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Bulletin #182: Critical fundraising reminder, and *important* news

December 23, 2013

if you haven’t yet, please –
Donate Now

In this Bulletin:

  1. Thank you for your financial support.  Only a few days are left for deductible contributions this year.  Can you reach out to others also?

  2. Nuclear solstice: defense authorization bill passes Congress, mandates new underground plutonium factory “modules” in Los Alamos; no money provided so far

  3. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases important nuclear weapons cost report: Obama’s nuclear weapons plans are likely to cost $355 billion over the next 10 years – and get more expensive after that.

  4. Trade press: launch indeed scrubbed for first “interoperable” warhead

  5. Forget new facilities: LANL’s existing main plutonium facility has been mostly shut down since June over poor safety management; problems may take years to fix

  6. “Manhattan Project National Historic Park” legislation again fails to pass

  7. Morale and mental health in Los Alamos: not great

December 23, 2013

Dear friends –

All of us here at the Study Group are deeply grateful for the support and solidarity from so many of you in 2013.  The year is rapidly drawing to a close.

There are only a few more days in which to make tax-deductible donations.  We believe the Study Group provides unique value to the nation and to New Mexico.  We hope you think of us when you complete your charitable giving for the year.

We have a very broad base of support, but it is also very thin.  We are simply not reaching most of the people of reasonably comfortable means who care about nuclear weapons issues.  Our impact on policy is far greater than our budget alone would suggest, but what we have done is very small in comparison to what we could do, given adequate funding.  People of modest and even slender means have extended themselves bravely for nuclear disarmament but we are evidently not reaching many of the people who, with a relatively modest effort, could make a huge difference.

How do we know some of you could make a huge difference?  Because we have and, if you allow us, we will.

Money is by no means scarce in most of our communities, but most of it runs off to join other money before it does much good.  Antonio Machado has the couplet,

It is good knowing that glasses are to drink from.
The bad thing is not knowing what thirst is for.

What life is for, he might have said.

Part of our political problem is that a lot of people have been unconsciously brainwashed into thinking that it takes a lot of people – a veritable army! – to make significant positive political change, or that only mass visibility has any hope of making a decisive difference.  How terribly wrong that is!  That’s inexperience talking, influenced by the undercurrent of passivity and despair found everywhere now.  It was not always thus, nor need it be – for you and me.  Let’s not go with that flow.  As Jim Hightower reminds us, “even a dead fish can go with the flow.”

Despite our limited, annoyingly-uncertain budget we have been quite influential in recent years.  One senior nuclear analyst in government commented to us, “You’ve certainly accomplished more than, say, [a large arms control organization in Washington]!”  Counterpunch magazine selected us as one of the nation’s top 10 small green groups in 2011.  We could pile on some more endorsements here, and to round out the picture we could also say that quite a few parties closely connected to the Democratic Party would rather we were weak or vanished from the scene entirely.

Better than any endorsement is the fact that the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) is now effectively canceled, after what was for us a rather grueling and financially draining struggle in the federal courts of New Mexico and Colorado and in the halls of Congress.  What made it bearable was your solidarity.  Amidst our other work we’ve been fighting such plans, fairly successfully, for 24 years.  We are almost home free now, because lack of money is starting to induce more rational nuclear policy behavior.  Veery sloowly, however.

It is critical that we follow up on the CMRR-NF victory quickly.  Deeper disarmament goals are within reach, for one thing.  We don’t pretend we can change fundamental political configurations, but we can help catalyze government response to them.  And meanwhile, our corner of the nuclear empire is striking back with its latest, greatest plan, this time for underground production bunkers (“modules” – see below).  Never a dull moment.

I suppose we know as much or more about a lot of this than anybody else outside government but without financial support our work slows down painfully.  That’s why we hope you will reach out to your friends for us, or let us explain the situation to them.

Many doors are open, in the news media and in all three branches of government.  Colleagues in government will use our work if we send it, assuming that work is solid.  One paper we wrote on CMRR-NF was used in a briefing for Vice President Biden that same day, we were told.  We have the access, but we don’t always have the time to use it.  Tell your friends: it’s always been easier for us to meet with influential decisionmakers than it is to meet with people who ostensibly support our work.  Odd, isn’t it?

Many potential supporters are looking for evidence of mass appeal, for “buzz,” but the real action is (and always has been) elsewhere and of a different, deeper quality – the opposite of “buzz.”

Passage of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement this past Tuesday means that congressional appropriators have only about three weeks to divvy up $1.012 trillion in fiscal year 2014 funds.  So like some of our colleagues in Washington we will be mostly working through the holidays.  If you have questions this week we generally will be here to answer them.  If you are in New Mexico and want to schedule a briefing early next year, we will try to accommodate you.

Our work next year will center on decisionmaker education and lobbying in Washington on nuclear weapons issues (my next DC trip is in February, for two weeks), production of some key publications – some narrowly concerned with nuclear weapons issues, some more broadly concerned with our converging crises – that “connect the dots” forcefully and persuasively, lots of public and private educational meetings, and, if lobbying fails, quite possibly litigation.  With your help we aim to re-start our successful internship and fellowship program.  We have many international friends in high places and in the surging new international disarmament movement who want to help, provided there is local interest.  (Is there?)  We hope to remodel our web site.  We want to reach out better to our own membership.

To accomplish these things takes highly-skilled, committed work, which in our society means it takes money.  There are many people of great talent who would like to help and who are willing to set aside a great deal to do so, but they can’t afford to work for nothing.

A lot of people mistakenly think that when they retire, they can sort of “take it easy” and focus on their personal agenda, whatever it might be.  I hate to be the one to say it, but that’s just not right.  For our society to continue, even for nature to continue, we who are growing older need to realize that the time has come to sacrifice more, not less, and that this is now the path for human fulfillment, realization, and joy.  What came before was preparation.  We want to be part of that growing realization and we hope you will join us.

2.   Nuclear solstice: defense authorization bill passes Congress, mandates new underground plutonium factory “modules” in Los Alamos; no money provided so far

We already sent you our press release on this new (but expected) development, first proposed by Bechtel-led Los Alamos National Security (LANS) and then accepted and promoted by the Obama administration.  Senator Udall deserves a lot of credit for promoting this initiative, and in his press release he takes that credit:

Udall fought for several policy provisions that were included in the final legislation. Among them:

The Los Alamos National Labs Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project (CMRR). This amended provision would provide LANL with the flexibility to continue to provide essential national security support and ensure that scientists and engineers have the necessary infrastructure to carry out their work safely, while addressing some of the concerns raised in response to the original CMRR proposal.

Huh?  Pretty vague for the Senator’s top accomplishment in the bill, isn’t it?  Senator Udall is taking a cue from his LANS handlers here and not roiling the political waters with what that provision actually says – namely, if a Nuclear Weapons Council endorsement can be engineered, start designing and building at least two underground modules ASAP.

We as noted on Friday, the Armed Services committees, in their wisdom, failed to wait for an analysis of alternatives or an environmental impact statement.  “Shoot, ready, aim.”  Sure, we know there was something that purported to be an analysis of alternatives but it was secret and had no outside peer review.  In bureaucratese, this is what is called “rush to failure.”

The “ant farm” (or “charm bracelet” or “broccoli”) plan is premature, unnecessary, illegal, and will be very expensive – about $2 billion, some knowledgeable government insiders who have seen the plan are estimating.  While this is less than what many think would have been a $10 billion CMRR-NF, it is still huge.  It would delay, not accelerate, safe plutonium operations, and would needlessly expose NNSA and its statutory responsibilities to many managerial, political, and fiscal risks.  So stay tuned.  We will be working on this issue over the holidays.

For more background: Lawmakers reach compromise on FY 2014 NDAA, Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Dec 13, 2013 and New Pu strategy endorsed by DoD CAPE, but UPF cost questions raised, Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Dec 6, 2013, as well as the links and analyses in the press release cited above.

As an aside, there were articles in two New Mexico newspapers mentioning the modular plan this past weekend, quoting one or both New Mexico senators (who of course are jazzed about such the giant pork-barrel project they are trying to bring home for us), but not quoting us.  One might get the idea that there is no opposition.  It is less important to quote this organization than it is to provide some of the many cogent reasons why the senators might be wrong about plutonium (again).  But that’s the real purpose of nuclear weapons, after all: to influence foreign and domestic relations in ways that marginalize and disempower those who do not have nuclear weapons, the better to advance a militaristic and imperial agenda, at home as well as abroad.  Nuclear deterrence has always worked better in domestic politics than for deterring foreign adversaries.

A “modest” modular plutonium pit factory would still be the largest construction project, in constant dollar terms, in New Mexico history.  Compare the costs of New Mexico’s most iconic construction projects inflated to today’s dollars using mostly industry-standard generic construction cost inflators: Elephant Butte Dam ($240 million, M); Cochiti Dam ($372 M); and the “Big I” interchange ($417 M).   For that matter try comparing a $2 B modular addition at LANL with the Golden Gate Bridge ($918 M) or Hoover Dam ($1.45 B).  (For more on methodology look here; scroll down the page to see the table, which has been brought up to date for the above examples).

3.   Congressional Budget Office (CBO) releases important nuclear weapons cost report: Obama’s nuclear weapons plans are likely to cost $355 billion over the next 10 years – and get more expensive after that.

In its “Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2014 to 2023” (12/19/13), CBO estimated that (Obama’s) present nuclear weapons plans in the Department of Defense (DoD) for delivery systems and Department of Energy (DOE) for warheads and sustaining costs, including modernization of warheads and delivery systems as well as command, control, communications, and early warning, were likely to cost $355 B over the years 2014 to 2023.

By 2023, currently-planned modernization programs would still be ramping up, and annual modernization expenses during the remainder of the 2020s would be about four (4) times the 2014 amount, or about $15 B per year in addition to sustainment and operations.

This study is the most authoritative study of nuclear weapons costs in recent years.  It’s succinct, makes many of the most important points, and so there is no need to summarize or parse it here.  For a summary, here’s the Reuters article about it.

Needless to say, we can be confident the U.S. will not complete its current three-decade modernization plan for nuclear weapons, a plan that with sustainment and operations included might well cost (extrapolating from these CBO results) $1 trillion, even if it were well-managed and otherwise feasible.  It is however not well-managed and there are no signs it will ever be.  Neither is it feasible, as we have often said (e.g. here, here, and here), even if it were desirable.

4.  Trade press: launch indeed scrubbed for first “interoperable” warhead

A December 20 articlein the Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitorconfirmed a major setback in the administration’s plan to make a new “interoperable” warhead adaptable to both land-based and submarine-based U.S. ballistic missiles.

The Obama Administration appears set to indefinitely defer work on the W78/W88 life extension program, which was to be the first interoperable warhead that could be launched from missile silos or nuclear submarines, NW&M Monitor has learned. While the Administration has not finalized its Fiscal Year 2015 budget plans, Congressional staff and officials with knowledge of the program have confirmed that the W78/W88 refurbishment is on the chopping block due to budgetary pressures facing the National Nuclear Security Administration.

As we said in Bulletin 180, it’s hard to imagine the current warhead modernization paradigm (the “3+2” plan, the “3” referring to interoperable warheads) surviving this setback.

Since Bulletin 180 we have further confirmed this news from reliable government sources.  Further, we know of no technical or aging reason why replacement of either the W78 or W88 would be warranted.

5.   Forget new facilities: LANL’s existing main plutonium facility has been mostly shut down since June over poor safety management; problems may take years to fix

On June 27 of this year, after struggling to achieve compliance with criticality safety rules since at least 2005, and with an increasing tempo of violations over the first months of this year, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) halted all programmatic activities at its main plutonium facility, Building PF-4.  See: Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), Weekly Site Report for week ending June 28, 2013 and “Los Alamos pauses plutonium work at PF-4 amid concerns,Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, Jun 28, 2013.

According to details provided in a December 6 letter from DOE to the DNFSB and summarized by Todd Jacobson in the Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor (“Lab creeping toward criticality restart,”Dec 20, 2013), DOE believes LANL’s criticality safety program may take years to repair.

As a result of several egregious long-term criticality safety violations that came to light in October of 2007, causing an immediate halt to all work with plutonium at PF-4, we at the Study Group made a search through DNFSB and DOE records for the post-2001 history of criticality problems at the facility.  We found a lot.  (See our press release, “Los Alamos Plutonium Work Halted to Resolve Uncertainties over Nuclear Criticality Safety,” Oct 9, 2007 and this raw compendium of criticality issues at LANL through September 2007.)  Criticality events occurred at LANL in 1945, 1946, and 1958.  Each one killed a person.  (See also: A Review of Criticality Accidents, 2000 Revision, LANL, LA-13638, May 2000, McLaughlin, et al.)

So now, finally, DOE says it will conduct “a causal analysis of why the decline of criticality safety staffing and inadequate criticality safety performance persisted for so long before NNSA and LANL took definitive action to address the situation.”  As DOE’s status report puts it, among the root causes is a “lack of management commitment.”  No kidding!  Key criticality safety personnel have now quit LANL, with the result, in DOE’s words, that “[l]osses in personnel and corporate knowledge continue to challenge the viability of the criticality safety management program.”

This little glimpse into how LANS is managing its multibillion-dollar plutonium program at LANL should be an eye-opener for Congress as well as DOE.  The biggest take-message is that a supposed lack of new facilities is not the problem.  Mission – its lack of clarity and lack of need – and management are the problems.  A former top federal manager with intimate knowledge of the goings-on at PF-4 repeated warned us that LANS, by failing to take safety and ongoing reinvestment and maintenance seriously, was “running PF-4 to failure.”  It may be that the present stand-down is a sign that things are changing.  But it’s happened before, again and again, and the situation has deteriorated since 2007.  The fixes evidently have been superficial and ineffective so far.

6.   “Manhattan Project National Historic Park” legislation again fails to pass

This little piece of revanchist nuclear propaganda legislation, supported this fall by only four senators, all Democratic and from New Mexico and Washington state only, failed to make it into the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.  We are pleased.  We have long opposed it and (with the help of Visiting Disarmament Fellow Mia Gandenberger) were able to do a little bit of on-the-ground lobbying against it in Washington.

Here’s the letter we wrote to six Republican senators who opposed the project.  The Associated Press wrote an article about the issue which went far and wide (“Los Alamos working to create national park,” Nov 29, 2013).  The Los Alamos Monitor covered the aftermath: “Manhattan Project Park stalls in U.S. Senate,” and “Watchdogs applaud stalling of park bill,” Dec 14, 2013.  Here’s an interesting article from Oak Ridge Today on the issue, with our comments and those of others below.

I especially liked one of the comments someone living in Oak Ridge sent in: “I just don't think a National Park would satisfy those who want it...A Park won't bring back the so-called glory days of making the deadliest weapon ever conceived.”

7.   Morale and mental health in Los Alamos: not great

When the Study Group had a storefront Disarmament Center in Los Alamos (2006-2007), Trish and I gave a presentation to the Los Alamos County Council about our hopes for the Center, including our hopes for greater dialogue about policy issues affecting the community.  We saw this as our responsibility, since we aimed to cut back the federal funding coming into the town.

While waiting to give our presentation we heard a remarkable report from a County community mental health service provider, in which she said that the greatest community mental health problem in Los Alamos was attempted youth suicide.  She explicitly declined to provide the shocking statistics she had in an open, televised meeting.

Evidence for certain kinds of significant mental and behavioral health problems in Los Alamos has been common knowledge in New Mexico, and has been loosely documented in many historical and sociological books and articles about the town as well as in “fiction.”  Many of us who have been involved one way or another with the town for decades have seen it first-hand.  Many of the town’s stories have never been properly told and so Los Alamos remains, in many ways, “The Town That Never Was,” a place “without public meaning,” as San Juan Pueblo Governor Herman Agoyo once said.

A few of you may remember the 1979 (but timeless) portrait of Los Alamos by Joseph Kane in Time, “Los Alamos: A City Upon a Hill,” to cite but one prominent example.  Children are the most vulnerable members of any community, and in a passage which still rings true, Kane’s article discusses the children of Los Alamos:

Children are subjected to enormous pressure. They are bright, aggressive, tense, patronizing. Teen-agers laugh at openly intellectual classmates, called coneheads, who carry calculators on their belts, and at the "stomps," fraternity types who go about in cowboy boots. "Loadies" drink and smoke things, and any mixing with the Indians or "low ride" Mexicans down in the valley is slumming. "We are prejudiced against everybody," snarls one high school girl. "We are rich and white." Frances Mueller first realized the effects of this rarefied atmosphere when her children came back from college and whined, "Gee, Mom, you didn't tell us about poverty." History Teacher Betty Aiello once asked on a test, "What does World War II mean to you?" Two of the answers came back: "Nothing."

Teachers take up where parental frowns at a C grade leave off. Names of students accepted to college are published on the chalkboard — for all to see constantly. "If the children are abused at all," says Father Bruckner, "the abuse is psychological and emotional." One student, he recalls, requested that a class be given on "how I can have a real friend." A supercharged college-bound boy shocked his demanding father by announcing that if he had to live his life over again, he would like to try it as a Teddy bear — so he could be hugged.

(Kane’s very apt “city upon a hill” title played on the core themes of American identity and exceptionalism in John Winthrop's "Model of Christian Charity" 1630 sermon on the Arbella.  That sermon concludes, "Let us therefore choose Life..." in a phrase from Deuteronomy that also could be taken straight from the closing argument of Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.)

A few years ago a federal manager of Los Alamos attempted to describe to us what he called the “dark cloud of retribution” that he and his wife felt was hanging over the town.  More than one top federal manager has told us how happy he was to get out of Los Alamos as quickly as possible, for a lot of reasons.  Five or six years ago, reliable sources in the Lab told us that not one of the senior management of LANL lived in the town any more.  One lived in California.

Even nature appears badly wounded. The forests above the town have burned, never to return in their previous form now that the soil is so heavily eroded, and the winters sometimes too warm to kill bark beetles.  (For a loose comparison of what the mountains directly above Los Alamos looked like in the 1930s, vs. March of 2012, see slides 18-23 here.)

While researching LANL’s astronomical salaries recently, Trish stumbled across the mental health portion of the detailed 2011-2012 LACHC Los Alamos Community Health Profile, produced by the Los Alamos Community Health Council (LACHC).  Some of you may be interested in more details, but these pop out:

  • In a 2009 report covering 2003-2009, 18.6% of youth had thought about suicide.  The trend was up since 2005.  Some 16.5% of Los Alamos youth had made a suicide plan; 9.4% had attempted suicide and 5.4% sustained some kind of injury in the attempt.

  • In a 2011 survey, 9% of boys and girls in Los Alamos had attempted suicide.

Adults are not immune either, according to the LACHC:

Los Alamos County adults reported feeling very despondent a good deal of the time (50% more than the state’s average) according to a recent behavioral health survey. The 2009 DOH Behavioral Risk and Resiliency Survey also showed that the county has a high rate of adults reporting being depressed. Approximately 50% more Los Alamos adults report having depression that affects their work than the state’s average. A number of people interviewed for the 2010 LAC Community Needs Assessment mentioned that many adults who have sensitive Q clearances go “off the Hill” for mental health and substance abuse counseling and treatment. Analysis of county of residence in some of the behavioral health aggregate statistics would provide one means to further investigate this theory.

LACHC agency representatives with expertise in family systems and behavioral health have indicated that many families experience isolation and resulting depression or anomie. People are often transplanted to Los Alamos, with family and support systems far away. Like military families, the families in Los Alamos move when one parent has a job offer, usually at LANL. The other parent becomes “the trailing spouse,” sometimes finding work in their field but often underemployed. By the time many families have teenage or adult children, those with longevity in the community develop roots and have strong social and support networks. However, young and middle-aged families that are recent transplants express frustration to others, including service providers. Although a number of strong nonprofits such as the Family YMCA, Family Strengths Network, First Born of LAMC, and faith communities provide a range of services to families, the issue of isolation seems to be a significant one. This area will require further study and discussion within LACHC, and between LACHC and other collaborative networks.

These problems have now come into sharp relief again with the recent suicide of another Los Alamos high school boy, Tyler Van Anne, which coincidentally occurred at the same time as an unsuccessful suicide attempt by a man in his 20s across town (“Tragedy hits LA High School,” Tris DeRoma, December 5, 2013, Los Alamos Monitor)

LAFD Deputy Chief Justin Grider said the fire department responded to both situations as well, adding that this is the time of the year when the community must be extra vigilant.

“This is the time of year when we see an increased level of suicide attempts,” he said.

This past week the question of weekend funding for the local Teen Center came before the County Council (“Supporters out in full force for Teen Center,” Arin McKenna, 12/21/13, Los Alamos Monitor).  Former Council member [Morrie Pongratz] (and vice chair of LACHC) was among those who pleaded (unsuccessfully, it appears) with the Council not to cut funding for the Teen Center.

“Please don’t put our teens in more jeopardy. I believe we have something like $800,000 in the Art in Public Places budget, and you’re cutting the teen center?

“I cannot believe you’ve given the go ahead for the nature center and delayed the teen center. We already have a nature center. It’s called Guaje Pines.”

Guaje Pines is the town’s cemetery. 

These serious issues merit a far deeper discussion than the pathetic gesture made here.  They affect more than Los Alamos.  In their fullest dimensions they bear directly and forcefully on U.S. nuclear weapons policies – basically because, and for a host of reasons having to do with morale, security, safety, recruitment, retention, motivation and the ability to deliver large complex projects efficiently, nuclear weapons programs which are too stupid, too absurd, too big, and too complex, and overall just too violent, cannot be sustained forever by members of real human families, no matter how much money is thrown at them. 

And if those families happen to live in one of the poorest states in the U.S., and adjacent to (or in) a county (Rio Arriba) with more drug overdose deaths than any other in the U.S., there is, for these reasons as well, quite simply a limit to what can be safely and securely done.  Norris Bradbury told every incoming staff member that the terrible work he or she was about to perform was necessary to buy time for the politicians to solve the dilemma of nuclear weapons.  We here at the Study Group have been doing that, but LANS?  Not so much. 

This information – and a great more which could be cited – has profound implications not just for nuclear policy but also for activist praxis and the community transformation we need in what still are, for all intents and purposes, Cold War communities. 

Very best wishes to all,


Greg and Trish, for the Study Group

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