Monday, February 06, 2006

Richard Pombo and Ellen Tauscher Go Nuclear

So how did we get to this point? The federal government has Gatling guns pointed at condos in a vineyard setting? Livermore Valley wines contain four times as much radioactive tritium as other California wines? Children born in Livermore are six times more likely to get malignant melanoma and face an increased risk of brain cancer?

Well, it’s quite a story. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has long been an important cog in the wheel of our nation’s nuclear weapons program. At the lab’s inception, its rural location was thought to place it a sufficiently safe distance from the population centers around San Francisco Bay. Two things have happened since then: our notions of “safe distance” have changed dramatically, and the population has expanded at a jaw-dropping rate. At present, 7 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the LLNL. So here we are with one of the “jewels of… the nuclear weapons complex” stuck right in the middle of the suburbs.

Now, you might think the government would realize that the presence of a nuclear weapons lab is incompatible with the large residential population that has sprung up around it. You would be right. Throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, the LLNL was increasingly marginalized; the government was implementing plans to eliminate plutonium storage at the site. But the lab administrators fought back, promoting their specialty –- laser technology. They pitched plans for building a National Ignition Facility at LLNL, and in the mid-‘90s, Congress reluctantly approved funding for the NIF program.

For those of you who like science, here’s the basic outline of how NIF works: The building footprint is the size of a football stadium, nearly 26,500 square meters, and 10 stories high. When the building is completed in 2008, 192 laser beams located throughout its entire perimeter will be trained onto a ten-meter target bay in the center of the building which contains a small fuel pellet.

When the outer surface of the fuel pellet is heated, electrons are stripped away and an envelope of plasma is created. This super-heated plasma literally blows off and away from the rest of the fuel sphere – this is called ablation. When the plasma blows off, the fuel sphere is compressed and heated further, reaching densities about 20 times that of lead and temperatures around 212,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Theoretically, at these densities and temperatures fusion could occur – creating a miniature nuclear explosion.

And the result of that nuclear explosion?

…Over 2 megajoules of energy would result. That much energy for the pulse duration of several nanoseconds is about 500 trillion watts of power, more than 500 times the U.S. peak generating power.

It’s easy to see how the promise of generating that much energy would be alluring. But while the project was initially being promoted for its possible energy-producing benefits, Livermore residents worried about the specter of NIF technology being co-opted for weapons applications, leading to continuing nuclear weapons experimentation at LLNL. Meanwhile, the NIF project created a lot of controversy in Congress, in large part because of its huge price tag –- over $3 billion in construction costs.

But getting back to the description of how NIF works, remember that “fuel pellet”? What exactly comprises a fuel pellet? Well, in the beginning phases of NIF, the planned fuel for fusion reactions was deuterium and tritium. As the weapons applications began to take center stage, the fuel material changed to the fissile bad-boys: plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, and lithium hydride. Suddenly, instead of eliminating plutonium storage at LLNL, the lab was requesting that its maximum storage allotment be doubled and that its tritium limits be increased ten-fold. Last December, that approval was given; LLNL is now able to store 3,080 pounds of plutonium in its Superblock, enough material to create 300 atomic bombs.

Meanwhile, homes have continued to sprout up around the perimeter of the Laboratory’s 1.3-square-mile facility (by comparison, Los Alamos National Laboratory sits on 43 square miles in the desert). Those vineyard-setting condos are situated right along the LLNL fence line, a mere 800 yards from the Superblock where plutonium is stored. When the GAO issued a report in April 2004 suggesting “that a suicide team of terrorists could barricade themselves in the facility and detonate a makeshift nuclear weapon” due to the inability of the lab to aggressively defend its boundaries because of adjacent residential land use, lab officials promised to upgrade lab security; hence, the Gatling guns (capable of firing up to 4,000 rounds per minute at a range of one mile) which were unveiled last week.

But the danger of terrorist attack is just one of the threats posed by LLNL and the NIF project. The lab doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation for its past handling of radioactive materials. Both tritium and plutonium have leaked from the facility and found their way into the air, the soil, and the local groundwater supplies. That’s why Livermore Valley wines contain so much tritium, local children face increased cancer rates, and “Livermore rainfall contained 147,000 curies of tritium per liter of water, which is seven times the state and federal drinking water standards, according to a 1993 LLNL report.” The lab’s handling of its plutonium was so poor that federal regulators prohibited plutonium from being stored on the site for much of 2005. Not coincidentally, the LLNL and its ancillary explosives facility, Site 300 in Tracy, have both been listed as EPA Superfund sites since 1987. EPA clean-up is expected to be completed by 2030 at a cost of $150 million.

So what does all this have to do with CD-11 and Richard Pombo? Well, the heavily contaminated Site 300 covers 7,000 acres in CD-11 adjacent to the proposed Tracy Hills housing development. While the main LLNL facility is actually located in CD-13, it is bordered to the west, north, and east by CD-11. Pleasanton, Dublin, Sunol, and Tracy all share in the health dangers presented by contaminated air, soil, and water. Virtually the entire CD-11 lies within the 50-mile radius that could be impacted by an earthquake, fire, exothermic explosion, or terrorist attack and the resulting nuclear devastation. [Correction: The main facility for LLNL lies within Ellen Tauscher’s CD-10, not Pete Stark’s CD-13. The lab is bordered on the west, south and east by CD-11.]

When lab expansion schemes such as NIF have come before Congress for funding, CD-13’s representative, Fortney “Pete” Stark, has joined with the majority of the Bay Area delegation to consistently vote against NIF. Every few years, NIF is faced with funding shortages and threatened shut-down of the project, and every few years the same two boosters ride to its rescue: the unholy alliance of Richard Pombo and Ellen Tauscher. Pombo and Tauscher have worked together in “bipartisan” fashion to foist this monstrosity onto their neighbors, arrogantly ignoring the wishes of CD-13 residents. Last November, when the NIF project was once again threatened by funding cuts, Pombo and Tauscher mobilized enough Congressional support to win an extremely close vote, providing the project with an additional $327 million in funding, thereby ensuring its continuation. The only members of the Bay Area delegation to support NIF are Pombo, Tauscher, and Zoe Lofgren.

Now, at this point, when I see the names Zoe Lofgren and Ellen Tauscher together, I can’t help but think of Steve Filson. So I know I risk incurring the wrath of the Filsonistas, but I have to wonder if Filson plans to follow in the footsteps of his mentor and support NIF and the expansion of nuclear weapons testing at LLNL (and just what his rationale for that would be) or if this will be a case like the bankruptcy bill and the Bush estate tax cuts, where “It turns out I disagreed with the Congresswoman's postions [sic].”

12 Comments:

Blogger VPO said...

Great comments and we need to think seriously about the implications. Just one note of correction, however -- I believe the LLNL is in CD-10 (Ellen Tauscher's district), not CD-13.

8:51 AM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger babaloo said...

VPO --
You are so right! I neglected to check just one small (!) detail here. I had a different map in my head from speaking to someone in Livermore who told me that Stark was his representative.

So I have to forget about Stark and apologize to Tauscher. Unfortunately, I don't know that callous indifference to your own constituents is necessarily a better trait than meddlesome arrogance.

10:16 AM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Callous indifference to your own constituents"? Quite the opposite. There are certainly great dangers associated with the lab. But the residents of Livermore and the surrounding areas (many of whom work at the lab or otherwise benefit from its presence) overwhelmingly support the lab (including the NIF) and what it brings to the city. Tauscher gets a lot of support in this region from the work she has done on behalf of the labs -- that's one of the reasons why the Congressional Districts in that area look so weird -- the lines were drawn so LLNL and Sandia stayed in CA-10.

10:31 AM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NIF is also supported by Honda, Eshoo, Miller and Lantos. Stark's is hardly the position of the majority of the Bay Area delegation.

11:12 AM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger babaloo said...

Anons:
During the hearings for LLNL's draft EIS held in 2005, "The DOE received a remarkable 9,000 public comments opposing increases in nuclear materials as well as the new weapons activities these radioactive materials will support." They were dismissed by LLNL as not being representative of the community.

Perhaps the Congresswoman should get out and really listen to her own constituents (even though I’ve heard she doesn’t like to do that since she’s a little overly sensitive to criticism) rather than the lab managers who might have a bit of an axe to grind.

As to the jobs issue, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory managed to make the transition to non-nuclear, and last I heard, they still have a functioning lab with real jobs. As to jobs created by NIF, there will be approximately 1,000 new jobs created by a facility which cost $3 billion to build. You do the math.

Finally, in the most recent vote in November 2005, several members of the Bay Area delegation reversed their previous positions and voted to support NIF, I suspect because they felt that since it was already ¾ built, they might as well support completion. I don't know what deals were worked out between various Congressional members and the dreaded Pombo/Tauscher tag team. I would note that the Congressional vote took place in November, before the December announcement that plutonium and tritium levels would be increased. Going back to earlier votes, I’ll quote TriValleyCares:

“Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and our own Bay Area's Barbara Lee introduced an amendment to cut the NIF construction funding by half. 'The project has already sucked up billions of taxpayer dollars while endangering our environment and sabotaging efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation,' said Lee.

“Most of the Bay Area Congressional Reps. agreed, and voted to cut NIF. Included in that list are George Miller, Nancy Pelosi, Lynn Woolsey, Pete Stark, Mike Honda, Anna Eshoo and Tom Lantos. They deserve our thanks.

“Voting against the funding cut were Bay Area Reps. Ellen Tauscher, Richard Pombo and Zoe Lofgren.”

1:55 PM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is ridiculous. The lab provides quality jobs for our area. LLNL is in Stark's district? Please. If this site's content is based on hearsay and conjecture, its good is obviously pretty limited.

How does McNerney feel about all of this?

babaloo, do you even live in our district?

-bearbacker

5:38 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger babaloo said...

Anon --
Ridiculous? Most communities in Central California and America at large manage to provide good jobs without sickening and killing their residents and exposing them to potentially heinous terrorist attacks.

You are free to take my post at whatever value you choose to ascribe to it. It was carefully researched, and the error that VPO pointed out was something that because I thought I knew, I didn't bother to look up. Mea culpa. My mistake was quickly exposed, and I made a correction and apology. If you wish to overlook the other facts that I've presented, so be it. If you feel this site's content is based merely on conjecture and hearsay -- well, no one is forcing you to read it.

As to Jerry McNerney, I have no idea what he thinks about the LLNL or NIF; additionally, I do not know what Steve Thomas's opinions are. Either way, they are not the chosen protege for Congresswoman Tauscher, so there is less reason to question whether they are closely aligned on this issue with the Congresswoman. There are several upcoming candidate forums where I hope that all three candidates will be asked about their position on the issue.

To answer your final question, I live just outside the boundary of CD-11.

6:14 PM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee hardly have the same constituencies, political beliefs, or interests as the residents of the 10th CD and particularly Livermore (which is pretty conservative -- plenty of people there think even Tauscher is a wacky liberal). It is, after all, the task of a Member of Congress to represent her own constituents. I find it extremely unlikely that very many of those 9000 comments to the DOE came from the area.

And, as you know, the 2001 Kucinich/Lee amendment lost 331-91, so it was hardly a party-line vote.

It's simply wrong to think that Tri-Valley CARES or their positions represent the majority of Livermore or anything even close to it. The only way Tauscher would be "callously indifferent" to her constituents in regards to the labs is if she DID do all of the things that Tri-Valley CARES wanted. (Although in that case, instead of indifference, I assume you would characterize it as a courageous stand on principle.)

Tri-Valley CARES do important work in raising public consciousness about the dangers of the lab and I think many of the points you made in your post are extremely valid concerns (particularly the safety issues). But Livermore is in many ways dependent on the lab (in a way Berkeley is not and never will be on the LBL) which employs almost 9,000 people. 1,000 jobs is a lot from Livermore's point of view! It's just flat wrong to say that Tauscher isn't listening to her constituents by taking the positions she does -- she may not be listening to Barbara Lee's constituents, but she's certainly listening to her own.

I have no idea what McNerney or Filson's positions on this issue will be. But I'd be more interested to know McNerney's, since whether or not he's a progressive seems to depend on who you ask. That said, I really would be shocked if he opposes funding the NIF or supports taking nuclear research away from the lab. It'd go over about as well as telling the residents of Fairfield you want to turn Travis AFB into a dairy farm.

6:52 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger VPO said...

"Lab analyses have found that Livermore Valley wines purchased off the shelf have four times the tritium content of other California wines."

Hmm.. I just checked my bottles of Cedar Mountain Vintage Port, and they don't seem to be glowing. Well, not that much anyway.

Does this also mean I have to quit Fenestra Fanatics? Damn, they have such good barrel-tasting parties there.

I guess it is back to the Dry River Valley and Anderson Valley for me -- unless maybe they are contaminated by something there also, like pesticides or something.

I better stick with water. Just went to the Calistoga spring, I hope that is not contaminated...

Anyway, someone told me about a radioactive hot spring in Greece, where they claim the uranium in the water is beneficial to your health, so maybe we are missing something. Perhaps we need to spend more time in Livermore and drink more of the Tritium Cabernet from there:

Greek Radioactive Hot Springs

Also, there is one in Australia:

"PARALANA HOT SPRINGS The radioactive Paralana Hot Springs, twenty seven kilometres north of Arkaroola originate deep within the earth's crust along a great earth fracture. They are the last vestige of active volcanism in Australia, with near boiling water flowing from the ground."

Maybe Tauscher and Pombo are on to something. We thought it was about jobs, but I think they are really only concerned about improving our health. "Better living through radiation" is the motto.

8:45 PM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Mike Bird said...

BREAKING NEWS: SNTP BLOGSPOT SCOOP!

Alameda Central Labor Council* Delegates met last night on Monday February 6th, and endorsed 11th CD Congressional Candidate Jerry McNerney for the June Democratic Primary.

Candidates Steve Filson, Steve Thomas, and Jerry McNerney each gave 20 minute presentations and then answered questions. This was a candidate interview, not a debate; each politician addressed the delegates alone. Seventy plus rank & file delegates along with several elected union office holders attended a packed meeting.

Immediately following a vote was held, and Jerry McNerney overwhelmingly won.

Three reasons mathematician Jerry McNerney won.

1) Jerry connected with Labor Delegates by creating shared visions. He then skillfully enlisted audience support asking, ‘If we are to make this happen, I will need your help.’

2) Jerry does not stand up telling how great a person he is. It is more believable when friends and volunteers give personal recommendations.

3) When it comes to winning union endorsements
“Filson is Clueless.” A quote from an up & coming political person observing last night’s proceedings.

McNerney Quotes:

“For too long, the Democratic Party has taken Labor for granted, if you elect me I will not do that, I will fight for you.”

McNerney concluded, with a dramatic pause,
“Here’s the deal If you Endorse Me,
I will support Labor on every issue...... like George Miller has.” (D-CA)


Delegates to speak in favor of
McNerney.

Jim Prola
AFSCME Retirees Local 57 & FORUM(Fed of Retired Union Members)

Michael Eisenscher
Peralta Fed of Teachers Local 1603
& US Labor Against War (USLAW)

Victor Uno, Business Mgr.
IBEW local 595

Victor Pamiroyan
ILWU local 6

Joe Coy, Pres.
San Joaquin Central Labor Council
Pres IAM local 1546 & Dist 19

Michael Bird
District One MEBA Marine Engineers


No Delegates spoke in favor of Filson


Steve Filson repeated a phrase I heard last time I met him, “Labor.., that’s my Base.” Both times he has lost a major labor endorsement. In my opinion Filson suffers from a White collar / Blue collar Disconnect; that image cannot be changed by being the only candidate to dress down and not wear a tie.

When asked why he was running for office, Filson started out strong explaining how as an Untied Airlines pilot he had lost his pension, and felt this was the best way he could fight back. For three minutes Filson had the audience in the cockpit flying with him, concerned about his personal ordeal. Filson started losing delegate’s attention when he quickly shifted to election challenges that lay ahead. A skilled and crafted speaker would have next identified and addressed the audiences concerns, Filson didn’t. He then drove the proverbial wedge deeper explaining a Central Valley Democratic victory required a centralist conservative strategy.

Filson claimed he would not support a withdrawal time table from Iraq, but conceded withdrawal a likely scenario. Unbeknownst to Filson the questioner was none other than USLAW national anti-war leader Michael Eisenscher. In response to Eisenscher’s follow up question Filson blundered badly.

Asked if it was necessary to send (or spend?) more bodies (or blood?) to Iraq if we are going to withdrawal anyway, Filson replied to the effect, ‘look, I can’t agree with your position and still win in the Central Valley. We can’t agree on all issues, but trust me I am with you on Labor.’

When question about how his strategy for victory would unfold, Filson greatly underestimated the political savvy of the audience. All I remember is a low toned insult which claimed, ‘I don’t expect you’d Get the complexities in undertaking a commercial/ media type campaign.’

The Alameda Council is legendary for its phone banking system, Get Out the Vote efforts, and over the years many members have developed personal relationships with some of the state’s top political leaders.


*The National AFL-CIO has recognized the Alameda Central Labor Council as one of the most effective labor organizations in the country. The Council represents 130 Union Locals from the East Bay; ranging from private employees to federal, state and local public employees, including, "the Whole Working World of labor," according to Exec Director Sharon Cornu.

Matt, or anyone seeking more info call me at (925)249-0427.

5:53 AM, February 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write that last November NIF barely survived an extremely close vote. NIF was funded in the Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill. On Nov. 9, the Conference Report for this legislation passed by a vote of 399 to 17. None of the Bay Area delegation voted against it.

6:44 AM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger babaloo said...

Anon --
So instead of addressing the safety issues presented by LLNL and NIF, you quibble over semantics. Quoting from a Contra Costa Times article dated 11/9/05, "Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's crown jewel, the National Ignition Facility, narrowly escaped the budgetary chopping block late Monday, when the House and Senate agreed to include $327.4 million in the federal energy and water budget for the superlaser project." The overall budget then passed by the numbers you cite.

As to the jobs argument espoused by Richard Pombo, Ellen Tauscher and their acolytes, try substituting the name "Livermore" for "Minamata."

2:28 PM, February 07, 2006  

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