Times of Change in the Marshall Islands

The room was small, well-lit, and government blue-gray except for the floor, which was

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

highly polished government-white, gold flecked linoleum tile. A compact blue-grey table, six chairs and an incongruous soda machine humming away in the corner were the only furnishings.  There were no windows. My elation and excitement at having been summoned to the DOE, Department of Energy, Headquarters in the Forrestal Building in Washington D.C. was eroding to a sense of foreboding. I was the DOE contractor’s Pacific Operations manager and was thrilled to have been invited to brief the Pacific’s Marshall Islands Program. It was 1300 hours and a game was afoot.

To this point, everything had gone like clockwork. The afternoon flight from Honolulu, Hawaii landed spot on time in California and the middle-of-the-night nonstop commuter flight to

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.' — Michael Gerrard

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.’ — Michael Gerrard

Washington’s Dulles International was smooth enough to grab a few hours of sleep. A quick trip to the Dulles women’s room gave me cover to ditch the palazzo pants and cotton shirt and don the uniform; a blue power suit with a light pink silk blouse, panty hose, and matching heels. I was almost ready for my big day at Forrestal. Grabbing the bag with my newly purchased makeup, I colored my eyes, powdered my face, and painted my lips just like the sales lady at Ala Moana taught me. Throwing my tan London Fog overcoat nonchalantly over my arm and grabbing my bag and briefcase, I headed for the taxi line in full uniform. The taxi took a while but I used the time wisely writing notes to myself about things I did not want to forget. Amongst the notes on the radiological concerns at Runit Dome, the state of the program, and other worries, I wrote a reminder not to wipe the grease off of my lips with the sleeve of my suit jacket. I never wore make-up and the lipstick was driving me crazy- the first omen of the day ahead. Continue reading

The Admiral Dismantles the DOE’s Nuclear Empire

Admiral James D. Watkins took the helm of power at the Department of Energy (DOE) on

Watkins is sworn in as Energy Secretary. From left to right: James Watkins, Sheila Watkins, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, President George H. W. Bush. (Wikipedia)

Watkins is sworn in as Energy Secretary. From left to right: James Watkins, Sheila Watkins, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, President George H. W. Bush. (Wikipedia)

March 1, 1989. Appointed by President H.W. Bush, Admiral Watkins replaced President Reagan’s appointee, John Harriman. It only took about three months for the 100,000 or so DOE government employees and the contractors to realize they were in a different world and it wasn’t going to be fun anymore.

A change in presidents means changes at the secretarial level in most major departments and almost always at the DOE. During the 1989 Admiral Watkins transition, all DOE and contractor management bureaucrats were as meerkats on a mound in Namibia, standing erect, necks extended and heads stretched for the least sound, smell or other clue as to direction. The adjective, hyper-vigilant, became an understatement.

Watching Washington, D.C. for a sign.

Watching Washington, D.C. for a sign.

The lesser workerkats kept on trucking because, in the seventeen installations, test sites and plants scattered over twelve states that was the DOE nuclear world, it always worked out. Workerkats believed that once the president and new members of congress figured out that President Carter’s renaming of the Energy Research and Development Administration to the Department of Energy did not really change anything, all would be well. Irrespective of the happenings back in Washington, D.C. schedules at the working level never changed; there was always going to be the next production run or the next test.  They could not have been more wrong.

By March 1, 1989, The DOE nuclear body politic was already dead, it was to be maintained on

Color photo of the exterior of the Chernobyl power plant shortly after the explosion, just outside the Russian town of Pripyat. How shortly is unknown.  (http://gallery.spaceman.ca/v/interests/chernobyl/)

Color photo of the exterior of the Chernobyl power plant shortly after the explosion, just outside the Russian town of Pripyat. How shortly is unknown. (http://gallery.spaceman.ca/v/interests/chernobyl/)

life support for dismantlement and shut-down prior to burial. In retrospect, the demise of the nuclear infrastructure seems clear but at the time it was anything but clear. Contractors knew that the DOE was pathologically afraid of failure and of accidents. The horror of Chernobyl’s 1986 accident was fresh in everyone’s mind. The EPA wanted behind the veil of secrecy. As it played out, the EPA interest was mostly to secure a seat at the power table rather than any real concern about the environment. The protestors were the same people who carried a variety of different signs but it was known that they were funded largely by the soviets and so were ignored. The Savannah River facility, which produced tritium and plutonium-239, for nuclear weapons production, experienced another failure in 1988 and three of its five reactors (K, L, and P) were shut down. K Reactor produced tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, used to increase effect of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile.  Since the K reactor went down in 1988 no new tritium has been produced. Tritium decays about 5 percent per year and must now be recovered and recycled from disassembled nuclear weapons. At the moment, the U.S. cannot maintain its nuclear weapons stockpile at the level called for in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) II but President Obama signed a New START treaty in February 2011 calling for further stockpile reductions so tritium recycling can continue to support the nuclear stockpile for a while longer.

Rocky Flats Plant

Rocky Flats Plant

The Admiral took the helm in the middle of all this chaos at the direct request of President H.W. Bush.  His marching orders were to clean up the DOE mess. During his confirmation hearings, the Admiral took DOE to task for a 35-year culture of bad management and out-of-date technology. In May 1989, Watkins’s second in command, Henson Moore, led a team of 70 FBI and EPA officers on a raid of the Rocky Flats facility on allegations of environmental crimes. Gross criminal malfeasance could never be proven but when the Rocky Flats incident was over, EPA had a full-time seat at the table and DOE would never enjoy the freedom from scrutiny they had previously enjoyed.

The distinct line drawn between military and civilian nuclear capability roles during the Truman administration would also be blurred and, in some cases, be erased. DOE’s government workforce went into g-fib. Government fibrillation (g-fib) is just like ventricular fibrillation (v-fib) except instead of muscle cells all vibrating incoherently it is government employees who sit at their desks and vibrate incoherently. When the government goes into g-fib, contractors just have to wait until it is all over. Someone will either get the paddles and shock them back into harmony or the body politic will disintegrate.

Government workers in G-fib

Government workers in G-fib

Continue reading