Reading Room

Friday, November 12, 2004  

By: Dolores Fox Ciardelli
Published In: Pleasanton Weekly - Online Edition

When Marylia Kelley moved to Livermore with her 8-year-old son in 1976, she became aware of a big secret in town. No one would talk about the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory or its work developing nuclear weapons.

"Livermore was in many respects a great place to raise a child, with parks and soccer programs," recalled Kelley, 52, founder of Tri-Valley CAREs. She was then attending the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

"But no one talked about the Lab. As a new person, and naturally curious, I asked a lot of questions, and people generally changed the subject. To say 'nuclear weapon' at a party was a social faux pas."

Eventually Kelley met other residents, including Lab employees, who wanted to discuss the nuclear weapons buildup. During the Cold War, arsenals were developed both in the United States and the Soviet Union apparently with little concern about impacts on the environment.

"We found that each of us had questions about the environmental impact from what was going on at the Lab and we began to investigate," said Kelley. "We found groundwater that was contaminated, drums of toxic waste sitting on asphalt and leaking into the environment."

In the late 1970s and early '80s the group held a series of demonstrations at the Lab against nuclear proliferation and for global nuclear disarmament that drew as many as 5,000 participants, Kelley said.

"The company line was we were people from out of town, that everyone from Livermore and the Tri-Valley was in lockstep," recalled Kelley. When the group formed in 1983, members chose its name - Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment - to show they were local.

"We monitor environmental activities and oppose projects that pollute the environment," Kelley said. "We do a lot of very detailed research. We take science and translate it into English to involve members of the public."

The Freedom of Information Act, which dates from 1966, was strengthened in the mid-1970s in the post-Watergate era. This helped Tri-Valley CAREs with its research, as did the California Public Records Act.

"We used FOIA to get into the state records and found records of toxic and radioactive pollution," said Kelley. They found that the Department of Energy put out a weekly summary of accidents. "It's telling that we're talking about a 'weekly' summary," said Kelley. "They were reports about accidents, spills, leaks and releases. Clearly it's the public's right to know."

"I would argue that public access to information increases safety and security," she added. "There have been instances where the public has found information about potential hazards and has advocated for changes that made it safer."

Congress established the Superfund Program in 1980 to clean up the most contaminated sites in the country. "Livermore is famous for having two sites on the Superfund list," said Kelley, the Lab and Site 300, which covers 11 square miles in the Altamont Hills between Livermore and Tracy. It was used by the Lab for testing high explosives.

The Lab opened in 1952 to operate as a second National Laboratory to develop nuclear weapons, in addition to Los Alamos, N.M., which had developed the atomic bomb. Sandia Lab in Albuquerque had created the missiles to deliver the bombs, and it opened a facility in Livermore in 1956.

The 629-acre Livermore Naval Air Station was chosen for a second Lab for its proximity to the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory and for its rural location. "Much of the population was conservative ranchers," said Kelley, "not likely to question anything done in the name of security."

Now the Lab employs 8,800 people and the 50-mile radius around it is home to nearly 7 million people; homes and apartments have been built right up to the fence line of the Lab. Its mission, supported by an annual $1.6 billion budget, is to maintain the nation's nuclear weapons plus continue with research and development.

"We looked carefully into the question of whether there is a place for the Lab in Livermore," Kelley recalled. She noted that independent labs have to show results, while university labs are more theoretical and academic. Only government labs can look at societal issues such as alternative non-polluting energy, she said.

"There is a place for a National Laboratory in Livermore devoted to civilian science," she said. "That would be a win-win situation, for the workers, the Lab, the community, the nation and the world."

"There are programs at Livermore Lab we support," she added. "Unfortunately they add up to less than 20 percent of the Lab's budget."

Tri-Valley CAREs started as an all-volunteer effort but now has an annual budget of $250,000, which comes from grants from public interest foundations and the U.S. government, as well as individual donations. Kelley is fulltime executive director, and the group also has a fulltime staff attorney and program director. It employs part-time an outreach director, community organizer and office manager.

Attorney Loulena Miles, 27, is working at Tri-Valley CAREs on a two-year fellowship paid by New Voices. She became an activist while a teen living in Pittsburg, where contaminant releases from Tosco Refining Co. resulted in friends of hers being hospitalized.

Miles was the youngest member of an advisory committee focusing on the Superfund cleanup at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, and she met Kelley during a DOE hearing about transporting spent nuclear fuel rods.

"Tri-Valley CAREs was there to present the risks associated with the project and the deficiencies of the study," Miles recalled. "Though I was only in high school at the time, it made me realize how the public can grab levers to create change."

After receiving a degree from UC Santa Cruz in environmental studies in 1999, she received the Herbert Scoville Peace Fellowship and moved to Washington, D.C. She worked closely with Tri-Valley CAREs during that time because it is one of 33 members of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a collective of grassroots groups that have sprung up near nuclear weapons complexes.

Miles earned her law degree from Golden Gate University in 2003. "I figured law school would be a great tool," she said, and was glad to come to work at Tri-Valley CAREs. "I get to do what I believe in, and the organization's values reflect my own."

She also enjoys the travel. Earlier this year, she attended the India for World Social Forum outside Bombay, and she is going to Geneva next month for the United Nations Biological Weapons Convention.

One of her projects is the Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) laboratory being built at the Lab. "We feel this biological research should take place in a civilian lab," said Miles. "We are signatories of the Biological Weapons Convention, and it is important for other countries to be able to verify what happens." Tri-Valley CAREs wanted to have an environmental statement and public hearings before the BSL-3 laboratory is built.

But the centerpiece of Miles' work is the Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement on operations at the Lab, known as SWEIS, which comes out every 10 years to look at plans for the next decade. It is a 2,500-page document that she and other environmental experts have reviewed.

"I was pretty shocked when I found out they were going to be doubling the amount of plutonium," said Miles. "In addition to analyzing the SWEIS process, I want to bring the activities of the U.S. government into compliance with its treaty obligations and domestic environmental laws."

In the spring, Tri-Valley CAREs organized a series of public hearings on DOE plans to increase the nuclear materials and weapons activities at Livermore Lab. Currently the Lab is authorized to store 1,540 pounds of plutonium on site. "That is roughly enough for 150 nuclear bombs," Kelley explained. The new plan would more than double the plutonium storage limit at the Lab to 3,300 pounds plus increase 10-fold the amount of radioactive tritium that could be used at any one time, from the current limit of 3.5 grams to 30 grams.

The meetings drew about 500 people and resulted in nearly 3,000 sending written comments to the DOE. "We're hoping they'll take people's comments seriously," said Kelley. "The decision is due in January."

The group holds a vigil every year on the anniversary of the first atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Last week it had a candlelight vigil for the more than one thousand American troops killed in Iraq.

In August, with the help of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, the Resource Center was opened for those who experience health problems possibly from on-the-job exposures. More than 900 claims have been filed in the last two years due to illnesses from work at Livermore Lab, said Kelley. The other DOE sites already had such centers.

"Tri-Valley CARES was one of the original advocates for sick workers," Kelly said. "We found that most employees were not adequately informed of their rights."

Kelley said concern for the environment changes with each administration although the work of Tri-Valley CAREs remains the same. President Carter put solar panels on the White House, but President Reagan took them down, she said. In the mid-'90s, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary introduced an openness initiative and documents were readily available.

"The DOE went through a self-examination," said Kelley, making available a mountain of documents, for instance on radiation experiments, that were embarrassing but not a matter of national security.

But the current administration has not kept up this policy. "Even before Sept. 11, that door was closing," said Kelley. "(Attorney General John) Ashcroft's administration used that as an excuse to slam the door shut."

"In the wake of the Bush victory, we are ramping up efforts to ensure that FOIA remains open and viable," she added.

Tri-Valley CAREs is also working to stop the development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), which would be designed to destroy underground targets.

Kelley pointed out that in the first presidential debate, both Sen. Kerry and President Bush voiced their concerns about nuclear proliferation. "Kerry said his top priority if elected would be to stop development of the RNEP," she said. "Bush said he is concerned about the security of nuclear matter in other countries."

In the late 1990s Tri-Valley CAREs moved to an old Victorian off First Street. "One reason we moved downtown is so the community would have better access," said Kelley. "We're increasingly used as a resource by reporters from all over the world and students doing graduate projects." Lab employees also use their files, she added.

Martha Priebat, one of the many Pleasanton members, is currently president. She met Kelley in the early '80s when they commuted together to JFK University in Orinda. Priebat was earning her masters in clinical psychology, making a career change after having been a chemist at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque.

"I went into the human services field and became convinced it was very important to do something to protect the environment," said Priebat. "As a chemist I knew we were frequently careless without thought to the pollution of the environment, and I knew that was no longer a good way to live."

Priebat is on the task force studying plutonium in the gardens in Livermore. "I think of what kind of an environment I am leaving to my children and seven grandchildren," she said. "Also I think as I look at the world, things are not going very well. We have to find a way to work together instead of beating each other bloody."

"The thing I really like about the organization is that everybody's contribution is respected," she added. "Mine, with chemistry or psychology, is no more important than the person's that has little training but really wants to help." The group has 4,500 official members, including some Lab employees.

"Our organization has a deep science base, and we've forged mutually respective relationships with a lot of technical staff," said Kelley. "Our methods include public education, reports, fact sheets, community organizing, research techniques and, where appropriate, litigation."

"Lab management is not open to the idea of outside scrutiny but we have a generally good relationship with the workaday scientists," she added. "We have a more nuanced relationship with management."

"There is really no official relationship," said Lynda Seaver, Media and Communications Manager at the Lab. "They are a watchdog group and have their right to exist, just like we have our right to exist."

She said that although Livermore Lab received a little over $3 million to do studies on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, it is still in the concept stage.

She also said the courts found in the DOE's favor to allow the BSL-3 at Livermore Lab and that construction is under way. Although Tri-Valley CAREs is concerned that work will involve live anthrax, plague and other pathogens, Seaver noted that BSL-3 will study the DNA fingerprints of bacteria so if there is ever a release into the air, it can be identified immediately.

"It meets safety parameters," said Seaver, "and will be highly protected."

It has been gratifying for Tri-Valley CARES members to find, even in 1983 when they were meeting in members' homes, that there were similar groups at all the DOE sites, in fact all around the world. With the end of the Cold War, they found that the Soviet labs also each had a concerned citizens group.

"We were able to make common cause with the Russian citizens," said Kelley. "They were concerned with cleanup."

Every spring a contingent travels to Washington, D.C., to participate in "Speaking Truth to Power." Its activists meet with DOE and Environmental Protection Agency officials as well as senators and representatives.

"We want to give them a clear picture of what goes on at the Lab and in the community around the Lab," said Kelley. "Last spring we had a contingent of 11, including two high school students. We conducted 80 meetings over a four-day period."

"It's still a community-based organization," said Kelley. "We have dozens of volunteers who contribute their energy and efforts. Our goal is converting the Lab to a green Lab."

"But," she added, "one of our greatest achievements was to make it OK to talk about the Lab in this community."

Tri-Valley CAREs

? Opposes further development of nuclear weapons ? Promotes non-proliferation locally and globally ? Works to clean up the Labs and reduce environmental hazards ? Wants democratic decision-making in nuclear weapons policies ? Promotes activities for peace, social justice and caring for the environment

Making a difference

On its 20-year anniversary in 2003, Tri-Valley CAREs listed these among its achievements: ? Stopped Livermore Lab from building massive toxic and radioactive waste incinerator. ? Won improvements in Lab's program to clean up soil and groundwater contaminated by 50 years of nuclear weapons research and development, at main site and Site 300. ? Alerted community to elevated levels of plutonium in three Livermore parks. ? Compelled declassification of plans to use plutonium, highly enriched uranium and large quantities of lithium hydride in experiments at the National Ignition Facility mega-laser. (NIF, a 15-year $3.5 billion project, will use the world's largest laser to compress and heat BB-sized capsules of fusion fuel to thermonuclear ignition, creating temperatures and pressures equaling that of the sun.) ? Revealed plans to use NIF for nuclear weapons design activities, contrary to U.S. treaty obligations. ? From 1983-03, Tri-Valley CAREs sued the government 11 times and never lost. ? Released in-depth reports on Bush Administration's Nuclear Posture Review, the NIF, the ever-increasing DOE nuclear weapons budget and other topics. ? Won the right for a display at the Lab's visitor's center, which offers help to workers who may be experiencing work-related health problems.

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