The Las Vegas Hearings on Nuclear Weapons
Why the DOE is holding hearings
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE). The DOE is holding 20 hearings across the country on Complex Transformation, their plan to revamp the US nuclear complex and build a new generation of nuclear weapons. The hearings are part of a process mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), which
requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. To meet this requirement, federal agencies prepare a detailed statement known as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
This is the public’s chance to point out ways they are affected that the Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) may not have taken into account. On March 6th, I attended the Las Vegas hearings representing Peace Action West. You can see all the photos from the hearings here. With all the long acronyms and legal language in the proposal, the hearings were a wonderful way for me to put a human face on who is affected by nuclear weapons. We can use the hearings as a forum for the public to express a desire for a change in nuclear policy.
What happens at the hearings
I arrived for the morning session at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas and made sure to sign up right away to make a comment. The first hour of the hearing was an open house. The DOE placed posters and flyers around the room with information about Complex Transformation. DOE officials would approach people to see if they had questions about the proposal. After the first hour, they put on a video recorded by Robert Smolen, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs at NNSA. In the video, Smolen spent 8 minutes describing why NNSA thought Complex Transformation was necessary. Next to speak was Theodore Wyka, Complex Transformation SPEIS Document Manager, who receives all of our comments. He gave a 20-minute power point presentation as he summarized Complex Transformation and reiterated why they believe it is necessary. Finally, people were invited by a neutral facilitator to come and make their comments.
I spent much of the day connecting with people from local groups in Nevada who attended the hearings. I met three Peace Action West members who attended the evening hearing. I was introduced to people from the Nevada Desert Experience, the religious and interfaith community, CODEPINK, the Shundahai Network, and the Western Shoshone nation. In between the hearings, I visited the Nevada Desert Experience office in Las Vegas.
John Amidon, Interim Coordinator of Nevada Desert Experience, and I both spoke with a Channel 3 reporter in the hopes of getting media coverage on the issue. Unfortunately, the media did not end up covering the hearings. A documentary film crew interested in nuclear issues was also present taking footage during the hearings.
What the public is saying about Complex Transformation
One of the things I most enjoyed was hearing why people are against nuclear weapons during the comment period. About 10 people attended the morning session and gave their comments in opposition. The evening session was larger. Everyone made wonderful points. Here are some highlights from the morning session:
Ian Zabarte, Secretary of State for the Western Shoshone government, spoke on the effects of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons testing on the indigenous tribes. He cited the Ruby Valley (NV) Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which was signed and ratified by the US government in 1863. This treaty recognizes Western Shoshone sovereign territory. Nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site actually takes place on the Western Shoshone homeland, called Newe Sogobia. The tribe does not accept declarations that the treaty is void through ‘gradual encroachment’ on their land and feels that nuclear testing is trespassing on their land. He talked about how the Western Shoshone are at higher risk of cancer and exposure due to their unique lifestyle. The houses they build using traditional methods may have radioactive soil and the types of wood they use for fires also carries increased risks.
A priest talked about the morality of nuclear weapons and led us all in singing “We Shall Overcome” during his comment.
A young mother with children who works as a businesswoman gave a terrific comment. She spoke about how dependent the Las Vegas economy is on tourism and a new report on how the Las Vegas economy would be hurt by natural disasters. She went on to say that an accident at the Nevada Test Site would not only hurt the economy in the short term, but also deter tourists from coming to vacation in Nevada in the future. She ended by citing her concern for her children growing up with the threat of nuclear weapons.
John Amidon from the interfaith group Nevada Desert Experience spoke on the need to spend the estimated cost of Complex Transformation, $150 billion, on healthcare, public education, or nuclear cleanup instead. He pointed out that Complex Transformation would continue producing radioactive waste, which would most likely be stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The health issues from nuclear waste as well as potential nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site would affect more than just Nevadans. Amidon reminded us that wind carried radiation from nuclear testing in Nevada all the way to New York, where radioactive rain fell and caused thyroid cancer. He also talked about the importance of the US adhering to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In my comment, I talked about the need for a new nuclear policy before investing $150 billion on new nuclear weapons and the nuclear complex. I mentioned that the current plutonium cores or pits of nuclear bombs have an estimated 85-100 year lifespan so there is no need and no rush to build new plutonium pits under the guise of replacements. Should new warheads be designed and built with new pits, Las Vegas area residents may once again be in danger of resumed nuclear testing. Pursuing the Reliable Replacement Warhead and Complex Transformation would have a disastrous impact on negotiations with Iran and North Korea to not develop nuclear weapons. Real safety and security will come when no one has nuclear weapons.
What the DOE is saying about Complex Transformation
Several points caught my attention as I listened to the presentations and talked with DOE officials. The themes that were repeated over and over by NNSA officials were security, safety, reducing costs, and maintaining the capability and infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons in an imperfect, dangerous, and changing world.
Wyka made it a point during his presentation to emphasize that the NNSA cannot “pick and choose” what policies to carry out and that it is up to Congress and the president to set policy. NNSA sees itself acting within the parameters of its mission statement, which specifically states that it produces nuclear weapons, and Bush’s aggressive 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. He did not feel that the US was violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty by pursuing Complex Transformation and the Reliable Replacement Warhead because the treaty has no specific end date for achieving disarmament.
While he agreed that everyone would like to live in a nuclear free world, he felt that world was far off. In the meantime, the NNSA must carry out its mission and retain the ability to produce nuclear weapons just in case the US needs them. For him and the NNSA, the question is how many nuclear weapons between one and the number we have now is the correct stockpile size. Zero is not an option. When I spoke to Wyka, he mentioned that they see the way Congress votes on legislation as a reflection of how the public feels about nuclear weapons. This view of Congress’ actions makes it that much more important that all of us urge Congress to oppose funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead and Complex Transformation throughout the year.
I spoke with Wyka about other examples of the public’s approval of nuclear disarmament, such as a September 2007 World Opinion Poll showing 73 percent of Americans favor nuclear disarmament. Wyka himself estimates that 40,000 comments have already been received this year just halfway through the comment period compared with 33,000 total from the last round of hearings. Wyka said most of these comments are in opposition to Complex Transformation.
The section of the SPEIS on potential environmental impacts on Las Vegas states that there is a relatively low population density in the 50-mile radius around the Nevada Test Site, making it the “least impacted” by nuclear accidents. The tone of the presentation makes it sound as if this is good news. Las Vegas alone has a population of about a half a million people. It may be true that Las Vegas has a smaller population density compared with the other 7 sites, but that does not justify being willing to expose half a million people to nuclear accidents.
In my comment, I mentioned that Complex Transformation will cost $150 billion of taxpayer money. Afterwards, a DOE official approached me to try to convince me that the figure was wrong. He claimed that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) used a strange estimate, and that in any case, the $150 billion over 25 years was not an extra request in addition to what taxpayers were already paying. I was assured that Complex Transformation would be achieved within a flat budget. I responded that even $1 billion or $1 would be too much. The economic cost is a concern, but it is not just about the dollar amount. The larger question is whether or not we should choose to spend the on nuclear weapons in the first place.
Let’s not let the DOE have the last word. Submit your comments online by clicking here.