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].”