Archive for November, 2014|Monthly archive page

Risk of nuclear war is real. What should we do?

In Uncategorized on November 24, 2014 at 3:56 am

Go to this link for a graphic look at the problem and persuasive ideas for what to do.  http://nuclearrisk.org/index.php

Thanks, LeRoy

Rocky Flats was just a “fancy machine shop”. Oh, really??

In Environment, Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats on November 22, 2014 at 6:01 am

This article was written by Terrie Barrie, whose husband is a former Rocky Flats worker and who herself is one of the leading advocates for workers in the nuclear weapons industry who find it difficult or impossible to get promised government compensation for ailments likely brought on by exposure to radioactive and toxic materials in the workplace.  I copy it because I too think the statement that Rocky Flats was just a “fancy machine shop” is both false and ludicrous.  Read on to see more of what I’m talking about

Rocky Flats was just a “fancy machine shop”. Oh, really??

Terrie Barrie, June 1, 2014

June 6 will be the 25th anniversary of the FBI raiding Rocky Flats for alleged environmental crimes.  The Arvada Center for the Arts is holding a free, three day event commemorating this event.  http://arvadacenter.org/on-stage/rocky-flats-then-and-now-2014

In anticipation of this event, the Denver Post published an article on Sunday http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_25874064/feds-raided-rocky-flats-25-years-ago-signaling

I am honored to participate in one panel discussion regarding the worker health issue.  So, I was kind of excited about the publicity.  That is until I read this paragraph

 “Rocky Flats was nothing but a fancy machine shop … in what was then the middle of nowhere. But we had machining capabilities that nobody else had,” said Scott Surovchak, Rocky Flats legacy site manager for the Department of Energy.”

Really, Mr. Surovchak?    Just a fancy machine shop?  Do you know what Rocky Flats did for 50 years?

I stewed over this statement all day.  I was furious.  Then the former workers from Rocky Flats and other nuclear weapons sites started emailing me their thoughts on this statement and I decided to write this blog.

Yes, Rocky Flats machined components for a nuclear weapon.  In fact, for those of you who are not familiar with nuclear weapons, they machined the actual plutonium pit.  But the activities at Rocky Flats didn’t stop at machining parts.  There were chemical processes to retrieve the valuable radioactive materials from waste products.  For instance there was a molten salt extraction process to recover americium from Plutonium 241, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bk-1980-0117.ch032.  In the early years there was also a foundry in Building 881. This foundry “cast enriched uranium into spherical shapes that were sent directly to machining.” http://www.lm.doe.gov/land/sites/co/rocky_flats/HAER/base/Buildings/881.htm.

If the statement that Rocky Flats was just a fancy machine shop, I have to ask, what respectable machine shop would not have a Criticality Lab?  Yup, the Rocky Flats fancy machine shop had one.  http://oralhistory.boulderlibrary.org/interview/oh1179/

This statement does a great disservice to the thousands of women and men who worked not only at Rocky Flats but at all of the nuclear weapons facilities.  It trivializes the serious and dangerous work performed by the dedicated employees during the Cold War.

I was a bit hesitant in writing this blog.  Am I sure I want to stir things up right before the Arvada Center’s event?  Will this jeopardize the Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups (ANWAG) and DEEOIC Interim Advisory Board (DIAB) working relationship with DOE?  Was it possible that the reporter misstated Mr. Surovchak’s  statement or took it out of context?

As I said, earlier, I received a number of replies from the former workers.  The one that convinced me that this blog needed to be written came from Mr. Maurice Copeland.  Mr. Copeland is a former worker from the Kansas City Plant and DIAB Board member.  He is also the petitioner to have that site included in the Special Exposure Cohort.  He emailed me and stated that the Deputy Site Manager referred to the Kansas City Plant “as just another manufacturing plant.”  Did a memo go out directing the site managers to minimize to the public the type of work performed at these sites and the possible impact?

In 1999, then Secretary Bill Richardson acknowledged and apologized for the harm done to the workers at these facilities.  Is DOE reverting to denying – or at least play down – the serious issues surrounding this program?

I’m a sick nuclear weapons worker advocate and obviously I take this responsibility as seriously as a mother bear protecting her cubs.  There is also the environmental issue involving these sites.  There are plenty of dedicated advocates for those problems.  If we are going to face the problems the sick workers and the communities face in order to resolve them the federal government needs to be honest and open.  It’s that simple.

One of the worst nuclear spills ever

In Environment, Human rights, Nuclear Policy, Public Health, Race, Workplace exposure on November 12, 2014 at 11:24 pm

The following article from the NY Times describes what happened with a spill of nuclear material in Juarez, Mexico (across the river from El Paso). It’s the sort of accident that could happen anywhere, any time — and harm many people, like this one did.  This is a reprint of an article from 1984, when the spill occurred.

Nuclear Spill

at Juarez

By Sandra Blakeslee, NY Times,  May 1, 1984

FIVE months ago, a Mexican electrician forced open an unmarked capsule filled with 6,010 tiny, silvery pellets that looked like cake decorations. He paid little attention as they spilled into the bed of his pickup truck, onto the road and later throughout a junkyard in his hometown of Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso.

But at that moment the electrician unwittingly caused what is now being recognized as potentially the worst spill of radioactive material in North American history. Since then, more than 200 people have been exposed to radiation from the tiny pellets of cobalt 60 that had once been the core of a cancer-treatment device.

The full dimensions of the spill, which officials in the United States said has released radiation 100 times more intense than the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, are still unknown because the incident was so unusual. Unlike most nuclear accidents, in which one or two people are exposed to a brief burst of high radiation, this one involved scores of people exposed to low but significant levels of radiation intermittently over a long period of time.

Mexican officials say it is too soon to know if the people exposed to the radiation suffered any long-term health effects. But 10 people exposed in Juarez have undergone chromosome tests, and all showed damage, the authorities said.

”In terms of how many people were potentially exposed and the duration of their exposure, it could be the most serious radiation accident” in North America, said Karl Hubner, a leading radiation accident expert at the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Tennessee.

Most of the cobalt 60 pellets were scooped up by a giant junkyard magnet, mixed in with other scrap metal and taken to two Mexican foundries, where they were melted into steel reinforcement rods and restaurant table legs. Thousands of tons of this ”hot” metal were then shipped throughout Mexico and the United States.

Meanwhile, hundreds of the pellets remained in the back of the electrician’s pickup truck, which sat parked for eight weeks in a busy neighborhood of Juarez. People walked by the truck every day, and neighborhood children played on it.

Mexican public health officials said that about 200 people were exposed, but that most are believed to have absorbed relatively low levels of radiation. The device involved in the Juarez accident was a Picker 3000 cancer therapy unit. Manufactured about 20 years ago, it contained small pellets of metallic cobalt, made radioactive in a nuclear reactor, that were placed in a stainless steel container. This capsule was sealed in a tungsten wheel the size of a tricycle tire, which was then placed behind thick lead shielding. Radiation emitted through a pinhole in the lead was used to treat patients with localized cancers. About 1,000 newer cancer-treatment machines using the same principle are in use today throughout the United States, Dr. H”ubner said.

In 1977 a Lubbock, Tex., hospital sold the unit to an X-ray equipment company in Fort Worth, which in turn sold it to a medical clinic, Centro Medico, in Juarez.

According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the sale was legal even though the clinic in Mexico had no license to receive radioactive materials.

Once in Juarez, however, the machine sat in a warehouse. Doctors at the clinic said they were never able to hire the specialist required to operate the device.

Device Sold to Junkyard for Nine Dollars

Then, late last November, an electrician, Vicente Sotelo, said he was told to go to the warehouse to pick up some material and to take it to the Jonke Fenix junkyard in Juarez. He and a co-worker heaved the radioactive tungsten wheel, which had been removed from its enormous lead casing, into the back of a pickup truck. Mr. Sotelo later told the authorities he forced the unmarked capsule open on the back of his truck.

Doctors at the clinic say Mr. Sotelo was not authorized to take the wheel containing the capsule, which he sold to the junkyard for $9. No charges have been filed, and the Mexican authorities said they were still investigating the incident.

When the capsule was breached it held about 400 curies of radioactive cobalt in the 6,010 pellets. Each pellet, according to Joel Lubenau, a health physicist at the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, produced a radiation dose of 25 rads per hour two inches from the pellet. One to 50 rads per hour is considered a significant radiation dose. In comparison, the highest exposure a bystander could have received from the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island was 100 millirads, or about one-tenth of a rad.

A rad is a unit of absorbed radiation. An average chest X-ray produces 20 to 30 millirads instantaneously. A lethal dose for half the population is 450 rads received instantaneously over the whole body.

”If you sat next to a pellet over many hours, you might several days later develop a reddening of the skin,” Dr. Lubenau said. ”If a pellet became embedded in your shoe you could get localized high exposure to the body.”

Children Played on ‘Hot’ Truck

By Dec. 6, Mr. Sotelo had thrown the capsule off his truck into the salvage yard. The date is known because all paperwork from the junkyard dated Dec. 6 or later is radioactive.

About 60 curies of cobalt remained on the truck, which Mr. Sotelo drove home to his neighborhood in another part of the city. It stood parked for eight weeks, most of the time with a flat tire, near a row of back-street houses. Children played on and near the truck. People passed it every day, including Mr. Sotelo’s own family.

The truck was dangerously ”hot.” From one yard away, it emitted 50 rads an hour of radioactivity. ”It was a large source that can give whole body exposure,” Dr. Lubenau said. ”Most people at 100 rads or so will start demonstrating physical signs of radiation injury.” These include a decrease in white blood cells, which protect the body from infection, and blood platelets, as well as temporary damage to the body’s chromosomes.

Meanwhile, the capsule containing the remaining cobalt pellets – 340 curies worth – was contaminating the junkyard. It was dumped near an enormous magnet used to pick up and load scrap metal onto trucks, the metal to be recycled at Mexican foundries.

The capsule was made of nonferrous metal. Every time it was scooped up by the magnet, it eventually fell to the ground, spilling out cobalt pellets like salt from a shaker. The pellets were ferrous. The magnet picked them up and mixed them into the scrap leaving the junkyard. Some pellets were pulverized and thoroughly spread across the huge junkyard, and others are believed to have become imbedded in truck tires and spread along highways.

In this manner, 300 curies of radioactive cobalt made its way to two foundries. One in Juarez manufactured metal table legs and sent them to the largest distributor of restaurant tables in the United States. Another in Chihuahua produced about 5,000 tons of rebar, or steel rods used to reinforce concrete in building projects.

About 600 tons of the contaminated steel was shipped to the United States in December and January.

Spill Discovered by Accident

When a delivery truck took a wrong turn near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on Jan. 17, a radiation alarm was tripped. Thus, by accident, did the American and Mexican authorities learn of the contamination. It was quickly traced to the junkyard, which was closed Jan. 20. Mr. Sotelo’s truck was impounded Jan. 26.

American officials said they tracked down all the table legs and rebar in February and March and have returned the material to Mexico. While there were a few ”hot spots” of up to 600 millirads per hour, most of the metal produced very low levels of radiation and never posed a serious health threat to Americans who came in contact with the metal, they said.

But Mexican officials have had a much tougher job. About 40 curies of the cobalt pellets remained spread around the junkyard. It took two months to mop up there.

Pellets could have been dropped anywhere on the roads between Juarez and Chihuahua. Last month a special reconnaisance helicopter provided by the United States Department of Energy flew over the area and found 22 radioactive sites. Eight pellets were dug out of highway pavement.

Such material, along with the radioactive truck, is now in a special holding area near Juarez, waiting to be buried at a safe disposal site, said Roberto Trevino of Mexico’s National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards.

Thousands of tons of contaminated rebar, however, have spread into four or five Mexican states. Hundreds of new homes built with the rods may have to be torn down, he said.

Chromosome Damage Is Found

The accident has been costly to Mexico. But the greatest toll may be levied on the people who were most exposed to the radioactive cobalt.

The problem, Dr. Hubner said, is to figure how to identify the people who were exposed and what doses of radioactivity they encountered.

One standard method of assessing radiation exposure, which costs about $1,000 per person to conduct, involves looking for chromosome damage. It is controversial because it cannot predict long-term health consequences of radiation exposure.

White blood cells of 10 Juarez residents, four people from the neighborhood and six junkyard workers, were cultured in Dr. Hubner’s laboratory. As the cells were allowed to divide 500 times, the number of broken or aberrant chromosomes were counted. This number was then used to estimate the dose of radiation received.

It appears that several people were exposed to 150 or 200 rads, Dr. Hubner said, which is higher than the doses received by Marshall Islanders who encountered radioactive fallout from United States nuclear tests. Those with the highest exposures included two junkyard workers, one of Mr. Sotelo’s neighbors and the man who helped Mr. Sotelo load the cancer device off the truck. Mr. Sotelo apparently escaped serious contamination.

But ”broken chromosomes only tell us there was damage and nothing about its biological consequences,” Dr. Hubner said. ”It is not predictive in terms of genetic effects or future cancers.”

Meanwhile, the junkyard workers and families are being monitored by Mexican health officials. One man received a radiation burn on his hand, Mr. Trevino said, and others experienced blackened fingernails and reduced sperm counts. But blood counts appear to have returned to normal, he said, and no one seems to have suffered serious health complications.

‘It’s O.K. – We’re Still Alive’

Mr. Sotelo, who has three children, said that he has been dismissed from his job and cannot find another, and that his neighbors are worried and upset. But ”It’s O.K.,” he said. ”We’re still alive. Maybe the doctors exaggerated the danger.”

Concern over the implications of the incident continues. American officials, worried that more contaminated rebar might make its way into the United States, have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to place scores of radiation detectors at all major border crossings.

The commission is taking a new look at export regulations, according to Richard Cunningham of the agency’s division of materials licensing and policy issues. ”There is no requirement now that we have to know if a person who receives a radioactive material from this country is authorized by their own country to possess it,” he said. ”We sell thousands of radioactive sources to other nations every year.”

Mexican and United States officials are meeting today in El Paso to discuss ways to help one another finish cleaning up the Juarez accident, to monitor the health of people exposed to radiation and how to prevent future accidents.

”There is a growing international trade in nuclear materials used for medicine, research and industrial purposes,” Dr. H”ubner said. ”Although this type of accident is rare, it could happen again anywhere to anyone.”

Radiation Guide

In Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Public Health on November 10, 2014 at 9:26 am

To view a very helpful Radiation Guide, prepared by a Japanese woman and focused largely on Fukushima, go to

Don’t bank on the bomb

In Democracy, Human rights, Nonviolence, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on November 9, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Most of us have checking accounts. And we may be banking with a bank that invests in the production of nuclear bombs. If your bank invests in companies that produce bombs or parts for bomb or their delivery systems, you, by banking with them, are also supporting the making of bombs. But now you can very easily tell your bank to end their support of nuclear weapons. To do this, go on line to http://goodbyenuk.es/take-action/.  There you can send a message directly to your bank asking that they divest from their support of bombs. If they do nothing, then you can simply move your account to a bank that doesn’t support bombs. Thanks for taking this step. Divestment campaigns have proven very effective on other issues, and this approach is now for the very first time being applied to banks that invest in companies that produce bombs.