Saturday, November 23, 2013

Chemical Weapons Waste Coming to NM?

The following story, which should be of interest to the citizens of New Mexico, appeared this morning in El Pais, the foremost newspaper of Madrid, Spain. Evidently, and of this moment, the story has not appeared in the American press:

 Dateline 23 Novenber 2013,  San José, Costa Rica

 "EEUU trasladará armas químicas de Panamá a Nuevo Mexico"

[The United States will transport chemical weapons from Panama to New Mexico]

 "Estados Unidos prometió a Panamá que un peligroso cargamento de armas químicas que tropas estadounidenses abandonaron desde la Segunda Guerra Mundial en una pequeña isla panameña en el litoral Pacífico, será trasladado al estado de Nuevo México y sepultado en depósitos en el desierto de esa zona del sur estadounidense."

 [The United States promised Panama that a dangerous arsenal of chemical weapons, left over from WW II, and abandoned by US troops on a small Panamanian island off the pacific coast, will be shipped to New Mexico and buried in pits in the southern desert of the United States.]

 "El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores de Panamá informó que el Departamento de Defensa (Pentágono) enviará 'un equipo técnico de seis expertos', en una fecha a definir, para que revise la 'fragilidad de las armas químicas', que quedaron como desechos en San José, pequeña isla panameña del Océano Pacífico ubicada a poco más de 80 kilómetros al sur de tierra continental. El objetivo es 'moverlas y trasladarlas, vía transporte marítimo, hacia el desierto de Nuevo México, donde serán sepultadas', informó el ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Panamá, Fernando Núñez Fábrega, a la prensa internacional acreditada en la capital panameña."

 [The Panamanian Minister of External Relations announced that the Department of Defense (Pentagon) will send a technical team of six experts, at a date to be determined, in order to inspect the condition of the chemical weapons that have been discarded on San Jose, a small island off the Pacific coast, located more than 80 kilometers to the south of the mainland. The intention is to transport them by ship to the desert of New Mexico where they will be buried, said the Minister of External Relations of Panama, Fernando Nunez Fabrega, to the accredited international press in the Panamanian capital.]

 "Peligrosos basureros con toneladas de bombas y municiones de armas químicas—gas mostaza y agentes nerviosos, asfixiantes y venenosos—y convencionales usadas por el ejército de Estados Unidos en experimentos bélicos durante el siglo XX, ya fuera en la Segunda Guerra Mundial (1939—1945) para alistar la invasión a Japón o en la guerra de Vietnam (1964-1975), fueron abandonados por tropas estadounidenses en la isla, aunque también en áreas militares aledañas al Canal de Panamá que sirvieron como polígonos de tiro."

 [Dangerous wastes made up of tons of bombs and other chemical weapons - mustard gas and nerve agents, designed both to asfixiate and to poison, as well as other devices for use by US forces in military actions during WW II (1939-1945), and in order to prepare for the invasion of Japan, or for possible use in Vietnam (1964-1975,) were abandoned by US troops on the island, as well as in military zones adjacent to the Panama Canal that served as firing ranges.]

 "Los depósitos y botaderos son parte del legado de Estados Unidos al finalizar en 1999 su presencia militar en Panamá, que se inició en 1903 y durante la que utilizó a San José como plataforma de experimentos militares con armas químicas, con apoyo de los ejércitos de Canadá y Reino Unido de 1943 a 1947, y a las riberas del Canal como campos de tiro."

 [The waste dumps are part of a legacy left behind by the US following the termination of its military presence in Panama in 1999, a presence which began in 1903 and during which it used San Jose as a laboratory for experiments with chemical weapons, together with the armies of Canada and Great Britain from 1943 to 1947, and used the shores of the Canal as a free fire zone.]


Friday, November 22, 2013

Together We Thrive?

In a series of scholarly papers published, in 2007, in the journal "Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics" the authors O. B. Toon,, R. P. Turco, A. Robock, C. Bardeen, L. Oman, and G. L. Stenchikov described the results of their computer-based simulations of global climate, following the detonation of a number of relatively small nuclear weapons (15 kt each) in several major cities of the northern hemisphere. [Robock, A., Oman, L., Stenchikov, G. L., Toon, O. B., Bardeen, C., and Turco, R. P.: Climate consequences of regional nuclear conflicts, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 7, 2003–2012, 2007,]

 For example, following a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, employing just 100 such nuclear weapons, uncontrollable fires burning in ruined cities on the Indian sub-continent would, over a period of days, loft a mass of soot into the upper atmosphere, which was estimated to be as large as 5 million tons.

 The climate model showed that this large mass of soot would be distributed within weeks over the entire northern hemisphere, and then more slowly over the southern hemisphere. Within months, global temperatures were seen to fall as much as 1.3 degree C, with a recovery time calculated to be as long as ~10 years.

 The consequences for agriculture of a global fall in temperatures of 1.3 degree C, extending over at least a several year period, were considered to be dire. A global decrease in the available food supply was estimated to be as large as 20%. Under such conditions, it was said, starvation would be widespread, especially in the third world, and casualties due to famine would probably far exceed those due to the direct effects of nuclear weapons; e.g., possibly as many as 1 billion people would die from starvation, whereas the number of prompt deaths due to blast, fire, and radiation were expected to exceed tens of millions of people.

 The climate model was the state-of-the-art general circulation model, ModelE, from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which included a module to calculate the transport and removal of aerosol particles. It is able to represent the atmosphere up to a height of 80 km, and simulates plume rise to the middle and upper stratosphere, producing a long aerosol lifetime. The atmospheric model was connected to a full ocean general circulation model, with simulated sea ice, allowing the ocean to respond quickly at the surface and on yearly time scales in the deeper ocean.

 This work was a continuation of well-known past work, circa 1985, describing so-called nuclear winter scenarios. In that work, nuclear exchanges between the USSR and the USA were found to cause large decreases in global temperatures, lasting for long periods of time. But, it is now thought that these scenarios actually underestimated the climatic effects of large-scale nuclear exchanges, due to inadequate simulation of the degree to which soot would be lofted into the upper atmosphere. [Crutzen, P. J. and Birks, J. W.: The atmosphere after a nuclear war: Twilight at noon, Ambio, 11, 114–125, 1982; Turco, R. P., Toon, O. B., Ackerman, T. P., Pollack, J. B., and Sagan, C.: Nuclear winter: Global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions, Science, 222, 1283–1292, 1983; Pittock, A. B., Ackerman, T. P., Crutzen, P. J., MacCraken, M. C., Shapiro, C. S., and Turco, R. P.: Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War SCOPE-28, Vol. 1, Physical and Atmospheric Effects, Wiley, Chichester, England, 1985 (Second ed. 1989).]

 Using improved models for soot transport, changes of global climate following a nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA of a combined total of 1750 Mt of TNT equivalent, over a period of one week, was simulated. This scenario involved the injection of 50 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere and, following an initiation period of a few months, led to reductions in global temperature of 3.5 degree C, lasting for ~3 years, decreasing to ~1.5 degree C after 10 years. [Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals, A. Robock, L. Oman, and G. L. Stenchikov, J. of Geophys. Research, Vol. 112, D13107, doi:10.1029/2006JD008235, 2007.]

 The extraordinary results obtained from these simulations have been public information now for 6 years. However, the amount of media discussion that has been provoked is minimal. Insofar as USA national policy is concerned, public attention today is fixed instead on other important matters such as unemployment, the budget deficit, the Affordable Care Act, and the so-called "nuclear option" in the US Senate.

 Although the media are also very much interested in the ongoing struggle with Iran over its enrichment of uranium, and its construction of a heavy water nuclear reactor which will enable it to produce plutonium, little or no energy is being spent on contemplation of the looming disaster represented by the remnant ~5,000 nuclear weapons in each of the arsenals of the USSR and the USA, and the 100's of nuclear weapons possessed by England, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel.

 I agree that allowing the number of members of the nuclear club to increase represents a present danger to us all. However, the retention of ~10,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the established nuclear weapons club members is, I believe, an even bigger threat.

 Somehow, it must be possible to so stigmatize the use of nuclear weapons, that even their possession will ultimately be deemed unacceptable by the world's people. If the USA does not lead the way to the abolition of nuclear weapons, then what nation will?

 The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be up for review in 2015, but signs for the continuation of effective prohibitions on the development of nuclear weapons, by non-nuclear weapons states, are not good. Many nations of the world are unhappy with the lack of significant progress toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, promised for the last 40 years by members of the nuclear weapons club.

 It seems altogether right then that the USA should attempt to break through this logjam of fatalism and distrust by drastically, and if needs be unilaterally, reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons in its own arsenal; e.g., to well below 1000 nuclear weapons.

 It seems right too that the USA should set an example by stopping the development of new technologies geared toward the extension of the lifetimes of its stockpiled nuclear weapons and, above all, by ending research focused on accumulating more knowledge of the science and engineering of nuclear weapons; i.e., such knowledge which may enable the creation of a new generation of still more destructive nuclear weapons.

 The USSR, under M. Gorbachov, showed the world that Cold War hostilities could be checked, and for a while reversed. Now it's up to the USA to play an essential role in the reduction of global tensions. If left to fester, these tensions, along with developing new nuclear weapons technologies may, in my opinion, lead eventually to the extermination of us as a species.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

US Nuclear Explosions: a Thing of the Past?

Jeremy Bernstein, well-known author and former physicist, opines at the end of an article entitled "At Los Alamos: Learning to Love the Bomb", and appearing in the November 2013 issue of the American Physical Society News, that:

"The last above-ground nuclear test by the United States took place in 1962, ... . This is certainly a good thing. But I have only one misgiving. No one has seen a nuclear explosion in more than thirty years and the number of people who have ever seen one is dwindling. For most people, nuclear weapons are an abstraction. Perhaps there should be one more explosion in the desert of Nevada to remind us."

Now, this seems to me to be a truly bizarre suggestion! Perhaps Mr. Bernstein has been dithered by worry over the ongoing construction, in Iran, of the heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak, and the possible use by the Iranians of the plutonium which will be produced by this reactor, to build a nuclear weapon. Indeed, he has recently expressed his unease about the Arak reactor in an article in the New York Review of Books, dated 11 Nov 2013, and entitled "Iran's Plutonium Game."

Nevertheless, the idea of an above-ground nuclear explosion in Nevada, the purpose of which would be to "remind us" that nuclear weapons are not an abstraction: well, it just takes one's breath away.

Meanwhile, it seems to me that we might all be more concerned by the not remote possibility of an above-ground explosion of a nuclear weapon, within the borders of the United States, purposed by the agents of some adversarial nation-state or by an ad hoc group of self-appointed haters, and in the not so very distant future.

Monday, November 11, 2013

DNFSB Questions Nuke Lab Safety

Safety problems persist and expand throughout the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, in its latest report to Congress, cites Los Alamos National Laboratory as being the most problematic in this regard. Other troubled sites are the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Hanford site, the Savannah River site, the Pantex site, and the Nevada National Security site.

On 30 October 2013, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) issued its “Fourth Annual Report to Congress: Summary of Significant Safety-Related Aging Infrastructure Issues at Operating Defense Nuclear Facilities.”  Quoting now from that report, which is available online:

“DNFSB believes this report provides a means of keeping all parties apprised of safety-related concerns regarding aging infrastructure at Department of Energy (DOE) defense nuclear facilities.”

“DOE relies on several facilities that are at or near the end of life, but still must carry out national security and legacy waste cleanup missions.”

“Two of the most critical facilities are the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research (CMR)
Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), constructed in 1952, and the 9212
Complex at the Y-12 National Security Complex that began service in 1951.”

“DOE deferred funding for the CMR Replacement Project for five years, and expects to operate the existing CMR Facility through 2019.”

“The 9212 Complex [at Y-12] is comprised of Building 9212 and thirteen collocated buildings, portions of which have been in operation for more than 60 years. The Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) is scheduled to replace the 9212 Complex, but DOE does not plan to commence operations in UPF until 2025.”

“A third facility of concern to the Board is the Plutonium Facility (PF-4) at LANL. PF-4
was designed and constructed in the 1970s and lacks the structural ductility and redundancy required by today's building codes and standards. In 2007, a DOE-required periodic reanalysis of the seismic threat present at the Los Alamos site was completed. It indicated a greater than fourfold increase in the predicted earthquake ground motion. Total facility collapse is now considered a credible event. PF-4, the nation's sole plutonium fabrication center, contains significant amounts of plutonium, much of it in a form that is readily dispersible (i.e., powders and liquids), and is stored in containers that have not been certified to survive facility collapse. The resulting radiation dose consequence to the public following such an event was determined to exceed DOE's allowed evaluation levels by several orders of magnitude. The Board formally identified its concerns with the issuance of Recommendation 2009-2, Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility Seismic Safety.”
“In response to this increased seismic threat, LANL undertook a series of actions to
improve the safety posture of PF-4. These actions included efforts to reduce the likelihood and severity of a post-seismic fire, and address the nine known building weaknesses that could lead to loss of PF-4' s ability to confine its nuclear material or total structural collapse. A more detailed seismic analysis to further refine PF-4's response to a major earthquake was also undertaken and completed in September 2012. It identified two additional weaknesses that would result in collapse. Detailed planning to address these weaknesses has been initiated by LANL.”

“DNFSB, in its July 18, 2012, letter, expressed concern that this latest analysis was proceeding without adequate definition and technical justification. Subsequently, the Deputy Secretary of Energy, in his September 28, 2012, response to DNFSB, reported that he had directed the National Nuclear Security Administration to initiate action to evaluate PF-4 using a second modeling approach. This alternate analysis is currently being performed by an independent engineering firm. Final results are expected in December 2013. DNFSB awaits these results before reaching final conclusions on the appropriate urgency of compensatory and corrective actions.”

“PF-4 Safety System Reliability: [this building] lacks … fire-suppression systems and [an] active-confinement ventilation system that would adequately protect the public and workers from the consequences associated with post-seismic accidents.”

“Other facilities meriting continued attention are the high-level waste tank farms at the
Hanford Site and the Savannah River Site, the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility at LANL, and T Plant (Waste Storage, Treatment, and Packaging Operations) at the Hanford Site.”


“The following are the most significant safety-related aging infrastructure issues that exist today in the DOE defense nuclear complex”:

• “Los Alamos National Laboratory, Plutonium Facility (PF-4) - seismic fragility of building, and degraded safety system reliability: [DNFSB completed] seismic analyses
of PF-4 in May 2011 and September 2012 [and] identified building vulnerabilities
that could result in loss of confinement, or facility collapse, with resulting high radiological dose consequences to workers and the public. [Also,] the facility lacks a set of  safety controls (fire suppression systems and active confinement ventilation systems) that  would adequately protect  the public and workers from consequences associated with post-seismic accidents.”  

• “Los Alamos National Laboratory, Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility (CMR) - seismic fragility of building: [DNFSB estimates that] there is a 1 in 55 chance of seismic collapse during a ten year time-frame, which would result in release of nuclear material, and injury/death of facility workers.”

• “Los Alamos National Laboratory, Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility-building and equipment end of life. RLWTF has reached its end of life and despite ongoing life-extension efforts, requires replacement to support future laboratory missions
reliably. Equipment failures pose a risk to facility workers.”

• “Nevada National Security Site, Device Assembly Facility - degradation of water tank and fire suppression system lead-ins.”

• “Pantex Plant, Site-Wide Fire Suppression Systems – degradation of fire-suppression systems.”

• “Y-12 National Security Complex, 9212 Complex-seismic and high wind fragility of building, and building and equipment end of life.”

• “Hanford Site, Single-Shell and Double-Shell Tank Farms-aging tanks.”

• “Hanford Site, T Plant (Waste Storage, Treatment, and Packaging Operations) - seismic fragility of building.”

• “Savannah River Site, H-Canyon - aging systems and structures.”

• “Savannah River Site, Tank Farms - aging tanks.”

• “Savannah River Site, A-Area, Fire Protection Water Supply Systems - degraded pumps and tank.”


• “Hanford Site, Double-Shell Tank Farms - aging tanks.”

• “Savannah River Site, A-Area, Fire Protection Water Supply Systems - degraded
pumps and tank.”


• “None”

“As directed by Congress, DNFSB will continue to exercise its existing statutory authority in addressing these and other safety-related issues within the DOE defense nuclear complex.”