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US Gov’t Scolded for Lack of Action Under Plutonium Disposal Deal with Russia

Sputnik – December 1, 2018

Moscow and Washington agreed in 2000 to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium by incorporating it into fuel for nuclear reactors. However, the Department of Energy has failed so far to build a costly nuclear facility and instead proposed burying their plutonium underground – something that scientists say could affect human health and the environment.

American academicians have criticised the government for insufficient efforts to dispose of surplus plutonium under a 2000 US-Russia agreement.

Congress asked the National Academies to assess the viability of the Department of Energy’s plan for disposing of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeast New Mexico.

WIPP has “insufficient capacity” to get rid of plutonium that is no longer required for defence purposes, which is “one of several barriers to implementation” of the disposal plan, the Academies concluded in a Consensus Study Report.

According to the document, the dilute-and-dispose process proposed by the Energy Department runs counter to the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), a deal that the United States and Russia signed in 2000 to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-capable plutonium each.

The 2000 agreement took effect after being ratified by Russia in 2011. It stipulated that both Russia and the United States would build special facilities to turn surplus plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors.

Moscow has met its part of the commitments; however, the Savannah River Site (SRS) MOX project has been under construction in South Carolina since 2007 and has not been completed yet. The study says that “substantial schedule delays and cost overruns” caused the government to scrap the project, which would adopt the PMDA-approved method.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Energy Department’s agency in charge of the US nuclear warhead stockpile, proposed what it called a cheaper way to dispose of plutonium. Instead of creating MOX oil, the office said, the SRS could be used to dilute the plutonium and bury it deep underground.

A federal judge ruled against the proposed shutdown of the SRS construction in June, arguing that Congress has not approved the dilute-and-dispose method to replace MOX. The judge argued that the NNSA’s proposal would turn South Caroline into the nation’s dumping ground for plutonium and produce an adverse environmental effect.

Academicians also insist that this approach has so far proven to be insufficient. “So far, the dilute and dispose process has been demonstrated at a small scale by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management as it begins to process 6 metric tons of surplus plutonium, a quantity separate from the 34 metric tons.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was not satisfied with the US plans either. He ordered to suspend the implementation of the bilateral agreement in October 2016, citing “a threat to strategic stability” emanating from the US and its inability to deliver on its obligations.

Putin’s move came ahead of the US presidential vote, bringing the nuclear issue back to the agenda. “Our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they [Russians] have gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing,” then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said during a debate with Hillary Clinton, who brought the deal into force as Secretary of State together with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2011.

READ MORE:

Plutonium Stolen From Texas Last Year Eludes US Authorities

December 1, 2018 Posted by | Deception, Environmentalism, Militarism, Nuclear Power | , , , | 1 Comment

US Nuclear Rearmament Under Guise of World Peace

By Finian CUNNINGHAM – Strategic Culture Foundation – 12.04.2016

This week US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Hiroshima, where nearly 71 years ago the US dropped the first ever atomic weapon killing 140,000 people. It was the first visit by a senior American official to the Japanese city owing to immense sensitivity surrounding that notorious event.

However, the occasion this week was said to underscore US President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons free world, said Kerry’s State Department.

The Japanese government of Shinzo Abe also got some good public relations value out of Kerry’s landmark visit to the Hiroshima peace memorial. As Voice of America noted, the occasion «helps to soften its global image» as Abe’s government steps up its military posture in recent years.

Obama is due to go to Japan in May to attend a G7 summit. It is being mooted that he too may pay respects to Hiroshima victims of the US atomic bombing, which occurred on August 6, 1945.

By the time Obama arrives in Japan, a shipment of Japanese radioactive plutonium is due to land on the US east coast. The highly dangerous cargo of 331 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium reportedly left Japan on March 22 onboard an armed ship as part of an agreement with the US to act as a depository for the radioactive material. The cargo is reportedly sufficient material for the production 50 nuclear warheads.

The two-month seaborne transfer is a highly classified matter, the itinerary kept secret for security reasons. It is reportedly the first major transport of weapons-grade material from Japan since 1992. The plutonium is intended to be disembarked at a nuclear facility in Savannah, South Carolina.

The intake of plutonium from Japan by the US is supposedly part of a 2010 accord between the US and Russia which calls on both parties to begin disposal of highly enriched plutonium for the purpose of aiding weapons non-proliferation. Both sides are obligated to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. Notwithstanding, on the US side the commitment has been largely unfulfilled, according to Professor Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington DC.

Kuznick «estimates that on Obama’s watch little more than a ton of nuclear materials has been removed», reported the Guardian. Kuznick even went as far as accusing the American president of espousing the «height of hypocrisy» in light of his famous speech in Prague 2009 when he pledged to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Further anomaly is in the fact that the Obama administration has committed Washington to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades in upgrading the country’s entire nuclear arsenal. A central part of the task is to replace the plutonium cores in all warheads – of which the US has roughly 1,500, on parity with Russia’s stockpile.

Therefore, it is very hard to see how Washington is implementing «Obama’s vision» of a nuclear-weapons-free world. The opposite is more to the point.

At the end of last month, Obama hosted 50 world leaders in Washington for a nuclear security summit. It was the fourth such event under his nearly eight-year presidency. Just before the gathering, Obama wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post which headlined: «How we can make our vision of a world without nuclear weapons a reality».

Notably, Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the conference in Washington. The Kremlin said that was because the US side did not consult beforehand with Russian counterparts on what the agenda of the summit would be.

In his op-ed piece, Obama appeared to re-write his «Prague vision» by saying now that the «central pillar» is «preventing terrorists from obtaining and using a nuclear weapon». The president went on to say: «We’ll review our progress, such as successfully ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium».

So Obama deftly shifts the focus from international disarmament by nuclear powers – and his own county’s tardiness in particular to implement the nearly 50-year-old Non-Proliferation Treaty – to one of «preventing terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons».

This is where the shipment of plutonium from Japan comes into good public relations effect. As noted above, the cargo left Japan about a week before Obama’s nuclear security summit was held in Washington. That shipment tends to bolster the narrative that the US is «ridding more than a dozen countries of highly enriched uranium and plutonium» – thus ostensibly contributing to non-proliferation.

Obama also plugged the P5+1 accord with Iran in the same self-serving vein. He wrote: «We’ve succeeded in uniting the international community against the spread of nuclear weapons, notably in Iran. A nuclear-armed Iran would have constituted an unacceptable threat to our national security and that of our allies and partners. It could have triggered a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and begun to unravel the global non-proliferation regime».

Again, the intended effect is that Nobel Laureate Obama is seen to be doing his bit for world peace and nuclear disarmament. But with a trillion-dollar upgrade of the US nuclear arsenal underway, as designated by Obama, it should be evident that the exact opposite is the case.

Japan has reportedly accumulated about 50 tons of plutonium over several decades, with supplies sent there from Britain, France and the US, supposedly for the purpose of research and use as reactor fuel. There are apparently security concerns that such nuclear material could be hijacked by terror groups. And so the US has presented itself as stepping up to the plate to receive this stockpile from Japan on to its territory for «safe disposal».

But the alleged disposal of weapons-grade plutonium in the US does not stand up to scrutiny. Waste facilities in the US for nuclear storage have reached critical capacity limits. Major sites at Hanford, Washington, Lawrence Livermore, California, Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, have been plagued for years with radioactive leakages. The main disposal facility at Savannah is straining at full capacity. South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley is threatening to sue the US Department of Energy in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit over delays in relieving the Savannah site from its toxic load.

Environmentalists in New Mexico state are alarmed that the federal government is now planning to shunt highly radioactive plutonium to an existing underground storage facility there as a contingency measure. The New Mexico site has been operating for 16 years and is the US’s only underground nuclear waste facility. However, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad is suitable solely for low-level nuclear waste.

It’s not only local environmentalists who are anxious. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson has expressed concerns that the New Mexico site is being recklessly lined up to take the nuclear waste load off the site in Savannah.

«This is not a good idea for a variety of reasons, but mainly that WIPP is not suitable to be a high-level waste dump and New Mexico has done its share of accepting nuclear waste», wrote Richardson in an op-ed for the Las Cruces Sun News.

The obvious conclusion is that the US is in no position to «safely dispose» of weapons-grade plutonium from Japan, or anywhere else for that matter, since it doesn’t even have storage capacity for its own Cold War legacy of nuclear waste.

Taking in Japanese nuclear waste is dangerously adding more environmental burden to US communities. Tragically, the population of New Mexico appears to be set for a precarious experiment in disposing highly toxic nuclear material that it is not equipped to deal with.

It was 71 years ago, on July 16, 1945, that the US first tested its atomic weapon in the desert of New Mexico at the Trinity explosion site. Three weeks later the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

History appears to be turning full circle as New Mexico is once again being used to expand US nuclear weapons – under the guise of «disposing» plutonium. But the real reason for the «disposal» is to give the US the international image of working towards non-proliferation, when in reality it is scaling up its own nuclear arsenal – in complete violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that was first signed all the way back in 1968. Nearly half a century on, the US is paving the way for extending its weapons of mass destruction, not eliminating them.

Kerry’s «historic» visit to Hiroshima this week thus seems to be part of a carefully choreographed and ultimately cynical public relations exercise by the US government. Solemn words for the victims of America’s nuclear holocaust and lofty visions of disarmament jar with Washington’s conduct of rearming itself to the teeth.

April 12, 2016 Posted by | Deception, Environmentalism, Militarism, Progressive Hypocrite | , , | 1 Comment

Nuclear Radiation Releases Continue in New Mexico

Something Happened in February, Something is STILL Going On

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By William Boardman | Reader Supported News | July 2, 2014

Environmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only U.S. underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), has been shut down since February 14, when its isolation technology failed, releasing unsafe levels of Plutonium, Americium, and other radio-nuclides into the environment around the site.

Radiation levels in the underground storage area, 2,150 feet below the surface vary from near-normal to potentially lethal. At the time of the February accident, more than 20 WIPP workers suffered low level radioactive contamination, even though none of them were underground. WIPP assumes, but cannot confirm, that underground conditions have not changed since May 31, when the last entry team went into the mine, as reported by WIPP field manager Jose Franco on June 5:

As I noted in my previous letter, we have identified the damaged drum believed to be a contributing source of the radiological release. On May 31, an entry team was able to safely and successfully collect six samples from a variety of locations in Panel 7 of Room 7, including from the breached drum and a nearby standard waste box. These sample results are consistent with the contamination previously identified.

In mid-March, WIPP suffered a surface radiation release almost twice the levels released in February. WIPP was designed to isolate highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the environment for 10,000 years. It went 15 years before its first leak of radioactivity into the above ground environment.

The latest elevated radiation levels were detected by monitors placed by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The monitors measure radiation only after it has passed through the WIPP filtration system that is designed to minimize radiation from escaping from the storage area half a mile underground. Radiation levels in the storage area where the original leak occurred are possibly as lethal as Fukushima, hampering efforts to determine the source, cause, and scale of the February leak.

What happened underground remains a mystery and a danger

More than five months after the February accident, officials still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55 gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area known as Panel 7, Room 7. This room, designated a “High Contamination Area,” measures 33 by 80 feet and presently has 24 rows of waste containers. The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. There is some clearance between the top of the stacks and the room’s ceiling.

The high contamination in Room 7 is a threat to human inspectors, limiting inspection of the room to date to mechanical means, primarily cameras on extension arms. As a result of these limitations, WIPP teams have inspected only ten of the 24 rows of waste containers in Room 7. Rows #1-14 have been out of reach of the available equipment.

WIPP has begun building a full scale replica of Room 7 above ground, to provide a realistic staging area in which to test methods of remote observation that might reach the 14 uninspected rows. According to WIPP:

Options include a device that uses carbon fiber rods to extend the camera, a gantry camera suspended on wires, or a boom system mounted on a trolley that would move across the waste face from wall to wall and out 90 feet to view all rows of waste.

WIPP has spent much of June improving the air filtration system to the mine, adding filters that reduce escaping radiation and improving underground air flow for the sake of entry teams. WIPP suspended underground entries on May 31, apparently to improve safety conditions. Reporting on June 18, field manager Jose Franco wrote:

Since the radiological event, we have safely entered the underground facility nearly a dozen times. Each time, we learn more and we use those discoveries to refine our tasks moving forward. Our entry teams have identified a breached container and we are using all of the resources at our disposal to find the cause.

No one is more eager than we are to determine what happened and return to normal operations.

Nuclear waste in Los Alamos puts National Lab at risk

“Normal operations” in the past included accepting thousands of waste-filled containers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is under a June 30 legal deadline to clean up its above ground and shallow underground waste that has accumulated since the 1940s when Los Alamos scientists were building the first atomic bombs.

The contractor packaging LANL waste into containers made a change a while back, substituting organic kitty litter for the standard inorganic product. More than 500 containers with organic kitty litter have been prepared, 368 of them already stored underground at WIPP. One frequently cited theory (promoted by a WIPP booster) is that one or more of these containers underwent a chemical, heat-generating process because of the organic kitty litter and that reaction caused the container to burst.

The rest of these containers with organic matter are temporarily buried at a West Texas site or remain on the LANL property. They are under constant watch and reportedly none have failed to date.

Los Alamos has been under pressure to clean up its radioactive waste for years, if not decades. But it took the approach of wildfires to the LANL waste site for the laboratory to enter into a binding agreement with the state Environment Department to remove all the waste it has accumulated. As the June 30 deadline approached, LANL again asked the state for an extension of the deadline, saying there wasn’t enough money in its federal budget to comply with the court order.

In the past, the state had granted an extension more than 100 times.  This time New Mexico said no. That will subject LANL to further sanctions, including fines.

Lawsuit over state-approved high-level waste containers

Almost two years ago, after the state approved new containers for use at WIPP without holding a public hearing on the application, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) sued to block the containers from coming into use. In the Center’s view, these new, shielded containers were less robust than containers already in use for highly radioactive waste. That issue should have been considered at a public hearing, SRIC argued at the time:

The Appellants and approximately 200 individuals requested that the request to modify the state’s WIPP permit be subject to a public hearing because of the dangers posed by RH [Remote Handled] waste, the technical complexity of handling RH waste at WIPP, and the substantial public interest in the request. NMED ignored those comments and approved the Department of Energy (DOE) request despite the fact that the state agency had in December 2011 and January 2012 rejected virtually the same request.

Remote Handled (RH) waste is so designated because radiation levels are too high to allow close personal contact, so the waste must be handled by remote-controlled machinery. About 10 per cent of WIPP waste is Remote Handled.

In December 2012, NMED had publicly announced a public hearing on the new container issue. The department rescinded the hearing notice four days later, without explaining the change.

The New Mexico Appeals Court heard closing arguments in the case in July 2013, but had not rendered a decision at the time of the February 2014 accident at WIPP.

On June 26, the court held a further hearing to consider whether the radiation release at WIPP was relevant to the use of the new, high-level waste containers. As reported by the New Mexican, this case has a number of anomalies:

The Environment Department said in an email that the shielded containers can be transported in fewer shipments, and the process is quicker and significantly reduces the dosage rates of radiation from the drums.

Moreover, although the department doesn’t know who manufactures the shielded containers, their safety has been vetted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency….

Regulators and the nuclear watchdog group hope the judges will make a decision sooner rather than later. Even though WIPP is closed for now, a whole lot of highly radioactive waste has to be packaged into containers for temporary storage until shipments resume.

Investigations rampant, answers scarce

On June 16, four months after the radiation release from WIPP, the Department of Energy (DOE), announced its “decision to conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances associated with potential programmatic deficiencies in the nuclear safety, radiation protection, emergency management, quality assurance, and worker safety and health programs revealed by the February 2014 fire and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.”

Currently there are at least nine investigations into WIPP’s failure, including DOE, which operates the facility largely through private contractors. A few days later, a DOE attorney told the New Mexico Court of Appeals that “Nobody is contemplating a closure of WIPP,” but that WIPP is unlikely to reopen until 2016 at the earliest.

In March, Don Hancok of SRIC published a piece listing questions that were then unanswered:

* What caused the leak?

* How much leaked into the underground salt mine?

* How much leaked into the environment?

* Where are those radioactive and toxic wastes now?

* To what amount of radiation were the workers exposed?

* What are the health effects for those workers?

* What decontamination is necessary in the underground mine?

* What decontamination is necessary on the WIPP site and surrounding area?

* If WIPP reopens, what changes in the operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented?

On June 25, Hancock published another piece in the same online magazine, La Jicarita, pointing out that the questions of March all remained unanswered in June.

The piece carried this headline:

Why do we still not know what’s wrong with WIPP?

July 7, 2014 Posted by | Deception, Environmentalism, Militarism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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