by Jackie Cabasso
On August 27, the Oakland Police Department issued a community notice to make the public and media aware of an aerial survey that would be taking place over portions of San Francisco, Pacifica and Oakland through September 1, ostensibly to measure “naturally-occurring background radiation.” According to the notice, the flyovers are part of a joint research project between the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The only explanation offered: “The background data will be used by DNDO and NNSA to improve aerial radiation measurement capabilities used by local, state and federal entities.” The Oakland Police notice refers its readers to the DNDO and NNSA Public Affairs offices for additional information.
On August 30, annoyed by the low-flying helicopter buzzing around our office in downtown Oakland, I followed the Oakland Police Department’s advice and wrote to DNDO and NNSA. After pointing out the fallacious characterization of current radiation levels being “naturally-occurring” (noting that prior to July 16, 1945 it would have been possible to measure naturally occurring levels of background radiation, but this has not been the case for 67 years), I posed the following questions, and requested a reply:
1) What is the significance of the timing of this data collection?
2) What criteria was used in selecting the areas for the flyovers?
3) What will the data be used for?
4) Will a report on the findings be released to the public? If so, when?
5) Are additional flyovers planned for the future? Is so, when and where?
Based on the letters, I also submitted an op-ed to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times. Both the Chronicle and the Times had published “news” stories recycling the NNSA press release. As of this writing, I have not heard back from the DNDO, the NNSA. Nor have I heard back from either of the newspapers regarding the op eds. I’ll let you know when I do. In the meantime, I’ve posted my op-ed below.
From August 27 to September 1, residents of San Francisco, Pacifica and Oakland experienced a low-flying helicopter criss-crossing their neighborhoods. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), this helicopter was “taking measurements of naturally-occurring background radiation.”
The NNSA’s press release is misleading in its characterization of current levels of radiation as “naturally-occurring.” Prior to July 16, 1945 it would have been possible to measure naturally occurring levels of background radiation, but this has not been the case for 67 years. The U.S. “Trinity” test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, followed in short order by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, produced the first wind-borne plumes of long-lived radioactive particles to traverse the globe. Since that time, over 2,000 nuclear test explosions have been conducted around the world–above ground, underwater and underground–dumping huge amounts of radiation into the environment. 25% were exploded in the atmosphere, over 200 of these by the United States. Major and routine releases of radiation from more than 400 nuclear power plants worldwide, including the catastrophic accidents at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have also contributed.
At the local/regional level, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (originally called the Lawrence Berkeley Radiation Laboratory), the Lawrence Livermore National nuclear weapons Laboratory, the General Electric research reactors at Vallecitos, the decontamination at Hunters Point of Navy ships exposed to fallout from U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific, and the transportation of nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel at sea and over land, have made their own contributions of long-lived man-made radiation. It may be possible to come up with 2012 “baseline” radiation measurements, but they will not be from “naturally-occurring” radiation.
We have some questions. What is the significance of the timing of this data collection? What criteria were used in selecting the areas for the flyovers? How will the data be used? Will a report on the findings be released to the public? Are additional flyovers planned for the future? We believe the public has a right to know the answers to these questions.
Almost seven decades into the nuclear age, it is disingenuous for our government to perpetuate the myth of “naturally-occurring background radiation.” Like global warming, radioactive contamination of the environment is almost entirely the result of human activities. These include uranium mining and processing, generation of nuclear energy, and production, use and testing of nuclear weapons. Invisible radioactive isotopes, some of which remain lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, don’t respect national borders and present a cumulative, universal threat to public health, leading to cancers, leukemia, and birth defects.
Rather than misleading the public, our government should provide reliable information about current sources of radioactive pollution, whether from the Livermore Lab or the ongoing releases from Fukushima, and their potential health impacts. Instead of continuing to invest in life-threatening nuclear technology, the U.S. should lead negotiations for the global elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, investing instead in life-affirming sustainable, renewable energy sources, protection of public health, and long-term stewardship of deadly radioactive nuclear waste.