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International Committee of the Red Cross reiterates calls for nuclear weapons prohibition

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on August 25, 2016 at 12:49 am

Astana Times, Kazakhstan, 24 August 2016
By Bauyrzhan Serikbayev

On the eve of the international conference Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World to be held Aug. 29 in Astana, Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) talked to The Astana Times on modern challenges in achieving global nuclear disarmament.

What is the ICRC’s position on the importance of the continued struggle to ban nuclear weapons and nuclear tests?

Like the Republic of Kazakhstan, the ICRC has some fundamental views on nuclear weapons and on how to move towards a world without them. I appreciate this opportunity to share them with you.

ICRC has been involved in nuclear issues ever since the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. One of the ICRC’s delegates, Dr. Marcel Junod, was the first foreign doctor in Hiroshima to assess the effects of the atomic bombing and to assist its victims. In his diaries, Junod wrote “The centre of the city was a sort of white patch, flattened and smooth like the palm of a hand. Nothing remained.”

The ICRC, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement more broadly, have long been concerned about the human suffering that results from any use of nuclear weapons. As is now known, nuclear weapons can have severe and long-term consequences on human health and can even affect the children of those exposed to the ionising radiation released by a nuclear explosion. Information published last year by the ICRC and the Japanese Red Cross Society indicate that today, some 70 years after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Red Cross hospitals in those cities continue to treat several thousand victims each year for cancers and illnesses attributable to the atomic bombings of those cities. The health of children born to survivors in the years following their direct exposure to the blasts is also being monitored. The fact that thousands of civilian victims still live at risk and still require treatment for illness and suffering attributable to atomic bomb radiation is incomprehensible. This is equally true for the people and plight of Semipalatinsk, where even though the last test was conducted in 1989, the effects continue to be felt. Clearly, these situations must never occur again.

Thankfully, nuclear weapons have not been used in an armed conflict for more than 70 years and nuclear testing is now a rare occurrence. Yet, today there remains a significant risk of intentional or accidental nuclear detonation. This includes the risk of hostile use and also a detonation that may occur through malfunction, mishap, false alarm and misinterpreted information.

And despite these risks, there remains no effective means of assisting a substantial portion of survivors in the immediate aftermath, while adequately protecting those who will be called upon to deliver assistance. The reality is that if a nuclear weapon were to detonate in a populated area, there would be an overwhelming number of people in need of treatment and most of the local medical facilities would be destroyed or unable to function. Access to the area would likely be impossible due to debris and damage to infrastructure. And assistance providers would face serious risks associated with exposure to ionising radiation. In most countries and at the international level there is little capacity and no realistic or coordinated plan to deal with such challenges.

The risk of the tremendous human costs of nuclear weapons led the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in 2011 to appeal to states to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again. We also called on them to prohibit their use and completely eliminate them through a legally-binding international agreement in accordance with their existing commitments. The ICRC President, Peter Maurer, repeated this call in 2015 and urged states to set a timeframe within which to achieve this goal. While negotiating the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons may take some time, the nuclear-armed states and their allies can and should take immediate steps to reduce the risks that such weapons pose by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in their military plans and reducing the number of warheads on high alert, where such a status exists.

Unfortunately, 2015 was not a year of great progress in the field of nuclear disarmament. The Review Conference of Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons failed to reach a consensus agreement on advancing nuclear disarmament despite previous commitments. There are also reports that the pace of reduction of nuclear arsenals has slowed and that nuclear-armed states continue to modernise their arsenals. Such developments are cause for serious concern.

At the same time, it is encouraging that a 2015 United Nations General Assembly resolution on nuclear weapons supported by 139 countries recognised the need to bring about the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and urged all states to works towards this goal. Equally promising were the work and recommendations of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations, which just concluded in Geneva. In the view of the ICRC, it was the most significant and substantial discussion to date within the UN system on specific measures to achieve nuclear disarmament. The discussions highlighted that there are a range of approaches that can advance disarmament. Its recommendation for the UN General Assembly to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons has potentially historic implications. This and the rest of the group’s recommendations must be seriously considered and taken forward by states.

The ICRC believes that urgent action must be taken to reduce the dangers that nuclear weapons pose and that states must begin negotiations to prohibit their use and secure their eventual elimination. This is a humanitarian imperative. Protecting humanity from the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons requires courage, sustained commitment and concerted action. Today’s complex security environment highlights both the challenges and necessity of such steps. Nuclear weapons are often presented as promoting security, particularly during times of international instability. But weapons that risk catastrophic and irreversible humanitarian consequences cannot seriously be viewed as protecting civilians or humanity as a whole. We know now more than ever before that the risks are too high, the dangers too real and perils of inaction are much too great.

How, in your view, do events like the Building a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World conference in Astana help in pursuing the goals of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation and the ICRC’s mission?

On behalf of the ICRC, I would like to thank the Republic of Kazakhstan for inviting me to participate in this important event. Kazakhstan has shown in word and in action that it is an ardent advocate of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Its commitment is reflected in the convening of this annual conference, its decision to voluntarily renounce the nuclear weapons it inherited upon gaining independence, its role in establishing Central Asia as a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone, its membership in the Asian Nuclear Safety Network and its efforts in the UN and numerous other fora to help advance the elimination of nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan’s election as at non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2017 provides an opportunity to further these goals.

Events like the conference in Astana are very important to raise awareness of the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the need to ensure that such weapons are never used or detonated again. They also help foster dialogue among states in an effort to help advance nuclear disarmament.

The upcoming conference is a key part of the international dialog on nuclear weapons, particularly in this region of the world. It builds upon previous and important events like the Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which was held in New York from April 27-May 22, 2015;the Conferences on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, convened respectively by Norway in March 2013, Mexico in February 2014 and Austria in December 2014 and the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations which I mentioned earlier.

The conference is also part of the ongoing and effective efforts of Kazakhstan on this issue. Kazakhstan’s political and legal initiatives on nuclear weapons clearly demonstrate its high level of commitment and determination to advance nuclear disarmament.

These important efforts, and those taken by others in partnership with the broader international community, will help ensure that a world without nuclear weapons will become a reality. The elimination of these weapons is particularly important to actors such as the ICRC, given our humanitarian mission. We never again want to see a nuclear weapon detonate nor ever again have to witness or respond to their horrific humanitarian consequences.

Nuclear accident in New Mexico ranks among the costliest in U.S. history

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Public Health, Workplace exposure on August 24, 2016 at 12:53 am

By Ralph Vartabedian

Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2016, 3:00 AM

When a drum containing radioactive waste blew up in an underground nuclear dump in New Mexico two years ago, the Energy Department rushed to quell concerns in the Carlsbad desert community and quickly reported progress on resuming operations.

The early federal statements gave no hint that the blast had caused massive long-term damage to the dump, a facility crucial to the nuclear weapons cleanup program that spans the nation, or that it would jeopardize the Energy Department’s credibility in dealing with the tricky problem of radioactive waste.

But the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

The Feb. 14, 2014, accident is also complicating cleanup programs at about a dozen current and former nuclear weapons sites across the U.S. Thousands of tons of radioactive waste that were headed for the dump are backed up in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and elsewhere, state officials said in interviews.

Washington state officials were recently forced to accept delays in moving the equivalent of 24,000 drums of nuclear waste from Hanford site to the New Mexico dump. The deal has further antagonized the relationship between the state and federal regulators.

“The federal government has an obligation to clean up the nuclear waste at Hanford,” Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “I will continue to press them to honor their commitments to protect Washingtonians’ public health and our natural resources.”

Other states are no less insistent. The Energy Department has agreed to move the equivalent of nearly 200,000 drums from Idaho National Laboratory by 2018.

“Our expectation is that they will continue to meet the settlement agreement,” said Susan Burke, an oversight coordinator at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

The dump, officially known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production since World War II into ancient salt beds, which engineers say will collapse around the waste and permanently seal it. The equivalent of 277,000 drums of radioactive waste is headed to the dump, according to federal documents.

The dump was dug much like a conventional mine, with vertical shafts and a maze of horizontal drifts. It had operated problem-free for 15 years and was touted by the Energy Department as a major success until the explosion, which involved a drum of of plutonium and americium waste that had been packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The problem was traced to material — actual kitty litter — used to blot up liquids in sealed drums. Lab officials had decided to substitute an organic material for a mineral one. But the new material caused a complex chemical reaction that blew the lid off a drum, sending mounds of white, radioactive foam into the air and contaminating 35% of the underground area.

“There is no question the Energy Department has downplayed the significance of the accident,” said Don Hancock, who monitors the dump for the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center.

Though the error at the Los Alamos lab caused the accident, a federal investigation found more than two dozen safety lapses at the dump. The dump’s filtration system was supposed to prevent any radioactive releases, but it malfunctioned.

Twenty-one workers on the surface received low doses of radiation that federal officials said were well within safety limits. No workers were in the mine when the drum blew.

Energy Department officials declined to be interviewed about the incident but agreed to respond to written questions. The dump is operated by Nuclear Waste Partnership, which is led by the Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM. The company declined to comment.

Federal officials have set an ambitious goal to reopen the site for at least limited waste processing by the end of this year, but full operations can not resume until a new ventilation system is completed in about 2021.

The direct cost of the cleanup is now $640 million, based on a contract modification made last month with Nuclear Waste Partnership that increased the cost from $1.3 billion to nearly $2 billion. The cost-plus contract leaves open the possibility of even higher costs as repairs continue. And it does not include the complete replacement of the contaminated ventilation system or any future costs of operating the mine longer than originally planned.

An Energy Department spokesperson declined to address the cost issue but acknowledged that the dump would either have to stay open longer or find a way to handle more waste each year to make up for the shutdown. She said the contract modification gave the government the option to cut short the agreement with Nuclear Waste Partnership.

It costs about $200 million a year to operate the dump, so keeping it open an additional seven years could cost $1.4 billion. A top scientific expert on the dump concurred with that assessment.

In addition, the federal government faces expenses — known as “hotel costs” — to temporarily store the waste before it is shipped to New Mexico, said Ellis Eberlein of Washington’s Department of Ecology.

The Hanford site stores the equivalent of 24,000 drums of waste that must be inspected every week. “You have to make sure nothing leaks,” he said.

The cleanup of the Three Mile Island plant took 12 years and was estimated to cost $1 billion by 1993, or $1.7 billion adjusted for inflation today. The estimate did not include the cost of replacing the power the shut-down plant was no longer generating.

Other radioactive contamination at nuclear weapons sites is costing tens of billions of dollars to clean up, but it is generally the result of deliberate practices such as dumping radioactive waste into the ground.

James Conca, a consultant who has advised the Energy Department on nuclear waste issues, described the accident as a comedy of errors and said that federal officials are being “overly cautious” about the cleanup. “It got contaminated, but a new exhaust shaft is kind of ridiculous,” he said.

For now, workers entering contaminated areas must wear protective gear, including respirators, the Energy Department spokesperson said. She noted that the size of the restricted area had been significantly reduced earlier this year.

Hancock suggested that the dump might never resume full operations.

“The facility was never designed to operate in a contaminated state,” he said. “It was supposed to open clean and stay clean, but now it will have to operate dirty. Nobody at the Energy Department wants to consider the potential that it isn’t fixable.”

Giving up on the New Mexico dump would have huge environmental, legal and political ramifications. This year the Energy Department decided to dilute 6 metric tons of surplus plutonium in South Carolina and send it to the dump, potentially setting a precedent for disposing of bomb-grade materials. The U.S. has agreements with Russia on mutual reductions of plutonium.

The decision means operations at the dump must resume, said Edwin Lyman, a physicist and nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“They have no choice,” he said. “No matter what it costs.”

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @RVartabedian

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Overwhelming Majority: Ban the Bomb in 2017

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on August 23, 2016 at 9:13 am

By Suzie Snyder, Nuclear Disarmament Programme Manager for Pax in the Netherlands.

8-19-2016

A nuclear working group at the UN concluded its work in Geneva today and the majority of governments voted to recommended that the UN General Assembly set up a conference in 2017 to negotiate a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the only weapon of mass destruction that are not outlawed by international treaty. But that is about to change.

2017 Conference
After more than twenty years of nothing, this working group just had a breakthrough. 107 governments said they support:

“The convening by the General Assembly of a conference in 2017 open to all states, international organisations, and civil society, to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons leading towards their total elimination”

It was a group of Pacific Island countries that said these exact words first. Diplomats who have personal connections with nuclear weapons- relatives who remember seeing the bombs explode in the distance. Friends that can never go home to what were once islands of paradise, and are now radioactive wastelands.

The 54 member African Group, the 33 member Community of Latin America and Caribbean countries (33) also voiced their support for a conference in 2017. For the first time, the ASEAN grouping (11) added their collective voice to this call for negotiations next year on a new nuclear weapons treaty.

It is now up to the October meeting of the UN General Assembly First Committee to take up this recommendation, and set up a meeting next year to negotiate a new treaty to finally make nuclear weapons illegal.

Putting people first
This breakthrough is result of the new global discourse on nuclear weapons. Since Norway hosted the first conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in 2013, the effect of the weapons on humans and the environment has taken center stage.

Three conferences were held on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons (Norway, Mexico, Austria). These brought together governments, academia and civil society for fact based examination of what the weapons can do- and what can be done to mitigate their effect. The result was: nothing. The conferences found that there is no way to recover from any use of nuclear weapons in populated areas, and no way to prevent the damage from crossing borders.

No one can deny the catastrophic humanitarian harm that would be the result of any use of nuclear weapons. By discussing the effect of the weapons, they have been increasingly seen as illegitimate. The majority of countries have rejected the use of nuclear weapons, under any circumstances.

There are only a very few countries that still hold onto the idea that nuclear weapons are useful. It is actually less than 20% of UN members. These countries include the possible use of nuclear weapons in their security strategies or doctrines. Overwhelmingly, however, the recognition is that any use of the nuclear weapons would have a catastrophic effect not constrained by national borders.

Banning the bomb
International treaties exist to prohibit all other weapons of mass destruction (Chemical and Biological) as well as to outlaw other weapons with indiscriminate effects (anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs). The fact that nuclear weapons are not clearly illegal is simply bizarre.

No weapon has ever been eliminated before it was made illegal, and nuclear weapons are no exception. A ban would not only make it illegal for nations to use or possess nuclear weapons; it would also help pave the way to their complete elimination. Nations committed to reaching the goal of abolition have shown that they are ready to start negotiations in 2017.

The overwhelming majority is about to ban the bomb.

For more information: http://www.icanw.org

Follow Susi Snyder on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/susisnyder

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