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Regarding the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) hearing: testimony and closure

March 24, 2016

(Letter to local members; tell us if you want off this exclusive list. This will be the last email on the subject of the DNFSB hearing.)

  1. Testimony and comments regarding the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) hearing held March 22 in Santa Fe
  2. About the hearing, more broadly

Dear friends --

Thanks so much to all those who were able to attend the above hearing or send comments to the Board. Many people came; your spoken comments were eloquent.

In addition to those who came, thousands of others received flyers handed out at farmer’s markets last weekend, or read about the hearing in newspaper articles before and after the hearing. Our sharp-eared journalist friends did a good job at making wine from what turned out to be a very few grapes.

The hearing record will remain open until April 22; send any comments to Ms. Nora Khalil, DNFSB public communications director.

The Board has posted a video recording of the 4-hour hearing. Excepting public comment (find it near the end), we found the hearing rather boring overall for non-professionals.

Our post-hearing comments frame and supplement the longer testimony we provided Tuesday. In both we attempted to broaden the meeting’s agenda, given the unusual (but as it turned out, partial) presence of two Department of Energy (DOE) appointees with decision-making power about warhead and cleanup programs.

For those interested in safety culture, a topic that came up briefly during the hearing, we appended an excellent short presentation on how to manage a strong safety culture. The contrast with the approach taken at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) could not be starker, as we explain in our comments.

National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Principal Deputy Administrator Ms. Creedon, one of the officials present and whom we have known for many years through various government positions, received our testimony yesterday.

About the hearing, more broadly

One of the reasons we felt it essential, at least for our part, to broaden the subject of the hearing is this: from the end of the Cold War until now (about a quarter of a century) there has been, objectively, a two-order-of-magnitude (i.e. 100-fold) decline in government participation in public policy forums.

While most of those forums 20 and 25 years ago were pretenses, “hypocrisy,” as La Rochefoucauld famously said, “is the homage vice renders to virtue.” And for the enterprising among us they led to a great deal more. They were something. Now, as Astrid Webster said after the hearing on Tuesday, there is a “great silence” about the most important truths and dangers we face.

Although the Board is dear to us, as a whole and in its individuals, in some ways Tuesday's hearing was to our eyes a triumph of the relatively trivial. Everyone involved in nuclear issues should understand that the Board has a narrow mandate, but we – those outside government and contractor bureaucracies – do not. DOE and even NNSA also have a far broader mandate than the board; they own and control all of LANL. To their credit, most citizens who spoke did not confine themselves to issues regarding the management and safety of transuranic (TRU) waste at LANL.

Nuclear safety as a concern is real enough, but it is also a metaphor. It points beyond itself to a much larger whole, which some speakers emphasized. In past decades, that metaphorical channel conveyed larger and often unspoken truths at least haltingly well, because there was widespread tacit agreement that nuclear weapons were “evil,” as Fermi and Rabi said they were, and that institutions like LANL which support and promote them held, in Eisenhower’s words, “disastrous misplaced power.”

But no more. The decades in which nongovernmental groups as well as liberal politicians have consistently shied away from questioning the foundations of the nuclear weapons enterprise – its purposes, its scale, and its political effects – have exacted a heavy toll. Civil society was where cogent critique and protest came from. When it largely stopped, when and to the extent disarmament and dismantlement of Cold War institutions were defined downward and co-opted into “nuclear safety” and arms control, the soul left the subject. The nuclear safety metaphor died, leaving, with few exceptions, bureaucrats and “watchdogs.”

A narrow focus on nuclear safety fit right in with our society’s increasing inequality and the increasingly narcissistic mores of its wealthier members. As John Pilger cogently wrote on Tuesday (“Start of a New World War”),

Self-absorption, a kind of “me-ism,” became the new Zeitgeist in privileged Western societies and signaled the demise of great collective movements against war, social injustice, inequality, racism and sexism.

Now, what amount to Cold War ideologies are back, partially clothed in new slogans. Russia and China are again enemies which must be “defeated,” a goal which if not abandoned will destroy the United States if not the world.

The failure to dismantle Cold War institutions at the end of the Cold War, a goal repeatedly frustrated by arms control organizations and their liberal sponsors inside and outside government, was a grievous mistake.

Thus we think the issue of the unremediated 60 drums of legacy nitrate salt TRU waste at LANL, the main subject of Tuesday’s hearing, is something like a tempest in a thimble inside a teapot. Citizens, and citizen organizations, must get out of the teapot, not just the thimble, and understand the relatively trivial importance of nuclear waste safety if we are to survive as a civilization, let alone thrive. (Relatively trivial to us I hasten to add, but not of course to the Board, whom we trust but also must from time to time advise.)  

To repeat, the metaphor of nuclear safety is dead. Our collective lack of courage and clarity, and above all our self-absorption, allowed it to die. Those who hope that the nuclear safety narrative carries politically transformative content hope in vain. It has been co-opted by powerful parties who want stability, not change. They want nonproliferation, but only in a form that spells U.S. dominance, rather than disarmament, which is incompatible with empire. They want “nuclear security,” not human security. It’s up to us not to be herded into that corral.

Sincerely,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group


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