US secretly shipped plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada
By SCOTT SONNER
Thursday, January 31
RENO, Nev. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy revealed on Wednesday that it secretly shipped weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada months ago despite the state’s protests.
The Justice Department notified a federal judge in Reno that the government trucked in the radioactive material to store at the site 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Las Vegas before Nevada first asked a court to block the move in November.
Department lawyers said in a nine-page filing that the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina can be disclosed now because enough time has passed to protect national security. They didn’t specify when the one-half metric ton of plutonium was transferred.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he’s “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception.” He announced at a hastily called news conference in Carson City late Wednesday the state is now seeking another court order to block any more shipments of plutonium as it pursues “any and all legal remedies,” including contempt of court orders against the federal government.
The newly elected Democrat said he’s exploring options for the plutonium that already has arrived and is working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against the U.S. government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevadans.
Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen called the government’s move “deceitful and unethical.” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, also a Nevada Democrat, said she would demand department officials come to her office on Thursday to explain how they made the “reckless decision” in such “bad faith.”
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to use Nevada as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. Trump revived a decades-old proposal to store the nation’s nuclear waste at another site outside Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain, after the project was essentially halted under the Obama administration.
Justice Department lawyers said in new court filings Wednesday that no more shipments of weapons-grade plutonium are planned from South Carolina to Nevada. They said they believe Nevada’s lawsuit aimed at blocking the shipments is now moot.
But lawyers for Nevada said late Wednesday that their bid for an emergency injunction is more critical than ever after the Energy Department misled them about the shipments. They say the government has created the “palpable suspicion” that more shipments are coming to Nevada.
Sisolak described the months-long negotiations with Energy Department officials over the plutonium leading up to the new disclosure as a “total sham.”
“They lied to the state of Nevada, misled a federal court, and jeopardized the safety of Nevada’s families and environment,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du in Reno already is considering the state’s earlier request to block the Energy Department’s plans — announced in August — to ship a full metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina, where a federal judge previously ordered that the plutonium be removed from a Savannah River site by 2020.
Nevada argues the department has failed to adequately study the potential dangers of moving the material that still has the potential to be used to help develop nuclear weapons to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes, and that the state’s lands and groundwater may already be contaminated with radioactive materials.
In January, Du declined to immediately block the plutonium and indicated she wouldn’t rule until February. “I hope the government doesn’t ship plutonium pending a ruling by this court,” she said at the time.
Nevada and the Justice Department filed their latest briefs Wednesday at the request of the judge, who questioned whether the case should go forward. Justice Department lawyers said any additional plutonium removed from South Carolina would not go to Nevada.
Meanwhile, the states of Nevada and South Carolina are continuing to argue over where any legal challenge should be heard. Each said in briefs filed in Reno last week that theirs is the proper venue.
Nevada’s experts testified that the material likely would have to pass directly through Las Vegas on the way to the Nevada National Security Site. They fear an accident could permanently harm an area that is home to 2.2 million residents and hosts more than 40 million tourists a year.
The Energy Department’s plan approved last August called for the full ton of material to be stored at the Nevada nuclear security site and the government’s Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another unnamed facility.
Associated Press writer Ryan Tarinelli contributed to this report from Carson City.
DISARMAMENT, NOT LOW-YIELD NUKES
By Robert C. Koehler
Seven-plus decades ago, as humanity was snarled in a monstrous world war, its instinct to win — to dominate others above all else — achieved ultimate manifestation: the capacity to annihilate all life on Planet Earth.
Nuclear weapons are, you might say, the logical outcome of the 10,000-year journey of civilization: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that crawls upon the earth.’”
And so we have. And now we’re stuck with ourselves, as are all other forms of life.
When the issue is nukes, and what to do with them, I think the first mistake we make is to put them into too narrow of a context, within which they seem “necessary” (because others have them) and “usable” (just in case, you know, a really evil country or terrorist organization starts threatening us) and there’s no larger sense of how to be alive and what survival actually means.
In the us-vs.-them consciousness of nationalism — the cage in which most U.S. political and opinion leaders are trapped — there could hardly be a concept more worthy of eyeball-rolling contempt than disarmament.
And once nuclear disarmament is deemed out of the question, or “unrealistic,” the nuclear playing field remains wide open. Thus, among other fragments of incendiary news from the Trump administration, there’s this: “The U.S. Department of Energy has started making a new, low-yield nuclear weapon designed to counter Russia,” as NPR reported a few days ago. The weapon, known as the W76-2, would also, I fear, free the generals and war planners from the straight jacket known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, that cruel paradox of national defense: that possession of humanity’s most powerful weapon doesn’t mean you can use it. Nukes have no purpose other than to prevent their use by others who possess them.
Mutually Assured Destruction, a.k.a. mutual vulnerability, has been the ruling principle of a nation-divided planet for the entirety of my lifetime. It’s a sophisticated advancement beyond mere conquest, which was the ruling principle of empire. MAD represents an acknowledgement, of sorts, that our instinct to conquer has a limit. We still want to dominate each other, and playing conventional war, especially against impoverished and indigenous peoples, and exploiting their resources, is still permissible, but the development of nuclear weapons is humanity’s apex. We can have them but we can’t use them.
It’s a way of sort of getting along, and it’s a cornerstone of political centrism. It’s also a brilliant way to marginalize the proponents of disarmament and keep the cash flowing endlessly to the military industrialists of the world. Even though nukes must never be used, we have to keep upgrading our stash.
Robert Dodge of Physicians for Social Responsibility, for instance, writes of “the new arms race initiated by the United States plan to spend over $1 trillion in the next three decades to rebuild our entire nuclear arsenal. This plan has been duplicated by every other nuclear nation, not wanting to fall behind in the mythological idea of ‘nuclear deterrence.’”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put it a little more politely: “America can afford survival.”
Mattis (maybe I finally get his nickname, MAD Dog) is quoted by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and former CIA acting director Michael Morell in a recent Washington Post op-ed, in which they defend the development of low-yield nukes. In the process, they make this fascinating comment:
“As the government’s mind-set shifts from waging counter terrorism and counterinsurgency wars to a return of great power competition with Russia and China, nuclear weapons must continue to maintain their deterrent effect.”
So we’re done with the war on terror now? Does that mean we’ve bombed evil out of existence, or simply that it’s time to abandon our quagmires and move on — or rather, move back, to the good old days of the Cold War?
Russia, they write, “is intent on exploiting what it perceives as a U.S. nuclear capability gap on the lower levels of the escalator ladder. That is because a high-yield, long-range U.S. response to Russia’s first, limited use of a low-yield nuclear weapon against a military target is not credible. The Russians believe we are not likely to risk a global thermonuclear war in response to a ‘tactical’ nuclear attack by them.”
We’re good, they’re evil, but damn, we need to beef up “the lower levels of the escalator ladder” so that Russia knows we have the ability to smother them with usable nukes if they toss some at us.
This is how the Consensus talks and thinks and acts, ever on the hair-trigger, which happens to be lucrative in the extreme. Survival means a tough posture and endless military, including nuclear, investment. We’re ruled by our paranoia, by the worst of who we are: by our domination complex.
Two crucial matters play no part in this caged thinking.
One is the ultimate realism of nuclear weapons, as relayed to the world by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. I’ve quoted Setsuko Thurlow before. She was a 13-year old schoolgirl when Hiroshima was hit:
“They were naked or tattered, burned, blackened and swollen. Eyes were swollen shut and some had eyeballs hanging out of their sockets… . Strips of skin and flesh hung like ribbons from their bones. Often these ghostly figures would collapse in heaps never to rise again. With a few surviving classmates I joined the procession carefully stepping over the dead and dying.
“At the foot of the hill was an army training ground about the size of two football fields. Literally every bit of it was covered with injured and dying who were desperately begging, often in faint whispers, ‘Water, water, please give me water.’ But we had no containers to carry water. We went to a nearby stream to wash the blood and dirt from our bodies. Then we tore off parts of our clothes, soaked them with water and hurried back to hold them to the mouths of the dying who desperately sucked the moisture… .”
The second is the fact that, in 2017, most of the world — 122 nations — passed a resolution in the United Nations calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons: “…each State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices shall immediately remove them from operational status and destroy them, as soon as possible.”
For some reason, the debate on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons treaty was boycotted by all nine nuclear-armed nations, along with the armed West’s NATO allies. The vote was, of course, instantly forgotten so that disarmament, as a concept, need never be a part of the official discussion of how to achieve deterrence.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
Lack of Pipelines Raises Energy Costs in New England
By Erin Mundahl
It’s a cold week for the U.S. — so cold, in fact, weather maps have been forced to adopt new color schemes. Another polar vortex has swept through the country, bringing winter storms and frigid temperatures to people living across the Midwest and New England. Mother Nature’s brutal blast is both a reminder of the need for reliable energy infrastructure and a warning that renewable generation methods have limited effectiveness in the dead of winter.
Government policies promoting green energy and discouraging — or even forbidding — the construction of natural gas pipelines and generators have left many New England states under-prepared for periods of sustained cold.
Last year, ISO-New England, the independent non-profit that manages the six state’s power grid, released a sobering report on the future of the grid. The report analyzed different scenarios of how fuel supply and demand might play out in the winter of 2024-2025, finding that “all but the most optimistic case resulted in load shedding, also known as rolling blackouts or controlled outages.”
In response to both the report and the experience of last year’s sustained cold snap, ISO-New England began working to change its operating procedures to better ensure a secure fuel supply. Using a system called Pay for Performance, generators are contractually obligated to provide a certain amount of energy. If they are unable to do so, the generator pays a fine which goes to whichever other generator picked up the slack for the coverage gap.
New England hasn’t seen blackouts in this cold snap, but strains are showing. The lack of pipeline infrastructure has a direct effect on the energy options available to customers. On January 18, ConEdison, a New York utility company, announced a moratorium on new natural gas customers in the Hudson River Valley, saying that “new demand for gas is reaching the limits of the current supplies to our service area.” This means that residents and businesses in New York City, Long Island, and Yonkers will face more limited energy options.
To prepare for winter demand, the region is bringing in foreign natural gas at a rate not seen in other parts of the country. Although four out of eleven American LNG terminals had taken shipments of foreign LNG through October, the import terminal in Everett, Mass. alone accounted for 84 percent of the reported volume, some 48 billion cubic feet.
January temperatures could push those numbers even higher. Wind and solar combined only comprise less than 5 percent of the energy mix. Short winter days push these numbers even lower, making renewables a poor choice for emergency generation to meet demand spikes.
Limitations in energy supply are particularly serious during midwinter cold snaps, since natural gas is used to both heat homes and generate power. A new digital dashboard launched by the Energy Information Association (EIA) shows that the region is bringing in 3.38 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas. Natural gas consumption is rising in New England, but the transition isn’t complete.
In New York, where half of the state’s generating capacity runs on natural gas, with 70 percent of these facilities capable of switching over to burn oil. If temperatures remain low enough, long enough, utilities would be forced to switch back to burning the dirtier fuel. One of the main limitations preventing an overall switch to natural gas is concern about fuel supply. Data for this week shows at least four pipelines running at near capacity, leaving little room to increase shipments.
Winter shows the need for fuel security and a mixture of generation sources. Unfortunately for New England residents, environmentalist groups continue to resist not only pipeline construction, but even the consideration of fuel security.
“ISO has presented the region’s choice in a biased way, with clean energy discounted as speculative or far off and paths relying on pipelines or bailouts or polluting energy as more reliable or certain.” said an Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) press release last spring, when ISO New England last pushed for new construction.
A lack of infrastructure is pushing New England utilities to rely on surge pricing and other emergency measure to ensure enough power at critical times. It’s just another way in which the scarcity of pipelines is raising consumer prices.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Erin Mundahl is a reporter with InsideSources.com.
ICE force-feeding detainees on hunger strike
By GARANCE BURKE AND MARTHA MENDOZA
Thursday, January 31
Federal immigration officials are force-feeding six immigrants through plastic nasal tubes during a hunger strike that’s gone on for a month inside a Texas detention facility, The Associated Press has learned.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 11 detainees at the El Paso Processing Center have been refusing food, some for more than 30 days. Detainees who reached the AP, along with a relative and an attorney representing hunger strikers, said nearly 30 detainees from India and Cuba have been refusing to eat, and some are now so weak they cannot stand up or talk.
Another four detainees are on hunger strikes in the agency’s Miami, Phoenix, San Diego and San Francisco areas of responsibility, said ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa on Wednesday.
The men say they stopped eating to protest verbal abuse and threats of deportation from guards. They are also upset about lengthy lock ups while awaiting legal proceedings.
In mid-January, two weeks after they stopped eating, a federal judge authorized force-feeding of some El Paso detainees, Zamarripa said. She did not immediately address the detainees’ allegations of abuse but did say the El Paso Processing Center would follow the federal standards for care.
ICE officials say they closely monitor the food and water intake of detainees identified as being on a hunger strike to protect their health and safety.
The men with nasal tubes are having persistent nose bleeds, and are vomiting several times a day, said Amrit Singh, whose two nephews from the Indian state of Punjab have been on hunger strike for about a month.
“They are not well. Their bodies are really weak, they can’t talk and they have been hospitalized, back and forth,” said Singh, from California. “They want to know why they are still in the jail and want to get their rights and wake up the government immigration system.”
Singh’s nephews are both seeking asylum. Court records show they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in September after illegally walking across the border near El Paso.
There have been high-profile hunger strikes around the country at immigration detention centers in the past, and non-consensual feeding and hydration has been authorized by judges in court orders. Media reports and government statements don’t indicate immigration detainees actually underwent involuntary feeding in recent years, opting to end their hunger strikes when faced with nasal intubation. ICE did not immediately respond to queries about how often they are force-feeding detainees.
To force-feed someone, medical experts typically wind a tube tightly around their finger to make it bend easily, and put lubricant on the tip, before shoving it into a patient’s nose. The patient has to swallow sips of water while the tube is pushed down their throat. It can be very painful.
The El Paso detention facility, located on a busy street near the airport, is highly guarded and surrounded by chain-link fence.
Ruby Kaur, a Michigan-based attorney representing one of the hunger strikers, said her client had been force-fed and put on an IV after more than three weeks without eating or drinking water.
“They go on hunger strike, and they are put into solitary confinement and then the ICE officers kind of psychologically torture them, telling the asylum seekers they will send them back to Punjab,” Kaur said.
Eiorjys Rodriguez Calderin, who on a call from the facility described himself as a Cuban dissident, said conditions in Cuba forced him and other detainees to seek safety in the U.S., and they risk persecution if they are deported.
“They are restraining people and forcing them to get tubes put in their noses,” said Rodriguez, adding that he had passed his “credible fear” interview and sought to be released on parole. “They put people in solitary, as punishment.”
Those “credible fear” interviews are conducted by immigration authorities as an initial screening for asylum requests.
ICE classifies a detainee as a hunger striker after they refuse nine consecutive meals. Federal courts have not conclusively decided whether a judge must issue an order before ICE force-feeds an immigration detainee, so rules vary by district and type of court, and sometimes orders are filed secretly.
In Tacoma, Washington, where immigration detainees have held high-profile hunger strikes in recent years, courts have ordered force-feeding at least six times, according to court records. In July 2017, a federal judge refused to allow ICE to restrain and force-feed a hunger striking Iraqi detainee who wanted to be housed with fellow Iraqi Chaldean Christians detained Arizona facility.
Since May 2015, volunteers for the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants have documented 1,396 people on hunger strike in 18 immigration detention facilities.
“By starving themselves, these men are trying to make public the very suffering that ICE is trying keep hidden from taxpayers,” said Christina Fialho, director of the group.
While court orders allowing force-feeding have been issued in cases involving inmates, Fialho couldn’t recall a situation when involuntary feeding actually occurred in immigration detention facilities because the inmates opted to eat.
The force-feeding of detainees through nasal tubes at Guantanamo Bay garnered international blowback. Hunger strikes began shortly after the military prison opened in 2002, with force-feeding starting in early 2006 following mass refusals to eat.
After four weeks without eating, the body’s metabolic systems start to break down, and hunger strikers can risk permanent damage, including cognitive impairment, said Dr. Marc Stern, a correctional physician at the University of Washington in Seattle who has previously consulted with the Department of Homeland Security.
“You can become demented and lose coordination, and some of it is reversible, some of it isn’t,” Stern said. “The dangers are not just metabolic. If you are very weak, you could very simply get up to do something and fall and crack your skull.”
Force-feeding raises ethics issues for medical professionals who work inside ICE facilities.
The American Medical Association has expressed its concerns about physicians participating in the force-feeding of hunger strikers on multiple occasions, and its own principles of medical ethics state “a patient who has decision-making capacity may accept or refuse any recommended medical intervention.”
The association also endorses the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo, which states that when prisoners refuse food and physicians believe they are capable of “rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a voluntary refusal of nourishment, he or she shall not be fed artificially.”