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U.S. Nuclear Waste Dirty-Bombs New Mexico with Plutonium

By William Boardman | Reader Supported News | March 30, 2014

It was Valentine’s Day when the nation’s only radioactive nuclear waste facility first released radioactive particles including Plutonium and Americium into the atmosphere of New Mexico and beyond, including Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico. Earlier that same day, the New Mexico Environment Department opened the public comment period on an application to modify and expand that nuclear waste facility, which the department said it planned to allow.

The first thing the U.S. government and the government contractor running the supposedly secure radioactive waste project did immediately when faced with the first-time-ever release of radioactivity from the underground site was – not tell anyone, anything. They told no one the truth for four days, even though the truth didn’t seem all that bad, as such things go. Unless contradictory data emerged, this would seem to be a brief release of a relatively small amount of very dangerous isotopes from nuclear weapons waste stored half a mile underground in a salt deposit. While the full scope of the release remains unknown weeks later, it seems clear that this was no Fukushima, except for the operators’ default to instant deceit.

The next day, February 15, 2014, the U.S. Dept. of Energy, which is responsible for the project issued “Event News Release No. 1,” a reassuring press release about “a radiological event” (not further defined), misleadingly stating that “a continuous air monitor detected airborne radiation in the underground” (NOT a release into the air). [emphasis added]

The press release expanded on its false reassurance by saying: “Multiple perimeter monitors at the [facility’s] boundary have confirmed there is no danger to human health or the environment. No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities.” No one was exposed, the press release implied, and added further details to reinforce the “no danger to human health or the environment” claim that is so often the first thing the nuclear industry says about any “event,” regardless of what people may or may not know to be true. Other press releases maintained this official story for several days.

Nuclear industry lies are rational in terms of protecting interests

According to that story, “there were no employees working underground at the time,” and the 139 employees at the surface had to be “cleared by radiological control technicians” and test negative for contamination before they were allowed to leave the site, something of an odd precaution for radiation that was reported only underground. The official story did not mention that the underground part of the facility had been closed down for the previous nine days, since February 5, when a 29-year-old salt truck had caught fire, forcing the evacuation of all 86 employees then working underground.

To be fair to the folks running the underground nuclear repository, which bears the anodyne name Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), when the continuous air monitoring system first detected radioactivity being released on February 14, 2014, the system automatically shut down air exchange with the outside, at least according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), which describes the facility this way:

“WIPP, a cornerstone of DOE’s [nuclear waste] cleanup effort, is the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons. Located in southeastern New Mexico, 26 miles east of Carlsbad, WIPP’s facilities include disposal rooms excavated in an ancient, stable salt formation, 2,150 feet (almost one-half mile) underground. Waste disposal began at WIPP on March 26, 1999.”

The waste isolation mine was designed to last 10,000 years without leaking. As of 2014, WIPP had more than 1,000 employees and a $202 million annual budget.

Among the details that remain unclear about this WIPP accident are how long it took the system to detect the release and how much Plutonium and Americium were released. The government’s initial position was none. That wouldn’t last long.

On February 17, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CERMC) posted on its Facebook page that it “is currently processing and analyzing ambient air filters from our air samplers located near the WIPP facility. We should have results by the end of the week which will give some indication as to whether any radiation was released into the environment. Hopefully CEMRC will get its filters from the exhaust air shaft at the WIPP site soon so we can analyze those for radionuclides as well. Lastly, remember that adults living within a 100-mile radius of the WIPP site can receive a free whole body count to see what types and levels of radiation are in their lungs and/or whole body…”

Government admits radioactive release, says: don’t worry, be happy

It wasn’t until February 19 that the Energy Dept. issued a press release acknowledging the reality of the airborne release of radioactivity. And this was only after that day’s edition of the local newspaper, the Current-Argus in Carlsbad, had already reported on the Carlsbad Environmental Center’s news release about higher than normal levels of radioactivity including Plutonium and Americium. The government belatedly confirmed the report, without apology, instead putting a positive spin on it, even though officials had been denying it (or perhaps had not known about it) for days. Under the headline “Radiological Monitoring Continues at WIPP” – even though the radiation was detected a half mile away – the new DOE release said:

“Recent laboratory analyses by Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) found some trace amounts of americium and plutonium from a sampling station located on the WIPP access road. This is consistent with the fact that HEPA [high-efficiency particulate absorption] filters remove at least 99.97% of contaminants from the air, meaning a minute amount still can pass through the filters. As noted by the CEMRC, an independent environmental monitoring organization, the levels found from the sample are below the levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure public health is protected.”

The Carlsbad Environmental Center, a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, is a quasi-governmental agency. Besides monitoring the waste project, the center has been a contractor for government labs – the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Sandia National Laboratory – as well as the Nuclear Waste Partnership, a private contractor. The center also works with the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security on issues relating to conventional explosives used to spread radioactive materials (or, in the words of the website: “issues involving Homeland Security particularly those involving radiation dispersal devices (RDDs or dirty bombs).”

Radiation reached Carlsbad by February 24, but officials did not say this publicly until March 10. A week later they denied the report, saying the Carlsbad radiation came from somewhere other than the waste plant. They didn’t say where.

Dirty bomb or accident – different intent, same effects

Anyone making a dirty bomb would be delighted to use Plutonium as a terror weapon, because Plutonium is very deadly, and remains deadly for a long time (Plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years). A lot of Plutonium will kill you very quickly at close range, especially if it’s been made into a bomb, which the U.S. proved pretty definitively at Nagasaki in 1945. But even a tiny amount of Plutonium, inhaled and lodged in your lungs, can kill you slowly. In that sense, what happened at the nuclear waste isolation facility was that its operators managed to set off a small dirty bomb. No wonder they claimed no one was exposed.

Talking about dirty bombs or even RDDs is not a preferred public relations approach for most of the nuclear industry, even when their facilities actually become radiation dispersal devices (RDDs). The spin is always about how safe everyone is and how trivial the level of radiation exposure is. The public relations pattern with the New Mexico waste project release is standard – and fundamentally dishonest, as it has been always. On February 24, the Energy Dept. produced another press release with the benign headline, “WIPP Reports New Environmental Monitoring Date” with text that included:

“Dose assessment modeling, which calculates potential radioactivity exposure to people, from the release data showed a potential dose of less than one millirem at each of the environmental sampling locations. A person receives about 10 millirems from a single chest x-ray procedure. The average person living in the United States receives an annual dose of about 620 millirem from exposure to naturally occurring and other sources of radiation.”

Even though the basic assertions here may be factually true in a narrow sense, the implied argument – that there’s nothing to be concerned about – is a lie. First note the use of “potential” – twice – which makes clear that the “dose of less than one millirem” – which could potentially be much more – has little meaning for understanding reality. The statement is careful NOT to use “maximum” or any other limiting word. The first sentence implies a full body dose, the next sentence executes a bait and switch, referring to a chest X-ray which delivers a targeted dose. The last sentence pretends to put it all in perspective by trivializing the earlier doses in the context of an average annual dose of 620 millirem.

Plutonium: one millionth of a gram, officially “safe,” can be lethal

In this press release and thousands like it, the government lies with an apparently reasonable tone, good enough to persuade the New York Times and others. But it’s a big lie, because governments know that no radiation exposure is good for anyone, that any exposure is a risk. The honest discussion would be over how much radiation a person can tolerate and remain healthy for a reasonable time. There are many correct answers to that depending on the particular conditions of exposure. It is dishonest to conflate “naturally occurring and other sources of radiation” because “other sources” are mostly from nuclear medicine, power plants and warheads – all sources created by deliberate human choice.

The deeper lie is in the suggestion that, since a person gets 620 millirem a year, what harm can come from a little bit (or a lot) more? The answer is that great harm can come from very limited exposure, although that’s not necessarily likely. The official “acceptable” body dose of Plutonium is less than one millionth of a gram, and even this amount can eventually be lethal, because Plutonium that gets into the human body doesn’t all come out. It tends to concentrate in the blood, muscle and bone. Americium behaves similarly in the human body. Another official lie embedded in government language is the suggestion that 620 millirem is somehow “safe.” It’s not. It’s already too great an exposure, and the effects of radiation are cumulative.

A particularly articulate internet post, Bobby1’s Blog of Februray 22 (and later revisions), challenged the official story as to both the amount of radioactive material released, how far it had spread, and the danger it posed.

But the official spin works. Matthew Wald of the Times has been writing about nuclear issues for years, yet on February 25 he still managed to start his piece with error-filled credulity: “Almost two weeks after an unexplained puff of radioactive materials forced the closing of a salt mine in New Mexico that is used to bury nuclear bomb wastes, managers of the mine are planning to send workers back in and are telling nearby residents that their health is safe.” The mine was already closed when the so-called “puff” of Plutonium and Americium created conditions that no one can honestly call “safe.” The rest of his piece reads like Wald is also on the DOE payroll.

Energy Dept. said no one was contaminated – that was false

On February 26, in a letter to residents of the Carlsbad area, DOE field manager Jose Franco made what appears to be the first official admission that workers at the waste pilot plant had suffered internal radioactive contamination. Franco wrote that “13 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) employees that were on site the evening of February 14 were notified that they have tested positive for radiological contamination.” Previously the agency had said there were 139 employees on site at the time of the release, and no external radiation was detected on any of them.

“It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results, or any treatment that may be needed,” Franco wrote, adding that the contamination was “likely at very low levels” and “predominantly americium-241, material which is consistent with the waste disposed of at the WIPP. This is a radionuclide used in consumer smoke detectors and a contaminant in nuclear weapons manufacturing.”

Franco said it would probably take weeks to establish a credible estimate of the contamination dose these 13 employees received. The Times of February 27 carried the story on page A16 and online with Matthew Wald downplaying its importance. Local media gave the development more scrutiny, since the implications were clear: among other things, officials had no idea why there was a Plutonium release, they had no idea how much Plutonium was released, they had no idea how far the Plutonium had traveled, and they had no idea how many people had been contaminated (the number of contaminated employees later rose to 17, and then to 21).

Actually the detected level of Plutonium was millions of times higher than officials first acknowledged

On March 2, another articulate online post, Pissin’ On The Roses, presented a cogent argument that the Plutonium release had been much greater than the official story allowed. Basing the conclusion on public and leaked documents, the blog argues that the numbers are inconsistent and make sense only by assuming that the radioactive release lasted about 33 minutes: “When we ‘followed the math’, the story didn’t square with what the public was told, ie ‘the release was less than EPA reportable requirements’ (supposedly 37bq/m^3 for Plutonium). In fact, the math showed levels thousands of times greater than EPA reportable requirements for Plutonium.” But there was no report to the EPA.

Almost a month later, Southwest Research and Information Center, an independent organization that focuses on health, environmental, and nuclear issues, used Energy Dept. data to reach a similar, but more extreme conclusion: that the release actually lasted more than 15 hours.

Asking questions is a problem: we might find the wrong answers

Actually, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) was stalling, apparently reluctant to get involved with protecting the environment around the government’s only underground nuclear weapons waste storage site, now that it had begun releasing radiation for the first time. On February 27, New Mexico’s two U.S. Senators wrote directly to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, asking for the EPA’s independent assessment of the “event,” as well as deployment of EPA assets to New Mexico to assess the situation independently. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both Democrats, noted that since “the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary regulatory authority in regard to any releases of radioactive materials to the environment from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” the EPA should do more than merely monitor the Energy Dept. and other agencies involved.

The EPA stonewalled. In effect, the Democratic administration in Washington had this answer for two Democratic senators: Drop dead. The EPA said it at greater length, but not until March 5, and then in a letter from the regional administrator, not the administrator in Washington. “We are still evaluating the situation,” wrote Ron Curry, without ever saying why the primary regulatory authority was refusing to “conduct independent studies.”

“As you know, the EPA’s primary regulatory responsibility is to ensure that any releases of radioactive material from the WIPP facility are below the EPA exposure limits for members of the public,” the regional bureaucrat began, launching a paragraph of denial and irresponsibility. Curry said that the EPA would “inspect” the work of others and, so far, “it is very unlikely that any exposures would approach these regulatory limits or represent a public health

concern.” EPA doesn’t know this, EPA has no independent way of knowing this, and as of March 5, EPA had no interest in knowing this independently, even as the primarily responsible regulator.

Besides, Curry added, “we note that the available information supports the conclusion that nearly all of the radioactive material was retained within the filtration system… [and] that radiation levels have declined significantly….”

Translation: that’s what we’ve been told officially and that’s good enough for us.

Also on March 5, the Energy Dept. issued a press release asserting more apparently good news: “Follow-up testing of employees who were exposed… shows exposure levels were extremely low and the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result…. [tests] came back negative for plutonium and americium, the two radioactive isotopes that were detected in preliminary bioassays.” The release does not offer an explanation for this reported atypical behavior of ingested Plutonium and Americium.

Area residents received a letter from DOE dated March 5 containing an identical reassurance. It also expressed hope that workers might be able to re-enter the mine the following week, for the first time since the February 5 salt truck fire.

Fear of more Plutonium? Expert says: Don’t lick your iPhone charger!

During February, in response to continued rising public concern, the Energy Dept. started holding regular public meetings. On March 6, five nuclear waste officials appeared at a sparsely attended public forum billed by the Energy Dept. as a “WIPP Recovery Town Hall Meeting” at the Civic Center in Carlsbad. The almost 90-minute session (recorded by DOE with low quality audio) featured David Klaus from the Department of Energy (DOE), David Huizenga from DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, Joe Franco from the DOE Carlsbad Field Office, Farok Sharif from Nuclear Waste Partnerships [he was later removed from the job and replaced] and Fran Williams from Energy Dept. contractor UCOR, who told the audience flatly: “There are no health impacts to you, to your family, the members of your community from the event.”

Williams, Director of Environmental, Safety, Health and Quality for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s contractor UCOR has 35 years of experience in her field, health physics and occupational medicine. Although the “Town Hall” received little coverage, Williams made the most news with her comments 57 minutes into the meeting, about radiation levels in the region: “They’re down at the levels of licking your iPhone charger. I’m not trying to be funny; I’m trying to equate radiation exposure to something that you can understand…. I hope that helps. ”

“Many left Thursday night’s meeting [March 6] with the Department of Energy uneasy,” reported Albuquerque TV station KRQE. “They pleaded for more information about the underground radiation leak last month that seeped radiation outside, but many remain frustrated and concerned for their safety.

The DOE tried to reassure people they are safe even though the underground storage areas remained sealed off.”

The next night (March 7) the local Republican Congressman, Rep. Steve Pearce, held his own town hall meeting. The long time backer of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (whose private contractors contributed to his campaigns) promised to ask tough questions. Pearce said, “I will hold their feet to the fire.”

Other than his meeting with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and New Mexico’s two senators the day before, Pearce’s involvement in events at WIPP appears largely limited to cheerleading, as in his February 5 press release saying everything was fine after the fire and his February 15 press release saying everything was fine after the release of radioactivity.

Radioactive waste isolated for 10,000 years – until it’s not

More than three weeks after the detection of airborne Plutonium, no one had been able to re-enter the salt mine to assess conditions underground or to determine the cause of the accident. WIPP was built without underground surveillance cameras. Officials at the Energy Dept. and other agencies have refused to speak publicly about the issues or to answer reporters’ questions on the record. Even their public bromides began to diverge, with DOE suggesting that WIPP would be operational in the near future, while the NM Environmental Dept. issued a legal notice saying WIPP would “be unable to resume normal activities for a protracted period of time.”

On March 8, the Albuquerque Journal News published a story that said, “No one knows yet how or why a waste drum leaked at southeast New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Valentine’s Day, triggering alarms, exposing workers and setting off a cascade of events that could cripple the nation’s radioactive waste disposal system.”

Reviewing Dept. of Energy records, the Journal concluded that there were only two likely scenarios for the February 14 accident:

(1) If a waste drum’s contents overheated, that might cause a spontaneous explosion that spread radioactive debris. Planners in 1997 contemplated this possibility before WIPP opened, and gave odds of it happening as 10,000 to 1.

(2) If the roof in one of the salt cavern rooms fell, that might rupture one or more waste drums and lead to the spread of radioactive debris. Planners gave the odds of that happening as one in a million.

The most likely cause of an accident, planners thought, would be mishandling of waste drums by workers, but there were no workers underground on February 14.

The next day, March 9, DOE announced that remote testing of areas not in the path of the radiation release showed “no detectable radioactive contamination

in the air or on the equipment lowered and returned to the surface. Air quality results were also normal. These results were expected….” DOE suggested that workers might be sent down the mine before the end of the week.

The Energy Dept also announced that four more workers had been contaminated by ingesting Plutonium or Americium at “extremely low levels,” bringing the total to 17 workers contaminated. [On March 27, DOE would announce four more being tested for contamination, raising the total to 21.] The DOE also announced that there would be no workforce layoffs during “recovery efforts” for which there is no estimated end point.

A fire suppression system is useful when there’s a fire

One of the problems for the workers underground on February 5, when the 29-year-old salt truck caught fire, was that the truck’s onboard automatic fire suppression system had been deactivated. Emergency teams put out the fire and evacuated the tunnels without any injuries other than six workers needing treatment for smoke inhalation. Rep. Pearce promptly issued a press release calling it a “minor fire” that posed no threat to public health or safety, which appeared true at the time.

But the deactivated fire protection on the truck turned out to be just the first of a host of shortcomings and failures relating to the waste plant, problems that are still being uncovered.

“This accident was preventable” was the understated conclusion of the Accident Investigation Board in the Dept. of Energy in its 187-page report released March 13. The Board’s four-week investigation included at least two pre-accident visits to the mine, which has been inactive since February 5. The Board praised the workers and their supervisors for responding quickly, knowledgeably, and cooperatively to minimize the emergency. The Board found extensive fault with management’s performance over a longer period of time, finding that maintenance programs were ineffective, fire protection was inadequate, preparedness was inadequate, emergency management was ineffective – and that these criticisms had been made before, some more than once. According to one news report:

“At a community meeting in Carlsbad on Thursday to preview the report, the lead investigator, Ted Wyka, praised the 86 workers who were half-mile underground in the mine when the fire started, saying they ‘did everything they could’ to tell others to evacuate.

“But a number of safety systems and processes failed, Mr Wyka said. Emergency strobe lights were not activated for five minutes and not all workers heard the evacuation announcement. One worker also switched the air system from normal to filtration mode, which sent smoke billowing through the tunnels.”

New Mexico’s senators, in a joint statement, found the Board’s report “deeply concerning” and urged DOE management to take the critique seriously and fix the shortcomings. For his part, Rep. Pearce “applauded” the DOE for “a candid, transparent report” that demonstrated how poorly they had been doing their job for many years.

Senators Heinrich and Udall have written to Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, asking why his agency has failed to carry out its responsibility under federal mine safety law, which requires the Mine Safety and Health Administration “to inspect WIPP no less than four times a year.” Records show that WIPP was inspected twice – instead of 12 times – ­in the past three years

With WIPP closed, Los Alamos waste has to be trucked to Texas

The Los Alamos National Laboratory has been a disaster waiting to happen for years, a disaster that almost happened in 2011 as wildfires approached the facility where radioactive waste was stored in roughly 20,000 steel drums above ground. The fires were held back, but the waste is still there, scheduled for “permanent” storage at the underground waste plant before the next fire season in the summer. Now that can’t happen because WIPP is leaking, and closed.

On March 20, the Energy Dept and its contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, announced plans to truck the Los Alamos waste to West Texas for temporary storage at Waste Control Specialists, another government contractor. DOE “has committed to the state of New Mexico to removing several thousand cubic meters of TRU waste from LANL by June 30, 2014. The waste will be moved to WIPP for final disposal once the site reopens. “

According to DOE, it has already moved most of the Los Alamos waste, which “consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil, and other items contaminated with small amounts of radioactive elements, mostly plutonium.”

On March 21, the New Mexico Environment Department withdrew its temporary permit that would have allowed the waste plant to expand. That’s the same permit that the department said on February 14 that it would approve at the end of the 60-day public comment period. The permit would have allowed WIPP to build two new disposal vaults in the salt mine. According to the news release:

“NMED [NM Environment Dept.] cannot move forward on the WIPP’s request to open additional underground storage panels and for the other requested permit modifications until more information is known about the recent events at the WIPP,” said Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. “Just as NMED needs more information to make informed decisions on permit modifications, the public also needs more information about the radiation release in order to provide informed input during the public comment period. Once NMED has all of our questions answered, we will proceed with consideration of a revised draft Permit.”

With so many other questions to be answered, the question of whether WIPP will ever re-open gets harder to answer with any certainty. There have been numerous reports, by DOE and others, of further radioactive leaks from the site – none of them known to be large and all considered officially “safe.” As Arnie Gundersen at Fairewinds notes, DOE says that when the WIPP ventilation system is set on filtration mode, its air filters collect 99.97% of all the radioactive particles headed for the atmosphere. Accepting that capture rate as correct, Gunderson points out that, mathematically, if the filters are 99.9% effective (which he doubts), that means that out of every 1,000 minutes there is one unfiltered minute. In other words, the radioactive leak continues, albeit slowly, even when the filters work at peak capacity (which is not a constant). Just since February 14, Gundersen calculates, perfectly functioning filters would still have allowed another half hour of contamination into the environment.

Nuclear supporters continue to minimize any danger. Plutonium and Americium are heavy elements, the argument goes, so they fall to the ground quickly. And they stay there unless there’s a lot of wind. No one knows now just how much Plutonium or Americium the waste plant has already emitted, or how much it will emit. But anyone who cares to know knows that this is spring in the southwest, when the winds pick up and dust storms have already happened this year.

April 5, 2014 Posted by | Deception, Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Nuclear Power, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Obama builds nuclear legacy

By Kate Colwell | Friends of the Earth | February 19, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a press conference today, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz announced finalized government support for constructing the nation’s first new nuclear reactors in almost forty years. The $3.46 billion loan guarantee to Georgia Power and the $3.05 billion loan guarantee to Oglethorpe Power Company will enable the construction of two new nuclear reactors at the Plant Vogtle Nuclear Generating Station near Waynesboro, Ga. The U.S. Department of Energy currently has a July 31, 2014, deadline to finalize a separate loan guarantee for $1.8 billion with a third Vogtle partner, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia.

Below, is a statement of Friends of the Earth’s Nuclear Campaigner Katherine Fuchs, responding to the announcement:

“Fewer than three years have passed since the tragedy at Fukushima demonstrated that nuclear reactors can never be safe. Yet the president and Energy Secretary are ignoring its lessons. The tragedy forced more than 80,000 people from their homes and left an area, roughly the size of Connecticut, uninhabitable. Despite the dangers nuclear reactors pose and the lack of any sustainable solutions for nuclear waste disposal, President Obama’s commitment to nuclear energy succeeds only in condemning future generations to live with the fallout.

By insuring reactors American taxpayers are forced to underwrite a financial gamble that Wall Street deems too risky. A high rate of construction cancellation and history of massive cost overruns have caused Wall Street investors to shun reactor projects. Nuclear reactors are too risky to finance, too slow to build and too dangerous to be part of a meaningful energy solution.”

February 21, 2014 Posted by | Environmentalism, Nuclear Power, Progressive Hypocrite | , , , | Comments Off on Obama builds nuclear legacy

Nuclear Site Safety Official Fired After Her Repeated Warnings of Safety Problems

By Noel Brinkerhoff | AllGov | February 21, 2014

Yet another official at the nation’s most challenging environmental cleanup project has been fired after raising serious safety concerns.

This time it was Donna Busche, the head of nuclear safety for cleaning up the former nuclear weapons site at Hanford, Washington, which sits atop 53 million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks.

Busche, a nuclear engineer who oversaw a staff of 140, was fired by her employer, URS Corp., one of the federal contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Energy to resolve the Hanford mess.

“The Energy Department’s overall safety culture is broken and all they are doing now is sitting idly by,” Busche told the Los Angeles Times.

Her termination came after she repeatedly warned company executives that the radioactive-waste solution being used was flawed and posed safety problems.

URS denied that her firing had anything to do with her safety complaints, saying she was let go for “unprofessional conduct.”

Busche was the second senior project official fired at Hanford. A third official resigned, after citing safety-related concerns with the $13.4-billion construction project.

Walter Tamosaitis, who headed research at URS, was fired in 2013 after he questioned whether the company’s decision to mix the waste in large tanks might result in a buildup of hydrogen gas, which can explode.

In addition, Gary Brunson, the Energy Department’s engineering division director at Hanford, quit after warning of nearly three-dozen problems not being addressed by another site contractor, Bechtel.

But the worries don’t stop there. The Energy Department’s inspector general and other federal investigators have also warned of management and safety issues at Hanford. With 150 aging nuclear-waste tanks, many of which are leaking, it’s the largest cleanup project leftover from the Cold War.

To Learn More:

Official Who Raised Safety Concerns at Hanford Nuclear Site is Fired (by Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times)

Whistle-Blower Fired From Hanford Nuclear Site (by Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press)

As Hanford Radioactive Leak Continues, Clean-Up Contractor Pays Fraud Penalty (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Six Underground Tanks Leaking Nuclear Waste in Washington State (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)

February 21, 2014 Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Environmentalism, Militarism | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cleanup of Radioactive Bomb Waste in South Carolina: The Endless Project

By Noel Brinkerhoff | AllGov | December 2, 2013

It has been 17 years since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began cleaning up the Cold War-era nuclear weapons plant, Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, and at the current pace, it may be another 30 years before the work is completed.

That fact does not sit well with state officials who are now threatening to levy an enormous fine on DOE for not keeping to its original deadline of fixing the mess by 2023.

A key aspect of the project, which started in 1996, is to turn liquid radioactive bomb waste into a solid that can be safely stored for millennia while its radiation decays.

It’s important to make this conversion sooner rather than later because the toxic waste now sits in huge underground tanks (that hold anywhere from 750,000 to 1.3 million gallons each) that have been in use since the 1950s.

If the federal government takes until the 2040s to finish the remediation, it means the tanks will need to hold up for 90 years.

“I don’t know what the tanks’ design life was intended to be, but it’s not for infinity,” Catherine B. Templeton, South Carolina’s top environmental official, told The New York Times.

“We have to get that waste out of the tanks so it’s not Fukushima, so you don’t have the groundwater interacting with the waste and running off,” she added, referring to the radioactive water flowing from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan and into the ocean.

To prod the DOE into moving faster, the state is threatening to impose $154 million in fines for failing to finish the project in nine years.

Energy officials say the slowdown couldn’t be helped, what with the budget cuts from sequestration and other decisions by Congress that reduced the amount of money flowing to the Savannah cleanup operation.

“There’s only so much to go around,” Terrel J. Spears, DOE’s assistant manager for waste disposition at the site, told the Times. “We can’t increase the budgets. Now we have to balance the budgets.”

To Learn More:

South Carolina Threatens Washington Over Cleanup (by Matthew Wald, New York Times)

Nuclear Weapons Site Reportedly Fails Security Tests (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

The Government Project that is $6 Billion Over Budget and 10 Years Late (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

December 2, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism, Timeless or most popular | , , , , | 1 Comment

Possible new leak at Hanford site, higher radioactivity levels detected

RT | June 22, 2013

A tank containing highly radioactive waste may be leaking into the soil at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation (the US’s most contaminated nuclear site) in Washington state, employees have told media.

State and federal officials are investigating reports that workers detected elevated radioactivity levels under tank AY-102 during a routine inspection on Thursday.

According to technician Mike Geffre, who works for contractor Washington River Protection Solutions, an inspection was made of a pit under the tank. Its water samples had an 800,000-count of radioactivity and a high dose rate, which means that workers must reduce time spent in the area.

“Anything above a 500 count is considered contaminated and would have to be disposed of as nuclear waste,” Geffre explained. “Plus, the amount of material we’ve seen from the leak is very small, which means it’s a very strong radioactive isotope.”

If the waste escapes the tank and gets into the soil, it may reach groundwater and potentially the Columbia River.

“This is really, really bad. They are going to pollute the ground and the groundwater with some of the nastiest stuff, and they don’t have a solution for it,” Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy group Hanford Challenge, a watchdog group that conducts environmental sampling to monitor for radioactive and chemical contamination, told AP.

There are 177 tanks holding up to 56 million gallons of waste, 149 of which are single-shell. Six of those tanks were discovered in February to be leaking at a rate of about 1,000 gallons annually.

AY-102 is one of Hanford’s 28 tanks with two walls, which was installed when single-shell tanks began leaking and some of the most radioactive liquid in those tanks was pumped into the sturdier double-shell tanks. The tanks are now beyond their intended life span.

Two radionuclides comprise much of the radioactivity in Hanford’s tanks: cesium-137 and strontium-90. While both take hundreds of years to decay, exposure to either can increase the risk of cancer.

Officials say that leaking tanks pose no immediate threat to the environment or public health, with the closest communities being several miles away.

“These last few months just seem like one body blow after another,” said Ken Niles of Oregon’s Energy Department. “It’s true this is not an immediate risk, but it’s one more thing to deal with among many at Hanford.”

“The Energy Department has been actively monitoring double-shell tank AY-102 since it was discovered to have a slow leak from the primary tank,” the department said in a statement. “Workers detected an increased level of contamination during a routine removal of water and survey of the leak detection pit.”

Additional testing is expected to take several days, though the state will demand an accelerated plan to deal with all the waste at Hanford, said Washington Governor Jay Inslee, adding that the potential leak “raises very troubling questions.”

An engineering analysis team will conduct additional sampling and video inspection to determine the source of the contamination, Spokeswoman Lori Gamache said.

The Energy Department announced last year that AY-102 was leaking between its two walls, but gave reassurances then that no waste had escaped. However, Seattle’s KING5 television station has reported that the cleanup contractor and the department knew a year earlier that the tank was leaking.

At the height of World War II, the federal government created Hanford as part of a secret project to create the atomic bomb. The site ultimately produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast and for one of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan; it continued production through the Cold War.

These days, it has a reputation as the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with a cleanup expected to take several decades. It costs up to US$2 billion annually and has already set taxpayers back US$40 billion, with US$115 billion more expected to be needed.

The biggest challenge thus far has been removing highly radioactive waste from the 177 aging underground tanks and constructing a plant to treat that waste, which will be encased in glass-like logs for permanent disposal. Workers designing and building the unique plant have encountered numerous technical problems, however, as well as delays and rising costs. The plant is unlikely to begin operating before 2019, far beyond the original 2011 deadline.

June 22, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism | , , , , | Comments Off on Possible new leak at Hanford site, higher radioactivity levels detected

Obama to cut nonproliferation budget in favor of new nukes

Press TV – April 11, 2013

US President Barack Obama has reportedly requested more funding to further upgrade American nuclear weapons at the cost of reduced spending on nuclear nonproliferation measures, which it demands from other nations.

The Obama administration’s funding request for continued modernization of its atomic arsenal has reportedly been included in its 2014 federal budget proposal that was released on Wednesday, according to a report in US-based Foreign Policy magazine.

The Obama administration’s plan to further “modernize” American nuclear weapons comes nearly four years after the US president received the Noble Peace Prize in 2009 for the promotion of “nuclear non-proliferation.”

Despite massive cuts in public spending and even some Defense Department programs, under the new budget proposal, funding for US Energy Department’s nuclear arms-related programs would increase by nearly seven percent or about USD500 million, according to the report, which cited American officials that spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The current budget for such programs reportedly stands at more than USD7 billion.

The Energy Department’s nonproliferation programs, however, would be slashed by about 20 percent, or nearly USD460 million, under the new budget plan, according to the report. Its current annual budget stands at almost USD2.5 billion.

The proposed funding would reportedly cover the continuing upgrade of older American atomic warheads as well as the construction of a uranium processing plant in the State of Tennessee.

The so-called modernization program for aging US nuclear weapons is part of a deal between the Obama administration and Congress as part of the ‘New START’ (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement with Russia, its major rival in maintaining massive numbers of atomic weapons.

According to the pact, both nuclear powers should slash their atomic warheads to 1,500 by 2018.

US lawmakers reportedly agreed to support the reduction of the quantity of the country’s atomic warheads if the ones remaining active are upgraded.

The only category of the US Energy Department’s nonproliferation activities that would receive increased funding is its research and development division. It is intended to finance the development of a satellite-based nuclear detonation sensor, according to the Foreign Policy report.

This is while the Energy Department’s nuclear weapon programs was reportedly hindered by mismanagement and overspending issues, prompting the department to ask the Pentagon to cover cost overruns for its W76 warhead upgrade operations, though it only received three billion of the seven billion dollars it had requested.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s 2014 budget proposal is reportedly billions of dollars higher than the spending caps mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act. It is, therefore, expected to face strong opposition from congressional members. The White House and US lawmakers have been battling for the past two years over budgetary issues, and are yet to reach a common ground.

April 10, 2013 Posted by | Militarism, Progressive Hypocrite, War Crimes | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hanford nuclear waste tanks at risk of explosion

RT | April 03, 2013

US residents near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation may be in grave danger: a nuclear safety board found that the underground tanks holding toxic, radioactive waste could explode at any minute, due to a dangerous buildup of hydrogen gas.

After Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DFNSB) about the risks posed by the nuclear site, board members relayed their concerns about the potential for hydrogen gas buildup within the walls of a tank – particularly those with double walls.

“All the double-shell tanks contain waste that continuously generates some flammable gas,” the board said in a letter received by Wyden on Monday. “This gas will eventually reach flammable conditions if adequate ventilation is not provided.”

The safety board had previously issued a warning about their concerns, which have not yet been addressed. In September, the board sent a letter to the Department of Energy, claiming that there were no adequate safeguards to protect against the buildup of flammable gasses inside Hanford’s waste storage tanks. The letter, which outlines the concerns shared with Sen. Wyden on Monday, was declassified on Tuesday.

If the tanks were to explode, there would be flammable releases that would “have considerable radiological consequences, endanger personnel, contaminate portions of the Tank Farms, and seriously disrupt the waste cleanup mission,” the previously classified DFNSB report states.

Hanford’s double-shelled tanks contain some of the deadliest mixtures of nuclear and chemical waste left over from World War II and Cold War-era plutonium production. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been a serious cause of concern, since six of the facility’s tanks were found to be leaking about 1,000 gallons of nuclear waste each year. The Department of Energy discovered the leaks years ago, but has failed to address the problem.

Last September, the safety board recommended that state and federal officials more closely monitor the tanks and increase ventilation. Federal officials have allegedly taken those recommendations into consideration and are working on a plan to address the board’s concerns, the Associated Press reports.

But despite continuous problems and public health risks associated with the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, construction of a waste treatment plant has been delayed. Such a plant would make the toxic chemicals safe for long-term disposal and would be crucial in preventing all of the radioactive waste from leaking into the ground.

The DFNSB hopes that discussing the very real possibility of an explosion will alarm Department of Energy officials and prompt them to take action. The Hanford site currently holds 56 million gallons of radioactive toxic waste that is  leaking into the soil. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, believes there is no time to waste in regards to the cleanup process.

“The next Secretary of Energy – Dr. Moniz – needs to understand that a major part of his job is going to be to get the Hanford cleanup back on track, and I plan to stress that at his confirmation hearing next week,” Wyden said in a statement Tuesday.

The US government spends about $2 billion each year cleaning up the waste generated by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, about one third of which goes towards the flawed design and construction of the plant. The $2 billion also makes up about one third of the federal government’s nuclear cleanup budget, and costs are only expected to rise.

Although the DFNSB and Sen. Wyden have long been emphasizing the risks created by the plant, the Department of Energy has long failed to acknowledge the severity of the problem. And after the latest warnings about the very possible risk of a nuclear explosion, the department countered the report.

“All DSTs are actively ventilated, which means they have blowers and fans to prevent hydrogen gas build-up,” the Department of Energy said in a statement. “These ventilation systems are monitored to ensure they are operating as intended.”

Wyden said he plans to ask tough questions during Moniz’s confirmation hearing regarding the future of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

April 3, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism | , , , , , | Comments Off on Hanford nuclear waste tanks at risk of explosion

Betrayal of Trust on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation

By GINA MASON | CounterPunch | March 1, 2013

Living with radiation sickness is not on my bucket list and I would hazard that it isn’t on yours either. Nor is it what I have in mind for my children’s future. Yet our government continues to manufacture nuclear materials and unsafely store radioactive waste in clear violation of the public trust. Nowhere is this more visible than at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the most radioactively contaminated site in the western hemisphere, where we now know radioactive sludge is leaking badly from at least six underground tanks. While Hanford is technically in Washington State, the management of this catastrophe is vitally important to the rest of the nation—indeed, the biosphere. Unfortunately, environmental disasters do not stop at city, state, or national borders.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is located on the 1,243-mile-long Columbia River and sits upstream from drinking water facilities for the Washington Tri-Cities area, tribal lands, and many other towns and cities before it empties into the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1943, this facility is home to the first plutonium production reactor.  Hanford is responsible for having manufactured the material used in the first atomic bombs, including the bomb that killed and poisoned scores of thousands in Nagasaki, Japan, 9 August 1945.

An environmental remediation legal structure called the Tri-Party Agreement governs the cleanup efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington Department of Ecology, and the US Department of Energy. Bechtel, a construction and engineering firm, is currently overseeing the construction of a vitrification plant that will stabilize the worst of the radioactive materials with glass. Added to the Superfund list in 1989, the cleanup of Hanford is woefully behind its original 30-year schedule.

Recent news articles and Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s announcements have brought Hanford back into the national spotlight as the large tanks containing radioactive waste are leaking into the nearby aquifers at a reported rate of 300 gallons per day. Many of the site’s 177 underground tanks are losing radioactive liquid. In fact, prior to the latest news, the Washington Department of Ecology reported that the contaminated water could reach the Columbia in anywhere from 12-15 years. The US Department of Energy reports on the leaking tanks but never quite fixes them while the DOE Hanford website indicates nothing out of the ordinary. With many of the tanks holding a million gallons each, this is enormous and means the United States is producing a massive radioactive waterway. It is the government’s responsibility to deal with Hanford before its citizens suffer considerable environmental, health, and economic damage. Considering the rate of cleanup and the lack of public awareness, this is an almost certain fate. Furthermore, the threat of sequestration is risking even the slowest paced cleanup operations at Hanford.

When stacked against other environmental issues – timber clear-cutting, setting aside wilderness areas, and even plastic waste floats larger than Texas, the risk of radioactive contamination to our environment is infinitely more catastrophic. I feel that this issue demands our full attention. Unlike the Fukushima disaster only two years ago, the Hanford radioactive leaks are not the result of a massive natural disaster triggering an anthropogenic catastrophe. This is an event brought on entirely by our own human arrogance and mismanagement, demonstrated repeatedly by poor predictions about how safe it all is. If anything, our utter failure to clean up a terrible mess made way back in World War II and the Cold War shows our hubris in continuing to maintain nuclear weapons somehow believing we can control them. All it takes with nuclear weapons is one mistake and we are all only human. Mistakes are inevitable. The biggest mistake of all is to fail to dismantle the nuclear arsenal now and clean up the massive mess as quickly and safely as we can.

Under the Tri-Party Agreement, cleanup was scheduled to be completed by 2018 and has since been revised to 2040. This makes the specter of a radioactive Columbia River an assured nightmare without action from grassroots organizations and community involvement. This current trajectory is an absolutely unacceptable legacy.

It is not too late. We have the ability to alter the impending disaster by placing pressure on responsible government agencies, legislators, community leaders, and contractors to safely increase the pace of the cleanup operations—and to tell Congress to shift all $2.46 billion in nuclear weapons “modernization” funds to cleanup—or at least what’s left after sequestration. Now.

Talks have repeatedly stalled between agencies regarding the timeline of waste containment. We citizens are in a position to leverage public interest as a means to get the negotiating parties back to the table. 2013 has the potential to be the year that Hanford Nuclear Reservation makes a dramatic shift to move off the Superfund list in a quick and responsible manner. Join the affected tribes, local governments, and many others in demanding a fast, safe, and complete clean up. Write, call, or email your representatives. Donate five dollars to an environmental group working on this issue. Talk to people.

As citizens, this demands our attention. As humans, this demands our action.

March 2, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Six Underground Tanks Leaking Nuclear Waste in Washington State

By Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman | AllGov | February 27, 2013

The nation’s most daunting environmental cleanup project has a new toxic problem on its hands.

Within the Hanford Nuclear Reservation along the Columbia River in Washington State, six underground storage tanks are leaking radioactive waste. Some of the tanks hold as much as 500,000-750,000 gallons of dangerous fluid that is slowing seeping into the soil.

State and federal officials said the leaks don’t pose an immediate threat to human health, since the tanks are located more than five miles from the Columbia River.

The newly discovered problem only adds to the soil contamination at Hanford, which was used for five decades to produce plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

There are nearly 150 tanks, similar in size and design, to the six spilling radioactive liquid and sludge at the site. Four of the six tanks have leaked in the past. The news led the state’s governor, Jay Inslee, to wonder about the “integrity” of the other tanks.

“It points to the age of the tanks and how there’s going to be an increased probability of this happening in the future,” Suzanne Dahl, tank waste treatment manager for the state’s Department of Ecology, told Reuters. “Once [the waste is] out of the tanks and in the soil, it’s much harder to manage it, remove it, and down the road you’re adding to contamination in the groundwater that already exists.”

The U.S. Department of Energy reported that the tanks are leaking at a rate of up to 300 gallons per year.

With a total area comparable to the size of Los Angeles, Hanford is considered by experts to be the most challenging environmental remediation in North America. The nuclear site was built near the city of Hanford in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. government research program that produced the first atomic bombs. Federal environmental regulators estimate the site now contains more than 130 million cubic yards of radioactive soil, thanks in large part to the dumping of 475 billion gallons of contaminated wastewater into the ground during the Cold War.

A multi-billion-dollar plan to secure all the waste within a glass-like material and house it in subterranean stainless steel canisters is years away, according to Dahl. But Americans don’t have to wait that long to get a first-hand look at the infamous nuclear site; the U.S. government offers regular public tours, at no cost.

To Learn More:

At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a Steady Drip of Toxic Trouble (by Eric Nusbaum, Daily Beast)

Radioactive Waste Leaking from Six Tanks at Washington State Nuclear Site (by Eric Johnson, Reuters)

Energy Dept. Accuses Bechtel of Botching Nuclear Cleanup in Washington (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Plutonium Cleanup in Washington State Could Take Millennia (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Contractor Approved Funding for Own Government Contract (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

February 27, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism, Nuclear Power | , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Energy Department’s Crazy Plan for Radioactive Scrap

Nuclear Weapons Waste in Your Water Bottle, Hip Replacement, Baby’s Toys, Jungle Gym?

By JOHN LaFORGE | CounterPunch | January 23, 2013

Even the deregulation-happy Wall St. Journal sounded shocked: “The Department of Energy is proposing to allow the sale of tons of scrap metal from government nuclear sites — an attempt to reduce waste that critics say could lead to radiation-tainted belt buckles, surgical implants and other consumer products.”

Having failed in the ‘80s and ‘90s to free the nuclear bomb factories and national laboratories of millions of tons of their radioactively contaminated scrap and nickel, the DOE is trying again. Its latest proposal is moving ahead without even an Environmental Impact Statement. Those messy EISs involve public hearings, so you can imagine the DOE’s reluctance to face the public over adding yet more radiation to the doses we’re already accumulating. It would be a pretty hard sell, what with dental X-rays, medical X-rays, mammograms, CAT scans, PET scans, radio-isotope “seeds” and cocktails, food irradiation, every-day releases of radioactive gases and water from 104 nuclear power reactors, major releases like Fukushima, radon from rocks, whole-body X-rays at airports (that you can refuse) and cosmic rays during flights.

Not long after Chernobyl spread radiation around the world in 1986, the National Council on Radiation Protection doubled its estimate of our annual radiation dose, from 170 millirems to 360. A few years ago it raised the estimate again, to 620 millirems per year. The agencies that both create radioactive waste and estimate the radiation doses it gives to us, say the latest increase is due mostly to rapid growth in the use of medical X-rays and radio-isotopes in medicine. Should the DOE be allowed to haphazardly add still more?

Still, the DOE wants to deregulate and actually sell 14,000 tons of radioactive scrap metal (both volumetrically and topically contaminated) from the nuclear war system — uranium enrichment, plutonium extraction, etc. — and “recycle” the waste to the commercial clean scrap metal industry. From there, according to the watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the radioactive stuff “could be turned into anything from your next pants zipper to baby toys.”

The DOE claims that potential radiation exposures to men, women and children would amount to a “negligible individual dose.” But anyone with a scrap of understanding of DOE and the Atomic Energy Commission knows not to believe a word of their assurances. The DOE famously said that rainwater would take thousands of years to seep through Yucca Mountain to a deep waste repository; it ran through the mountain in 40 years.

Even Some in Congress Object

Rep. Ed Markey wrote to Energy Secretary Steven Chu Jan. 11, calling the deregulation proposal “unwise” and urging that it “should be immediately abandoned.” Rep. Markey warned that radioactive products could “ultimately be utilized by pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations.”

The DOE has never officially acknowledged — in spite of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 findings — that the same radiation dose does far more harm to women than to men. The drastically increased vulnerability of fetuses and infants is well known, but the whole population is nevertheless treated as the same big, young, Caucasian male (“reference man”) in most radiation risk assessments.

The DOE’s assessment of the proposal’s risks neglects the fact that exposures can go on for years from a watch or from medical implants or tableware or other items, leading to many millirems for many years. A millirem per year over 30 or 70 years is 30 or 70 millirems which is not trivial, NIRS points out.

The DOE currently bans the release of its radioactive scrap under a moratorium that began in 2000. The ban must not be lifted, but should be made permanent and expanded to keep all radioactive waste — plastic, concrete, soil, asphalt, etc. in addition to all metals — under control, out of commercial recycling and managed as the deadly hazard it is. NIRS.org has more details.

You can tell the DOE to continue to keep its radioactive metal out of the commercial metal supply, commerce, and our personal items. You can demand a full environmental impact statement. Comment deadline is Feb. 9, 2013. Email to: scrap_PEAcomments@hq.doe.gov (with an underscore after “scrap_”). Snail mail to: Jane Summerson / DOE NNSA / PO Box 5400, Bldg. 401K. AFB East / Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185

John LaForge works for Nukewatch and edits  its Quarterly newsletter.

January 23, 2013 Posted by | Environmentalism, Militarism, Nuclear Power | , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Energy Department’s Crazy Plan for Radioactive Scrap

The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget

By Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer | TomDispatch | May 22, 2012

Recent months have seen a flurry of headlines about cuts (often called “threats”) to the U.S. defense budget. Last week, lawmakers in the House of Representatives even passed a bill that was meant to spare national security spending from future cuts by reducing school-lunch funding and other social programs.

Here, then, is a simple question that, for some curious reason, no one bothers to ask, no less answer: How much are we spending on national security these days? With major wars winding down, has Washington already cut such spending so close to the bone that further reductions would be perilous to our safety?

In fact, with projected cuts added in, the national security budget in fiscal 2013 will be nearly $1 trillion — a staggering enough sum that it’s worth taking a walk through the maze of the national security budget to see just where that money’s lodged.

If you’ve heard a number for how much the U.S. spends on the military, it’s probably in the neighborhood of $530 billion. That’s the Pentagon’s base budget for fiscal 2013, and represents a 2.5% cut from 2012. But that $530 billion is merely the beginning of what the U.S. spends on national security. Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Pentagon’s base budget doesn’t include war funding, which in recent years has been well over $100 billion. With U.S. troops withdrawn from Iraq and troop levels falling in Afghanistan, you might think that war funding would be plummeting as well.  In fact, it will drop to a mere $88 billion in fiscal 2013. By way of comparison, the federal government will spend around $64 billion on education that same year.

Add in war funding, and our national security total jumps to $618 billion. And we’re still just getting started.

The U.S. military maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons. You might assume that we’ve already accounted for nukes in the Pentagon’s $530 billion base budget.  But you’d be wrong. Funding for nuclear weapons falls under the Department of Energy (DOE), so it’s a number you rarely hear. In fiscal 2013, we’ll be spending $11.5 billion on weapons and related programs at the DOE. And disposal of nuclear waste is expensive, so add another $6.4 billion for weapons cleanup.

Now, we’re at $636 billion and counting.

How about homeland security? We’ve got to figure that in, too. There’s the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which will run taxpayers $35.5 billion for its national security activities in fiscal 2013. But there’s funding for homeland security squirreled away in just about every other federal agency as well.  Think, for example, about programs to secure the food supply, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So add another $13.5 billion for homeland security at federal agencies other than DHS.

That brings our total to $685 billion.

Then there’s the international affairs budget, another obscure corner of the federal budget that just happens to be jammed with national security funds. For fiscal 2013, $8 billion in additional war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan is hidden away there. There’s also $14 billion for what’s called “international security assistance” — that’s part of the weapons and training Washington offers foreign militaries around the world. Plus there’s $2 billion for “peacekeeping operations,” money U.S. taxpayers send overseas to help fund military operations handled by international organizations and our allies.

That brings our national security total up to $709 billion.

We can’t forget the cost of caring for our nation’s veterans, including those wounded in our recent wars. That’s an important as well as hefty share of national security funding. In 2013, veterans programs will cost the federal government $138 billion.

That brings us to $847 billion — and we’re not done yet.

Taxpayers also fund pensions and other retirement benefits for non-veteran military retirees, which will cost $55 billion next year. And then there are the retirement costs for civilians who worked at the Department of Defense and now draw pensions and benefits. The federal government doesn’t publish a number on this, but based on the share of the federal workforce employed at the Pentagon, we can estimate that its civilian retirees will cost taxpayers around $21 billion in 2013.

By now, we’ve made it to $923 billion — and we’re finally almost done.

Just one more thing to add in, a miscellaneous defense account that’s separate from the defense base budget. It’s called “defense-related activities,” and it’s got $8 billion in it for 2013.

That brings our grand total to an astonishing $931 billion.

And this will turn out to be a conservative figure. We won’t spend less than that, but among other things, it doesn’t include the interest we’re paying on money we borrowed to fund past military operations; nor does it include portions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that are dedicated to national security. And we don’t know if this number captures the entire intelligence budget or not, because parts of intelligence funding are classified.

For now, however, that whopping $931 billion for fiscal year 2013 will have to do. If our national security budget were its own economy, it would be the 19th largest in the world, roughly the size of Australia’s. Meanwhile, the country with the next largest military budget, China, spends a mere pittance by comparison. The most recent estimate puts China’s military funding at around $136 billion.

Or think of it this way: National security accounts for one quarter of every dollar the federal government is projected to spend in 2013. And if you pull trust funds for programs like Social Security out of the equation, that figure rises to more than one third of every dollar in the projected 2013 federal budget.

Yet the House recently passed legislation to spare the defense budget from cuts, arguing that the automatic spending reductions scheduled for January 2013 would compromise national security. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said such automatic cuts, which would total around $55 billion in 2013, would be “disastrous” for the defense budget. To avoid them, the House would instead pull money from the National School Lunch Program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, food stamps, and programs like the Social Services Block Grant, which funds Meals on Wheels, among other initiatives.

Yet it wouldn’t be difficult to find savings in that $931 billion.  There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit, starting with various costly weapons systems left over from the Cold War, like the Virginia class submarine, the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, the missile defense program, and the most expensive weapons system on the planet, the F-35 jet fighter. Cutting back or cancelling some of these programs would save billions of dollars annually.

In fact, Congress could find much deeper savings, but it would require fundamentally redefining national security in this country. On this issue, the American public is already several steps ahead of Washington. Americans overwhelmingly think that national security funding should be cut — deeply.

If lawmakers don’t pay closer attention to their constituents, we already know the alternative: pulling school-lunch funding.

Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer are research analysts at the National Priorities Project. They wrote the soon-to-be-published book A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget, and host weekly two-minute Budget Brief videos on YouTube.

Copyright 2012 Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer

May 22, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Economics, Militarism | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obama Administration Invested Billions in Companies Supported by Energy Department Insiders

By Noel Brinkerhoff | AllGov | February 16, 2012

Following on the Solyndra controversy, the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama is now accused of funneling billions of dollars in funding to companies that have connections within the department.

An investigation by The Washington Post found that the Energy Department has approved nearly $4 billion in federal grants and financing to 21 companies supported by firms with connections to five Obama administration staffers and advisers.

Of this amount, $2.46 billion flowed to nine businesses that have ties to VantagePoint Venture Partners, a venture capital firm where Sanjay Wagle, an Energy Department adviser, worked before coming to Washington.

The other four officials identified by the Post include Assistant Secretary David Sandalow, who previously worked for Good Energies, a company that received $737 million from the Energy Department; and Steve Westly, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur and now a member of Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s advisory board. The Westly Group took in $600 million in federal financing.

The Obama administration says that the Energy Department employees and advisers took no part in grant-making decisions, which would mean that these business windfalls were just happy coincidences.

February 16, 2012 Posted by | Corruption, Progressive Hypocrite | , , , | Comments Off on Obama Administration Invested Billions in Companies Supported by Energy Department Insiders