Donate! Alliance Logo

Latest News

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006; A09

“Significant backlogs” in surveillance testing of several types of nuclear warheads in the aging U.S. stockpile have created gaps in information needed to ensure that the weapons remain reliable, a report released yesterday by the Energy Department’s inspector general said.

Every year, a small number of missile warheads and bombs from the nine U.S. nuclear weapons systems are dismantled. Parts are subjected to laboratory and flight tests to verify they are safe, secure and reliable.

“The surveillance program’s role in assessing and ensuring confidence in the reliability of the weapons stockpile is increasingly important as the nuclear weapons stockpile ages,” Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

But Friedman added: “As a result of the continuing backlog of surveillance tests, the department lacks vital information about the reliability of the stockpile . . . [and] as a result of testing delays, important operating anomalies or other defects could go undetected.”

Friedman said the department is “committed” to eliminating most of the testing backlog by September 2007, in part by upgrading facilities, updating safety studies and perhaps eliminating some test requirements. In one case, surveillance activities were delayed for six to seven months in 2004 because operations were halted over the loss of a computer disk containing classified materials.

Last year, the report said, laboratory tests were behind schedule for seven of the nine weapons systems and flight tests for six. Charts contained in the report show the greatest laboratory backlog was in the oldest warhead, the W-62, which was used on the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile and is due for retirement. Of 36 lab tests planned, 13 had been completed by Sept. 30, 2005, the report said.

Of the more modern warheads, the W-88, the newest U.S. warhead found on the Trident submarine-launched ICBM, was scheduled for 29 lab tests — of which 23 were completed on schedule. The largest gap in flight tests was for the W-87, the warhead that is to replace the W-62 and the Minuteman III. Of eight tests planned for fiscal 2005, three had been completed.

FRANK MUNGER
munger@knews.com
November 8, 2006

Peace activists are calling it “Bombplex 2030.” The government’s roadmap for the nuclear weapons complex, including the future role of the Y-12 warhead plant in Oak Ridge, promises to be a hot topic in coming months with opportunities for public involvement.

The U.S. Department of Energy and its sub-unit, the National Nuclear Security Administration, will host “public scoping” meetings Nov. 13 in Oak Ridge to get early comments for the Complex 2030 initiative.

The government is preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement to address changing requirements in the weapons program. The stated goal is to evaluate research-and-production facilities, determine what’s needed to make the complex more responsive by the year 2030 and address the potential impacts.

Local meetings will be held 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. at the Oak Ridge Mall. Other meetings are being held at affected sites around the United States.

“NNSA officials will be available to informally discuss the Complex 2030 proposal during the first hour,” the Federal Register notice said. “Following this, NNSA intends to hold a plenary session at each scoping meeting in which officials will explain the Complex 2030 proposal .”

The proposal would continue current modernization plans, including efforts under way at Y-12, although the feds say the impact statement will “evaluate reasonable alternatives for future transformation of the nuclear weapons complex.”

The Federal Register notice is available for viewing at: http://www.eh.doe.gov/nepa/noi/61731.pdf.

The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance is urging its members to participate and voice disapproval of the Bush administration’s development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead and other aspects of the 2030 proposal.

“Your government is counting on you to not notice until it’s too late,” the group said in a recent newsletter.

“This plan is being rushed to a decision while Bush holds power. Bombplex 2030 is not based on military requirements or homeland security needs. The plan is rooted in a desire to keep billions of dollars flowing to contractors in districts that build bombs – in New Mexico, Tennessee, California, Missouri, Texas, and South Carolina.”

Meanwhile, Y-12 officials are preparing a site-wide environmental impact statement to support the construction of new Oak Ridge facilities – including a $500 million storage center for bomb-grade uranium and a proposed $1 billion uranium manufacturing facility.

Steven Wyatt, a federal spokesman at Y-12, said a draft report has been completed and is under review at DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C. As soon as that is completed, a copy will be available for comment, and a public meeting will be scheduled, he said.

“We’re hoping to get it done in December,” Wyatt said.

DOE’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information has set up a featured archive of some of Alvin Weinberg’s papers.

You can find the electronic link at OSTI’s home page: http://www.osti.gov.

Weinberg, the longtime director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, died Oct. 18. He was 91. A memorial service is set for 4 p.m. Nov. 18 at Pollard Auditorium in Oak Ridge.

The super-secret Sapphire Project in 1994 is getting a new buzz amid reports that some workers might have been unwittingly exposed to beryllium while repackaging the highly enriched uranium and bringing it from Kazakhstan to Y-12.

Sapphire was the first big project in the post-Cold War era that rescued vulnerable stocks of missile material in the former Soviet Union. Oak Ridge workers were involved in the project every step of the way.

Y-12 spokesman Bill Wilburn acknowledged that the uranium was alloyed with beryllium but noted: “The Sapphire team knew this in advance, and all proper precautions were taken. The material was repackaged at the job site in a glove-box environment where workers were using all proper personal protective equipment and had undergone training as beryllium workers.”

He added: “When the material was brought to Y-12 (in November 1994), it was never removed from the packing and was safely and securely stored at Y-12 until it was transported to Lynchburg (Va.) for processing.”

All of the Sapphire materials were shipped out of Y-12 by October 1995, Wilburn said.

Return to Chelyabinsk
by Mark Hertsgaard

Aside from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the meltdown at Chernobyl is commonly regarded as the deadliest nuclear catastrophe in history. But in fact that unhappy distinction belongs to another place in the former Soviet Union, a place called Chelyabinsk. Tucked behind the Ural Mountains far from European invaders, the oblast of Chelyabinsk has provided armaments for Russian rulers since the time of the czars.

After World War II, it became a center of Soviet nuclear weapons production. Between 1946 and 1967, Chelyabinsk experienced three interlocking disasters whose cumulative damage not only exceeds Chernobyl’s but persists to this day.

The difference is, the Chelyabinsk disasters did not become global media events.

On the contrary: They were kept secret for decades by both the KGB and the CIA, each of which apparently feared an informed public as much as it feared the enemy arsenal.

Now the people and ecosystems of Chelyabinsk may suffer anew, thanks to the desire of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin to boost their nations’ respective nuclear industries.

At the G-8 summit this past July, Bush and Putin announced their joint desire to increase nuclear energy
use and reactor exports, a move they asserted would increase global energy security. If the plan is implemented, much of the waste those reactors will generate may well end up in Chelyabinsk.

Nuclear waste has been the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear-industrial complex from the beginning, and so it is with the Bush-Putin plan.
Civilian nuclear reactors produce not only electricity but spent fuel.

As North Korea’s recent weapons test illustrated, spent fuel from nonmilitary reactors can be “mined” to extract plutonium for
weapons use. To guard against that, the Bush-Putin plan requires countries that import reactors to return all spent fuel to the exporting
country for reprocessing and use in breeder reactors. But since no civilian reprocessing facilities yet exist in Russia or the United States, in the interim the waste will have to be stored.

That’s where Chelyabinsk comes in. The Bush Administration does not want to bring nuclear waste to the United States but seems happy to see it go to Russia, assuming US law can be altered accordingly. In that event, the Mayak nuclear complex in Chelyabinsk is the most probable storage site, says Vladimir Slivyak, an activist with the Russian group Ecodefense who has long tracked, and opposed, government efforts to import nuclear waste.

The Bush-Putin plan can draw cover from the growing number of scientists throughout the world who endorse nuclear power as vital to fighting climate change.

None have been as outspoken as James Lovelock, the British biophysicist whose Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism has been influential in European environmental circles. In a new book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock derides opponents of nuclear
power as anticorporate Luddites.

In a typical passage, he describes nuclear waste as “dangerous only to those foolish enough to expose themselves to its radiation.” Would Lovelock repeat that assertion, I wonder, to the people of Chelyabinsk–people whose totalitarian rulers secretly exposed them to massive amounts of nuclear waste for decades?

I was, I believe, the first Western reporter to visit Chelyabinsk and report on its nuclear contamination, in 1991, when it was still a closed city. The Mayak nuclear complex, located fifty miles north of the city, suffered the first of its three nuclear disasters in 1949, when officials started pouring nuclear waste directly into the Techa River, which runs through the complex. According to studies by Russian experts and scientists with the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council, 28,000 people received average individual doses fifty-seven times greater than those later received at Chernobyl.

Only 7,500 people were evacuated, and people were not forbidden to use the river water until 1953. The second disaster was in 1957, when a waste dump exploded, spewing some seventy-five metric tons of radioactive waste into the air, exposing 272,000 people to doses of radiation equivalent to those at Chernobyl. The third came in 1967, when a cyclone whirled across the drought-exposed shores of a lake being used as a waste dump; 5 million additional curies of radioactivity were dispersed.

Even in 1991 radioactivity levels remained extremely high.

One day I visited Muslyumova, a village of unpainted wooden houses and cow pastures that straddles the Techa twenty-two miles downstream from Mayak. At the river’s edge, my Geiger counter read 445 micro-roentgens–twenty times the normal background level. A piece of dried cow dung registered 850, a reflection of how radioactivity becomes more concentrated as it ascends the food chain.

Still, authorities insisted there was no need to evacuate, and without government help residents could not afford to move.

Today, the situation in Muslyumova remains much the same. Marco Kaltofen, an environmental chemist based in Boston, and Sergey Pashenko, a Russian physicist, visited Muslyumova in October 2005 to conduct new radioactivity tests.

“Our tests found that local people are breathing highly radioactive air, drinking radioactive water and burning radioactive wood in their fireplaces,” Kaltofen told me. “They know not to drink the surface water, but they have no choice but to use the groundwater, and it’s that water and the air that are responsible for most of their exposure.”

Thanks to years of pressure from local activists, Russian authorities have finally begun talking about evacuating the residents. But similar promises have been broken before, notes Tom Carpenter of the Government Accountability Project, which sponsored Kaltofen and Pashenko’s visit.

The Bush-Putin agenda could still be blocked in either Russia or the US Congress.

“The agreement stands before Congress for sixty working days after it is submitted by the President, and if Congress does not pass a
bill explicitly rejecting it, it becomes law,” explains Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at
Harvard, who supports the Bush-Putin plan as a necessary response to global warming.

Congressional opposition is expected from environmentalists on the left, led by Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts, as well as Russia-phobes on the right and centrists leery of shipping more nuclear materials around an unstable world.

Meanwhile, Russian public opinion has been sharply critical of importing nuclear waste–polls showed 90 percent of voters wanted a national referendum to decide the issue in 2000, but the government simply rewrote the law anyway–which may explain why Russian officials have recently sent mixed messages about whether they will indeed accept such imports.

Igor Konyshev, secretary of Russia’s atomic energy agency, was quoted by the trade journal Nuclear Fuel in late July saying that Russia would not accept future imports.

Allison, however, echoing the views of other analysts, believes that the Putin government remains committed to the
plan:

“They just aren’t going to stir up political opposition unnecessarily before the [parliamentary] election takes place next year.”

People in Chelyabinsk have no idea that yet more nuclear waste could be heading their way, says Kaltofen, pulling out a photo of a mother and two young girls he met in Muslyumova. The girls’ Snow White backpacks, braided hair and shy smiles made them look pretty much like pre-teens in the United States.

“Knowing what nuclear waste has already done in Chelyabinsk, and knowing these kids are still there,” Kaltofen asks, “how in good conscience can you send still more waste there?”

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Can nuclear energy save us from global warming? Perhaps, but the tradeoffs involved are sobering: thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste generated each year and a greatly increased risk of nuclear weapons proliferation or diversion of nuclear material into terrorists’ hands.

So concludes University of Michigan professor Rodney Ewing, who has analyzed just how much nuclear power would need to be produced to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and the implications of the associated increase in nuclear power plants. Ewing will present his findings Oct. 23 as the Michel T. Halbouty Distinguished Lecturer at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Philadelphia.

“Usually when people talk about nuclear power as a solution for global warming, the issues of nuclear waste and weapons proliferation are footnotes in the discussion,” said Ewing, who is the Donald R. Peacor Collegiate Professor and Chair in the U-M Department of Geological Sciences and also has faculty appointments in the departments of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences and Materials Science & Engineering. “I think we have to find a way to consider the complete picture when choosing among energy sources.”

In an effort to capture that complete picture, Ewing compared carbon-based fossil fuels with nuclear power, considering not only the technologies involved but also the environmental impacts. Similar comparisons have been made between different energy-producing systems, “but in the case of nuclear power, such an analysis is difficult because there are different types of nuclear reactors and there is not a single nuclear fuel cycle, but rather many variants, with different strategies for reprocessing and disposing of nuclear wastes,” Ewing said.

His presentation, which considers various fuel cycles, shows that nuclear power generation would need to increase by a factor of three to ten over current levels to have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. “We currently have 400-plus nuclear reactors operating worldwide, and we would need something like 3,500 nuclear power plants,” Ewing said.

Developing the necessary nuclear technologies and building the additional power plants is an enormous undertaking that probably would take longer than the 50 years that experts say we have in which to come up with solutions to global warming, Ewing said.

Even if they could be built and brought online quickly, that many power plants would generate tens of thousands of metric tons of additional nuclear waste annually. “The amount that would be created each year would be equal to the present capacity anticipated at the repository at Yucca Mountain,” Ewing said, referring to the proposed disposal site in Nevada that has been under study for more than two decades. Ewing recently co-edited a book, “Uncertainty Underground,” that reviews uncertainties in the analysis of the long-term performance of the Yucca Mountain repository.

Plutonium created as a byproduct of nuclear power generation also is a concern because of its potential for use in nuclear weapons.

“Not everyone thinks this way, but I consider the explosion of a nuclear weapon to be a pretty large environmental impact with global implications,” Ewing said. “A typical nuclear weapon will kill many, many hundreds of thousands of people, and the global impact would be comparable to something like Chernobyl in the spread of fallout.”

So the real question, said Ewing, is: “Plutonium versus carbon—which would you rather have as your problem? I don’t have the answer, but the points I’m raising are ones I think people need to be considering.”

###
For more information:

Rodney Ewing: http://www.ns.umich.edu/htdocs/public/experts/ExpDisplay.php?beginswith=Ewing&SubmitButton=Search

Geological Society of America: http://www.geosociety.org/

Michel T. Halbouty Distinguished Lecturer: http://www.geosociety.org/aboutus/awards/halbouty.htm

Seattle Times
October 16, 2006
By Hal Bernton

MEAD, Neb. — Duck beneath the green canopy of midsummer corn and you find the faded remains of last year’s harvest. The ground here is littered with a patchwork of withered husks, gnarled stalks and hunks of cob spread out over sandy soil.

Such leftovers may one day be a second farm crop, shipped off to a new generation of distilleries able to turn cellulose — the tough fibers that form the inner walls of most plants into ethanol fuel for cars.

The biotechnology for a potential cellulose gold rush has been decades in development, with President Bush, in January’s State of the Union address, saying that federal research dollars would try to make the process “practical and competitive” within six years.

For an America now hooked on imported oil, cellulose offers an intriguing vision for the future by broadening an alternative fuel industry that now relies almost exclusively on corn kernels.

Cellulose is found in corn husks, wheat straw, trees, and fast-growing perennial crops such as switch grass, which is being grown on test plots in Nebraska, Washington and other states. A federal Energy Department study concluded that cellulose plant materials could help renewables supply 30 percent of the nation’s liquid fuel needs by 2030.

But tapping farm fields to produce both energy and food crops also creates new risks for agriculture and the environment.

Some cellulose materials such as the corn harvest leftovers already play an important role when returned to the soil. As they decay, they help fight erosion, improve the organic matter that is key to soil quality, and slow the release of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

Federal studies at the University of Nebraska’s research center in Mead indicate that on some lands all the corn residues should be left.

On others, only a portion should be removed, and researchers here are scrambling to develop new guidelines they hope farmers will respect.

“These crop residues are not being wasted. They are being used quite wisely,” said Wally Wilhelm, a federal plant physiologist who has spent much of the past quarter-century studying how crop residues return organic materials to the soil. “To wholeheartedly say that every wheat straw and cornstalk that is out there in November is now fair game — that is not the way we need to do it.”

Researchers in Washington say that some wheat straw also should be returned to the soil.

“We have some high-rainfall zones that produce an abundance of wheat straw, and you could remove some without damaging soil fertility,” said Rick Koenig, a Washington State University researcher. “But in a lot of our drier areas, it’s best to return to it all to the soil.”

Nature points the way

The jungle rot that plagued GIs during World War II gave researchers early clues on how to turn cellulose into fuel.

Cellulose is formed by long chains of glucose molecules, which create very strong bonds that are hard to break down. But the cellulose in canvas tents, cotton uniforms and other World War II gear didn’t hold up under the assault of potent molds that the troops encountered in New Guinea and other tropical islands.

Army scientists sought to find ways to combat jungle rot, and noted that some of the most potent molds secreted an enzyme that rapidly broke down cellulose into glucose sugars. These sugars could be fermented into ethanol, opening the door in the post-war era for researchers to pursue cellulose-to-fuel technology.

But it has been difficult to reliably mass-produce the enzymes, then profitably convert cellulose into ethanol. A series of cellulose plants proposed over the decades were never built.

Given current technology, federal officials estimate production costs at about $2.25 a gallon more than double the production costs of corn ethanol from starch, according to Andy Aden, a cellulose specialist with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Still, the federal government and corporations have stepped up research efforts to turn cellulose into fuel.

This summer, Xethanol, a publicly traded company, announced plans to build a 50-million-gallon-a-year cellulose ethanol plant in Georgia that would be fed by the forestry industry.

Iogen, a Canadian company that operates a small pilot project in Montreal, is considering construction of a wheat-straw plant in Idaho.

In the Midwest, major ethanol producers that process corn kernels are monitoring — and, in some cases, investing in — this research, hoping to eventually have the capacity to process cellulose pulled from the region’s vast fields of corn.

“There is an awful lot of good thinking about how do we find the silver bullet,” said Marty Lyons, a senior vice president for Archer Daniels Midland, the nation’s largest corn-ethanol producer and an investor in cellulose research.

If cellulose technology takes hold, ethanol yields from a corn field would receive a substantial boost. Fields that now produce enough corn kernels to yield about 400 gallons of ethanol per acre could produce as much as 280 additional gallons of ethanol per acre from the cobs, leaves and other cellulose material.

This might prompt some Midwest farmers to expand corn acreage, pushing into marginal lands more prone to erosion and leaching fertilizers and pesticides into waterways.

The government has sought to take such lands out of cultivation, paying farms to turn the acreage into conservation tracts typically planted in grasses that help hold the soil, provide cover for wildlife and protect the waterways. Currently, some 36 million acres of farmland are set aside in these reserves, with farmers receiving $1.76 billion annually not to grow crops on these tracts.

Rather than putting corn back into these lands, researchers have proposed planting some of them in switch grass, a native to the Midwest and one of four major prairie grass species that fed the vast herds of buffalo.

The hardy perennial can be grown in the same field for eight to 15 years in a row and provide cover for birds. The crop requires far less pesticides and fuel-intensive tractor work than corn. Its roots may extend some 10 feet deep, helping hold the soil in place. They also store large amounts of carbon, and thus help slow the release of carbon dioxide.

As an energy crop, the grass does have drawbacks. The huge bulk of the bales makes it difficult and expensive to transport over long distances to a distillery. Also, it is uncertain how well they would survive long periods of storage

But cellulose yields in test plots are impressive, with switch-grass tracts harvested once or twice a year estimated to produce from 200 to as much as 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre.

In the Midwest, switch grass already is grown on some conservation-reserve lands.

Fields too dry

In Washington, it would likely have a smaller niche because most of the conservation-reserve lands are too dry in the summer to support switch grass, said Steve Fransen, a Washington State University forage agronomist at Prosser, Benton County.

The prime irrigated lands of the Yakima basin — already claimed by orchards, vineyards, hops and other high-value crops — could also grow switch grass if the payoff were high enough for farmers.

On test plots at the Prosser research station, Fransen and other researchers are experimenting with different varieties of switch grass to learn more about yields.

Fransen said a fresh summer planting of switch grass doesn’t look like much — just a struggling patch of sod.

“It’s putting all of its energy into its roots and crown system,” Fransen said. “Then the next year, it just goes into this explosion.”

In some of the research plots, the grass has grown more than 6 feet tall. Meanwhile, the roots spread into a thick underground mat that reaches as much as 10 feet deep to soak up water and nutrients.

Switch grass could eventually be part of a broader mix of new ethanol crops that could include wheat straw, as well as fast-growing poplars, which already are grown in Eastern Washington by the timber industry. The emergence of such crops will depend on continued development of the cellulose-to-ethanol technology. And on whether oil prices stay high.

Federal officials are convinced that cellulose production costs can be cut to about $1.07 per gallon roughly half their current levels by 2012.

“It’s an aggressive track, but doable,” said Aden, the cellulose specialist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.