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Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as a senior policy adviser to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration and wrote the recently released report Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage (PDF), available for download at

  • Fixing America’s Nuclear Waste Storage Problem

    The spent-fuel pools at our reactors, containing thousands of tons of poorly protected but highly radioactive waste, are a catastrophe waiting to happen.

    Robert Alvarez

  • Politics July 31, 2003

    The Legacy of Hanford

    Washington continues to evade responsibility for forty-seven years of contamination.

    Robert Alvarez

  • Politics May 17, 2001



    New York City

    Dusko Doder's assertion, in "Balkans Breakdown" [April 30], that Greece was against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's (FYROM) existence is erroneous and unfounded, especially in light of Greece's continuous support for FYROM during the Balkan crisis. Besides condemning the terrorist attacks against FYROM's northwestern regions, Greece from the beginning firmly reiterated its support for its Balkan neighbor. In his message to FYROM Prime Minister Georgievski, Greek Prime Minister Simitis stressed that "Greece considers the sovereignty and territorial integrity of FYROM within its internationally recognized borders essential for the stability in our region and unequivocally condemns all violent acts aiming at its destabilization."

    Simitis assured Georgievski that Greece, in close cooperation with its partners in NATO and the EU on the situation, called on the international community to take appropriate measures to avoid further escalation in that sensitive region. Greek Foreign Affairs Minister George Papandreou, who was among the first to visit Skopje and offer support, said that Greece was prepared to participate in a multinational force aiming at protecting FYROM.

    Regarding Greece's position on the use by FYROM of the name "Macedonia," Simitis reiterated that in his recent talks with Georgievski they agreed that this matter must be resolved as quickly as possible.

    Greek Press and Information Office


    Vienna, Va.

    As an information official, Dr. Gemelos is paid to have a selective memory. A few facts: In 1992, both Greece and Serbia were engaged in relentless harassment of the new Macedonian state. The Greeks banned the tiny country's access to the port of Thessaloniki, while the Serbs banned export of food to Macedonia. The Serb and Greek leaders, Slobodan Milosevic and Konstantin Mitsotakis, actively considered Macedonia's partition. In April 1992, after Milosevic returned from Athens, he publicly proposed a Greek-Serb confederation. Prime Minister Mitsotakis backed away from this idea when some key people in the ruling New Democracy Party publicly broke away. The grand old man of conservative politics, George Rallis (the former prime minister, whose father and grandfather were also prime ministers) resigned his parliamentary seat protesting Mitsotakis's policy toward Macedonia, which he said was endangering Greece's ties to Europe.

    Dr. Gemelos quotes George Papandreou, whose father was elected prime minister in 1993 on a platform denouncing the incumbent Mitsotakis for taking part in UN-sponsored talks to resolve the Macedonian crisis. "Greece cannot and should not accept a nation with the name Macedonia on its borders," Papandreou insisted. In November 1993 he terminated UN-sponsored talks on resolving the Macedonian-Greek conflict. In February 1994, he imposed a total embargo on Macedonia. The Greek government's slogan, which could be seen everywhere, was: "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years."

    It is perhaps most telling that Dr. Gemelos does not refer to Macedonia as Macedonia but as FYROM--nine years after that unhappy territory became a fully fledged member of the United Nations.



    Washington, D.C.

    Bill Hartung, in "Bush's Nuclear Revival" [March 12], asserts a view widely held by the peace community that the Bush Administration's nuclear posture review, and the push for a National Missile Defense (NMD), will rekindle a nuclear arms race. If only it were that simple. In all likelihood, the Bush review has intensified the internal conflict within the military establishment between burgeoning conventional- weapons spending and the enormous costs of supporting excessively large nuclear targeting requirements. There's a good chance that nuclear weapons will be cut further. DOE weapons labs are already looking for a new "niche market" by pushing for new, low-yield precision nuclear "bunker busters." In addition to enormous operations and maintenance costs of deployment, nuclear weapons states are being forced to internalize additional large costs of nuclear material legacies, and to shore up deteriorating and dangerous nuclear weapons facilities. These factors add greatly to the cost of maintaining the roughly 7,500 existing nuclear weapons. Even after significant reductions over the past ten years, the real costs of the DOE's nuclear weapons program have nearly tripled. In effect, the "balloon mortgage" of the nuclear arms race is just coming due.

    If past is prologue, George W. Bush will have to contend with the legacy of his father, who after a similar nuclear weapons posture review in 1990 imposed a moratorium on nuclear testing, eliminated battlefield nukes and removed other tactical nukes from deployment, ceased production of fissile materials, initiated a major downsizing of the weapons production complex, entered into an agreement to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium from Russian nuclear weapons, teed up the ratification of START I and initiated START II negotiations. George W.'s campaign rhetoric was very clear about his promises to take unilateral nuclear disarmament steps.

    Specifically for Russia, deployment of NMD could mean serious harm to existing arms agreements, which is bad enough. However, the enormous expense of nuclear weapons is leading Russia to unilaterally slash its nuclear arsenal to pay for more urgent conventional-force requirements. To compensate for the loss of revenues from the Defense Ministry, the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry is actively trying to obtain hard currency by offering Russian sites as nuclear waste dumps for the commercial nuclear industry. A more imminent threat to the world than NMD comes from the spread of excess fissile materials in the former Soviet Union.

    The nuclear arms buildup scenario by China is less certain, given China's minimal nuclear deterrent capability. However, the days of huge nuclear buildups based on the concept of "how many times the rubble will bounce" are over. China and other nations merely have to look at the enormous and tragic debacle created by the United States and Russia over the past half-century. Provocative acts not connected to NMD, like pushing for "usable" nuclear weapons, can unleash efforts by China and other countries to do the same.

    The NMD program is meant to open the door for a major weaponization of space using an array of next-generation nonnuclear weapons. NMD is just the first step in achieving the Pentagon's long-range objective of US military domination of space, where weapons are envisioned to do things like cripple the electrical infrastructures of entire nations.

    The consequences of NMD testing and deployment by other nations are likely to be mixed. They will probably take the form of economic and military acts that will alienate the United States from its historical friends and former enemies at a time of growing global political instability. But these problems should not be confused with a steep new cold war-era buildup of nuclear weapons. That nuclear arms race cannot be restarted.



    New York City

    I thank Robert Alvarez for his thoughtful response to my editorial. He has a long and distinguished record of dealing with nuclear issues, both as a nongovernmental expert and at the Energy Department, and I respect his judgment.

    My concern about the Bush nuclear posture--at least the variant supported by advisers like Stephen Hadley and Robert Joseph, both of whom participated in the National Institute for Public Policy's hair-raising study on this issue--is not necessarily that it will lead to huge numerical increases in global nuclear weapons stockpiles. My concern is that by pushing a technical solution to nuclear dangers (missile defense) while pressing for a new generation of allegedly more "usable" low-yield nuclear weapons, the Bush Administration will re-legitimize nuclear weapons as an "acceptable" instrument of coercive diplomacy and outright warfare. This in turn could push China to build hundreds or perhaps as many as a thousand or more nuclear-armed missiles to augment its current force of eighteen. Russia would be more inclined to keep its nuclear forces on alert, increasing the possibility of an accidental launch in some future crisis. And all bets would be off in terms of capping the nuclear programs of India and Pakistan or the nuclear ambitions of states like Iran and Iraq. The danger would not be increasing numbers of weapons, but an increased risk that one of them might be used in a regional conflict.

    I do not dismiss Alvarez's extremely important arguments. The economic and environmental costs of sustaining cold war-style nuclear arsenals are coming home to roost. There are obvious incentives for Washington, Moscow and Beijing to reduce these forces, if for no other reason than that they will gobble up resources that could be used for other military purposes. And given the daunting technical obstacles standing in the way of fielding even a modest missile defense system, Bush's dream of a multitiered missile shield is by no means inevitable. Funding priorities that may compete with ballistic missile defense in the Pentagon budget include weaponizing space, building a new generation of lighter, "smarter" weapons and increasing the mobility of US forces--not to mention building all those big-ticket weapons platforms left over from the drawing boards of the cold war. Even if the Pentagon decides not to pursue a major nuclear buildup, the Bush Administration's highly militarized approach to foreign policy is worth opposing in its own right, even if it is accompanied by some reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons, but that's a longer discussion.

    Despite the excellent points made by Alvarez, my fear is that if Bush doesn't hear strong, clear opposition to the more destructive elements of his emerging nuclear doctrine--from the media, the public, Capitol Hill and cooler heads in his own party--he may resist the strong logic favoring denuclearization in pursuit of a deluded and dangerous ideology of nuclear superiority that should have long since been tossed into the dustbin of history. Given his Administration's behavior in its first few months, I'm not inclined to trust the good intentions or common sense of the Bush foreign policy team on a matter as sensitive and dangerous as nuclear weapons policy.


    Robert Alvarez, Dusko Doder, William D. Hartung and Dimitris Gemelos

  • DU at Home

    Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some 50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to convert these wastes to a safer form.

    DU is less radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s, some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans battlefields.

    According to a DOE study released this past January (, workers who handled recycled uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this material because the union might have demanded hazard pay.

    Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which the burden of proof is shifted to the government.

    Workers are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls. Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365 billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the environment, public safety and the US Treasury.

    Robert Alvarez

  • Activism September 25, 2000

    Aid for Nuclear Workers

    Madame Curie's denial of radiation dangers is emblematic of the legacy we now face as America's romance with the atom draws to a close.

    Robert Alvarez

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