Green Takeover of US Nuclear Lab?

October 12th, 2006 - by admin

Keay Davidson / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-10-12 08:42:42

(October 8, 2006) — It’s a classic David versus Goliath standoff.

A band of nuclear disarmament advocates, college educators and wind-energy developers is positioning itself to go up against a consortium led by the University of California and the politically powerful San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. for control of one of the nation’s top nuclear design labs.

The band, which includes longtime advocacy group Tri-Valley CAREs, acknowledges it has little chance of outbidding the UC-Bechtel group for management rights to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which has been run by UC for more than half a century. But it plans to press ahead anyway.

The US Department of Energy has given all comers until Oct. 27 to submit their contract bids.

“We do not believe the Department of Energy is going to choose our bid. But that isn’t how I define ‘winning,’ ” said Marylia Kelley, one of the Bay Area’s best-known critics of the lab. She runs Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment), an activist group that in its 23 years of existence has won widespread respect for its serious and studied approach to its work.

But, Kelley said, if her group’s bid encourages public support for phasing out the lab’s nuclear weapons work and diverting its thousands of scientists into research on global warming, alternative energy sources and other subjects, that’ll be a moral victory.

Short of that, it’ll be a moral victory if the campaign stirs enough public interest to put pressure on Lawrence Livermore officials to run the lab in a more environmentally conscious way and to be less secretive about their work developing and refining the world’s scariest weapons.

On Sept. 21, Kelley and her colleagues announced they were bidding for the contract, teaming up with New College of California, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico and WindMiller Energy, a small wind-energy firm in rural New York state.

“It’s important for us to try to push for citizen oversight of this laboratory (so it can) use science for the benefit of the human experience,” said New College President Martin Hamilton.

The Energy Department is expected to name the winning bid in March.

So far, the UC-Bechtel consortium has been the only other competitor to step forward. A UC spokesman could not be reached to comment on the rival bid. Susan Houghton, chief spokeswoman for Lawrence Livermore, declined to comment.

The bid marks the first time UC has had to compete to run the lab it has managed for more than half a century under exclusive contract with the Energy Department. In 2003, Congress and the department, fed up with security, safety, management and financial scandals, ordered that all future contracts with national labs be open to competition. Last December, UC-Bechtel beat out Lockheed Martin Corp. and the University of Texas for control of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a lab that UC has also managed for decades.

UC and Bechtel officials say they’ll refuse to release a public copy of their bid for Lawrence Livermore on the grounds that the information might be exploited by other competitors. In an attempt to shame UC-Bechtel, the activists plan to post their entire bid for the contract online later this month.

“Lawrence Livermore is a publicly funded institution, funded off taxpayers’ dollars,” said Tara Dorabji, outreach director for Tri-Valley CAREs. “All bids should be public, and we’ll make ours public.”

Dorabji said that if her group manages to win the contract through an extraordinary set of circumstances, the lab would undergo a transformation. The group, she said, would:

— Spend the majority of lab research funds — largely provided by the Energy Department and the Pentagon — to develop cleaner, renewable energy and to fight global warming. “Currently, the lion’s share (of money) is going to weapons development,” Dorabji said, but the lab is already doing “unclassified, fabulous research” on global warming that should be expanded.

— Greatly speed up plans to move the lab’s huge cache of plutonium to a safer, remote site. Lab officials currently plan to remove the plutonium – perhaps initially to a site in New Mexico, then perhaps to final storage elsewhere – by 2014. By contrast, Dorabji’s group would get rid of the plutonium four years earlier, after holding public hearings to locate the safest, most secure new site.

— Cancel the lab’s current plans to expand its “biodefense” research facility to study far more dangerous microbes. Accidental release of killer bugs “could cause many, many, many deaths in the Bay Area as a whole,” Dorabji said.

— Ban secret experiments using the National Ignition Facility, the lab’s multibillion-dollar superlaser, which is used primarily to simulate nuclear explosions to test the existing stockpile. Rather, the group would encourage scientists to use the laser for peacetime research, such as experimental simulations of natural phenomena deep inside the Earth and in outer space.

— Mop up chemically and radioactively contaminated sites at the lab.

“None of us want to close the lab,” said Barbara Dyskant, vice president of WindMiller Energy, a three-employee firm that she runs with her engineer husband, Barry K. Miller. “They have wonderful scientists there whose expertise could be very, very well rewarded by working on non-weapons research.”

Hamilton said New College’s participation in the bid for the Livermore contract is consistent with the 1,000-student school’s innovative activities, among them its recent move to save the Roxie Cinema by blending it with the campus’ media studies program.

The Livermore contract bid “is a challenge I could not pass up,” Hamilton said. “A lot of us use Don Quixote as a metaphor (for our work).” But unlike the fictional Quixote, “we don’t want to attack windmills — we want to use them to generate energy.”

Copyright 2006 SF Chronicle

Marylia Kelley Executive Director Tri-Valley CAREs (Communities Against a Radioactive Environment) 2582 Old First Street Livermore, CA USA 94551
(925) 443-7148. Fax: (925) 443-0177 –