected to be tens of times above normal, thus potentially capable of scouring out contaminants for transport to the Rio Grande. Two nuclear facilities at the lab are now believed to be at risk of flooding.
In response to emergency conditions, DOE has waived the normal process for public comment on major federal actions that is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Instead, DOE will prepare a special environmental analysis of known and potential impacts of the fire and of flood control activities, to be available by September 2000 for public comment. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is constructing a controversial 70-foot-high, $6.3 million dam in Pajarito Canyon (in endangered species habitat) that the lab's own flood models don't show to be necessary. Furthermore, DOE and LANL have yet to formulate a comprehensive master plan to manage all fire rehabilitation activities, which are expected to cost over $300 million.
LANL was not the only DOE facility to experience wildfire this year. The highly polluted Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State had nearly 200,000 acres of grasslands burn in late June. Many other DOE sites are vulnerable to fire. For example, at the Oak Ridge Lab in Tennessee, highly enriched uranium remains stored in old wooden buildings.
Geologic Disposal: Outdated Concept, Far-reaching Consequences
As community activists steer into the wind, rounding the horn of the year 2000, it's useful to know what sea changes we navigate. In 1999, Great Britain and Germany rejected previous policies and put geologic disposal of radioactive waste on hold. In the same year, the United States first approved and then opened the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant here in New Mexico. Not only has the United States taken the lead by opening the first permanent nuclear disposal facility, but we have also adopted the radical position that permanent, irretrievable disposal of nuclear waste is safe.
To date, every other country that plans to dispose of plutonium-contaminated waste underground has a retrieval program that would allow the waste to be unearthed in around 300 years. Their policies are based on the belief that new scientific and technological advances may radically alter our present views on waste disposal.
Because WIPP waste is intended to remain inside the self-collapsing facility forever, this experiment has been the subject of impassioned debate for many years. If you're new to the WIPP issue, we'd love to fill you in on the critical items of interest, which include (among others):
We have fact sheets that discuss these topics; we're continuing to update the information that's available on our website www.nukewatch.org; and we'll address WIPP in detail in our upcoming book, Nuclear New Mexico.
Nuclear Weapons Spending Goes Up, Up, Up
"Cold War II" quietly waged against US taxpayers and the environment
The graph pictured above is shocking for two reasons. First, it highlights the emphasis our nation places on researching and producing nuclear weapons over its commitment to cleaning up the Cold War legacy of nuclear waste. In real dollars, funding for weapons programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) alone has doubled from $450 million following the fall of the Berlin Wall to a present level of $950 million, while cleanup appropriations have fallen from a relative "high" in 1994 of $100 million to just $80 million today.
Second, and perhaps more disturbing, the graph shows how invested our country is in the preservation and development of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear advocates would have us believe that the financial commitment to these weapons is a national defense imperative that can exist side by side with our commitment to global non-proliferation. However, a brief review of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that our country signed in 1969 is instructive. The NPT mandates serious negotiations among the nuclear weapons signatory countries (Great Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union and the U.S.) leading to total nuclear disarmament. In exchange, signatory states without nuclear weapons promise to never acquire them. This fundamental bargain has been the cornerstone of global non-proliferation.
Yet thirty years after the NPT, weapons states still have not entered into serious disarmament talks and the non-signatory states Israel, Pakistan, and India have developed and tested nuclear weapons. [India has long complained of the discriminatory nature of the NPT while the weapons states have still not moved towards disarmament. Pakistan, in turn, conducted nuclear weapons tests because India did.] We are now at a pivotal juncture that will define whether the world has a real chance to work toward total disarmament or whether the world will revert to a new nuclear arms race.
In this defining moment, the U.S. commitment to nuclear weapons will weight the balance toward a new nuclear arms race. How can other countries believe in a U.S. commitment to nuclear disarmament in the face of the following facts? The U.S. failed to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby signaling to the world that we possibly intend to develop and test new nuclear weapons. Congress is now considering lifting its ban on R&D for new, low-yield nuclear weapons (which are inherently more dangerous because they are more likely to be used). Looking closer to home, LANL plans to invest $4.56 billion in new nuclear weapons facilities and support infrastructure over the next 10 years. LANL is planning on a "nuclear campus" that would involve construction of an $865 million advanced plutonium lab, consolidation of 2.4 tons of plutonium and 3.6 tons of highly enriched uranium, more "robust" storage for plutonium pits, and the rerouting of publically accessible roads in order to expand the classified nuclear weapons area. Couple this with LANL's plans to upgrade its supercomputers and advance its subcritical nuclear weapons testing capabilities and it becomes clear that LANL will have the most advanced capability in the world to design the new nuclear weapons that the U.S. is now apparently contemplating.
Albert Einstein said: "The release of atom power has changed everything but our way of thinking....The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If I had only known, I should have been a watchmaker." As taxpayers and citizens, we have a choice to make. We can stand by and allow our country to pursue policies that will surely defeat international efforts to promote disarmament, or we can oppose the programs that propose new nuclear arms research, development and production.
WHAT TO DO! (this month)
Wednesday, August 9 (Nagasaki Day): Nuclear Weapons Protest
Rally and March
The Senate Defense Authorization Bill contains a "mini-nuke" provision (Section 1018) requiring DOE and the Department of Defense to study "options for defeating hardened and deeply buried targets." This means research on development of new low-yield nuclear weapons (which are inherently more dangerous because they are more likely to be used). Such research has been legislatively barred since 1994.
Support for these weapons comes from some senior Republican senators and weapons lab officials. Sandia Lab Director Paul Robinson has publicly said that "[t]he U.S. will eventually need a new, low-yield nuclear weapon." The House version of this bill contains no such provision requiring "mini-nuke" research. Committees of the House and Senate will meet to reconcile differences between the two versions.
We need you to protest any research into new nuclear weapons. Think of the international example this will set! Please call Senator Pete Domenici's office (202/224-6621 or 505/988-6511) and Senator Jeff Bingaman's office (202/224-5521 or 505/988-6647) to demand their support in eliminating the "mini-nuke" provision from the final Defense Authorization Bill (expected in September). For more information, call NWNM.
Nuclear Watch of New Mexico
551 W. Cordova