Archive for the ‘Public Health’ Category

Climate Change Linked to Giant Spike in Forest Fires

In Environment, Human rights, Public Health on October 13, 2016 at 9:57 am

Takepart, October 12, 2016

By David Kirby

Researchers find that the number of acres burned has doubled as temperatures have risen, destroying wildlife habitat and harming human health.
It’s not your imagination: Wildfires are spreading, and climate change is to blame.

A new study has found that climate change from human activity nearly doubled the area burned by forest fires over the past three decades in the Western United States.

“We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million hectares of forest fire area during 1984–2015,” the authors wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s 16,200 square miles, roughly the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

Increased forest fires have ripple effects that include destruction of wildlife habitat, respiratory illnesses in humans from smoke, rising carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, and more public spending on firefighting.

Research has linked climate change to the jump forest fires, but the new study is the first to quantify that relation, said coauthor Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Average temperatures in Western U.S. forests have risen by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 and are expected to keep climbing. Rising temperatures increase the dryness of brush, according to the study, which in turn increases the risk of forest fires. Other factors include natural fire suppression measures that allow for excess fuel growth, human settlement, and natural climate variability.

The researchers found that between 2000 and 2015, climate change caused 75 percent more forested area to experience high fire-season fuel aridity and an average of nine additional days per year of high fire potential.

“We were surprised by what a strong relationship there was between the dryness of the climate, which is affected by temperatures, and the area of Western forest that was burned,” Williams said.

“Even though there are a lot of things that affect fire, this one variable, the dryness of the environment, accounts for almost all of the changes in forest fire area over the last 32 years,” he added.

Tinderbox conditions are not the only climate change factor affecting forest fires. Reduced snowpack, for example, could be affecting soil moisture, and rising temperatures might increase lightning strikes, igniting more fires.

Other factors not included in the study were vegetation growth possibly caused by rising carbon dioxide levels, vegetation killed by drought, and millions of dead trees as a result of infestation by beetles that flourish in warmer weather.

As temperatures rise, the situation will grow more dire.

“The growing influence [of human-caused climate change] on fuel aridity is projected to increasingly promote wildfire potential across Western U.S. forests in the coming decades and pose threats to ecosystems, the carbon budget, human health, and fire suppression budgets,” the study said.

How bad will things get? Forest fires will burn hotter and longer—until there are no more large swaths of forest to burn, Williams said. Until then, “it seems like as long as the Earth keeps warming, at least for the next couple of decades, we’re going to continue to see big increases in fire.”

There is some cause for hope.

“Warming is going to continue happening no matter what, and that means that increased forest fire areas in the Western U.S. are going to continue happening no matter what,” Williams said. “But if we do manage to adhere to the Paris agreement [on greenhouse gas emissions] and the globe does start emitting less CO2 into the atmosphere, then the relative effects will be reduced.”

A Dozen Reasons Why the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge Should remain Closed to the Public

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on October 1, 2016 at 1:05 am

Prepared by LeRoy Moore, PhD, Rocky Mountain Peace & Justice Center, September 2016

After completion of the Superfund cleanup of the 6,500-acre site of the defunct Rocky Flats nuclear bomb plant, about three-fourths of the site (roughly 7 square miles) was removed from the Superfund list of most contaminated sites and transferred from the Department of Energy (DOE) to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to operate as a Wildlife Refuge. DOE retained 1,309 acres (about 2 square miles) of more contaminated land that remains on the Superfund list and is surrounded by the Refuge.

  1. Long-term danger of plutonium Plutonium 239, the contaminant of principal concern at Rocky Flats, has a half-life of 24,110 years. It remains dangerously radioactive for more than a quarter-million years. Any quantity left in the environment poses an essentially permanent danger.
  2. Plutonium’s lethal quality The alpha radiation emitted by plutonium cannot penetrate skin. But tiny particles inhaled or taken into the body through an open wound will lodge somewhere in the body. For as long as it resides in the body – typically for the rest of one’s life – it bombards surrounding cells with radiation. The result may be cancer, a compromised immune system or genetic harm passed on to future generations.
  3. Hazardous in very small amounts Plutonium particles of 10 microns or smaller can be inhaled. One micron is 1/millionth of a meter (a meter is 39.37 inches, slightly longer than a yard). For further comparison, the average diameter of a human hair is about 50 microns. Meteorologist W. Gale Biggs found that airborne particles at Rocky Flats “are probably smaller than 0.01 microns.” Researchers at Columbia University demonstrated that a single plutonium particle induces mutations in mammal cells. Cells receiving very low doses were more likely to be damaged than destroyed. Replication of these damaged cells constitutes genetic harm that can become cancer, and more such harm per unit dose occurs at very low doses than would occur with higher doses.
  4. Extent of contamination at Rocky Flats unknown Fires, accidents, routine operations, and random dumping during production years released plutonium particles to the environment. The prevailing wind heads east and southeast, but it blows in all directions some of the time. Hence, plutonium was scattered across the whole of the nearly 10 square-mile site. No one knows the full extent of the contamination because this was not determined. The methods used to locate plutonium could have missed hot spots.
  5. The difference between the cleanup the public sought and what it got In 1995 the single most widely supported cleanup recommendation from the public called for eventual cleanup to average background radiation levels from global fallout, with initial cleanup to go as far in this direction as current technology allows while the site becomes a research lab for development of technology to do better. Neither happened. Instead, the cleanup finally agreed to by DOE, EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) in 2003 allowed in the top 3 feet of soil a quantity of plutonium up to 1,250 times average background levels, with much more allowed in soil at a depth of 3 to 6 feet and no limit on the quantity of plutonium allowed in soil below 6 feet.
  6. Dollars and date, not public health, drove the cleanup DOE and its contractor, Kaiser-Hill, made a secret deal with Congress to cleanup and close Rocky Flats by a fixed date for a fixed sum. Tailoring the cleanup to fit these limits, they rejected appeals from some in the public willing to seek more funds for a more thorough cleanup. Of the $7 billion allotted to close the site by December 2006, no more than $473 million (about 7%) could be spent on actual remediation of the environment. Kaiser-Hill received $560 million for its work.
  7. Local people rejected both the cleanup and recreation at the wildlife refuge Of the individuals and organizations that commented on the final Rocky Flats Cleanup Agreement adopted in June 2003, 85.6% rejected the plan as inadequate, due mainly to the plutonium being left behind. 81% of those who commented on FWS plans to open the wildlife refuge to public recreation opposed the idea. These comments are part of the public record.
  8. Plutonium not stable in the environment EPA and CDPHE claim that there is no pathway by which plutonium left in soil at Rocky Flats can reach human subjects. This is refuted by a 1996 study in which ecologist Shawn Smallwood shows that 18 species of burrowing animals present at Rocky Flats dig down to as much as 16 feet, constantly redistributing soil and its contents. In a wholly random way they bring buried plutonium to the surface where tiny particles can be transported near and far by the wind common at the site and made available to be internalized by unwitting humans. In any given year burrowing animals disturb 10 to 12% of surface soil on the site. Though this study was done in 1996, EPA and CDPHE ignored it when in 2003 they approved the final cleanup plan for Rocky Flats.
  9. The cleanup does not protect the most vulnerable, especially children The “risk-based cleanup” at Rocky Flats was calculated to protect a wildlife refuge worker, that is, a physically active adult in good health. The cleanup was not designed to protect the very young, the very old, the infirm. FWS expects children to visit the wildlife refuge. The human child, without question, is the most vulnerable to plutonium exposure of all creatures, because a child is likely to stir up dust, to eat dirt, to breathe in gasps, or to scrape a knee or elbow, all ways of taking plutonium into the body. Once internalized, the material integrates with the child’s tissue development and wreaks havoc within the child’s body for the duration of her or his life. Playing with plutonium is a dangerous proposition.
  10. EPA and CDPHE mislead the public when they say Rocky Flats is “safe” The National Academy of Sciences report on Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation (2006) affirms that exposure to any level of ionizing radiation is potentially harmful. In 2004 British researchers concluded that cancer risk from exposure to very low doses of plutonium may be ten or more times more dangerous than allowed by existing official standards for permissible exposure.
  11. EPA and CDPHE oppose informed consent for visitors to the wildlife refuge State Representative Wes McKinley was foreman of the grand jury that spent nearly 3 years reviewing evidence of alleged environmental lawbreaking at Rocky Flats collected by the FBI in its 1989 raid on the plant. 65 cartons of documents from this investigation remain sealed in the Denver federal courthouse; they were never examined by EPA and CDPHE, regulators of the Rocky Flats cleanup. McKinley is under court order not to reveal what he learned about conditions at Rocky Flats, but he objects to opening the wildlife refuge to the public. His efforts to get informed consent regarding risk at the refuge for potential refuge visitors were opposed by the very agencies that made no effort to determine whether the 65 cartons in the federal courthouse contain data pertinent to the Rocky Flats cleanup.
  12. Genetic effects of plutonium exposure are poorly understood In a 2000 study Diethard Tautz said genetic effects of radiation exposure on a given species of wildlife may not show up until generations later when harm is irreversible. Ecologist Shawn Smallwood found that no study of genetic effects on wildlife has been done at Rocky Flats or any other DOE site. Any harm to wildlife at Rocky Flats will not be confined to the bounds of the site. Deer from the site have been shown to have plutonium in their bodies. Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller, writing about humans in 1964, reached a conclusion very similar to that of Tautz, namely, that the effect of radiation exposure may not be apparent for several generations.

For documentation and more information, see Plutonium and People Don’t Mix at http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/leroy-moore



Storing nuclear waste: Is ‘consent’ OK when future generations can’t weigh in

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Public Health on September 23, 2016 at 6:55 am

PUBLISHED: September 21, 2016 at 8:52 am | UPDATED: September 21, 2016 at 8:57 am

There are barbs about “mobile Chernobyls” and “floating Fukushimas,” fears of “coerced consent” and “economic racism,” and deep philosophizing about the nature of “consent” itself. Is such a thing possible when generations unborn will be impacted by decisions made today?

“‘Consent’ to dump nuclear waste in America’s back yard is not going to be approved by the American people no matter how your PR strategists massage the lipstick on that pig,” David Osinga told the U.S. Department of Energy in an email.

The DOE’s latest idea for figuring out where to stash millions of pounds of nuclear waste garnered more than 10,000 comments from concerned citizens nationwide, according to documents released last week. And while many disagree vehemently on the particulars, they are largely united on one point: After decades of dithering, the federal government must finally take action on its long-broken promise to permanently dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel.

This collection of carping and commentary (“I’ve seen people grow old in this business of trying to solve the nuclear waste problem”) is part of DOE’s new push to create temporary nuclear waste storage sites in regions eager for the business, such as West Texas and New Mexico. Several such sites could be up and running while the prickly question of finding a location for a permanent repository – the root of the present paralysis in nuclear waste disposal – is hashed out.

That could mean removing spent fuel from the bluffs beside the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station a decade or so earlier than currently envisioned, which is now 2049, according Southern California Edison’s decommissioning plan.

Across America, some 165 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel cools at 75 commercial reactor sites, due to the federal government’s failure to honor the contractual promise it made to utilities back in 1982. But more on that in a minute.


The day before this treasure trove of public opinion was compiled, nuclear power’s future in America was the focus of a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There, Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed deep frustration.

“I can’t just support nuclear power generation if there is no strategy for the interim storage and long-term disposal of the waste,” she said.

“If we can’t properly store the waste, we shouldn’t build the reactors.”

Feinstein, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – who dearly wants to see more reactors as part of a clean energy future – have worked across the aisle for five years in an effort to break bureaucratic paralysis on nuclear waste policy. So far, they have gotten nowhere.

“This is one of my great disappointments,” Feinstein said.

Some 130 million people live within 50 miles of a nuclear storage site in the U.S., she said – more than 2 in 5 Americans. In California alone, there are nearly 8,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies stored in pools and dry casks at four sites, including San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. All are shut down, or will close shortly, leaving behind what is known in the industry as “stranded waste.”

“The future of nuclear power in this country depends on a solution to the waste problem,” Feinstein said. “Public safety and public acceptance of nuclear power, I believe, depend on it.”

The lesson of the moribund Yucca Mountain repository – largely a waste of time and $10 billion – is that state governments and local communities must be willing to host a repository, she said.

Storage should also be far from population centers. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we’re dealing with very dangerous materials,” she said. “Problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico are a prime example of the risks we face.”

That New Mexico plant is a deep geologic repository to permanently dispose of waste from nuclear weapons research and production. On Valentine’s Day in 2014, radioactive materials leaked from a damaged storage drum. Cleanup could top $2 billion and still is not complete.

“Here we have one of the premier laboratory facilities in world, at Los Alamos, making a basic chemistry error on the packaging of waste drums,” Feinstein said. “One mistake in a single drum contaminated more than a third of the entire site.

“That, to me, is really striking. If we can’t trust these experts to handle radioactive waste safely, what confidence can we have in other efforts to manage this material safely and securely, long-term, at 78 sites around the country?”

The same question was raised in many ways in the public comments to DOE.


By the end of December, the Department of Energy will publish details on how the consent-based siting process will work, as well as “considerations for interim storage and deep geologic repositories,” Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz told Feinstein’s committee last week.

The department’s 2017 budget sets aside $39.4 million for the consent-based siting effort, including $25 million for grants to interested states, Native American tribal nations and local governments. The money will help communities learn more about nuclear waste management and explore their potential roles in the effort.

Such interim storage facilities would allow the federal government to begin meeting its contractual waste management commitments; enable the permanent removal of spent nuclear fuel from shutdown reactors like San Onofre; provide crucial flexibility for the overall nuclear waste management system, such as the ability to conduct thermal management activities and repackage spent nuclear fuel; and be a useful learning experience with research on the behavior of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste over time, he said.

Private initiatives are in addition to the DOE’s efforts and may accelerate the schedule to remove spent fuel from the shutdown reactor sites, Moniz said.

“These initiatives present a novel approach that is distinctly different from DOE’s consent-based siting approach, as they essentially already include an aspect of community, state and tribal consent,” he said. “DOE is encouraged by the opportunities presented by these private initiatives, and we are preparing to seek public input on how a privately owned storage facility could fit into the overall integrated waste management system.”

That will move us toward a solution, and avoid leaving the burden to future generations, he said.


To encourage the development of nuclear power, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Act in 1982. It promised to accept and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from commercial reactors by Jan. 31, 1998. In return, utilities operating nuclear plants promised to make quarterly payments into a Nuclear Waste Fund to pay for disposal.

The utilities, and consumers, held up their end of the bargain – pumping about $750 million a year into the fund – but the DOE has not accepted a single ounce of commercial nuclear waste for permanent disposal.

Saddled with decades’ worth of waste, utilities sued the DOE for breach of contract and won. The federal government has paid more than $3.7 billion to utilities thus far, and taxpayers could fork over another $21 billion to $50 billion before Uncle Sam figures it all out, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Nuclear Waste Fund cannot collect more money. A federal judge said DOE couldn’t charge for a service it not only wasn’t providing, but wouldn’t provide for many decades. In 2014, utilities all across America stopped charging customers the disposal fee (some 20 cents a month on the average electric bill).

About $41 billion had been collected by the Nuclear Waste Fund over three decades. Some $30 billion remains in the fund, after spending $10 billion on a Yucca Mountain disposal site.

Southern California Edison, San Onofre’s owner, has recovered more than $300 million from the federal government over this failure. Dry storage is being built on a bluff above the Pacific, and spent waste will remain there until the government finds a solution.


The Department of Energy received more than 10,000 comments on its plans for interim, consent-based storage for nuclear waste. Full text with attribution can be found here, but here are some highlights:

“Two key questions for reaching a siting agreement are who negotiates and who decides?”

“There is a fine line between incentives and coerced consent. We need to acknowledge that line, and walk it carefully.”

“Economically disadvantaged communities are especially at risk. Special effort must be made to inform and engage disadvantaged groups that could possibly be affected.”

“We are talking about something that stays toxic and dangerous for generations to come. How can one generation give ‘consent’ for future generations?”

“I think this process is going to work for DOE. It just has to be done carefully and tactfully to be a success. Benefits of accepting a site must be communicated to communities.”

“My concern is what I feel is the lack of urgency in dealing with this…. We’ve already been dealing with this problem for 70 years. It’s time to get the solution done, resolved and unless we can’t get it done very quickly, I contend that we need to stop making this stuff.”

“I’m tired of hearing DOE talk about being in the early stages of something we’ve been at for decades.”

The Conservation Crisis No One Is Talking About

In Environment, Justice, Peace, Public Health on September 22, 2016 at 10:03 am

TAKEPART, Sept. 21, 2016

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.


Coastal sand is disappearing as a growing construction industry sucks up a valuable resource.

Beaches around the world are disappearing.

No, the cause isn’t sea-level rise, at least not this time. It’s a little-known but enormous industry called sand mining, which every year sucks up billions of tons of sand from beaches, ocean floors, and rivers to make everything from concrete to microchips to toothpaste.

In the process, conservationists warn, the sand mining industry is damaging ecosystems, changing coastal water flows, and making beaches and communities less resilient to storm surges and floods as climate change accelerates.

“Sand is actually the second-most-used natural resource on Earth, behind water,” said Claire Le Guern Lytle, general director of the Santa Aguila Foundation, which was founded in 2009 to focus on coastal preservation. “It’s a finite resource, and it’s depleting very quickly, but nobody thinks about it.”

“No one ever thought we’d run out of sand,” said Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s a devastating problem, but nobody in the U.S. has a concept of it because we go to the beach and see this big wide expanse of sand.” The problem is worse, he said, in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. “They’re basically just sucking the sand up, taking entire coastlines and islands away.”

Most of the extracted coastal sand is used to make concrete and glass, the staples of the construction industry. “The numbers are staggering,” Le Guern Lytle said. “An average-size house requires 200 tons of sand. A hospital requires 3,000 tons. Every kilometer of highway requires 30,000 tons.”

A 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that the construction industry consumed 25.9 billion to 29.6 billion tons of sand in 2012. The numbers are based not on reports of extraction—those reports don’t exist—but on how much concrete was used around the world that year. The U.N. called extraction rates “unsustainable” and noted that the rate of sand mining far exceeds the ability of natural systems to replenish themselves.

The problem is only going to get worse. As the human population grows, the construction industry is rushing to fill the need for housing, roads, hospitals, and other structures. As a result, the use of sand has soared. China’s construction industry has grown so large that it used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire 20th century.

China is hardly alone. A recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the global construction industry will grow 85 percent between now and 2030. China, the U.S., and India, the report found, will account for 57 percent of that growth. Meanwhile, the U.N.’s World Urbanization Prospects report predicts that the cities will add 2.5 billion residents by 2050, requiring the construction of a lot of new buildings.

It’s not just construction. “Sand is in everything we do,” Le Guern Lytle said. It’s used in products ranging from microchips to tires. The natural gas industry also relies on sand as part of the fracking extraction process. “Sand is used in many, many, many ways that are unknown to most,” she said.

Some of the sand comes directly from the beach, which can damage habitats for sea turtles and birds, but much of it is dredged up off the seafloor by large ships. Le Guern Lytle said that destroys critical breeding habitats for fish and other marine life. “Extracting sand from the sea bottom just dissolves that ecosystem,” she said.

Although much of the industry is legal, sand mining has become so lucrative that illegal activities are rife. Numerous reports out of India carry news of murders and other crimes carried out by “sand mafias” during the course of illegal sand mining activities. Other countries with recent reports of illegal sand mining include Namibia, Morocco, Malaysia, and Israel. “Sand mining is as much a human tragedy as it is an environmental tragedy,” Le Guern Lytle said.

Even as many beaches are mined, others need new sand to repair damage from ever more severe storms. Normally that would require trucking in sand from other sites, but that may not always be an option. “Beaches are the most effective natural buffer from waves, storms, hurricanes, and tsunamis,” said Griggs, who also pointed out their economic and cultural importance. “Here in California, almost half of the roughly $45 billion in the coastal economy comes from tourism and recreation.”

A recent warning from the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association noted that coastal communities may need to start exploring new and more expensive ways to shore up their shores, possibly by importing sand from faraway sources or turning glass back into beach-quality sand.

Although there is just one coastal sand mine in the U.S.—a huge, century-old operation near Monterey Bay that is being targeted by the California Coastal Commission for causing too much erosion—other mines are located inland. Wisconsin, for example, has dozens of mines extracting sand for use in fracking. “About 60 percent of all sand that’s used in fracking comes from Wisconsin,” said Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club’s John Muir Chapter in Madison. “It tends to be a real nightmare for the people that live around the mines.” The mining process, he said, often releases particulate matter into the air that can choke people’s wells and airways. “It can very easily lodge in your lungs,” he said.

Le Guern Lytle said that although the sand mining problem is invisible to most people, she has hope. “The United Nations report in 2014 was a humongous step,” she said. “The greatest progress now is bringing more awareness.”

A Light Shines in the Dakotas

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Public Health, Race on September 21, 2016 at 10:07 am

By Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune

September 14, 2016

Regardless of what happens next, the Dakota Access pipeline protest has already made history. More than 200 tribes and thousands of Native American activists have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a remarkable and virtually unprecedented show of unity. Yesterday, thousands of people protested in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux in more than 100 cities across the country. The source of the outrage is simple: The U.S. government attempted to fast-track a dangerous pipeline without properly and respectfully consulting the sovereign tribal nation whose ancestral lands and water it threatens.

But the government agent in this case — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — overlooked two things. First, for the Standing Rock Sioux, this is a life and death issue: “Mni Wiconi” (meaning “Water is life,” in Lakota). Second, for the greater Native American community, the Dakota Access fast-tracking has resonated as yet another injustice by those who, having seized the land, would then despoil it with equal measures of greed and indifference.

The Standing Rock Sioux and their allies exposed this injustice in the bright prairie sunlight for the entire world to see, until — finally — the government blinked. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement that, in effect, will temporarily halt 20 miles of pipeline construction bordering Lake Oahe on the Missouri River pending further study and possible reform of the consultation process with Native tribes.

This is a tremendous victory and sets a powerful legal precedent for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and for all of Indian Country, and I’m proud the Sierra Club has stood beside the tribe and been able to help in a small way. But what does this decision mean for the future of this pipeline, not to mention other dirty fuel projects?

Despite President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline last year, the system for approving such major projects remains rigged for disaster. A key problem highlighted by what’s happened in the Dakotas is the fast-track permitting process where the Army Corps of Engineers treats one huge pipeline as if it were a series of much smaller pipelines. By using what are called “nationwide permits,” which are supposed to cover small projects like residential developments and road crossings, the Corps has been able to circumvent both the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Rather than conduct a fair assessment of the risks posed by an entire pipeline to ancestral homelands, sacred sites, climate, air, and water, the Corps divides it into hundreds of individual segments and then concludes that each of them (surprise, surprise) is too insignificant to worry about.

This creative and dishonest use of nationwide permits sure sounds like something that would have been cooked up during the Bush/Cheney years, but that’s not the case. It happened on President Obama’s watch, beginning in 2012, and the Sierra Club, along with many other environmental groups, is demanding that it be stopped. Maybe, just maybe, the administration’s partial retreat on the Dakota Access pipeline approvals signals a change of direction.

At a minimum, though, the entire Dakota Access pipeline should be reevaluated based on the laws that were circumvented the first time it was approved. Had that been done, then complying with the Clean Water Act might have nixed the idea of routing it under the Missouri River, where a spill would have catastrophic effects on the sole drinking water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux. It’s inconceivable that the project was approved without a thorough and meaningful consultation with the first inhabitants of this land.

Likewise, under NEPA, the Army Corps of Engineers would need to do a proper environmental impact statement for the entire pipeline. In fact, that’s not a lot to ask. It’s how exactly how things worked prior to 2012 — often for pipelines that were much smaller and less controversial than this one.

Finally, any environmental assessment of a major pipeline such as this one should absolutely consider how it will affect climate change. That’s not just my opinion. President Obama’s own Council on Environmental Quality said as much in the guidance for federal agencies that it issued earlier this month: “Climate change is a fundamental environmental issue, and its effects fall squarely within NEPA’s purview.”

A 1,168-mile fracked oil pipeline has no honest chance of passing that test. The administration should go back and do this the right way. Once that happens, the Dakota Access pipeline should be canceled in its entirety.

Most important of all, the same rigorous standard needs to be applied every proposed fossil fuel infrastructure project (and there are many of them, with more on the way) so that we can leave dirty fuels in the ground and complete the transition to clean, renewable energy sources as quickly as possible.

Stand with Standing Rock

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Public Health, Race on September 10, 2016 at 8:11 am

Copyright Sept. 9, 2016 – Eco-Justice Ministries

Yesterday, I joined with a great crowd in downtown Denver to stand in solidarity with the Native American “protectors” encamped near the Standing Rock reservation, in North Dakota. Perhaps 2,000 of us marched from the four directions, and converged at the State Capitol for prayers, songs, and voices of witness.

My commitment to the ethical principles of eco-justice made it imperative that I attend the march, and that I continue to act in solidarity with those who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock reservation.

There are many reasons why I believe it is important to support this cause. Today, I will highlight two general factors, and four reasons specific to this issue. Also, I’ll suggest several ways that you can join with this movement. (Touching on so many points does mean that this Notes will be longer than usual — headings will allow you to skim the main topics.)

BREAKING NEWS: This afternoon, a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to immediately halt work on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

+ + + + +

Some brief background — The Dakota Access Pipeline, now under construction, is planned to run from northwestern North Dakota to southern Illinois. It is designed to carry more than 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken oil fields near the Canadian border.

At the core of the Standing Rock dispute are two issues about the routing of the pipeline: it would cross under the Missouri River just north of the reservation, and it crosses land that the Sioux tribe considers sacred.

On April 1 of this year, tribal citizens founded the Sacred Rock Spirit Camp along the path of the pipeline. In recent weeks, thousands of Native Americans, representing more than 250 tribes from across North America, have gathered at the camp, seeking to block the pipeline. A violent conflict last weekend between the private security forces of the pipeline company and some of the Native Americans catapulted the protest into national and international news. (On Wednesday of this week, the Washington Post published a fairly comprehensive story about the Standing Rock movement)

As one speaker last night said, “This in now a global issue, not a tribal issue.” There are two general principles and four specific reasons why I think people of faith and conscience need to “stand with Standing Rock.” Many of these factors are cited in recent statements from US denominations and church leaders. (Thanks to our friends at Creation Justice Ministries for links to those statements.)

1) Take Native claims seriously. As a matter of justice, I have been giving attention to this issue for several months because it is one arising from Native peoples, and dealing with Native lands. In Christian ethics, there is the principle of a “preferential option for the poor”, which calls on us to take very seriously the experiences and the voices of those who have been marginalized and oppressed. We are called to seek justice for “the least of these”, which surely includes those whose ancestral lands have been taken, and who experience high levels of poverty and despair.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of moral and legal principles which justified the exploitation of native peoples in the Americas. Any sense of repudiating — or even questioning — that doctrine requires that we honor the legal and moral claims of those people, and that we take seriously their cultural and religious views about the meaning of land and water. The claims of the Lakota and other native people provide us with a set of beliefs and values that are in sharp contrast to the dominant American culture, which must be respected on their own terms.

2) Ties to the larger climate movement. Regardless of the details of the Standing Rock challenge to DAPL, I am inclined to honor that protest as part of the larger climate movement. We join with them as allies in a cause that is larger than this one pipeline. The Standing Rock message is not a “not in my backyard” call to put the pipeline somewhere else. It is a call to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and turn toward a way of life that protects ecosystems, and provides justice for those most impacted by petroleum development.

As Bill McKibben wrote this week in the New Yorker, “The fight for environmental sanity — against pipelines and coal ports and other fossil-fuel infrastructure — has increasingly been led by Native Americans, many of whom are in that Dakota camp today.” We stand with Standing Rock, because they are providing vision and courageous leadership for the global climate justice movement.

The specifics of the DAPL also make this a compelling struggle for justice.

3) Permitting process and lack of consultation. The tribe’s legal claims include distressing details about irregularities in the process by which the pipeline received federal permits. A lawsuit filed in July says that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers used a “fast track” permitting process that circumvented a comprehensive environmental review. The the Crop approved the permit on July 26. The tribe received only a “48-hour notice” that construction would begin immediately adjacent to the reservation.

The tribe claims that consultations about the pipeline’s impacts to sacred sites and culturally important landscapes — required under the National Historic Preservation Act — were not taken seriously. These violations of laws and fair processes provide strong cause to support the legal challenges of the Standing Rock tribe.

4) Risk of the pipeline at river crossings. The Dakota Access Pipeline would be buried under the Missouri River just to the north — upstream — of the Standing Rock reservation. The river is the primary source of water for the reservation, for domestic uses, agriculture, and ecological health. The risk of the pipeline leaking oil into the river is a primary motivation for the protests, because it would be catastrophic for the tribe’s 8,000 residents, and for millions of other people downstream.

The fears of damage to water supplies are not ungrounded. Within the past few years, there have been several large oil spills into rivers, causing extreme damage and difficult remediation. In a very telling detail, the Bismark (ND) Tribune reported in August that “An early proposal for the Dakota Access Pipeline called for the project to cross the Missouri River north of Bismarck, but one reason that route was rejected was its potential threat to Bismarck’s water supply”. It is unconscionable that pipeline proponents trivialize the tribe’s concerns about risks to the river, when the same risks were decisive in protecting the water supply of the state’s capitol city.

5) Actions by the state of North Dakota to shut down the protest. As the Sacred Stone Camp drew more protectors, and as the protest started to gain more visibility — largely through social media, not the mainstream press — North Dakota officials took actions to shut down the protest. Governor Jack Dalyrmple declared a state of emergency on August 19. Highways leading to the site were closed, water supplies were blocked, and service crews for emptying the porta-potties were not allowed access to the site. The actions of government agencies to silence the protest are a reason for people of conscience to join in amplifying the message.

6) Actions by the pipeline contractor desecrating sacred lands. A decisive turning point happened last weekend, when the conflict escalated into acts of desecration and violence.

Last Friday, a legal filing by the tribe described the location of a sacred and historic site, including a Native burial ground, near the Sacred Stone Camp, and in the path of the pipeline. On Saturday, over the Labor day weekend, the pipeline contractors moved two bulldozers from another construction site quite a distance away, and intentionally graded a 150 foot wide swath across the location that the tribe had described. As the Washington Post reported, “When tribe members and others tried to prevent the action, they were stopped by private security workers for Dakota Access who used guard dogs and pepper spray to drive them back.” The images of dogs attacking the tribal members, including children and pregnant women, have often been compared to powerful photos from the Civil Rights movement in Selma and Birmingham — photos that outraged the nation, and gave strength to the movement’s call for transformation.

These blatant acts against the tribe — taken just before legal decisions about an injunction stopping that section of the pipeline’s construction — demand that all people speak strongly for justice.

Both in broad considerations of justice for Native peoples and climate action, and in numerous specific details about the Standing Rock tribe’s situation, principles of eco-justice and Christian ethics demand that we stand in solidarity and support with those protesting the pipeline in North Dakota.

+ + + + +

What can we do to join in solidarity with the Standing Rock people?

Next Tuesday, September 13, a wide variety of environmental and justice organizations are organizing a “#NoDAPL Day of Action” in many locations across the US. If there is an event near you, join it. If there isn’t a close-at-hand event, consider launching one.
Contributions are needed to support the Standing Rock legal defense fund, and the Sacred Stone Camp supply fund. (I made a contribution today.)
Contact the White House (by phone at 202-456-1111, or on-line telling President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ Permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Lift up the Standing Rock cause in your postings to social media — the hashtag #NoDAPL is encouraged — on in a letter to the editor.
Raise the Standing Rock fight for justice in your congregation, in prayers or newsletters. Feel free to link to this Eco-Justice Notes [http://www.eco-justice.org/E-160909.asp] or to hand out printed copies of this message.
Because of last weekend’s violence, and with legal decisions about to be announced, Standing Rock is in the news, and is presented to us as a matter of justice. Each of us must decide where we stand, and how we will act.

I have chosen to Stand with Standing Rock in word, deed, and with cash. I pray that you will join with me, and with the protectors at the Sacred Stone Camp.

Rev. Peter Sawtell
Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries

We welcome your comments and feedback on these newsletters — whether on Facebook on in emailed replies. Peter Sawtell reads all of the responses, and tries to reply to all substantive comments.
Eco-Justice Notes is only one of the e-mail publications from Eco-Justice Ministries.
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IMPORTANT CHANGE: Today, September 9, at about 5:30 I received the following:


I have great news!

Today, the federal government announced a halt on construction of a critical stretch of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation until additional environmental assessments on the project are complete.

This is a big deal!

The fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline is far from over, but we should celebrate this incredibly significant victory.

The federal government didn’t take these actions on their own. They were responding to unrelenting pressure from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native American leaders from across the country.

In fact, the gathering at the Sacred Stones Camp is the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years. What happened there over the last several days inspired a nation — a nation that too often forgets and neglects the original inhabitants of this land.

That’s why I started the petition demanding an investigation into the security guards who attacked the land protesters at the camp. While Sioux Tribe and other activists took action to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, I wanted to ensure that the American public had their back. I wanted to make sure that while the tribe and other Native leaders were taking a stand and risking so much for the land, we were taking a stand for them.

And I have more good news on that as well.

The North Dakota media is reporting that the North Dakota Private Investigation and Security Board will investigate the use of dogs last week by private security guards at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site.

The article announcing the investigation specifically cites our petition as a reason why the security guards will be investigated.

Without you signing this petition, I believe these “security guards” would have gotten away with their heinous actions.

Today proves that the more people who speak out, the bigger the impact we can have.

We still have a long fight ahead, and we’re not going anywhere. I’ll send you updates about how you can stay involved, but in the meantime be sure to follow these groups on Facebook for more information about how you can support their work.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Sacred Stone Camp
Red Warrior Camp
Thanks again for your support!


Matt A. Hildreth

P.S. Please be part of the national day of action against the Dakota Access Pipeline on Tuesday, September 13!



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.”


Twitter: @RVartabedian

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Watching the Nuclear Watchdog

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Public Health on August 9, 2016 at 3:22 am

By Janette D. Sherman, MD


Despite scientific findings linking low-level radiation exposure and cancer that go back as far as Madam Marie Curie in the 1930s, the nuclear power industry in the U.S. has evaded rigorous examination of the risks its plants pose to their neighbors and downwinders.

Senator Ted Kennedy demanded a study of cancer risks 27 years ago. For an industry that has been splitting uranium atoms to heat water and create electricity since 1957, one study hardly seems adequate. A second study is pending, but industry watchdogs worry it is so compromised that its results will be predictable.

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board issued a “Phase 2 pilot planning report.” The report was designated “planning” because executives at the agency have yet to decide how to conduct the study.

The current federally-sponsored study of cancer rates near nuclear plants is now nearly six years old, and will take at least five more years, maybe more, to complete. The planning is being shaped by regulators closely aligned with an industry that stands to lose if nuclear energy plants are linked to cancer.

The current study of cancer rates near nuclear plants is now nearly six years old, and will take at least five more years, maybe more, to complete. The planning is being shaped by regulators closely aligned with an industry that stands to lose if nuclear energy plants are linked to cancer.

To appreciate how flawed the process has been, a little history is needed. The building of nuclear power plants in the U.S. began in 1943 to produce atomic bombs. It was not until 1957 that plants began to produce electricity. In the 1980s, the number of power reactors peaked at 112. That is now 99 and falling.

Despite known releases of radiation from these reactors into the environment and a connection between radiation exposure and cancer that is now widely accepted among medical researchers, federal officials spent decades declaring no risk of developing cancer to anyone living near a reactor—without conducting any studies to support their claims.

That ended in 1988 when Ted Kennedy wrote a letter to James Wyngaarden, director of the National Institutes of Health. Kennedy had learned of an article in the medical journal The Lancet describing high leukemia rates around the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station near Boston. Wyngaarden took the senator’s not-so-subtle hint, and responded three weeks later:

“The National Institutes of Health is actively involved in studying the adverse effects of ionizing radiation, and we concur with your view that the risks at low levels need further clarification … We are currently correlating county mortality data from the 1950s through early 1980s with reactor operations.”

Wyngaarden wasn’t truthful about his staff “currently correlating” cancer data. No such process had begun until Kennedy’s letter arrived. Wyngaarden also demonstrated his pro-industry bias by writing: “The most serious health impact of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident that can be identified with certainty is mental stress to those living near the plant, particularly pregnant women and families with teenagers and young children.”

Following Kennedy’s request, the National Cancer Institute issued a report in July 1990, concluding: “The survey has produced no evidence that an excess occurrence of cancer has resulted from living near nuclear facilities.” Researchers, however, for the most part only surveyed cancer deaths, not incidences, thus limiting the consideration of radiation-sensitive cancers like thyroid and child cancer, which most victims survive. The safety of nuclear plants was subsequently ignored by officials except when they cited the 1990 report as evidence that it is “safe” to live near nuclear plants.

Then in May 2009, seemingly out of nowhere, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) posted a “pre-solicitation” notice for experts to conduct a cancer study near U.S. nuclear plants.

As encouraging as that might appear, an NRC-sponsored study of cancer risks near the reactors it regulates is a blatant conflict of interest. Approximately 90 percent of NRC funding comes from licensing fees paid by companies that own the nuclear plants that the commission regulates. Bad news about cancer and nuclear plants means bad news for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Moreover, NRC officials do not have medical backgrounds. They are mostly physicists and engineers, typically moving through the revolving door connecting the regulatory community and the industry. Most employees either have worked at nuclear plants or they will work at nuclear plants when they leave the agency.

To direct the study, the NRC approved a no-bid contract to the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Located at the world’s oldest nuclear weapons plant, the institute has extensive contracts with the U.S. Energy Department, which is strongly invested in nuclear development.

That conflict was too obvious. After protests by activists, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey intervened and the NRC responded by moving the study to the National Academy of Science, whose National Academy Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board would direct the project.

The Radiation Study Board’s chair was Richard Meserve, himself a former NRC chair—and an illustration of how compromised our nation’s nuclear regulators are.

Meserve has been a senior counselor to a law firm that works for the nuclear industry, a board member of nuclear energy companies in Texas and California, and board advisor to a French-U.S. conglomerate with plans to build new nuclear plants in the U.S.

Protests by anti-nuclear activists compelled Meserve to recuse himself from the project. Yet while other members of the study board are not as compromised as Meserve, few have backgrounds in public health or medicine, and none has ever published a peer-reviewed article on cancer near nuclear plants.

By now critics of this process expect a report that finds “no link” between cancer risk and living in proximity to a reactor.

Yet science uncompromised by relations with the industry has reached a different conclusion. At least 60 published, peer-reviewed studies have linked cancer to low-level exposure to radiation (particularly among children who are most susceptible).

Examples? A 2012 study of all nuclear plants in France found elevated levels of child leukemia in the vicinity of the plants. A 2008 study in Germany came to a similar conclusion regarding child leukemia and that country’s nuclear generating facilities.

A study in Archives of Environmental Health in 2003 found cancer rates in children that were 12.4 percent higher than nationwide occurrences in 49 counties surrounding 14 nuclear plants in the eastern U.S. (Note: The author was one of the five researchers.)

The obligation among government employees and scientists to maintain their objectivity and to protect human health is on the line with this upcoming study. That unbiased research is unlikely unless grassroots organizations and individuals keep the pressure on elected officials.

Five Things Scarier Than a Nuclear Trump

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Plutonium, Public Health on August 8, 2016 at 2:01 am

By Ralph Hutchison, Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance

The specter of an erratic, impulsive person with the nuclear launch codes at his fingertips has people talking about nuclear weapons again. That’s a good thing. There are nearly 20,000 warheads and missiles distributed around the world. They are capable of killing hundreds of millions of people in one afternoon. They are a greater and more imminent threat to life on the planet even than climate change. They are, to put it simply, an existential peril.

So of course it’s scary to think someone who is likely to say or do anything that pops into his or her head might be in a position to set off the final conflagration that results in mass murder on a scale impossible even to contemplate, with nuclear winter to follow, and widespread radiation contamination that will last for hundreds of millions of years.

But if that’s your biggest worry about nuclear weapons, you haven’t been paying attention.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of the scariest stuff about nuclear weapons is discussed in classified briefings, things too devastating for our tender ears to hear—even though the policies and plans being discussed could turn our tender ears and the rest of our tender bodies, along with our children and everyone we know, to ash in a millisecond.

Here are five things worth worrying about more than Donald Trump’s crazy.

1. Anyone else with the launch codes. The downside to crazy Trump is he makes everyone else look saner. But saner is not necessarily rational. To buy into current US policy, you have to buy into an irrational policy that virtually guarantees any time we use nuclear weapons to advance our agenda or protect our interests, we are committing not only homicide, but suicide. Right now, more than 1,000 US nuclear warheads are on hair-trigger alert. Our policy reserves the right to “First Use,” meaning we can launch without a nuclear provocation, say, for instance, a pre-emptive strike. And our policy includes a nuclear umbrella that has promised many, many countries we will come to their defense if they are attacked—South Korea, for instance, and Japan. Central and South America, and eastern European countries in NATO. Would we, really, start a nuclear war because we gave our word? This is a profoundly important question, not debated in public—the fate of the Earth, literally, hangs in the balance.

2. Accidental launches, miscommunications and mistakes. The story of nuclear weapons is a story that includes way too many mistakes and accidents. Few people know we came within minutes of a nuclear launch in 1995, when Russia misread a weather satellite launch from Norway. Even fewer know of US accidents that have lost nuclear weapons over land and sea in other countries. Or that our “command and control” is so slack that six nuclear warheads were mistakenly flown across the US—officially, they were missing for several hours. Not even the pilot realized he had them. You might shrug it off and say, “No harm, no foul,” except for this: what if they had been diverted elsewhere, by someone else, and no one noticed for hours? What if they hadn’t been found “safely” tucked away on a US Air Force jet hundreds of miles from home—what if they had been taken somewhere else and weren’t found? Investigations have repeatedly found misbehavior on the part of US military personnel assigned to staff the missile silos that would launch Armageddon—the bottom line is it doesn’t necessarily take an act of the President to trigger disaster.

3. Dirty bombs. Nuclear weapons can kill millions without exploding in a thermonuclear mushroom cloud. Because their ingredients are, even without being detonated, among the deadliest toxins known to humans. The health risks of plutonium are measured in the millionths of a curie—a tiny amount, dispersed in the air, can kill hundreds or thousands of people, and cause cancers in many, many more. So a terrorist who gets hold of a bomb may not be able to detonate it without launch codes, but if he or she is willing to risk suicide, plutonium, lithium deuteride, and highly enriched uranium could be removed from the warhead and repurposed to make a dirty bomb—a terror weapon that, exploded in a crowded place, would poison and kill thousands and thousands of people.
It is impossible to eliminate the possibility of a dirty bomb as long as there is a “market” for fissile materials. With thousands of nuclear weapons deployed around the world, in various states of security — did you realize the uprising in Turkey in July 2016 placed 50 US nuclear warheads stationed at Incirlik air base at risk? That protesters denied military and other forces access to the base for several hours? That electrical power from outside the airbase was cut off for days?—the possibility of a sale or theft of radioactive materials on the black market is real.
It is this kind of scenario, the possible diversion of nuclear materials, that has brought people like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and scores of other military, security and diplomatic officials to the conclusion that we must abolish our nuclear weapons because their very existence makes us less secure, not more secure.

4. The new nuclear arms race. You should know that our nuclear stockpiles are not static. Over the years, arms control agreements have reduced the number of US warheads and bombs from the tens of thousands to less than ten thousand, and the number of deployed warheads is even less.
At the same time, the United States is committed to “modernizing” every facet of its nuclear weapons program—building new multibillion dollar bomb production plants, upgrading and modifying our current nuclear warheads, designing and building new missiles to deliver warheads, and investing hundreds of billions in new jets, submarines and bombers. All told, plans call for spending a trillion dollars over the next thirty years—four million dollars an hour, every hour, for thirty years!
Our plan to modernize hasn’t gone unnoticed. Russia and China are taking steps (albeit spending a lot less money) to upgrade and extend the lives of their nuclear stockpiles. We have entered a new global nuclear arms race, led by the policies and actions of the United States.

5. Inevitability. Although US and Russian nuclear policy is nothing if not irrational, that does not preclude us from applying a touch of simple logic to nuclear weapons. Do you think the likelihood of nuclear war is very small—but not zero? Most people would agree with you. But that means the probability of a nuclear war at some time—unless we get rid of them—is 100%. The question is “what does ‘at some time’ mean?” It doesn’t mean never, because the probability is not zero. Does it mean forty years from now? Or forty minutes?
There are lots of safeguards and procedures to guard against accidental launch; and we hope for leaders who are rational enough to refuse an impetuous launch. And we might hope a nuclear-armed leader faced with an apparent launch—like Boris Yeltsen was in 1995 when Russian radar read a weather satellite launch as a possible nuclear missile because somewhere along the line the standard communication lines had broken down—would guess conservatively, even if it means risking his entire country.
But it’s just that—a hope. Because the safeguards and procedures meant to secure our stockpile and control launches depend on humans. Who make mistakes. As in: “To err is human.” That’s not just a cute way to brush off our mistakes—it’s a fundamental truth about human nature. We are not able to be perfect every time.
When three anti-nuclear activists entered the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in the middle of the night in July 2012 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, if they had taken a left turn instead of a right after crossing the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment Zone, they would have entered a ramshackle warren of deteriorating buildings where the US is actively manufacturing thermonuclear cores for the W-76 warhead. Unnoticed. If they had been armed, with malign intent, the resulting catastrophic chaos would be a mark in history greater than 9/11—an explosive device that caused the collapse of Building 9212 would have unleashed a cloud of radioactive dust that would have poisoned not only Oak Ridge, but nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, and who knows how far the wind would have carried the toxins—which would remain deadly for more than a hundred million years! If they had stolen even one warhead, or a dozen kilograms of highly enriched uranium, they would have triggered a global manhunt lasting until they were captured or until they used their uranium in a major metropolitan area to plant the seeds of hundreds of thousands of cancers.
The intrusion at the bomb plant was an important lesson to everyone who thinks nuclear weapons make us safe and secure.
These weapons, deadlier than we can even comprehend, depend on human beings to control them, safeguard them, and make decision about their use. In Oak Ridge, on that July night, expensive security systems, complicated physical barriers including four fences, high-tech warning equipment, and a guard force of hundreds failed to stop an 82 year-old nun and two 50+ year-old men from penetrating every security barrier and spending twenty minutes uninterrupted inside the lethal-force-authorized zone.
The security we think nuclear weapons provide is an illusion, just like all the security at Y-12. The cost of living under that illusion, without thinking about it, could be our very existence.

So next time someone asks about Donald Trump’s finger on the button, remember that behind that question of the political moment is a much more important question. Nuclear weapons are real. They threaten our very existence, and the threat grows every day, no matter who is President of the United States. Shouldn’t we do something—like everything we possibly can—about that?

Nuclear Waste: Keep out for 100,000 years.

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Public Health on July 15, 2016 at 11:32 pm

Financial Times has published an article (July 14, 2016) on France’s effort to store nuclear waste underground in the eastern part of the country. Because the waste will remain highly radioactive for millennia they have commissioned artists to prepare signs and symbols that will inform future generations of the danger. The article (on line at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/db87c16c-4947-11e6-b387-64ab0a67014c.html#axzz4EOZHpVil ) is well worth reading for how well it discusses the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. The Nuclear Guardianship program of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center takes a wholly different approach regarding this exceedingly dangerous material. See Nuclear Guardianship Ethic on our web site (http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org/#!about/c8de ).