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Post-9/11 U.S. intelligence reforms take root but problems remain

Post-9/11 U.S. intelligence reforms take root, problems remain | Reuters.

(Reuters) – U.S. intelligence agencies will forever be scarred by their failure to connect the dots and detect the September 11 plot, but a decade later efforts to break down barriers to information-sharing are taking root.

Changing a culture of “need-to-know” to “need-to-share” does not come easily in spy circles. Some officials say they worry, a decade later, about a future attack in which it turns out that U.S. spy agencies had clues in their vast vaults of data but did not put them together, or even know they existed.

Yet significant changes, both big and small, have broken down barriers between agencies, smoothed information-sharing and improved coordination, U.S. intelligence experts say.

From issuing a blue badge to everyone working in the sprawling intelligence community to symbolize a common identity, to larger moves of mixing employees from different agencies, the goal is singular — to prevent another attack.

“We’re much further ahead,” David Shedd, Defense Intelligence Agency deputy director, said of the ability to connect the dots compared with 10 years ago. Still, signs of a plot to attack the United States could be missed again.

“My worst fear, and I suspect probably one that would come true, is that in any future would-be or actual attack, God forbid, we will be able to find the dots again somewhere because of simply how much data is collected,” Shedd said.

The political response to the failure to stop the attack was the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security, pulling together 22 agencies to form the third largest U.S. Cabinet department behind the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs.

That was followed by the creation in late 2004 of the Director of National Intelligence to oversee all the spy agencies, as recommended by the bipartisan 9/11 commission.

Previously, the CIA director held a dual role of also overseeing the multitude of intelligence agencies. But in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, policymakers decided that was too big of a job for one person to do effectively.

‘THERE ARE PROBLEMS’

Critics argued then and now that the reforms were the government’s usual response to crises — create more bureaucracy. But others see much-needed change.

“It has been a tremendous improvement,” said Lee Hamilton, who was the 9/11 commission vice chair. “It’s not seamless, there are problems, and we’ve still got a ways to go.”

The 2001 attacks involving airliners hijacked by al Qaeda operatives killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Various U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had come across bits of information suggesting an impending attack but failed to put the pieces together.

The CIA had information about three of the 19 hijackers at least 20 months before the attacks; the National Security Agency had information linking one of the hijackers with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s network; the CIA knew one hijacker had entered the United States but did not tell the FBI; and an FBI agent warned of suspicious Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons.

Have the reforms made America safer? Officials say yes, and point to the U.S. operation that killed bin Laden in Pakistan in May that demanded coordination among intelligence agencies and the military. But there is an inevitable caveat: no one can guarantee there will never be another attack on U.S. soil.

On Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian man linked to an al Qaeda off-shoot tried unsuccessfully to light explosives sewn into his underwear on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam. It turned out U.S. authorities had pockets of information about him.

President Barack Obama used a familiar September 11 phrase to describe the 2009 incident as “a failure to connect the dots of intelligence that existed across our intelligence community.”

Roger Cressey, a former White House National Security Council counterterrorism official, resurrected another September 11 phrase: “It was a failure of imagination.”

The intelligence community had not seen al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based al Qaeda off-shoot, as capable of striking the U.S. homeland. If the “underwear bomber” threat had originated in Pakistan “they would have gone to battle stations immediately,” Cressey said.

Some proposed changes in how authorities would respond to another successful attack still are pending. For example, creation of a common communication system for police, firefighters and other emergency personnel remains tangled up in political wrangling in Congress over how to implement it.

“This is a no-brainer,” Hamilton said. “The first responders at the scene of a disaster ought to be able to talk with one another. They cannot do it today in most jurisdictions.”

Former leaders of the 9/11 commission issued a report card saying nine of its 41 recommendations remain unfinished.

WHERE’S THE POWER?

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has experienced growing pains as overseer of the 17 spy agencies, churning through four chiefs in six years.

Tensions over turf, confusion about the DNI’s role, and problems herding agencies with very powerful chiefs of their own all came to a crescendo when retired Admiral Dennis Blair, the third DNI, tried to assert authority over CIA station chiefs, who represent the agency in different countries.

“The position of chief of station is one of the crown jewels of the CIA, and they don’t want anyone playing with their crown jewels,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

After a dust-up with CIA Director Leon Panetta, who now is defense secretary, it was Blair who was sent packing.

“I think the mistake that some have made is to have viewed the DNI and the Director of CIA as an either/or proposition rather than the power of the two working together,” the DIA’s Shedd said in an interview in his office.

“There is a history of where that hasn’t worked so well, I believe it is working much better today,” said Shedd, who has worked at the DNI, CIA and National Security Council.

Intelligence experts say in the current administration, Obama’s top homeland security and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan arguably has more power than any of them because he has the president’s ear. It’s a reminder that, bureaucratic reform or no, personalities count in making national security policy.

The improved sharing of secret data has led to yet another set of problems. The deluge of bits and bytes has subjected intelligence analysts to information overload as they try to sift through it all for relevant pieces.

“Our analysts still are spending way too much time on finding the information rather than on the analysis of the information,” Shedd said. “There is just too much data to go find it all.”

The intelligence community wants a system developed that would automatically process information from multiple agencies and then make the connections for the analysts.

But greater inroads into sharing data across agencies does not guarantee that another attack will be averted.

The threat has evolved and officials now are increasingly concerned about a “lone wolf” plot by an individual, not tied to any militant group, that may be more difficult to uncover.

“Those threats will not come to our attention because of an intelligence community intercept,” said John Cohen, a senior Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism official.

“They will come to our attention because of an alert police officer, an alert deputy sheriff, an alert store owner, an alert member of the public sees something that is suspicious and reports it,” Cohen said.

One measure of the success of post-9/11 reforms is that a decade later the United States has not had a similar attack.

“Now that could be luck, that could be skill, we don’t really know,” Hamilton said. “But in all likelihood what we have done, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the transformation in intelligence and FBI, has certainly been helpful.”

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Will Dunham)

2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident – encyclopedia article about 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident.

2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident – encyclopedia article about 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident..

2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident

0.03 sec.

2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident

2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident
Minot B52 800p 070904.jpg
A B-52H bomber departs Minot Air Force Base
Date August 29–30, 2007
Location Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota and Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana
Result Six nuclear warheads mishandled and unaccounted for or improperly secured for approximately 36 hours

The 2007 United States Air Force nuclear weapons incident occurred at Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base on August 29–30, 2007. Six AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles, each loaded with a W80-1 variable yield nuclear warhead, were reportedly mistakenly loaded on a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52H heavy bomber at Minot and transported to Barksdale. The nuclear warheads in the missiles were supposed to have been removed before taking the missiles from their storage bunker. The missiles with the nuclear warheads were not reported missing and remained mounted to the aircraft at both Minot and Barksdale for a period of 36 hours. During this period, the warheads were not protected by the various mandatory security precautions required for nuclear weapons.

The incident was reported to the top levels of the United States (U.S.) military and referred to by observers as a Bent Spear incident, which indicates a nuclear weapon incident that is of significant concern, but does not involve the immediate threat of nuclear war. The USAF, however, has yet to officially classify the incident.

In response to the incident, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and USAF conducted an investigation, the results of which were released on October 19, 2007. The investigation concluded that nuclear weapons handling standards and procedures had not been followed by numerous USAF personnel involved in the incident. As a result, four USAF commanders were relieved of their commands, numerous other USAF personnel were disciplined and/or decertified to perform certain types of sensitive duties, and further cruise missile transport missions from and nuclear weapons operations at Minot Air Force Base were suspended. In addition, the USAF issued new nuclear weapons handling instructions and procedures.

Separate investigations by the U.S. Defense Science Board and a USAF “Blue Ribbon” panel reported that concerns existed on the procedures and processes for handling nuclear weapons within the U.S. DoD but did not find any failures with the security of U.S. nuclear weapons. Based on this and other incidents, on June 5, 2008, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff of the Air Force General T. Michael Moseley, were fired. In response to recommendations by a review committee, in October 2008 the USAF announced the creation of Air Force Global Strike Command to control all USAF nuclear bombers, missiles, and personnel.

Background

As of August 2007, Minot Air Force Base was the home of the 5th Bomb Wing and Barksdale Air Force Base the home of 2nd Bomb Wing, both of which fell under the 8th Air Force, also based at Barksdale. The 8th was part of Air Combat Command (ACC) in the USAF. In August 2007 the 5th Bomb Wing was commanded by Colonel Bruce Emig, the 2nd Bomb Wing by Colonel Robert Wheeler, the 8th Air Force by Lieutenant General Robert Elder Jr., and ACC by General Ronald Keys.[1] The 5th Bomb Wing, according to the USAF’s statement on the wing’s mission, served with its B-52 bombers as part of the USAF’s conventional and strategic combat force.[2] The “strategic” portion of the 5th’s mission included the ability to deliver nuclear weapons against potential targets worldwide. Thus, Minot Air Force Base stored and maintained a ready arsenal of nuclear bombs, nuclear warheads, and associated delivery systems, including, as of August 2007, the AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile.[3]

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An AGM-129 cruise missile in flight

The AGM-129 was fielded in 1987 as a stealthy cruise missile platform to deliver the W80-1 variable yield nuclear warhead. Although originally designed to equip the B-1 bomber, it was later decided that the AGM-129 would only be carried by the B-52, mounted on external pylons on the wings, or internally in the bomb bay.[4]

In March 2007, the USAF decided to retire its AGM-129 complement in order to help comply with international arms-control treaties and to replace them with AGM-86 missiles.[5] In order to do so, the USAF began to transport its AGM-129s stored at Minot by B-52s to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for ultimate disposal. By August 29, 2007 according to the Washington Post, more than 200 AGM-129s had been shipped from Minot to Barksdale in this manner.[6]

Incident

Between 08:00 and 09:00 (local time) on August 29, 2007, a group of USAF airmen, called the breakout crew, entered one of the weapons storage bunkers at Minot to prepare AGM-129 missiles for transport to Barksdale. That day’s missile transport, the sixth of 12 scheduled ferry missions, was to have consisted of 12 AGM-129s, installed with training warheads, with six missiles per pylon and one pylon mounted under each wing of a Barksdale-assigned, 2nd Bomb Wing B-52 aircraft. When the airmen entered the bunker, six actual warheads were still installed on their missiles, as opposed to having been replaced with the dummy training warheads. A later investigation found that the reason for the error was that the formal electronic scheduling system for tracking the missiles “had been subverted in favor of an informal process that did not identify this pylon as prepared for the flight.”[7] The airmen assigned to handle the missiles used an outdated paper schedule that contained incorrect information on the status of the missiles. The missiles originally scheduled for movement had been replaced by missiles closer to expiration dates for limited life components. The change in missiles had been reflected on the movement plan but not in the documents used for internal work coordination processes in the bunker.[8]

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An AGM-129 pylon is loaded onto the wing of a B-52 at Minot

Although the breakout crew in the weapons storage began to inspect the missiles, an early-arriving transport crew hooked-up the pylons and towed them away without inspecting or ensuring that the missiles had been inspected or cleared for removal. The munitions control center failed to verify that the pylon had received proper clearance and inspection and approved the pylon for loading on the B-52 aircraft at 09:25. After taking eight hours to attach the pylons to the aircraft, the aircraft with the missiles loaded then remained parked overnight at Minot for 15 hours without special guard as required for nuclear weapons.[9]

On the morning of August 30, one of the transport aircraft’s flight officers, a Barksdale-assigned B-52 instructor radar navigator (name unknown), closely inspected the six missiles on the right wing only, which were all properly uploaded with training warheads, before signing the manifest listing the cargo as a dozen unarmed AGM-129 missiles. The B-52 command pilot did not do a final verification check before preparing to depart Minot.[10]

The B-52 departed Minot at 08:40 and landed at Barksdale at 11:23 (local times) on August 30. The aircraft remained parked and without special guard until 20:30, when a munitions team arrived to remove the missiles. After a member of the munitions crew noticed something unusual about some of the missiles, at 22:00 a “skeptical” supervisor determined that nuclear warheads were present and ordered them secured and the incident reported, 36 hours after the missiles were removed from the bunker at Minot.[11]

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General T. Michael Moseley, USAF chief of staff at the time of the incident

The incident was reported to the National Military Command Center as a Bent Spear incident, which indicates a nuclear weapon incident that is of significant concern, but does not involve the immediate threat of nuclear war (Pinnacle – Nucflash) or the accidental detonation of or severe damage to a nuclear weapon (Pinnacle – Broken Arrow). Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General T. Michael Moseley quickly called the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, on August 31 to inform him about the incident. Gates requested daily updates regarding the investigation and informed President Bush about the incident. The USAF has yet to officially designate what type of incident actually occurred, Bent Spear or otherwise.[12] The incident was the first of its kind in 40 years in the United States and was later described by the media as “one of the worst breaches in U.S. nuclear weapons security in decades”.[13]

Response by the U.S. government

The USAF and DoD at first decided to conceal the incident, in part because of the USAF policy not to comment on the storage or movement of nuclear weapons and an apparent belief that the incident would not generate much public concern. In fact, the DoD incident report contained the statement, “No press interest anticipated.” Details of the incident, however, were leaked by unknown DoD officials to the Military Times newspaper, which published a small article about the incident on September 5, 2007.[14]

In response, in a September 5 news briefing in the Pentagon by Press Secretary Geoff Morrell, it was stated that at no time was the public in any danger and that military personnel had custody of the weapons at all times. The USAF announced that within days of the incident, the USAF relieved the Minot munitions squadron commander and eventually disciplined 25 airmen. USAF Major General Doug Raaberg was assigned by General Keys to lead an investigation into the incident. The USAF inventory of nuclear warheads was checked to ensure that all warheads were accounted for. In addition, the DoD announced that a Pentagon-appointed scientific advisory panel, called the Defense Science Board, would study the mishap as part of a larger review of procedures for handling nuclear weapons. On September 28, the USAF announced that General Keys was retiring and would be replaced as ACC commander by General John Corley, effective October 2.[15]

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USAF Secretary Michael Wynne and Major General Richard Newton brief the results of the USAF investigation into the incident at the Pentagon on October 19, 2007

On October 19, 2007, U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and USAF Major General Richard Newton, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements, announced the investigation report findings, stating that, “there has been an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base” and that “… a limited number of airmen at both locations failed to follow procedures.”[16] Colonel Emig, the commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, Colonel Cynthia Lundell, the commander of the 5th Maintenance Group at Minot, and Colonel Todd Westhauser, the commander of Barksdale’s 2nd Operations Group, and four senior non-commissioned officers from the 5th Munitions Squadron “received administrative action” and were relieved of their commands or positions and reassigned. All of the 5th Bomb Wing personnel were stripped of their certifications to handle nuclear and other sensitive weaponry and to conduct “specific missions”. Sixty-five airmen of varying ranks lost their personnel reliability program certifications.[17] Tactical ferry operations were suspended. The inspector general offices of all USAF major commands that handle nuclear weapons were directed to conduct immediate “Limited Nuclear Surety Inspections (LNSIs) at every nuclear-capable unit” with oversight provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.[18]

The new ACC commander, General Corley, referred the matter to USAF Lieutenant General Norman Seip, commander of the 12th Air Force, as a court-martial convening authority to determine if additional charges or actions would be taken against any of the personnel involved in the incident. Seip later closed the investigation without recommending criminal charges against anyone involved.[19]

Retired USAF General Larry Welch was asked by Gates, who had reportedly raised concerns with USAF officials that the original investigation may have unfairly limited blame to midlevel officers, to lead the Defense Science Board advisory panel that would study the mishap as part of a larger review of procedures and policies for handling nuclear weapons. In addition, the USAF chartered a “Blue Ribbon Review” chaired by USAF Major General Polly Peyer and consisting of 30 members to “make recommendations as to how we can improve the Air Force’s capability to safely and securely perform our nuclear weapons responsibility”.[20] Furthermore, the U.S. Congress requested that the DoD and U.S. Department of Energy conduct a bottom-up review of nuclear procedures.[21]

Aftermath

USAF actions

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Colonel Joel Westa became the new commander of the 5th Bomb Wing in the wake of the incident

On October 24, 2007, Secretary of the Air Force Wynne told the House Armed Services Committee that he believed that the 5th Bomb Wing could be recertified and could resume ferrying the AGM-129 cruise missiles to Barksdale for retirement. He did not provide a timeline for that recertification process. On November 1, 2007 Colonel Joel Westa took command of the 5th Bomb Wing.[22] That same day, General Keys retired from the Air Force.[23]

Personnel from Barksdale’s 2nd Bomb Wing temporarily took over maintenance duties of Minot’s nuclear stockpile until the 5th Bomb Wing could be recertified. A nuclear surety inspection (NSI), required for recertification, originally scheduled for the 5th Bomb Wing for January 23, 2008 was postponed after the wing failed an initial NSI that took place on December 16, 2007.[24] Another initial NSI was completed on March 29 and Corley recertified the wing on March 31, 2008. A full NSI was scheduled for May 2008. The wing needed to regain its certification in order to hold the full NSI, said Major Elizabeth Ortiz, a Minot spokeswoman. Units handling nuclear weapons must pass NSIs every 18 months in order to retain their certifications.[25]

The USAF issued a new policy directive regarding the handling of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which prohibits the storing of nuclear armed and nonnuclear armed weapons in the same storage facility. The directive further instructs that all nonnuclear munitions and missiles must be labeled with placards clearly stating that they are not armed with nuclear warheads. Wing commanders are now charged with approving any movement of nuclear weapons from weapons storage areas and must appoint a single individual as a munitions accountability system officer and weapons custodian. All units that handle nuclear weapons must develop a coordinated visual inspection checklist. The policy further directs that airmen charged with handling or maintaining nuclear weapons cannot be on duty for longer than 12 hours, unless during an emergency, when their duty period can be extended to a maximum of 16 hours.[26] The USAF has since instituted a program of surprise inspections at nuclear-armed bases.[27]

Review reports

Enlarge picture

Larry Welch (in 1984)

Welch and Peyer briefed the results of their reviews before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services on February 12, 2008. In addition to Welch and Peyer, Lieutenant General Daniel Darnell, USAF deputy chief of staff for air, space and information operations and Major General Raaberg testified and answered questions from the senate committee’s members. During the hearing, Welch stated that, “The military units responsible for handling the bombs are not properly inspected and, as a result, may not be ready to perform their missions.” He added, “If you look at all the areas and all the ways that we have to store and handle these weapons in order to perform the mission, it just requires, we believe, more resources and more attention than they’re getting.”[28] Welch’s report concluded that the combining of DoD nuclear forces with nonnuclear organizations has led to “markedly reduced levels of leadership whose daily focus is the nuclear enterprise and a general devaluation of the nuclear mission and those who perform the mission.” Nevertheless, neither Welch’s nor Peyer’s reports found any failures with the security of U.S. nuclear weapons.[29]

Responding to Welch’s and Peyer’s reports, USAF officials stated that they were already implementing many of the recommendations contained in the reports but added that existing regulations governing nuclear procedures were satisfactory. During his testimony before the senate committee, Darnell stated, “The Air Force portion of the nuclear deterrent is sound, and we will take every measure necessary to provide safe, secure, reliable nuclear surety to the American public.”[30]

Inspections, resignations, and further discipline

Minot’s full NSI took place beginning on May 17, 2008, and was conducted by inspectors from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the AF’s Air Combat Command (ACC). On May 25, the DTRA issued the 5th Bomb Wing an “unsatisfactory” rating, the lowest rating possible, from the inspection. The 5th passed the inspection in nine of ten areas, but failed in the area of nuclear security. Following the inspection, Westa stated, “Overall their assessment painted a picture of some things we need to work on in the areas of training and discipline”.[31] The 5th Bomb Wing Security Forces Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Worley, was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Weaver on June 16, 2008.[32] In spite of failing the NSI, the wing kept its nuclear certification. Said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists about the 5th’s failure in the inspection, “It makes you wonder what’s going on elsewhere, like the nuclear weapons stationed at bases overseas, and at Barksdale Air Force Base and Whiteman Air Force Base.”[33] Minot passed the follow-up inspection on August 15, 2008.[32]

Enlarge picture

Robert Gates

On June 5, 2008, Robert Gates announced the results of an investigation into the misshipment of four MK-12 forward-section reentry vehicle assemblies to Taiwan. The investigation, conducted by Admiral Kirkland H. Donald, director of US Naval Propulsion, found that the Taiwan missile incident was, in Gates’ words, “A degradation of the authority, standards of excellence and technical competence within the nation’s ICBM force. Similar to the bomber-specific August 2007 Minot-Barksdale nuclear weapons transfer incident, this incident took place within the larger environment of declining Air Force nuclear mission focus and performance” and that “the investigation identified commonalities between the August 2007 Minot incident and this [the Taiwan] event.” In his investigation report, Donald stated that the issues identified by his investigation were, “Indicative of an overall decline in Air Force nuclear weapons stewardship, a problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade. Both the Minot-Barksdale nuclear weapons transfer incident and the Taiwan misshipment, while different in specifics, have a common origin: the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by Air Force leadership”[34]

As a result of the investigation, Gates announced that, “A substantial number of Air Force general officers and colonels have been identified as potentially subject to disciplinary measures, ranging from removal from command to letters of reprimand,” and that he had accepted the resignations of USAF Secretary Michael Wynne and USAF Chief of Staff Michael Moseley. Gates added that he had asked James R. Schlesinger to lead a senior-level task force to recommend improvements in the stewardship and operation of nuclear weapons, delivery vehicles and sensitive components by the US DoD. Members of the task force came from the Defense Policy Board and the Defense Science Board.[35]

On September 13, 2008, Gates announced Schlesinger’s task force’s recommendations by calling on the USAF to place all nuclear weapons under a single command. The task force suggested that the new command be called Air Force Strategic Command, which would replace the current Air Force Space Command, and make it accountable for the nuclear mission. It also called for all USAF bombers to be placed under a single command. The task force also recommended that the USAF move an additional 1,500 to 2,000 airmen into nuclear-related jobs. Gates announced that acting Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff General Norton A. Schwartz were “reviewing the recommendations” for disciplinary action against USAF officers previously involved in the nuclear mission.[36] The task force found an, “an unambiguous, dramatic and unacceptable decline in the Air Force’s commitment to perform the nuclear mission and, until very recently, little has been done to reverse it.”[37]

On September 25, 2008, the United States Department of Defense announced that six Air Force and two Army generals and nine colonels had received letters of reprimand, admonishment, or concern. Two Air Force major generals were asked to stay in their current position; the others either retired, planned to retire, or were removed from their position. Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz met with each officer personally before issuing the letters. He noted they committed no offense under the UCMJ, but “did not do enough to carry out their leadership responsibilities for nuclear oversight. “For that they must be held accountable.” The Air Force stated that the discipline was in response to the mistaken shipment of nuclear fuzes to Taiwan, not for the Minot nuclear weapons incident.[38]

In November 2008, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base failed its nuclear surety inspection. The 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base, failed its nuclear surety inspection one month later.[39] In November 2009 at Kirtland Air Force Base the 377th Air Base Wing, commanded by Colonel Michael S. Duvall, and 498th Nuclear Systems Wing, commanded by Colonel Richard M. Stuckey, failed their nuclear surety inspections.[40]

On October 30, 2009 Westa was relieved as commander of the 5th Bomb Wing by Major General Floyd L. Carpenter, commander of 8th Air Force. Carpenter stated that Westa was relived due to his “inability to foster a culture of excellence, a lack of focus on the strategic mission … and substandard performance during several nuclear surety inspections, including the newly activated 69th Bomb Squadron.”[41]

On January 8, 2009 Schlesinger’s task force released its report regarding the overall DoD’s management of the country’s nuclear weapons mission. The report criticized the DoD for a lack of focus and oversight on its nuclear weapons programs and recommended that the DoD create a new assistant secretary position to oversee its nuclear management. The task force found that within the DoD only the United States Navy was effectively managing its nuclear arsenal.[42] The panel stated that it found, “a distressing degree of inattention to the role of nuclear weapons in deterrence among many senior DoD military and civilian leaders.”[43]

New command

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USAF Secretary Michael Donley discusses the creation of the Global Strike Command with media representatives at the Pentagon on October 24, 2008.

On October 24, 2008 new USAF Secretary Michael Donley announced the creation of Air Force Global Strike Command. The new command became operational on August 7, 2009. The USAF’s intercontinental nuclear missile force was moved from Air Force Space Command to the new command. Barksdale was selected as the location of the new command’s headquarters.[44][45] The new major command is led by a three-star general and controls all USAF nuclear-capable bombers, missiles and personnel.[46]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Ricks, “Tough Punishment Expected for Warhead Errors”, Baker, “Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident,” Air Force Link, “General Ronald E. Keys”.
  2. ^ USAF, Minot Air Force Base 5th Bomb Wing Mission
  3. ^ Warrick, Missteps in the Bunker.
  4. ^ Parsch, Andreas, AGM-129
  5. ^ , Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands,” USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”
  6. ^ Parsch, Andreas, AGM-129, Warrick, Missteps in the Bunker.
  7. ^ USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Hoffman
  8. ^ Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”, Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands”, Defense Science Board, “Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons”.
  9. ^ Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”, Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Defense Science Board, “Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons”.
  10. ^ Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands”.
  11. ^ Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”.
  12. ^ Gilmore, ” Air Force Investigates Alleged Nuke Transfer, Pentagon Spokesman Says”.
  13. ^ Ricks, “Tough Punishment Expected for Warhead Errors”, Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”
  14. ^ Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”
  15. ^ Dorfner, “After four decades, General Keys calls it a career”, Gilmore, “Air Force Investigates Alleged Nuke Transfer, Pentagon Spokesman Says,” Randolph, “Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results”, Warrick, “Missteps in the Bunker”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, USAF, “General Corley takes command of ACC”, Hoffman, “Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap”.
  16. ^ USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”.
  17. ^ Holmes, “Minot bomb wing gets new commander Thursday”, Hoffman, Michael, “Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection”, Military Times, January 14, 2008.
  18. ^ Randolph, “Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”, “Baker, “Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident,” USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands”, Randolph, “Air Force releases B-52 munitions transfer investigation results”.
  19. ^ Starr, “Air Force officers relieved of duty over loose nukes”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton, Hoffman, Michael, “Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection”, Military Times, January 14, 2008.
  20. ^ USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Hoffman, “237 nuke handling deficiencies cited since 2001”.
  21. ^ Pincus, “4 Colonels Lose Their Air Force Commands”, USDoD, “DoD Press Briefing with Maj. Gen. Newton”, Baker, “Air Force Relieves Commanders Involved in Nuclear Weapons Incident”, Hoffman, “Wing decertified, COs sacked for nuke mistake”, Hoffman, “Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap”, Spiegel, “U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find”.
  22. ^ Holmes, “Minot bomb wing gets new commander Thursday”
  23. ^ Air Force Link, “General Ronald E. Keys”.
  24. ^ Hoffman, Michael, “Minot Nuke Handlers Still Not Ready For Inspection”, Military Times, January 14, 2008, MacPherson, “Minot chief sets bar high after nuke gaffe”.
  25. ^ Hoffman, Michael, “Minot bomb wing recertified for nukes”, Military Times, April 4, 2008; Los Angeles Times, “Bomb Wing Recertified”, April 4, 2008.
  26. ^ Pincus, “Air Force Alters Rules for Handling of Nuclear Arms”, Hoffman, “New nuke-handling procedures issued”.
  27. ^ Barnes, Julian E., “Better Oversight Of Nuclear Arms Urged”, Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2008, p. 8.
  28. ^ Spiegel, “U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find”.
  29. ^ Spiegel, “U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find”, Hoffman, “Generals grilled on Minot nuclear mishap”, Defense Science Board, “Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons”.
  30. ^ Spiegel, “U.S. Nuclear Focus Has Dimmed, Studies Find”, Defense Science Board, “Report on Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons”.
  31. ^ Hoffman, “Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing flunks nuclear inspection”
  32. ^ a b Hoffman, “Minot nuke handlers pass re-inspection”
  33. ^ Associated Press, “Air Force wing in nuclear goof has more trouble”, Hoffman, “Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing flunks nuclear inspection”
  34. ^ US DoD, “DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon”, Military Times, “Moseley and Wynne forced out”, Shanker, “2 Leaders Ousted From Air Force in Atomic Errors”.
  35. ^ US DoD, “DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon”, June 5, 2008, Military Times, “Moseley and Wynne forced out”, Shanker, “2 Leaders Ousted From Air Force in Atomic Errors”.
  36. ^ “Unified Nuclear Command Urged”. The Washington Post. September 13, 2008.
  37. ^ “Panel Urges Air Force to Unify Nuclear Command”. The New York Times. September 13, 2008.
  38. ^ The Associated Press. “Military cites poor oversight in mistaken shipment of warheads to Taiwan”. MSNBC, Thurs., Sept. 25, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26892774/; accessed 2008-09-26.
  39. ^ Shane, Leo III, “Report: Wyo. Unit Fails Nuke Security Inspection”, Stars and Stripes, December 17, 2008; Gertz, Bill, “Air Force Fails New Nuclear Reviews”, Washington Times, February 4, 2009.
  40. ^ Hoffman, Michael, “Two wings get F on nuclear inspection“, Air Force Times November 27, 2009.
  41. ^ Rolfsen, Bruce, “5th Bomb Wing CO relieved of command“, Military Times, November 1, 2009.
  42. ^ Baldor, Lolita C., (Associated Press) “Report Slams Pentagon Nuke Oversight”, Washington Post, January 7, 2009.
  43. ^ AFP-JiJi, “Faith in U.S. nuclear deterrent shaken”, Japan Times, January 10, 2009.
  44. ^ Wall Street Journal, “US Air Force To Reorganize Nuclear Commands After Incidents”, October 24, 2008.
  45. ^ Garamone, Jim, “Global Strike Command Will Stress Nuclear Mission“, DefenseLink, August 7, 2009.
  46. ^ Associated Press, “New Unit To Manage AF Nuclear Arsenal”, reported in Arizona Daily Star, October 25, 2008.

References

Further reading

Coordinates: 48°25?05?N 101°20?43?W / 48.41814°N -101.34533°E

the Democratization of Destruction

Get Ready for the Democratization of Destruction – By Andrew Krepinevich | Foreign Policy.

As Niels Bohr famously observed, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” But we need not be caught entirely unaware by future events. The rapid pace of technological progression, as well as its ongoing diffusion, offer clues as to some of the likely next big things in warfare. Indeed, important military shifts have already been set in motion that will be difficult if not impossible to reverse. Sadly, these developments, combined with others in the economic, geopolitical, and demographic realms, seem likely to make the world a less stable and more dangerous place.

Consider, to start, the U.S. military’s loss of its near monopoly in precision-guided munitions warfare, which it has enjoyed since the Gulf War two decades ago. Today China is fielding precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as other “smart” munitions, in ever greater numbers. They can be used to threaten the few major U.S. bases remaining in the Western Pacific and, increasingly, to target American warships. Like Beijing, Iran is buying into the precision-guided weapons revolution, but at the low end, producing a poor man’s version of China’s capabilities, to include anti-ship cruise missiles and smart anti-ship mines. As these trends play out we could find that by the beginning of the next decade, major parts of the Western Pacific, as well as the Persian Gulf, become no-go zones for the U.S. military: areas where the risks of operating are prohibitively high.

Even nonstate groups are getting into the game. During its war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah fired more than 4,000 relatively inaccurate RAMM projectiles — rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles — into Israel, leading to the evacuation of at least 300,000 Israelis from their homes and causing significant disruption to that country’s economy. Out of these thousands of munitions, only a few drones and anti-ship cruise missiles were guided. But as the proliferation of guided munitions — G-RAMM weapons — continues, irregular warfare will be transformed to the point that the roadside bomb threats that the United States has spent tens of billions of dollars defending against in Iraq and Afghanistan may seem trivial by comparison.

The spread of nuclear weapons to the developing world is equally alarming. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, the pressure on the leading Arab states as well as Turkey to follow suit is likely to prove irresistible. With ballistic-missile flight times between states in the region measured in single-digit minutes, the stability of the global economy’s energy core would be exceedingly fragile.

But the greatest danger of a catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland will likely come not from nuclear-armed missiles, but from cyberattacks conducted at the speed of light. The United States, which has an advanced civilian cyberinfrastructure but prohibits its military from defending it, will prove a highly attractive target, particularly given that the processes for attributing attacks to their perpetrators are neither swift nor foolproof. Foreign powers may already have prepositioned “logic bombs” — computer code inserted surreptitiously to trigger a future malicious effect — in the U.S. power grid, potentially enabling them to trigger a prolonged and massive future blackout.

As in the cyber realm, the very advances in biotechnology that appear to offer such promise for improving the human condition have the potential to inflict incalculable suffering. For example, “designer” pathogens targeting specific human subgroups or designed to overcome conventional antibiotics and antiviral countermeasures now appear increasingly plausible, giving scientists a power once thought to be the province of science fiction. As in the cyber realm, such advances will rapidly increase the potential destructive power of small groups, a phenomenon that might be characterized as the “democratization of destruction.”

International stability is also increasingly at risk owing to structural weaknesses in the global economic system. Commercial man-made satellites, for instance, offer little, if any, protection against the growing threat of anti-satellite systems, whether ground-based lasers or direct-ascent kinetic-kill vehicles. The Internet was similarly constructed with a benign environment in mind, and the progression toward potential sources of single-point system failure, in the forms of both common software and data repositories like the “cloud,” cannot be discounted.

Then there is the undersea economic infrastructure, primarily located on the world’s continental shelves. It provides a substantial portion of the world’s oil and natural gas, while also hosting a web of cables connecting the global fiber-optic grid. The value of the capital assets on the U.S. continental shelves alone runs into the trillions of dollars. These assets — wellheads, pumping stations, cables, floating platforms — are effectively undefended.

As challenges to the global order increase in scale and shift in form, the means for addressing them are actually declining. The age of austerity is upon us, and it seems likely if not certain that the U.S. military will confront these growing challenges with relatively diminished resources. The Pentagon’s budget is scheduled for $400 billion or more in cuts over the next decade. Europe certainly cannot be counted on to pick up the slack. Nor is it clear whether rising great powers such as Brazil and India will try to fill the void.

With technology advancing so rapidly, might the United States attempt to preserve its military dominance, and international stability, by developing new sources of military advantage? Recently, there have been dramatic innovations in directed energy — lasers and particle beams — that could enable major advances in key mission areas. But there are indications that competitors, China in particular, are keeping pace and may even enjoy an advantage.

The United States has the lead in robotics — for now. While many are aware of the Predator drones used in the war against radical Islamist groups, robots are also appearing in the form of undersea craft and terrestrial mechanical “mules” used to move equipment. But the Pentagon will need to prove better than its rivals at exploiting advances in artificial intelligence to enhance the performance of its unmanned systems. The U.S. military will also need to make its robot crafts stealthier, reduce their vulnerability to more sophisticated rivals than the Taliban, and make their data links more robust in order to fend off efforts to disable them.

The bottom line is that the United States and its allies risk losing their military edge, and new threats to global security are arising faster than they can counter them. Think the current world order is fragile? In the words of the great Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

After Fukushima, Nuclear Task Force Wants Major Changes for U.S. Plants Rules – ScienceInsider

After Fukushima, Nuclear Task Force Wants Major Changes for U.S. Plants Rules – ScienceInsider.

Redundant defenses against the most likely failures may not be enough to protect U.S. nuclear plants against a catastrophic failure like the one that occurred earlier this year in Japan. That’s the conclusion of the first of two reviews of U.S. nuclear plants by the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

“A sequence of events like the Fukushima accident is unlikely to occur in the United States,” says the task force’s report, released yesterday. But a “patchwork of regulatory requirements” currently in place ought to be reviewed, updated and possibly strengthened to address “low likelihood, high consequence” events like the Fukushima calamity, it says.

The cornerstone of the NRC’s regulatory framework regarding accidents is known as the “defense in depth” strategy, defined as relying on “redundant layers of defense to compensate for potential human and mechanical failures” so as to rely on no single layer.” But a review of those layers found that “significant reinforcements” are required for each type of preparation: protection (preventing meltdowns or other disasters), mitigation (making such accidents less harmful if they happen), and emergency preparedness (responding to accidents).

For example, the task force called for nuclear reactor vessel vents, which release pressure from boiled cooling water, to be “hardened.” That step could mean making them operable without AC electrical power or even operator control.

The task force said that it is unclear whether Japanese utility officials were ever able to open vents to release air pressure during the accident. That could have caused the breach of the containment structure after the pressure skyrocketed in several reactor vessels.

The report also called for adding instruments to spent nuclear fuel pools to give operators better information during accidents and potentially new systems for the automatic refilling of cooling pools. Other recommendations included better emergency plans that incorporated the possibility of prolonged power blackouts or events that take out multiple reactors at once.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based industry lobby, said the report lacked evidence to support “many of its recommendations.” When ScienceInsider asked for details, it cited the recommendation on hardened vents. The institute’s Steven Kerekes said that there is “supportive evidence” that current systems are vulnerable and that the Fukushima incident is a sufficient reason to change the rules.

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a frequent critic of the NRC’s rules for the industry, has released a report today that included 23 recommendations for strengthening the system that go well beyond the proposals in the NRC report. For example, UCS said that spent nuclear fuel in U.S. cooling pools should be moved to hardened cask storage. The task force said it was too soon to make such a recommendation based on available data from Fukushima.

The NRC task force report solicited no public input for its report. A much larger effort, due in 3 months from now, will incorporate public comment and testimony from hearings.

5 signs that Mexico is losing its drug war

5 signs that Mexico is losing its drug war – The Week.

In Mexico, drug violence has become a routine part of the news. But some moments stand out as particularly frightening

Marisol Valles Garcia is Mexico's youngest police chief and works in a town just 60 miles from Ciudad Juarez, the country's most violent city.

Marisol Valles Garcia is Mexico’s youngest police chief and works in a town just 60 miles from Ciudad Juarez, the country’s most violent city. Photo: Corbis SEE ALL 14 PHOTOS

In the four years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels, clashes between powerful drugrunners and Mexico’s police have skyrocketed in frequency and intensity. Since 2006, over 28,000 people have been killed, including 2,000 police officers — and the carnage shows no sign of slowing down. Calderon remains optimistic, at least publicly, but faces mounting criticism over the violence. Here are five especially troubling signs for what many consider a failed war:

1. A town’s entire police force quits
No officers were injured when gunmen fired more than 1,000 shots at police headquarters in Ramons, a small town in an area “torn by fighting between the Gulf and Zetas drug gangs.”  But the attackers (who tossed six grenades for good measure) made their point — all 14 of the town’s police officers promptly quit. Their new headquarters had opened just three days before the attack. (Watch an AP report about the police force)

2. The college student who became chief of police
In the small, crime-ridden town of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, nobody was eager to serve as police chief for understandable reasons — the last person who took the job was killed in June. So when 20-year-old criminology student Marisol Valles Garcia volunteered, she made international news. “I took the risk because I want my son to live in a different community to the one we have today,” Guerrero said at a press conference.

3. Cops accused of killing their mayor
It has become an all-too-common story in Mexico: A public official is murdered, and a security guard or police officer turns out to be involved. When Santiago mayor Edelmiro Cavazos was killed in August, six city police officers, including one posted at Cavazos’ home to protect him, were quickly arrested and accused of helping a drug cartel pull off the crime. It was hardly an isolated incident, since most of Mexico’s 430,000 officers “find themselves outgunned, overwhelmed and often purchased outright by gangsters.”

4. A police chief is decapitated
In early October, Rolando Flores, the lead investigator on a high-profile case involving two Americans, was murdered, and his severed head was left in a suitcase in front of a military compound. In a sign of how routine such incidents have become, officials weren’t sure if the decapitation was related to the Falcon Lake case or to other cases Flores was investigating.

5. Killers target rehab centers
Not content to kill judges and mayors, gunmen appear to be going after former colleagues who may be trying to reform themselves. Last Sunday, gunmen lined up 13 recuperating addicts and executed them; two days earlier, another 14 people undergoing rehab had been gunned down. Such attacks have occurred before, but their rising intensity “could signal the lengths to which Mexico’s drug lords will go to prevent reformed addicts from giving information to authorities.”

Is the US in denial over its $14tn debt?

BBC News – Is the US in denial over its $14tn debt?.

Is America in denial about the extent of its financial problems, and therefore incapable of dealing with the gravest crisis the country has ever faced?

This is a story of debt, delusion and – potentially – disaster. For America and, if you happen to think that American influence is broadly a good thing, for the world.

The debt and the delusion are both all-American: $14 trillion (£8.75tn) of debt has been amassed and there is no cogent plan to reduce it.

Chart showing size of US budget gap

The figure is impossible to comprehend: easier to focus on the fact that it grows at $40,000 (£25,000) a second. Getting out of Afghanistan will help but actually only at the margins. The problem is much bigger than any one area of expenditure.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, is no rabid fiscal conservative but on the debt he is a hawk:

Start Quote

David Frum

The debt is not a financial problem, it is a political problem”

David Frum Former speechwriter to George W Bush

“I’m worried. The debt is large. It should be brought under control. The longer we wait, the longer we suffer this kind of paralysis; the more America boxes itself into a corner and the more America’s constructive leadership in the world diminishes.”

The author and economist Diane Coyle agrees. And she makes the rather alarming point that the acknowledged deficit is not the whole story.

The current $14tn debt is bad enough, she argues, but the future commitments to the baby boomers, commitments for health care and for pensions, suggest that the debt burden is part of the fabric of society:

“You have promises implicit in the structure of welfare states and aging populations that mean there is an unacknowledged debt that will have to be paid for by future taxpayers, and that could double the published figures.”

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges that this structural commitment to future debt is not unique to the United States. All advanced democracies have more or less the same problem, he says, “but in the case of the States the figures are absolutely enormous”.

Mr Haass, a former senior US diplomat, is leading an academic push for America’s debt to be taken seriously by Americans and noticed as well by the rest of the world.

He uses the analogy of Suez and the pressure that was put on the UK by the US to withdraw from that adventure. The pressure was not, of course, military. It was economic.

Angry opponents of the health care reform during a town hall meeting Many so-called “Tea Party” supporters fiercely oppose tax raises.

Britain needed US economic help. In the future, if China chooses to flex its muscles abroad, it may not be Chinese admirals who pose the real threat, Mr Haass tells us. “Chinese bankers could do the job.”

Because of course Chinese bankers, if they withdrew their support for the US economy and their willingness to finance America’s spending, could have an almost overnight impact on every American life, forcing interest rates to sky high levels and torpedoing the world’s largest economy.

Not everyone accepts the debt-as-disaster thesis.

David Frum is a Republican intellectual and a former speech writer to President George W Bush.

He told me the problem, and the solution, were actually rather simple: “If I tell you you have a disease that will absolutely prostrate you and it could be prevented by taking a couple of aspirin and going for a walk, well I guess the situation isn’t apocalyptic is it?

“The things that America has to do to put its fiscal house in order are not anywhere near as extreme as what Europe has to do. The debt is not a financial problem, it is a political problem.”

Mr Frum believes that a future agreement to cut spending – he thinks America spends much too big a proportion of its GDP on health – and raise taxes, could very quickly bring the debt problem down to the level of quotidian normality.

‘Organised hypocrisy’

I am not so sure. What is the root cause of America’s failure to get to grips with its debt? It can be argued that the problem is not really economic or even political; it is a cultural inability to face up to hard choices, even to acknowledge that the choices are there.

I should make it clear that my reporting of the United States, in the years I was based there for the BBC, was governed by a sense that too much foreign media coverage of America is negative and jaundiced.

A dog sled team mushes down a street in the Alaskan capital, Anchorage Are Alaskans fooling themselves about the viability of their state?

The nation is staggeringly successful and gloriously attractive. But it is also deeply dysfunctional in some respects.

Take Alaska. The author and serious student of America, Anne Applebaum makes the point that, as she puts it, “Alaska is a myth!”

People who live in Alaska – and people who aspire to live in Alaska – imagine it is the last frontier, she says, “the place where rugged individuals go out and dig for oil and shoot caribou, and make money the way people did 100 years ago”.

But in reality, Alaska is the most heavily subsidised state in the union. There is more social spending in Alaska than anywhere else.

To make it a place where decent lives can be lived, there is a huge transfer of money to Alaska from the US federal government which means of course from taxpayers in New York and Los Angeles and other places where less rugged folk live. Alaska is an organised hypocrisy.

Too many Americans behave like the Alaskans: they think of themselves as rugged individualists in no need of state help, but they take the money anyway in health care and pensions and all the other areas of American life where the federal government spends its cash.

The Tea Party movement talks of cuts in spending but when it comes to it, Americans always seem to be talking about cuts in spending that affect someone else, not them – and taxes that are levied on others too.

LISTEN TO THE PROGRAMME

Analysis is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday, 27 June 2011 at 2030 BST and Sunday 3 July at 2130 BST

And nobody talks about raising taxes. Jeffrey Sachs has a theory about why this is.

America’s two main political parties are so desperate to raise money for the nation’s constant elections – remember the House of Representatives is elected every two years – that they can do nothing that upsets wealthy people and wealthy companies.

So they cannot touch taxes.

In all honesty, I am torn about the conclusions to be drawn. I find it difficult to believe that a nation historically so nimble and clever and open could succumb to disaster in this way.

But America, as well as being a place of hard work and ingenuity, is also no stranger to eating competitions in which gluttony is celebrated, and wilful ignorance, for instance regarding (as many Americans do) evolution as controversial.

The debt crisis is a fascinating crisis because it is about so much more than money. It is a test of a culture.

It is about waking up, as the Americans say, and smelling the coffee. And – I am thinking Texas here – saddling up too, and riding out with purpose.

Analysis is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 27 June at 2030 BST and repeated on Sunday 3 July at 2130 BST. Listen again via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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Dozens of countries queue up to go nuclear

Dozens of countries queue up to go nuclear – tech – 24 June 2011 – New Scientist.

IN THE wake of the nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan in March, several countries have announced plans to reject nuclear power. Japan will not build any more reactors. Germany plans to phase out its nuclear power plants, Switzerland will not replace its reactors, and last week Italy voted against starting a nuclear programme.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is running an emergency conference this week to identify the key lessons from Fukushima (see “Agency report praises Fukushima staff, slams TEPCO“). So does this mean a decade-long revival of interest in nuclear power is grinding to a halt?

IAEA figures suggest not. They list 65 reactors under construction, and those figures are just the tip of the iceberg because they do not include reactors that are contracted to be built, or those being planned. Neither do they acknowledge the significance of the United Arab Emirates being on course to become the first country to go nuclear since China in 1985: the UAE has signed a deal with a consortium led by the Korea Electric Power Corporation to build four reactors. Saudi Arabia is following suit, having announced earlier this month that it will build 16 reactors by 2030. Turkey plans to build two new plants.

Dozens more countries have registered an interest in the nuclear option with the IAEA, though few are likely to follow through, according to Jessica Jewell at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

Jewell gathered data on countries with established programmes to work out what it takes to go nuclear. When they started building nuclear power stations, these countries had robust electricity grids, stable, effective governments and big economies that could swallow the upfront costs.

Of 52 countries that have recently asked the IAEA to help them start a nuclear programme only 10 meet all of these criteria, Jewell says. Another 10 had the motivation and resources but were politically unstable (Energy Policy, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2010.10.041).

That second group includes Egypt, which Jewell reckons is the most likely to gain nuclear power of the five north African countries with stated intentions. Continuing political uncertainty in Egypt makes nuclear an unlikely option there in the near term, however.

Meanwhile, the plants already under construction in established nuclear countries are feeling the ripples of Fukushima. Just under half of the reactors listed as under construction by the IAEA are in China – but following events in Japan, the Chinese government has suspended approvals for new plants while it reviews their safety

 

US nuke regulators weaken safety rules; 75% of US reactors are leaking radioactive waste

AP IMPACT: US nuke regulators weaken safety rules – Yahoo! News.

LACEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them, an investigation by The Associated Press has found.

Time after time, officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission have decided that original regulations were too strict, arguing that safety margins could be eased without peril, according to records and interviews.

The result? Rising fears that these accommodations by the NRC are significantly undermining safety — and inching the reactors closer to an accident that could harm the public and jeopardize the future of nuclear power in the United States.

Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised, so plants could meet standards.

Failed cables. Busted seals. Broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete, dented containers, corroded metals and rusty underground pipes — all of these and thousands of other problems linked to aging were uncovered in the AP’s yearlong investigation. And all of them could escalate dangers in the event of an accident.

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.

Industry and government officials defend their actions, and insist that no chances are being taken. But the AP investigation found that with billions of dollars and 19 percent of America’s electricity supply at stake, a cozy relationship prevails between the industry and its regulator, the NRC.

Records show a recurring pattern: Reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules. Studies are conducted by the industry and government, and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.”

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

“That’s what they say for everything, whether that’s the case or not,” said Demetrios Basdekas, an engineer retired from the NRC. “Every time you turn around, they say `We have all this built-in conservatism.'”

The ongoing crisis at the stricken, decades-old Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility in Japan has focused attention on the safety of plants elsewhere in the world; it prompted the NRC to look at U.S. reactors, and a report is due in July.

But the factor of aging goes far beyond the issues posed by the disaster at Fukushima.

Commercial nuclear reactors in the United States were designed and licensed for 40 years. When the first ones were being built in the 1960s and 1970s, it was expected that they would be replaced with improved models long before those licenses expired.

But that never happened. The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, massive cost overruns, crushing debt and high interest rates ended new construction proposals for several decades.

Instead, 66 of the 104 operating units have been relicensed for 20 more years, mostly with scant public attention. Renewal applications are under review for 16 other reactors.

By the standards in place when they were built, these reactors are old and getting older. As of today, 82 reactors are more than 25 years old.

The AP found proof that aging reactors have been allowed to run less safely to prolong operations. As equipment has approached or violated safety limits, regulators and reactor operators have loosened or bent the rules.

Last year, the NRC weakened the safety margin for acceptable radiation damage to reactor vessels — for a second time. The standard is based on a measurement known as a reactor vessel’s “reference temperature,” which predicts when it will become dangerously brittle and vulnerable to failure. Over the years, many plants have violated or come close to violating the standard.

As a result, the minimum standard was relaxed first by raising the reference temperature 50 percent, and then 78 percent above the original — even though a broken vessel could spill its radioactive contents into the environment.

“We’ve seen the pattern,” said nuclear safety scientist Dana Powers, who works for Sandia National Laboratories and also sits on an NRC advisory committee. “They’re … trying to get more and more out of these plants.”

___

SHARPENING THE PENCIL

The AP collected and analyzed government and industry documents — including some never-before released. The examination looked at both types of reactor designs: pressurized water units that keep radioactivity confined to the reactor building and the less common boiling water types like those at Fukushima, which send radioactive water away from the reactor to drive electricity-generating turbines.

Tens of thousands of pages of government and industry studies were examined, along with test results, inspection reports and regulatory policy statements filed over four decades. Interviews were conducted with scores of managers, regulators, engineers, scientists, whistleblowers, activists, and residents living near the reactors, which are located at 65 sites, mostly in the East and Midwest.

AP reporting teams toured some of the oldest reactors — the unit here at Oyster Creek, near the Atlantic coast 50 miles east of Philadelphia, and two units at Indian Point, 25 miles north of New York City along the Hudson River.

Called “Oyster Creak” by some critics because of its aging problems, this boiling water reactor began running in 1969 and ranks as the country’s oldest operating commercial nuclear power plant. Its license was extended in 2009 until 2029, though utility officials announced in December that they’ll shut the reactor 10 years earlier rather than build state-ordered cooling towers. Applications to extend the lives of pressurized water units 2 and 3 at Indian Point, each more than 36 years old, are under review by the NRC.

Unprompted, several nuclear engineers and former regulators used nearly identical terminology to describe how industry and government research has frequently justified loosening safety standards to keep aging reactors within operating rules. They call the approach “sharpening the pencil” or “pencil engineering” — the fudging of calculations and assumptions to yield answers that enable plants with deteriorating conditions to remain in compliance.

“Many utilities are doing that sort of thing,” said engineer Richard T. Lahey Jr., who used to design nuclear safety systems for General Electric Co., which makes boiling water reactors. “I think we need nuclear power, but we can’t compromise on safety. I think the vulnerability is on these older plants.”

Added Paul Blanch, an engineer who left the industry over safety issues but later returned to work on solving them: “It’s a philosophical position that (federal regulators) take that’s driven by the industry and by the economics: What do we need to do to let those plants continue to operate? They somehow sharpen their pencil to either modify their interpretation of the regulations, or they modify their assumptions in the risk assessment.”

In public pronouncements, industry and government say aging is well under control. “I see an effort on the part of this agency to always make sure that we’re doing the right things for safety. I’m not sure that I see a pattern of staff simply doing things because there’s an interest to reduce requirements — that’s certainly not the case,” NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said in an interview at agency headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Neil Wilmshurst, director of plant technology for the industry’s Electric Power Research Institute, acknowledged that the industry and NRC often collaborate on research that supports rule changes. But he maintained that there’s “no kind of misplaced alliance … to get the right answer.”

Yet agency staff, plant operators, and consultants paint a different picture in little-known reports, where evidence of industry-wide problems is striking:

_The AP reviewed 226 preliminary notifications — alerts on emerging safety problems — issued by the NRC since 2005. Wear and tear in the form of clogged lines, cracked parts, leaky seals, rust and other deterioration contributed to at least 26 alerts over the past six years. Other notifications lack detail, but aging also was a probable factor in 113 additional alerts. That would constitute up to 62 percent in all. For example, the 39-year-old Palisades reactor in Michigan shut Jan. 22 when an electrical cable failed, a fuse blew, and a valve stuck shut, expelling steam with low levels of radioactive tritium into the air outside. And a one-inch crack in a valve weld aborted a restart in February at the LaSalle site west of Chicago.

_One 2008 NRC report blamed 70 percent of potentially serious safety problems on “degraded conditions.” Some involve human factors, but many stem from equipment wear, including cracked nozzles, loose paint, electrical problems, or offline cooling components.

_Confronted with worn parts that need maintenance, the industry has repeatedly requested — and regulators have often allowed — inspections and repairs to be delayed for months until scheduled refueling outages. Again and again, problems worsened before they were fixed. Postponed inspections inside a steam generator at Indian Point allowed tubing to burst, leading to a radioactive release in 2000. Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. A hole in the vessel could release radiation into the environment, yet inspections failed to catch the same problem on the replacement vessel head until more nozzles were found to be cracked last year.

___

TIME CRUMBLES THINGS

Nuclear plants are fundamentally no more immune to the incremental abuses of time than our cars or homes: Metals grow weak and rusty, concrete crumbles, paint peels, crud accumulates. Big components like 17-story-tall concrete containment buildings or 800-ton reactor vessels are all but impossible to replace. Smaller parts and systems can be swapped, but still pose risks as a result of weak maintenance and lax regulation or hard-to-predict failures. Even when things are fixed or replaced, the same parts or others nearby often fail later.

Even mundane deterioration at a reactor can carry harsh consequences.

For example, peeling paint and debris can be swept toward pumps that circulate cooling water in a reactor accident. A properly functioning containment building is needed to create air pressure that helps clear those pumps. The fact is, a containment building could fail in a severe accident. Yet the NRC has allowed operators to make safety calculations that assume containment buildings will hold.

In a 2009 letter, Mario V. Bonaca, then-chairman of the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, warned that this approach represents “a decrease in the safety margin” and makes a fuel-melting accident more likely. At Fukushima, hydrogen explosions blew apart two of six containment buildings, allowing radiation to escape from overheated fuel in storage pools.

Many photos in NRC archives — some released in response to AP requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act — show rust accumulated in a thick crust or paint peeling in long sheets on untended equipment at nuclear plants. Other breakdowns can’t be observed or predicted, even with sophisticated analytic methods — especially for buried, hidden or hard-to-reach parts.

Industry and government reports are packed with troubling evidence of unrelenting wear — and repeated regulatory compromises.

Four areas stand out:

BRITTLE VESSELS: For years, operators have rearranged fuel rods to limit gradual radiation damage to the steel vessels protecting the core and to keep them strong enough to meet safety standards.

It hasn’t worked well enough.

Even with last year’s weakening of the safety margins, engineers and metal scientists say some plants may be forced to close over these concerns before their licenses run out — unless, of course, new compromises with regulations are made. But the stakes are high: A vessel damaged by radiation becomes brittle and prone to cracking in certain accidents at pressurized water reactors, potentially releasing its radioactive contents into the environment.

LEAKY VALVES: Operators have repeatedly violated leakage standards for valves designed to bottle up radioactive steam in the event of earthquakes and other accidents at boiling water reactors.

Many plants have found they could not adhere to the general standard allowing each of these parts — known as main steam isolation valves — to leak at a rate of no more than 11.5 cubic feet per hour. In 1999, the NRC decided to permit individual plants to seek amendments of up to 200 cubic feet per hour for all four steam valves combined.

But plants keep violating even those higher limits. For example, in 2007, Hatch Unit 2, in Baxley, Ga., reported combined leakage of 574 cubic feet per hour.

CRACKED TUBING: The industry has long known of cracking in steel alloy tubing originally used in the steam generators of pressurized water reactors. Ruptures were rampant in these tubes containing radioactive coolant; in 1993 alone, there were seven. Even today, as many as 18 reactors are still running on old generators.

Problems can arise even in a newer metal alloy, according to a report of a 2008 industry-government workshop.

CORRODED PIPING: Nuclear operators have failed to stop an epidemic of leaks in pipes and other underground equipment in damp settings. The country’s nuclear sites have suffered more than 400 accidental radioactive leaks during their history, the activist Union of Concerned Scientists reported in September.

Plant operators have been drilling monitoring wells and patching hidden or buried piping and other equipment for several years to control an escalating outbreak.

Here, too, they have failed. Between 2000 and 2009, the annual number of leaks from underground piping shot up fivefold, according to an internal industry document obtained and analyzed by the AP.

___

CONCERNS OF LONG STANDING

Even as they reassured the public, regulators have been worrying about aging reactors since at least the 1980s, when the first ones were entering only their second decade of operation. A 1984 report for the NRC blamed wear, corrosion, crud and fatigue for more than a third of 3,098 failures of parts or systems within the first 12 years of industry operations; the authors believed the number was actually much higher.

A decade later, in 1994, the NRC reported to Congress that the critical shrouds lining reactor cores were cracked at a minimum of 11 units, including five with extensive damage. The NRC ordered more aggressive maintenance, but an agency report last year said cracking of internal core components — spurred by radiation — remains “a major concern” in boiling water reactors.

A 1995 study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory covering a seven-year period found that aging contributed to 19 percent of scenarios that could have ended in severe accidents.

In 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists, which does not oppose nuclear power, told Congress that aging problems had shut reactors eight times within 13 months.

And an NRC presentation for an international workshop that same year warned of escalating wear at reactor buildings meant to bottle up radiation during accidents. A total of 66 cases of damage were cited in the presentation, with corrosion reported at a quarter of all containment buildings. In at least two cases — at the two-reactor North Anna site 40 miles northwest of Richmond, Va., and the two-unit Brunswick facility near Wilmington, N.C. — steel containment liners designed to shield the public had rusted through.

And in 2009, a one-third-inch hole was discovered in a liner at Beaver Valley Unit 1 in Shippingport, Pa.

Long-standing, unresolved problems persist with electrical cables, too.

In a 1993 report labeled “official use only,” an NRC staffer warned that electrical parts throughout plants were subject to dangerous age-related breakdowns unforeseen by the agency. Almost a fifth of cables failed in testing that simulated the effects of 40 years of wear. The report warned that as a result, reactor core damage could occur much more often than expected.

Fifteen years later, the problem appeared to have worsened. An NRC report warned in 2008 that rising numbers of electrical cables are failing with age, prompting temporary shutdowns and degrading safety. Agency staff tallied 269 known failures over the life of the industry.

Two industry-funded reports obtained by the AP said that managers and regulators have worried increasingly about the reliability of sometimes wet, hard-to-reach underground cables over the past five-to-10 years. One of the reports last year acknowledged many electrical-related aging failures at plants around the country.

“Multiple cable circuits may fail when called on to perform functions affecting safety,” the report warned.

___

EATEN AWAY FROM WITHIN

Few aging problems have been more challenging than chemical corrosion from within.

In one of the industry’s worst accidents, a corroded pipe burst at Virginia’s Surry 2 reactor in 1986 and showered workers with scalding steam, killing four.

In summer 2001, the NRC was confronted with a new problem: Corrosive chemicals were cracking nozzles on reactors. But the NRC let operators delay inspections to coincide with scheduled outages. Inspection finally took place in February 2002 at the Davis-Besse unit in Ohio.

What workers found shocked the industry.

They discovered extensive cracking and a place where acidic boron had spurted from the reactor and eaten a gouge as big as a football. When the problem was found, just a fraction of an inch of inner lining remained. An NRC analysis determined that the vessel head could have burst within two months — what former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford has called a “near rupture” which could have released large amounts of radiation into the environment.

In 2001-3 alone, at least 10 plants developed these cracks, according to an NRC analysis.

Industry defenders blame human failings at Davis-Besse. Owner FirstEnergy Corp. paid a $28 million fine, and courts convicted two plant employees of hiding the deterioration. NRC spokesman Scott Burnell declared that the agency “learned from the incident and improved resident inspector training and knowledge-sharing to ensure that such a situation is never repeated.”

Yet on the same March day last year that Burnell’s comments were released, Davis-Besse workers again found dried boron on the nozzles of a replacement vessel head, indicating more leaks. Inspecting further, they again found cracks in 24 of 69 nozzles.

“We were not expecting this issue,” said plant spokesman Todd Schneider.

In August, the operator applied for a 20-year license extension. Under pressure from the NRC, the company has agreed to replace the replacement head in October.

As far back as the 1990s, the industry and NRC also were well aware that the steel-alloy tubing in many steam generators was subject to chemical corrosion. It could crack over time, releasing radioactive gases that can bypass the containment building. If too much spurts out, there may be too little water to cool down the reactor, prompting a core melt.

In 1993, NRC personnel reported seven outright ruptures inside the generators, several forced outages per year, and some complete replacements. Personnel at the Catawba plant near Charlotte, N.C., found more than 8,000 corroded tubes — more than half its total.

For plants with their original generators, “there is no end in sight to the steam generator tube degradation problems,” a top agency manager declared. NRC staffers warned: “Crack depth is difficult to measure reliably and the crack growth rate is difficult to determine.”

Yet no broad order was issued for shutdowns to inspect generators.

Instead, the staff began to talk to operators about how to deal with the standard that no cracks could go deeper than 40 percent through the tube wall.

In 1995, the NRC staff put out alternative criteria that let reactors keep running if they could reach positive results with remote checks known as “eddy-currents tests.” The new test standard gave more breathing room to reactors.

According to a 2001 report by the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, the staff “acknowledged that there would be some possibility that cracks of objectionable depth might be overlooked and left in the steam generator for an additional operating cycle.” The alternative, the report said, would be to repair or remove potentially many tubes from service.

NRC engineer Joe Hopenfeld, who had worked previously in the industry, challenged this approach at the time from within the agency. He warned that multiple ruptures in corroded tubing could release radiation. The NRC said radiation would be confined.

Hopenfeld now says this conclusion wasn’t based on solid analysis but “wishful thinking” and research meant to reach a certain conclusion — another instance of “sharpening the pencil.”

“It was a hard problem to solve, and they did not want to say it was a problem, because if they really said it was a problem, they would have to shut down a lot of reactors.”

___

AGE IS NO ISSUE, SAYS INDUSTRY

With financial pressures mounting in the 1990s to extend the life of aging reactors, new NRC calculations using something called the “Master Curve” put questionable reactor vessels back into the safe zone.

A 1999 NRC review of the Master Curve, used to analyze metal toughness, noted that energy deregulation had put financial pressure on nuclear plants. It went on: “So utility executives are considering new operational scenarios, some of which were unheard of as little as five years ago: extending the licensed life of the plant beyond 40 years.” As a result, it said, the industry and the NRC were considering “refinements” of embrittlement calculations “with an eye to reducing known over-conservatisms.”

Asked about references to economic pressures, NRC spokesman Burnell said motivations are irrelevant if a technology works.

Former NRC commissioner Peter Lyons said, “There certainly is plenty of research … to support a relaxation of the conservativisms that had been built in before. I don’t see that as decreasing safety. I see that as an appropriate standard.”

Though some parts are too big and too expensive to replace, industry defenders also point out that many others are routinely replaced over the years.

Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute, acknowledges that you’d expect to see a growing failure rate at some point — “if we didn’t replace and do consistent maintenance.”

In a sense, then, supporters of aging nukes say an old reactor is essentially a collection of new parts.

“When a plant gets to be 40 years old, about the only thing that’s 40 years old is the ink on the license,” said NRC chief spokesman Eliot Brenner. “Most, if not all of the major components, will have been changed out.”

Oyster Creek spokesman David Benson said the reactor “is as safe today as when it was built.”

Yet plant officials have been trying to arrest rust on its 100-foot-high, radiation-blocking steel drywell for decades. The problem was declared solved long ago, but a rust patch was found again in late 2008. Benson said the new rust was only the size of a dime, but acknowledged there was “some indication of water getting in.”

In an effort to meet safety standards, aging reactors have been forced to come up with backfit on top of backfit.

As Ivan Selin, a retired NRC chairman, put it: “It’s as if we were all driving Model T’s today and trying to bring them up to current mileage standards.”

For example, the state of New Jersey — not the NRC — had ordered Oyster Creek to build cooling towers to protect sea life in nearby Barnegat Bay. Owner Exelon Corp. said that would cost about $750 million and force it to close the reactor — 20-year license extension notwithstanding. Even with the announcement to close in 2019, Oyster Creek will have been in operation for 50 years.

Many of the safety changes have been justified by something called “risk-informed” analysis, which the industry has employed widely since the 1990s: Regulators set aside a strict check list applied to all systems and focus instead on features deemed to carry the highest risk.

But one flaw of risk-informed analysis is that it doesn’t explicitly account for age. An older reactor is not viewed as inherently more unpredictable than a younger one. Ed Lyman, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says risk-informed analysis has usually served “to weaken regulations, rather than strengthen them.”

Even without the right research, the NRC has long reserved legal wiggle room to enforce procedures, rules and standards as it sees fit. A 2008 position paper by the industry group EPRI said the approach has brought “a more tractable enforcement process and a significant reduction in the number of cited violations.”

But some safety experts call it “tombstone regulation,” implying that problems fester until something goes very wrong. “Until there are tombstones, they don’t regulate,” said Blanch, the longtime industry engineer who became a whistleblower.

Barry Bendar, a database administrator who lives one mile from Oyster Creek, said representatives of Exelon were asked at a public meeting in 2009 if the plant had a specific life span.

“Their answer was, `No, we can fix it, we can replace, we can patch,'” said Bendar. “To me, everything reaches an end of its life span.”

___

The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate(at)ap.org

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ALSO:

Radioactive leaks found at 75% of US nuke sites

Steam rises from cooling towers at Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill., March 16, 2011. (AP Photo)

(AP)BRACEVILLE, Ill. – Radioactive tritium has leaked from three-quarters of U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The number and severity of the leaks has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.

Tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, has leaked from at least 48 of 65 sites, according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission records reviewed as part of the AP’s yearlong examination of safety issues at aging nuclear power plants. Leaks from at least 37 of those facilities contained concentrations exceeding the federal drinking water standard — sometimes at hundreds of times the limit.

While most leaks have been found within plant boundaries, some have migrated offsite. But none is known to have reached public water supplies.

At three sites — two in Illinois and one in Minnesota — leaks have contaminated drinking wells of nearby homes, the records show, but not at levels violating the drinking water standard. At a fourth site, in New Jersey, tritium has leaked into an aquifer and a discharge canal feeding picturesque Barnegat Bay off the Atlantic Ocean.

Previously, the AP reported that regulators and industry have weakened safety standards for decades to keep the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors operating within the rules. While NRC officials and plant operators argue that safety margins can be eased without peril, critics say these accommodations are inching the reactors closer to an accident.

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Any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how slight, boosts cancer risk, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Federal regulators set a limit for how much tritium is allowed in drinking water. So far, federal and industry officials say, the tritium leaks pose no health threat.

But it’s hard to know how far some leaks have traveled into groundwater. Tritium moves through soil quickly, and when it is detected it often indicates the presence of more powerful radioactive isotopes that are often spilled at the same time.

For example, cesium-137 turned up with tritium at the Fort Calhoun nuclear unit near Omaha, Neb., in 2007. Strontium-90 was discovered with tritium two years earlier at the Indian Point nuclear power complex, where two reactors operate 25 miles north of New York City.

The tritium leaks also have spurred doubts among independent engineers about the reliability of emergency safety systems at the 104 nuclear reactors situated on the 65 sites. That’s partly because some of the leaky underground pipes carry water meant to cool a reactor in an emergency shutdown and to prevent a meltdown. More than a mile of piping, much of it encased in concrete, can lie beneath a reactor.

Tritium is relatively short-lived and penetrates the body weakly through the air compared to other radioactive contaminants. Each of the known releases has been less radioactive than a single X-ray.

The main health risk from tritium, though, would be in drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says tritium should measure no more than 20,000 picocuries per liter in drinking water. The agency estimates seven of 200,000 people who drink such water for decades would develop cancer.

Still, the NRC and industry consider the leaks a public relations problem, not a public health or accident threat, records and interviews show.

“The public health and safety impact of this is next to zero,” said Tony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer of the industry’s Nuclear Energy Institute. “This is a public confidence issue.”

Leaks Are Prolific

Like rust under a car, corrosion has propagated for decades along the hard-to-reach, wet underbellies of the reactors — generally built in a burst of construction during the 1960s and 1970s. As part of an investigation of aging problems at the country’s nuclear reactors, the AP uncovered evidence that despite government and industry programs to bring the causes of such leaks under control, breaches have become more frequent and widespread.

There were 38 leaks from underground piping between 2000 and 2009, according to an industry document presented at a tritium conference. Nearly two-thirds of the leaks were reported over the latest five years.

Here are some examples:

  • At the three-unit Browns Ferry complex in Alabama, a valve was mistakenly left open in a storage tank during modifications over the years. When the tank was filled in April 2010 about 1,000 gallons of tritium-laden water poured onto the ground at a concentration of 2 million picocuries per liter. In drinking water, that would be 100 times higher than the EPA health standard.
  • At the LaSalle site west of Chicago, tritium-laden water was accidentally released from a storage tank in July 2010 at a concentration of 715,000 picocuries per liter — 36 times the EPA standard.
  • The year before, 123,000 picocuries per liter were detected in a well near the turbine building at Peach Bottom west of Philadelphia — six times the drinking water standard.
  • And in 2008, 7.5 million picocuries per liter leaked from underground piping at Quad Cities in western Illinois — 375 times the EPA limit.

(AP)

Subsurface water not only rusts underground pipes, it attacks other buried components, including electrical cables that carry signals to control operations. They too have been failing at high rates.

A 2008 NRC staff memo reported industry data showing 83 failed cables between 21 and 30 years of service — but only 40 within their first 10 years of service. Underground cabling set in concrete can be extraordinarily difficult to replace.

Under NRC rules, tiny concentrations of tritium and other contaminants are routinely released in monitored increments from nuclear plants; leaks from corroded pipes are not permitted.

The leaks sometimes go undiscovered for years, the AP found. Many of the pipes or tanks have been patched, and contaminated soil and water have been removed in some places. But leaks are often discovered later from other nearby piping, tanks or vaults. Mistakes and defective material have contributed to some leaks. However, corrosion — from decades of use and deterioration — is the main cause. And, safety engineers say, the rash of leaks suggest nuclear operators are hard put to maintain the decades-old systems.

Over the history of the U.S. industry, more than 400 known radioactive leaks of all kinds of substances have occurred, the activist Union of Concerned Scientists reported in September.

Several notable leaks above the EPA drinking-water limit for tritium happened five or more years ago, and from underground piping: 397,000 picocuries per liter at Tennessee’s Watts Bar unit in 2005 — 20 times the EPA standard; four million at the two-reactor Hatch plant in Georgia in 2003 — 200 times the limit; 750,000 at Seabrook in New Hampshire in 1999 — nearly 38 times the standard; and 4.2 million at the three-unit Palo Verde facility in Arizona, in 1993 — 210 times the drinking-water limit.

Many safety experts worry about what the leaks suggest about the condition of miles of piping beneath the reactors. “Any leak is a problem because you have the leak itself — but it also says something about the piping,” said Mario V. Bonaca, a former member of the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. “Evidently something has to be done.”

However, even with the best probes, it is hard to pinpoint partial cracks or damage in skinny pipes or bends. The industry tends to inspect piping when it must be dug up for some other reason. Even when leaks are detected, repairs may be postponed for up to two years with the NRC’s blessing.

“You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve never been inspected, and the NRC is looking the other way,” said engineer Paul Blanch, who has worked for the industry and later became a whistleblower. “They could have corrosion all over the place.”

Nuclear engineer Bill Corcoran, an industry consultant who has taught NRC personnel how to analyze the cause of accidents, said that since much of the piping is inaccessible and carries cooling water, the worry is if the pipes leak, there could be a meltdown.

East Coast Issues

One of the highest known tritium readings was discovered in 2002 at the Salem nuclear plant in Lower Alloways Creek Township, N.J. Tritium leaks from the spent fuel pool contaminated groundwater under the facility — located on an island in Delaware Bay — at a concentration of 15 million picocuries per liter. That’s 750 times the EPA drinking water limit. According to NRC records, the tritium readings last year still exceeded EPA drinking water standards.

And tritium found separately in an onsite storm drain system measured 1 million picocuries per liter in April 2010.

Also last year, the operator, PSEG Nuclear, discovered 680 feet of corroded, buried pipe that is supposed to carry cooling water to Salem Unit 1 in an accident, according to an NRC report. Some had worn down to a quarter of its minimum required thickness, though no leaks were found. The piping was dug up and replaced.

The operator had not visually inspected the piping — the surest way to find corrosion- since the reactor went on line in 1977, according to the NRC. PSEG Nuclear was found to be in violation of NRC rules because it hadn’t even tested the piping since 1988.

Last year, the Vermont Senate was so troubled by tritium leaks as high as 2.5 million picocuries per liter at the Vermont Yankee reactor in southern Vermont (125 times the EPA drinking-water standard) that it voted to block relicensing — a power that the Legislature holds in that state.

Activists placed a bogus ad on the Web to sell Vermont Yankee, calling it a “quaint Vermont fixer-upper from the last millennium” with “tasty, pre-tritiated drinking water.”

The gloating didn’t last. In March, the NRC granted the plant a 20-year license extension, despite the state opposition. Weeks ago, operator Entergy sued Vermont in federal court, challenging its authority to force the plant to close.

(AP)At 41-year-old Oyster Creek in southern New Jersey, the country’s oldest operating reactor, the latest tritium troubles started in April 2009, a week after it was relicensed for 20 more years. That’s when plant workers discovered tritium by chance in about 3,000 gallons of water that had leaked into a concrete vault housing electrical lines.

Since then, workers have found leaking tritium three more times at concentrations up to 10.8 million picocuries per liter — 540 times the EPA’s drinking water limit — according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. None has been directly measured in drinking water, but it has been found in an aquifer and in a canal discharging into nearby Barnegat Bay, a popular spot for swimming, boating and fishing.

An earlier leak came from a network of pipes where rust was first discovered in 1991. Multiple holes were found, “indicating the potential for extensive corrosion,” according to an analysis released to an environmental group by the NRC. Yet only patchwork repairs were done.

Tom Fote, who has fished in the bay near Oyster Creek, is unsettled by the leaks. “This was a plant that was up for renewal. It was up to them to make sure it was safe and it was not leaking anything,” he said.

Added Richard Webster, an environmental lawyer who challenged relicensing at Oyster Creek: “It’s symptomatic of the plants not having a handle on aging.”

Exelon’s Piping Problems

To Exelon — the country’s biggest nuclear operator, with 17 units — piping problems are just a fact of life. At a meeting with regulators in 2009, representatives of Exelon acknowledged that “100 percent verification of piping integrity is not practical,” according to a copy of its presentation.

Of course, the company could dig up the pipes and check them out. But that would be costly.

“Excavations have significant impact on plant operations,” the company said.

Exelon has had some major leaks. At the company’s two-reactor Dresden site west of Chicago, tritium has leaked into the ground at up to 9 million picocuries per liter — 450 times the federal limit for drinking water.

At least four separate problems have been discovered at the 40-year-old site since 2004, when its two reactors were awarded licenses for 20 more years of operation. A leaking section of piping was fixed that year, but another leak sprang nearby within two years, a government inspection report says. The Dresden leaks developed in systems that help cool the reactor core in an emergency. Leaks also have contaminated offsite drinking water wells, but below the EPA drinking water limit.

There’s also been contamination of offsite drinking water wells near the two-unit Prairie Island plant southeast of Minneapolis, then operated by Nuclear Management Co. and now by Xcel Energy, and at Exelon’s two-unit Braidwood nuclear facility, 10 miles from Dresden. The offsite tritium concentrations from both facilities also were below the EPA level.

The Prairie Island leak was found in the well of a nearby home in 1989. It was traced to a canal where radioactive waste was discharged.

Braidwood has leaked more than six million gallons of tritium-laden water in repeated leaks dating back to the 1990s — but not publicly reported until 2005. The leaks were traced to pipes that carried limited, monitored discharges of tritium into the river.

“They weren’t properly maintained, and some of them had corrosion,” said Exelon spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski.

Last year, Exelon, which has acknowledged violating Illinois state groundwater standards, agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle state and county complaints over the tritium leaks at Braidwood and nearby Dresden and Byron sites. The NRC also sanctioned Exelon.

Tritium measuring 1,500 picocuries per liter turned up in an offsite drinking well at a home near Braidwood. Though company and industry officials did not view any of the Braidwood concentrations as dangerous, unnerved residents took to bottled water and sued over feared loss of property value. A consolidated lawsuit was dismissed, but Exelon ultimately bought some homes so residents could leave.

Exelon refused to say how much it paid, but a search of county real estate records shows it bought at least nine properties in the contaminated area near Braidwood since 2006 for a total of $6.1 million.

Exelon says it has almost finished cleaning up the contamination, but the cost persists for some neighbors.

Retirees Bob and Nancy Scamen live in a two-story house within a mile of the reactors on 18 bucolic acres they bought in 1988, when Braidwood opened. He had worked there, and in other nuclear plants, as a pipefitter and welder — even sometimes fixing corroded piping. For the longest time, he felt the plants were well-managed and safe.

His feelings have changed.

An outlet from Braidwood’s leaky discharge pipe 300 feet from his property poured out three million gallons of water in 1998, according to an NRC inspection report. The couple didn’t realize the discharge was radioactive.

(AP)The Scamens no longer intend to pass the property on to their grandchildren for fear of hurting their health. The couple just wants out. But the only offer so far is from a buyer who left a note on the front door saying he’d pay the fire-sale price of $10,000.

They say Exelon has refused to buy their home because it has found tritium directly behind, but not beneath, their property.

“They say our property is not contaminated, and if they buy property that is not contaminated, it will set a precedent, and they’ll have to buy everybody’s property,” said Scamen.

Their neighbors, Tom and Judy Zimmer, are also hoping for an offer from Exelon for the land and home they built on it, spending $418,000 for both.

They had just moved into the house in November 2005, and were laying the tile in their new foyer when two Exelon representatives appeared at the door.

“They said, ‘We’re from Exelon, and we had a tritium spill. It’s nothing to worry about,'” recalls Tom Zimmer. “I didn’t know what tritium even meant.”

But his wife says she understood right away that it was bad news — and they hadn’t even emptied their moving boxes yet: “I thought, `Oh, my God. We’re not even in this place. What are we going to do?”‘

They say they had an interested buyer who backed out when he learned of the tritium. No one has made an offer since.

Public Relations Effort

The NRC is certainly paying attention. How can it not when local residents fret over every new groundwater incident? But the agency’s reports and actions suggest a preoccupation with image and perception.

An NRC task force on tritium leaks last year dismissed the danger to public health. Instead, its report called the leaks “a challenging issue from the perspective of communications around environmental protection.” The task force noted ruefully that the rampant leaking had “impacted public confidence.”

For sure, the industry also is trying to stop the leaks. For several years now, plant owners around the country have been drilling more monitoring wells and taking a more aggressive approach in replacing old piping when leaks are suspected or discovered.

For example, Exelon has been performing $14 million worth of work at Oyster Creek to give easier access to 2,000 feet of tritium-carrying piping, said site spokesman David Benson.

But such measures have yet to stop widespread leaking.

Meantime, the reactors keep getting older — 66 have been approved for 20-year extensions to their original 40-year licenses, with 16 more extensions pending. And, as the AP has been reporting in its ongoing series, Aging Nukes, regulators and industry have worked in concert to loosen safety standards to keep the plants operating.

In an initiative started last year, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko asked his staff to examine regulations on buried piping to evaluate if stricter standards or more inspections were needed.

The staff report, issued in June, openly acknowledged that the NRC “has not placed an emphasis on preventing” the leaks.

The authors concluded there are no significant health threats or heightened risk of accidents.

And they predicted even more leaks in the future.

Read more: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/21/national/main20072884.shtml#ixzz1Q8bCDTRe

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life

WikiLeaks wars: Digital conflict spills into real life – tech – 15 December 2010 – New Scientist.

Editorial: Democracy 2.0: The world after WikiLeaks

WHILE it is not, as some have called it, the “first great cyberwar“, the digital conflict over information sparked by WikiLeaks amounts to the greatest incursion of the online world into the real one yet seen.

In response to the taking down of the WikiLeaks website after it released details of secret diplomatic cables, a leaderless army of activists has gone on the offensive. It might not have started a war, but the conflict is surely a sign of future battles.

No one is quite sure what the ultimate political effect of the leaks will be. What the episode has done, though, is show what happens when the authorities attempt to silence what many people perceive as a force for freedom of information. It has also shone a light on the evolving world of cyber-weapons (see “The cyber-weapon du jour”).

WikiLeaks was subjected to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which floods the target website with massive amounts of traffic in an effort to force it offline. The perpetrator of the attack is unknown, though an individual calling himself the Jester has claimed responsibility.

WikiLeaks took defensive action by moving to Amazon’s EC2 web hosting service, but the respite was short-lived as Amazon soon dumped the site, saying that WikiLeaks violated its terms of service. WikiLeaks responded via Twitter that: “If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books”.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder Julian Assange in custody, a certain section of the internet decided to fight back. Armed with freely available software, activists using the name “Anonymous” launched Operation Avenge Assange, targeting DDoS attacks of their own at the online services that had dropped WikiLeaks.

With WikiLeaks wounded and its founder in custody, a section of the internet decided to fight back

These efforts have so far had limited success, in part due to the nature of Anonymous. It is not a typical protest group with leaders or an organisational structure, but more of a label that activists apply to themselves. Anonymous has strong ties to 4chan.org, a notorious and anarchic message board responsible for many of the internet’s most popular memes, such as Rickrolling and LOLcats. The posts of unidentified 4chan users are listed as from “Anonymous”, leading to the idea of a collective anonymous campaigning force.

This loose group has previously taken action both on and offline against a number of targets, including Scientologists and the Recording Industry Association of America, but the defence of WikiLeaks is their most high-profile action yet. Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, said of the attacks: “We believe they are a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

The “public” have certainly played a key role. The kind of DDoS attacks perpetrated by Anonymous are usually performed by botnets – networks of “zombie” computers hijacked by malicious software and put to use without their owner’s knowledge. Although Anonymous activists have employed traditional botnets in their attacks, the focus now seems to be on individuals volunteering their computers to the cause.

“I think there are two groups of people involved,” says Tim Stevens of the Centre for Science and Security Studies at Kings College London. The first group are the core of Anonymous, who have the technological know-how to bring down websites. The second group are ordinary people angry at the treatment of WikiLeaks and wanting to offer support. “Anonymous are providing the tools for these armchair activists to get involved,” says Stevens.

The human element of Anonymous is both a strength and a weakness. Though the group’s freely available LOIC software makes it easy for anyone to sign up to the cause, a successful DDoS requires coordinated attacks. This is often done through chat channels, where conversations range from the technical – “I have Loic set to 91.121.92.84 and channel set to #loic, is that correct” – to the inane – “please send me some nutella ice cream”.

There are continual disagreements about who and when to attack, though new tactics also emerge from the chat, such as Leakspin, an effort to highlight some of the less-publicised leaks, and Leakflood, a kind of analogue DDoS that attempts to block corporate fax machines with copies of the cables.

These chat channels are also occasionally knocked offline by DDoS attacks. Some blame “the feds”, but could governments – US or otherwise – actually be involved? (see “Are states unleashing the dogs of cyberwar?”)

The US Department of Defense’s recently launched Cyber Command has a dual remit: to defend US interests online and conduct offensive operations. Cyber Command is meant to defend .mil and .gov web domains, but do commercial websites qualify too? “Is PayPal really that important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?” asks Stevens, who also teaches in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. “The US doesn’t have an answer to that particular conundrum, and they’re not alone – nobody does”.

Is PayPal so important to national security that the US military would have a role in defending it?

The difficulty comes in assessing whether DDoS attacks are an act of cyberwar, a cybercrime or more akin to online civil disobedience.

Individual LOIC users may not even be breaking the law. “All that DDoS does is send the normal kind of traffic that a website receives,” says Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. “That has always been the legal problem with regulating DDoS – each individual act is in fact authorised by the site, but receiving 10 million of them isn’t.”

It’s hard to say what will happen next. Anonymous might continue its attempt to cause as much disruption as possible, but it could just as easily become fragmented and give up. With no leaders or central structure, it is unlikely to be stopped by a few arrests or server takedowns but may equally find it difficult to coordinate well enough to have an impact.

More worrying is the prospect that more organised groups may follow Anonymous’s example. If that happens, who will be responsible for stopping them – and will they be able to?

Read more: Are states unleashing the dogs of cyber war?