Call it a nuclear clash of titans—but not the crude shouting-match between Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It’s an “armed struggle” is between retired Pentagon bigwigs and current US war planners and weapons contractors.
While the Air Force lurches ahead with plans to design, produce and deploy a replacement for long-range, land-based nuclear-armed missiles, a string of retired military leaders have again called them useless, dangerous and exorbitantly expensive.
Reuters correspondent Scot Paltro reported Nov. 22, “Nuclear strategists call for bold move: scrap ICBM arsenal,” and cited former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and Leon Panetta, former missile launch officer Bruce Blair, former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis (although Mattis recently changed his mind and now supports the replacement plan).
Mr. Perry, the Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997, and retired US Marine Corps General James Cartwright, a Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, penned a commentary in the Washington Post Nov. 16, calling for the permanent elimination of our land-based missiles or ICBMs. (“Spending less on nuclear weapons could actually make us safer”)
The thought of slowing the weapons gravy train must have set off alarm bells in the executive suites at Boeing Corp. and Northrop Grumman, Inc. The two weapons profiteers are vying for the $130 billion “cost plus” contract to build a brand new land-based ICBM (to replace 450 Minuteman III missiles currently kept on hair-trigger alert in underground launch sites across the Great Plains).
Last summer, the Air Force awarded the two upstanding, public-spirited companies over $325 million each to put together counter proposals for the new so-called “Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent”—today known as the nuclear-armed “Minuteman” rockets that can fly 13,000 miles. When the contractor’s competition was announced, company executives gave the Washington Examiner a manure spreader full of corporate smooth talk.
Wes Bush, Northrop’s chairman, CEO and president, said, “We look forward to the opportunity to provide the nation with a modern strategic deterrent system that is secure, resilient and affordable.” He and Boeing spokesperson Jerry Drelling—who said “We are honored to … provide an affordable, low-risk intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system solution”—must have anticipated the push back from the critics. They kept repeating the words “affordable,” “secure” and “low-risk.”
Mr. Perry and Gen. Cartwright focused on the reckless endangerment caused by land-based missiles. The weapons are easy stationary targets, they say, and historically are the most likely among nuclear weapons to cause accidents. Using alarmingly harsh language, the two wrote, “There are serious concerns about accidental war that are inherent to ICBMs, which certainly would be the first targets of any surprise attack and cannot be recalled should they be launched in response to what turns out to be a false alarm.”
Perry and Cartwright seemed to be joisting with Boeing’s Director of Strategic Deterrence Systems, Frank McCall, who reminded the Examiner that since 1961, the US Air Force “has relied on our technologies for a safe, secure and reliable ICBM.”
Not so, reported the retired military heavy-weights. “Today, the greatest danger is not a Russian bolt but a US blunder—that we might accidentally stumble into nuclear war,” wrote Perry and Cartwright. “As we make decisions about which weapons to buy, we should use this simple rule: If a nuclear weapon increases the risk of accidental war and is not needed to deter an intentional attack, we should not build it.”
Hitting back against the weapons contractors’ flippant references to “affordability,” Perry and Cartwright used language that could have been taken straight from the pages of Nuclear Heartland, Nukewatch’s 2015 book about the land-based missiles. They argue that the United States “should cancel plans to replace its ground-based ICBMs, which would save $149 billion.”
“Certain nuclear weapons,” the two concluded, “such as the cruise missile and the ICBM, carry higher risks of accidental war that, fortunately, we no longer need to bear. We are safer without these expensive weapons, and it would be foolish to replace them.”
P.S. This label “unsafe, foolish and expensive” applies to all the new nuclear weapons inside the Pentagon’s $1.7 trillion production chain rebuild now underway. Yet plans for a new nuclear-armed submarine, a new heavy bomber, and a new H-bomb for NATO in Europe are somehow embraced or ignored by Perry and Cartwright. It seems that nuclear madness doesn’t completely clear up upon retirement. —John LaForge
Governor Mark Dayton told the St. Paul Pioneer in October that he supports the PolyMet copper sulfide mining proposal, “But they still have to meet the environmental permitting requirements.”
The governor’s qualified endorsement of the controversial PolyMet mining plan raises the question of which environmental requirements have to be met.
Chris Knopf, of Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, makes two crucial points in a Nov. 13 counterpoint in the Mpls StarTrib, “How the proposed PolyMet mine project would violate Minnesota regulations.” First, state law requires PolyMet to “permanently prevent substantially all water from moving through or over the mine waste,” after mine closure. But PolyMet’s plan is to leave mine waste in contact with water for hundreds of years. Second, PolyMet’s and the DNR’s own data, based on rock samples from the proposed site, project the amount of toxic heavy metals to be expected in the contaminated water after mine closure. But this research was set aside and ignored, while irrelevant data from a Yukon Territory mine was substituted — in order to minimize the amount of expected contamination. Tellingly, that mine’s water quality continues to deteriorate, yet state officials have allowed this dubious data switch to go unchallenged.
PolyMet’s plans, as outlined in its 2016 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), also appear to violate the federal Clean Water Act. Section 404 governing discharges into US waterways requires mining firms to use the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” but this would mean underground extraction rather than open pits, and “dry stack tailings” of fine particle mine waste rather than PolyMet’s plan to dump slurry into unlined seepage ponds. Dry stacking is far less environmentally damaging since it doesn’t threaten groundwater contamination, but Paula Maccabee, an attorney for WaterLegacy, explains that PolyMet’s chose the cheaper options, not the least damaging, without adequate .
Maccabee submitted 80 pages of expert comment on the FEIS and she noted that the Clean Water Act also requires that PolyMet to make written guarantees regarding if and when company-funded cleanup programs will be conducted to fix unplanned “adverse impacts.”
Financial assurances and long-term guarantees
In October 2015, Governor Dayton said he wanted to hire an independent analysis of the financing behind the PolyMet Mining Corp. and its foreign owner, Glencore of Switzerland. Patrick Condon reported in the StarTribune that Dayton had “concerns” about Glencore whose environmental record was “mixed.” “That’s why I think the financial assurance part would be essential.”
That November Dayton followed up on his concerns, saying that if the giant mine was eventually permitted, Minnesota should demand “a rigorous system of community oversight,” like the one required of Upper Michigan’s Eagle mine which he visited that fall. The StarTribune’s Tony Kennedy reported that Dayton “was impressed by Michigan’s decision to require the [Eagle] mine’s owner to pay $300,000 annually into an independent oversight fund.”
As I reported here earlier, Michigan’s Eagle mine is 100 times smaller than the proposed PolyMet open pit. Dayton’s suggestion that Minnesota “should demand the same as Michigan,” means that PolyMet Mining Corp./Glencore should be required to pony up $30 million annually for independent, long-term ground water and surface water monitoring. If mine promoters like US Representative Rick Nolan, D-MN, are correct to predict that giant, open-pit sulfide deposits can be mined using “technological innovations that can mitigate mining’s environmental footprint” like acid mine drainage, then PolyMet/Glencore must guarantee it up front with legally binding agreements.
PolyMet’s own waste water modeling data initially stated that potential acid mine drainage would be a 500-year-long problem, so the water monitoring guarantee needs to amount to a guaranteed bond of $15 billion in today’s dollars.
Enter Phyllis Kahn, the long-time member of the Minnesota House. Kahn has raised the issue of paying for cleanup after the mine closes or following a pollution disaster. In a Nov. 14 letter to the StarTrib, Kahn points out that, historically “throughout the country,” after mine closure or a major mishap “the company goes belly up and the bank or financial institution backing it goes bankrupt.” To protect Minnesota’s water against this financial corruption, Kahn recommends that the state “require a bond issued by a reputable institution like Lloyd’s of London,” noting that the insurer’s refusal to offer a policy “or proposal of an unmeetabe rate” would speak volumes about the likelihood, severity and costs of the mine’s inevitable disasters. — John LaForge
An enlarged copy of this Sept. 13, 1985 headline from the Mpls. “Star and Tribune” has been on my bulletin board for decades. Back then the scientists explained the consequences of a large-scale nuclear war between the former USSR and the United States. “…the primary mechanisms for human fatalities would likely not be from blast effects, not from thermal radiation burns, and not from ionizing radiation, but, rather, from mass starvation” the US National Academy of Sciences study said, resulting in nuclear winter and “the loss of one to four billion lives.”
Left out of those grim calculations was the effect of mass firestorms caused by nuclear weapons being detonated on urban areas. In her book Whole World on Fire (Cornell Univ. Press, 2004) Lynn Eden notes, “For more than 50 years, the US Government has seriously underestimated damage from nuclear attacks.”
“The failure to include damage from fire in nuclear war plans continues today,” Eden wrote. “Because fire damage has been ignored for the past half-century, high-level US decision makers have been poorly informed, if informed at all, about the extent of damage that nuclear weapons would actually cause. As a result, any US decision to use nuclear weapons almost certainly would be predicated on insufficient and misleading information. If nuclear weapons were used, the physical, social, and political effects could be far more destructive than anticipated.”
“For nuclear weapons of 100 kilotons or more, destruction from fire will be substantially greater than from blast. … Air temperatures in the burning areas after the attack would be well above the boiling point of water; winds, hurricane force,” Eden reported.
In a 1995 letter to Eden, Harold Brode of the Defense Nuclear Agency, which conducted research on nuclear weapons effects, wrote, “The fact is that fire tends to lead to complete destruction in this context…. Because of the enhanced likelihood of spread in the event of a nuclear explosion in an urban center, fire damage is very likely to far exceed blast damage.”
Today, with the US president threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea’s 25 million people, and with three US Navy aircraft carrier battle groups conducting large-scale exercises in the Asia-Pacific involving over 22,500 personnel, it’s worth recalling that fires from even a very “limited” use of a small number of modern nuclear weapons would create so much soot and ash that the consequent collapse of agriculture could cause the famine death of two billion people.
This was the conclusion in November 2013, of Ira Helfand, MD, who wrote “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” 2d Edition, for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
What nuclear war planners in the Navy and the Air Force, or sociopaths like Mr. Trump ignore or fail to grasp is this, from Whole World on Fire: “Within tens of minutes after the cataclysmic events associated with the [nuclear] detonation, a mass of buoyantly rising fire-heated air would signal the start of a second and distinctly different event — the development of a mass fire of gigantic scale and ferocity. This fire would quickly increase in intensity. In a fraction of an hour it would generate ground winds of hurricane force…”
In April 2014, a group of US atmospheric and environmental scientists published a corroborating paper titled, “Multi-decadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict.” Its co-authors Michael Mills, Owen Toon, Julia Lee-Taylor, and Alan Robock reported that, “A limited, regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which each side detonates 50 15 [kiloton] weapons could produce about 5 Tg [teragrams] of black carbon” from mass fires. A teragram/Tg is 1 million metric tons.
These five metric tons of black carbon, the report notes, “would self-loft to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally, producing a sudden drop in surface temperatures and intense heating of the stratosphere. … The combined cooling and enhanced UV [ultra violet radiation] would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.” Of course, much of the black carbon would be radioactive as well causing long-lived contamination of water and food.
The authors conclude that with this understanding of the impacts of mere 100 “small” Hiroshima-sized nuclear detonations (actual US bombs are far more powerful), the world should be motivated to demand “the elimination of the more than 17,000 nuclear weapons that exist today.” — John LaForge
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Banana Comparison
The nuclear industry often compares the radioactive wastes produced inside reactors with naturally-occurring radioactive elements like potassium-40 which is found in bananas. This disinformation is deliberately used to give the impression that consuming radiation is normal. “But this is a false comparison, since most naturally occurring long-lived radioactive elements, commonly found in Earth’s crust, are very weakly radioactive,” explains Dr. Steven Starr, the Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at the University of Missouri. “Note that potassium-40 has a specific activity [radioactive strength] of 71 ten-millionths of a curie per gram. Compare that to 88 curies per gram for cesium-137, and 140 curies per gram for strontium-90 [both created inside nuclear reactors]. In other words, cesium-137 is 12 million times more radioactive than potassium-40…. Strontium-90 releases almost 20 million times more radiation per unit mass than potassium-40. Which one of these would you rather have in your bananas?” — Steven Starr, “The Contamination of Japan with Radioactive Cesium,” in Crisis Without End, edited by Helen Caldicott, The New Press 2014, p. 46.
With five works of fiction under her belt, novelist Gwyneth Cravens makes a case for nuclear power as a way to fight climate change in “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy” (2007). The old fiction that nuclear power is safe and cool is presented her online PowerPoint lecture where Cravens lists items that convinced her to quit anti-nuclear work. The list is either an industry PR gimmick or just bad math, or both, but Cravens’ powerless points are easily rebutted.
Cravens: “Huge reserves of uranium, in geopolitically favorable places.”
This claim gives the impression of low price and easy access to uranium. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports that the world faces uranium deficits between 2025 and 2035. This means the price goes up. The “politically favorable” spots for uranium mining are all overseas (ending hope of energy independence). Kazakhstan mines the most uranium — 24 times the US volume; Canada, 14 times the US; Australia, six times the US. Even with the Trump cabinet’s de-regulation- and pollution-happy agenda, the US must clean up from past uranium mining. There are now 15,000 abandoned uranium mines and mills in the American Southwest, mostly located on Indian Land. Uranium mine and mill tailings have been left in the open air of the desert — 190 million metric tons of them — so wind and rain spread the contamination.
Cravens: “Fuel can be recycled many times. Only 2% used on one trip through a reactor.”
If this were factual, if “recycling” waste reactor fuel was being done for a profit anywhere, the industry would be gobbling up the money at factories everywhere. Formally known as reprocessing (the PR dept. dubbed it “recycling”), was abandoned in the United States after decades of expensive, dangerous attempts. The process produces huge quantities of highly radioactive liquid wastes that can’t be contained, the sort that is leaking from hundreds of tanks at Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina. “Recycling” is being done by France, but only because a legal loophole allows the factory to pour one million liters (264,000 gallons) of liquid radioactive waste per day into the Irish Sea from its reprocessing. Studies by Dr. Chris Busby in England show that the dumped radioactive materials accumulating on local beaches have caused cancer in Irish children.
Cravens: “Mature technology with recent advances: inherently safe; large-scale hydrogen production; able to burn up nuclear waste.”
Nuclear power is mature alright. Most of the 447 reactors in the world are around 40 years old and near the end of their operational life. They provide about 6% of the world’s electricity. But scientists say that to have a minimum impact on climate change — and this is the whole point of Craven’s tour — nuclear would have to be 20% of the energy mix. This means that after today’s units are replaced, an additional 1,600 reactors need to be built — to get to 20%, not 6%. But this requires that three new reactors be built every 30 days for 40 years — and by that time climate change will have done its damage to us. “Inherently safe” reactors are unknown and untested except on drawing boards. Not one has been built. The dream of “burning up nuclear waste” hasn’t been demonstrated anywhere. Besides, the burning of waste adds heat, soot and ash to global warming.
Cravens: “US reactors operate at over 95% capacity.”
This is a verbal magic trick, helping distract the audience. What the word “capacity” distracts from is that nuclear reactors are about 33 percent “efficient,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. This means that “for every three units of thermal energy generated by the reactor core, one unit of electrical energy goes out to the grid and two units of waste heat go into the environment.” The gargantuan use of water by nuclear reactors is a problem that most people don’t realize. Dr. Jeremy Rifkin, the renowned economist, notes that 40% of all the fresh water consumed in France each year goes to cooling its nuclear reactors. “When it comes back it’s heated and it’s dehydrating and threatening our agriculture and ecosystems. We don’t have the water, and this is true all over the world,” Rifkin said in 2013.
The US Energy Information Administration says, “Most power plants do not operate a full capacity every hour of every day of the year.” Reactors are routinely shut down for re-fueling, for replacement of worn-out parts, and for “unusual events” and accidents.
Cravens: “Over 12,000 reactor-years passed in safety.”
The risk of catastrophic reactor disasters is permanent and makes us permanently unsafe. Dismantling and shipping the Three Mile Island reactor, destroyed in 1979, took over 25 years. The Chernobyl reactor has been in cover-up mode for 30 years, contaminating land, water, and air ever since 1986. Whenever wildfires ravage the “exclusion zone,” they re-suspend radioactive fallout spreading it again and again. Fukushima, Japan’s three destroyed reactors will continue to poison the Pacific Ocean ever day until groundwater stops moving; the owners will be at least 40 years in the “clean-up” mode.
Even without such reactor catastrophes, federal agencies in the United States all warn that there is “no safe exposure to radiation.” Every dose, no matter how small, carries a risk of causing illness or cancer, and the risks are far higher for women girls and infants than for men. Since nuclear reactors can’t operate without continuously venting and pouring radioactively contaminated liquids and gases (from the core, from cooling water circulation systems, and from the waste fuel cooling pools) into the environment, the government has set “allowable” limits to this radioactive pollution of the water and air. The industry calls these limits “safe” but in fact they are all dangerous and merely “allowable.” This venting and pouring of radioactive gases and liquids from operating reactors has caused the spike in childhood leukemias and infant mortality in communities downwind from operating reactors, as documented in studies in Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States. The German studies were so convincing that the country decided to close all its 17 reactors by 2022.
Cravens: “Nuclear plant has small environmental footprint — less than a square mile.”
This claim ignores the mining, milling, processing, and fuel fabrication of uranium; the production of vast amounts of concrete and steel for reactors; and the vast quantities of cold water returned hot to oceans, lakes and rivers. It neglects to mention the acreage needed to transport, isolate, and manage 70,000 to 140,000 tons of highly radioactive waste fuel for up to one-million years, and the thousands of square miles of ordinary landfill space taken up by low- and intermediate level radioactive wastes.
Cravens: “Nuclear plant radiation emissions per year: less than you get from eating one banana.”
The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin debunked this absurdity in 2013 in a review of the pro-nuclear propaganda film “Pandora’s Promise.” Revkin wrote that the film “includes an interview in which the novelist Gwyneth Cravens claims that drinking one day’s tritium leakage from the Vermont Yankee plant in 2010 would have deposited no more radiation inside someone than eating one banana. Actually, it would have delivered about 150,000 times that much, calculates Ed Lyman.” A physicist, Dr. Lyman is the senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” (The New Press, 2014).
Cravens’ one banana’s worth of “emissions per year” overlooks the 400-500 pounds of plutonium created annually in the reactor core. This material and other fission products emit heat and radiation for 240,000 years, and must be isolated from the environment for at least that long. Craven’s banana emission hooey also neglects the millions of tons of reactor-heated cooling water that is dumped back into rivers, lakes and oceans after being used to cool the reactor cores and tons of waste fuel in cooling pools.
Cravens: “Lowest environmental impact of any large-scale energy resource.”
This zinger rivals the nuclear industry’s most bogus of fraudulent slogans: “Energy too cheap to meter.”
Anyone who’s spent even a month looking at US electric power usage knows that conservation and efficiency have the lowest environmental impact of any large-scale producer. Dubbed “NegaWatts” by the Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, conserving electricity can eliminate over 1/3 of current US usage.
The IAEA reported in 2014, that “avoided energy” or NegaWatts — the difference between the amount actually used each year and the amount that would have been used had there been no conservation since 1974 — is now equivalent to two-thirds of annual consumption. That is almost as much as the world’s output of oil, gas and coal combined, The Economist reported.
Nuclear reactors only provide about 19% of the electricity used in the US, so conservation and efficiency could replace them without cost (beyond public education), without pollution, and without much delay. — John LaForge