FROM WHERE I STAND: Notes from the desk of peace activist Polly Mann (b. Nov.19,1919)

Worldwide hunger

It’s happening right now—day after day—hunger is threatening the lives of 20 million people according to the U.N. Of course they’re not Americans. We wouldn’t stand for it. It’s one thing that could produce a drastic decline in the military budget if we voters forced officeholders to legislate for food for the hungry instead of weapons. But the people of South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeast Nigeria have no one to turn to. Both Lutheran and Catholic  aid groups are providing food to starving people from all sides of the civil war going on there, but the need exceeds the quantity. I don’t know why but the Christmas decorations don’t seem quite as bright as they did last year …

White House not concerned with cost of climate change

A recent report of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) urges the Trump Administration to take very seriously climate change predictions. One estimate projects that rising temperatures could cause losses in labor productivity as much as $150 billion by 2099, while changes in some crop yields could cost as much as $53 billion. The projected fiscal burden, however, remains less than 1% of the current $3.8 trillion federal budget. The report (two years in the making) comes as the Senate prepares to vote on a $30.5 billion relief package for disasters such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires. The White House Office on Budget and Management has calculated that extreme weather over the past decade cost the government $350 billion. The GAO study drew on interviews with 20 scientists and economic experts and 30 studies.

Trevor Houser, a representative of the American Climate Prospectus, who did the study, said the accounting was on the conservative side. “ … the analysis, for example, looked only at how changes in temperature and precipitation would affect four commodity crops, it did not study the fiscal fallout of events like wildfires and did not take into account the costs of infectious diseases or deaths linked to climate change.” Robert N.Stavins, an economist at Harvard University, said he doubted the study would convince either Republicans in Congress or the White House to act.

The promise of greatness—the American F-35 airplane

It is a magnificent but somewhat ugly flying machine called the “Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the Joint Strike Fighter,” a U.S.-built “fifth generation” stealth jet with super-advanced avionics, which has been under development for over 20 years at a cost of many billions of dollars. Over the lifetime of the project the U.S. is expected to spend $1.5 trillion on building and maintaining 2,500 planes for its own use, enough to forgive the entire nation’s student debts, or pay for the health care of every low-income American for the next three years, or build a border wall that encircles the earth four times.

The aim of the program, launched in the mid-1990s, was to develop an aircraft that could be adapted for use by three separate branches of the military—the Air Force, the Navy and Marines. It would be undetectable by radar, be able to bomb targets on the ground 500 miles away from the base, operate from the deck of a warship, and hover and land like a helicopter. The design of the F-35 made possible all those things.

The F-35 program involves more than 1,200 suppliers in 45 U.S. states, accounting for 40,000 jobs in Texas alone. A large number of allied nations have been involved in its development and production. The United Kingdom was a major partner and committed to buying 138 planes; Australia was committed to buying 72 planes. F-35 customers today include Turkey, Italy, Canada, Norway, Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands and Denmark. Parts are built and assembled in various nations. There are electronic modules from Billingstad in the UK; hydraulics from Melbourne, Australia; circuit boards from Ankara, Turkey; manifolds from Adelaide, Australia; wing parts from Turin, Italy, and acuators from New York.

Pilots report that the F-35 performs very creditably. At the annual  Red Flag, war games exercise, it achieved a kill ratio of 20:1 which means that for every 20 enemy aircraft downed, only one F-35 was lost. According to a pilot from the Norwegian Air Force  it had excellent braking performance, good agility in high angles of attack, and was very difficult for the defender to escape.

Pilots were especially impressed with the helmet provided for use with each plane. At a cost of $400,000, each was custom-fitted for the pilot. It beams in the pictures gathered by six infra-red cameras mounted on the outside of the airframe. Just by turning his head, the wearer could see what’s behind him and even below the aircraft’s floor. From his point of view he was effectively flying an invisible plane. In front of him was a series of further touchscreen displays, which could be refigured with a swipe of the glove to show any amount of radar and targeting information he might need. The active radar array would scan a high-resolution image of the area of interest. Then, all the pilot needed to do was touch a point on the map and the selected weapon would take it out in seconds.

Who should take care of the radioactive leaks in Washington State?

A while back in the Star Tribune was a tiny article about nuclear waste that caught my eye. I consulted my computer and the story it gave me was important. A tunnel containing radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex collapsed at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State where dozens of tanks are leaking highly radioactive materials.

When the U.S. government built nuclear weapons, little thought was given to the permanent disposal of the resulting waste. Safely removing it is proving dangerous and complex. Much needed technology does not exist and the cleanup has been plagued with political and technical setbacks. The government spends about $6 billion annually managing waste left from nuclear weapons’ production. “The temporary solutions used for decades to contain radioactive waste at Hanford have limited lifespans,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a frequent critic. “The longer it takes to clean up Hanford, the higher the risk will be to workers, the public and the environment.” U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry says the nation can no longer delay fixing the problem because lives are at stake. During a recent tour of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Perry said the federal government has failed to remove the waste in a timely manner and he pledged progress.

A recently approved federal budget includes $2.3 billion for the ongoing Hanford cleanup. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee said the state will issue an order ensuring that the federal government investigates the cause of the tunnel collapse. It will also require the Energy Department to assess any risk of failures in other tunnels and take precautions to safely store waste in the tunnels until a decision is made about permanent disposal.
Officials detected no radiation and no injuries in the collapse, though thousands of workers were forced to take shelter for several hours. Cause of the collapse was not immediately known. A gravel road was built to the collapse site, and workers wearing protective suits and breathing masks planned to fill the hole with 50 truckloads of dirt according to the Energy Department. The 360-foot rail tunnel was built in 1956 out of timber, concrete and steel, topped by 8 feet of dirt. Radioactive materials were brought into the tunnel by railcars. The tunnel was sealed in 1965 with eight loaded flatbed cars inside.

A Washington state legislator, Gerry Pollet, said the collapse of the waste storage tunnel at Hanford had been feared for years. “This disaster was predicted and shows the federal Energy Department’s utter recklessness for decades of delay in the Hanford cleanup,” he said, noting the Energy Department had permission to delay removing waste from the tunnels until 2042 and adding that levels of the waste in the collapsed tunnel would be lethal within an hour, Pollet said.

Hanford, a 500-square-mile expanse in remote interior Washington about 200 miles from Seattle, was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Most of the plutonium for the nuclear weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, originated there. It now contains the nation’s greatest volume of radioactive waste left over from the production of weapons plutonium. The cleanup so far has cost $19 billion and is not expected to be finished until 2060, at an additional cost of $100 billion. The most dangerous waste at Hanford is 56 million gallons of waste stored in 177 underground tanks, some of which have leaked.

Plans to embed the toxic stew in glass logs for burial have floundered. Construction of a $17-billion factory has been halted because of design and safety issues. The plan is to bury the glass logs at a nuclear waste dump carved inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, a project that has been on the drawing board for three decades but has run into resistance from Nevada lawmakers. The U.S. president  has proposed $120 million to restart the licensing process for the needed action at the dump. Let’s hope the Trump takes care of the dump!

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