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August 21, 2012

Bulletin #155: Apparent calm hides ongoing nuclear policy struggles; for we citizens, what next?

Dear friends –

It’s certainly a very strange summer in the public life of the United States.  At least in this Bulletin, let’s not count the ways -- it would take a long time.

On the surface, there is not much in the way of a nuclear weapons policy debate underway.  The occasional news article notwithstanding, an eerie quiet reigns.  There has been some discussion of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) plutonium plans, an article about the troubled National Ignition Facility (NIF) project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and recently a fine editorial about the staggering costs of upgrading a few hundred nuclear bombs to provide so-called “extended deterrence” for our European allies, but with these and some other exceptions, it’s been quiet.

In part, this is because it is an election year.  In an effort to avoid contentious debate, the Administration has not produced even routine planning documents (GAO letter of June 7, 2012 re: absence of FY13 NNSA planning & budgeting documents, pdf).  Congress is literally counting the days until November 6, and there aren’t many.

Beneath the surface, however, battles are underway within the Administration, in Congress, in DoD, and between all these parties about the shape of nuclear weapons policy, both overall and as regards NNSA’s warhead programs (including the three nuclear weapons laboratories).  Sooner or later these debates – or their results – will become public.

One preview of the debates to come was offered by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy & Water Development on July 25 (video archive: Hearing on Nuclear Weapons Stockpile), when the former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former STRATCOM Commander, James Cartwright told Congress that the U.S. needed only about one-fifth of its present total nuclear arsenal – and certainly could afford to defer the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF).

For those who are interested we’ve posted an indication of those debates as they relate to plutonium programs, at the end of this Bulletin. Most of these resources tend to be wonkish – we simply haven’t had time to recast them into a more accessible form.

There are some real stunners in these briefings – like the stated ambition of LANS, the LANL operating contractor, to upgrade its just-completed radiological laboratory (first 8 grams, now 26 grams of weapons-grade plutonium, maximum material at risk) into a full-fledged Nuclear Facility (Hazard Category III, 1,733 grams weapons-grade plutonium, maximum material at risk).  See our comments on portions of the LANS “60-Day Study” here (pdf).

In mid- to late September, decisions about this coming year’s budget and programs, including the short-term fate of CMRR-NF and any interim alternatives to it, must be made.  Stay tuned.  We expect to be in Washington in early September and will be reporting back to you, in person if you live in central New Mexico and by these Bulletins in any case, when more can be confidently known.

For we citizens, what next?

This, you may agree, is not an easy topic, and we are going to have to chip away at it very slowly, in installments.  We will need your help.

While our political leaders present a deceptively calm façade as to nuclear and many other issues – struggling, as Dmitri Orlov so insightfully described, between denial and delusion – we see a rather different and more frightening calm around us among many citizens.  Goethe has a short poem, “Meeresstille” (“Quiet Sea”), which translates:

Deep quiet rules the waters;
motionless, the sea reposes,
and the boatsman looks about with alarm
at the smooth surfaces about him.
No wind comes from any direction!
A deathly, terrible quiet!
In the vast expanse
not one wave stirs.

Not all of you will agree with this assessment, which discounts a great deal of the “activism” we think we hear and see.  I am reminded of something Robert Bly said in the introduction of his book The Sibling Society:

It is hard in a sibling society to decide what is real.  We participate in more and more nonevents. A nonevent transpires when the organizer promises an important psychic or political event and then cheats people, providing material only tangentially related. An odd characteristic of the sibling society is that no one effectively objects. Some sort of trance takes over if enough people are watching an event simultaneously. It is a contemporary primitivism, "participation mystique," a "mysterious participation of all the clan."

Kierkegaard once, in trying to predict what the future society would be like, offered this metaphor: People will put up a poster soon saying, Tonight John Erik will skate on thin ice at the very center of the pond. It'll be very dangerous. Please come. Everyone comes, and John Erik skates about three inches from shore, and people say, "Look, he's skating on thin ice at the very center of the pond!" A lecturer says: On Friday night we will have a revolution. When Friday night comes, the hall is filled, and the radical talks passionately and flamboyantly for an hour and a half; then he declares that a revolution took place here.

In a few minutes, some of us will head up to Los Alamos to testify to the Department of Energy (DOE) (more precisely, to DOE public relations contractors) regarding proposed options for plutonium disposition.  We hope to learn as well as to speak, and we will be available to interested parties in the Los Alamos community, a community which we helped deprive of some billions of dollars.

If anyone here at the Study Group thought it was remotely worthwhile for citizens in general to attend this (or any) DOE National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) hearing, I would have sent out this Bulletin days or weeks ago saying that.  Yes, one can learn there, but the time has come for citizen organizations to stop leaning on DOE and NNSA for legitimacy, organizing, and – yes – funding.  As they are, these hearings are a form of faux democracy, to which we lend legitimacy by attendance.  Such hearings, as we have often said, are designed to safely and innocuously channel and absorb citizen concerns.

Today I received an email alert from an informal citizen organization claiming that citizen protest in northern New Mexico was being effective because “Representative Ben Ray Luján has written to the DOE requesting expanded outreach in his district…Apparently both Senators Bingaman and Udall wrote similar letters."

Increasing the number of meaningless, distractive “hearings” is a form of effectiveness?

Meanwhile these same senators and Congressman have been working hard to resurrect CMRR-NF (Bingaman and Udall, pdf of letter to DOE Secretary Chu) and can be counted upon to vote reliably against renewable energy and “green jobs” (Lujan) if those jobs come at the expense of nuclear weapons and LANL, which under today’s budget restrictions they very likely must.  (See: Lujan vote against the Tonko Amendment to H.R. 5325, Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013, Roll Call Vote #313).

This is effective?

DOE actually pays groups to get people to these meetings. In 2011 the New Mexico Community Foundation received a $1 million block grant from DOE “to increase public participation in the DOE’s environmental cleanup efforts at nuclear waste sites nationwide.”  Among the few grantees are those who are the most vocal in organizing attendance for DOE meetings.  It’s a grant obligation!  This year’s block grant is less, “only” $300,000.  These are huge, agenda-setting sums of money.

There are any number of things citizens can do which would be far better than attending a DOE NEPA meeting.  Informed, thoughtful opinion pieces in our newspapers are very powerful, for example, and can go a long way to dispelling the delusions in our communities.  Why not bring a friend, join us in a meeting to discuss the issues, and then write?  Or, you can invite us to a group that already meets.  If you are interested, please call and we will respond!  We will be happy to answer questions and in either case you (and your friends) will have plenty of resources at your fingertips to write – and crucial face-to-face support and communication will have taken place.  Such meetings are part of the infrastructure of democracy, infrastructure we can’t do without.  DOE meetings, set up, funded, and run by a bureaucracy, don’t substitute.

If you have read this far, thanks for your attention.  The resources promised follow.


Greg Mello, for the Los Alamos Study Group

Recent news and analyses (Study Group products are in bold):

A few of you who are especially interested or who are professionally involved may find the following previously-unposted articles helpful as well.

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