Monday, February 16, 2009

British, French nuclear submarines collide

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A British Royal Navy nuclear submarine and its French equivalent collided while on operations in the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month, defense ministries in Paris and London confirmed Monday.


The British Royal Navy submarine HMS Vanguard.

Both vessels, HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant, were armed with nuclear warheads and suffered damage as a result of the collision, which is understood to have occurred on February 3 or 4.

"Two "SNLE" (nuclear submarines), one French and the other British, were, a few days ago, on standard patrols in the Atlantic. They briefly came in contact in a very slow speed while they were immersed. There is no casualty or injury among the crew. Neither the nuclear deterrent mission nor the nuclear security have been compromised," the French Ministry of Defense said in a statement.

In an earlier press release issued on February 6, the Ministry of Defense said the vessel's sonar dome had been damaged in a collision. The vessel was able to return to its base at Ile Longue in Brittany, northwest France, accompanied by a frigate.

The UK's Ministry of Defence also confirmed the incident. In a statement, the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathan Band said the collision occurred during "routine national patrols."

"Both submarines remained safe and no injuries occurred. We can confirm that the capability remained unaffected and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety," Band said.

HMS Vanguard returned to its home base at Faslane in Scotland under its own power on February 14. The UK's Sun newspaper reported that the vessel was towed back into its home base at Faslane in Scotland "with dents and scrapes visible on her hull." It is normal procedure for the vessels to be towed into dock, according to the Ministry of Defence press office.

Both the UK and French nuclear deterrent operations depend on complete secrecy, despite both countries' membership of NATO. But naval analyst Richard Cobbold told CNN that procedures would be in place to ensure that French and British submarines were routinely kept apart.

"Either one of these submarines was doing something different or somebody made a mistake -- but we don't know that," Cobbold said.

Both submarines were equipped with state-of-the-art sonar technology, but Cobbold said it was possible that neither was aware of the close proximity of the other vessel.

"Modern submarines are very, very quiet. In many types of water conditions they might not hear the approach of another submarine," he said.

But with both nations keeping at least one nuclear-armed submarine constantly at sea for the past 40 years, he said it was no surprise that they had eventually ended up in the same area of ocean.

"Even in an ocean the size of the North Atlantic the submarines are eventually going to be in the same patch of water at the same time," he said.

In a statement issued Monday, the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament described the incident as "a nuclear nightmare of the highest order."

"The collision of two submarines, both with nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons onboard could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed," said CND chair Kate Hudson.

"The dents reportedly visible on the British sub show the boats were no more than a couple of seconds away from total catastrophe."

Hudson said the incident was the most serious involving a nuclear submarine since the sinking of the Russian Kursk in 2000 with the loss of the vessel's entire 118-man crew.

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HMS Vanguard, which was launched in 1992, is one of four submarines which make up the UK's nuclear deterrent. Its firepower includes 16 Trident II D5 missiles capable of delivering multiple warheads to targets up to a range of 4,000 nautical miles.

The 150-meter vessel carries a crew of 141 and is powered by a uranium-fueled pressurized water reactor. Vanguard Class submarines routinely spend weeks at a time underwater on patrol in the North Atlantic.

But contact with naval commanders and government officials, including the defense secretary and the prime minister, are maintained at all times by a "comprehensive network of communications installations," the Royal Navy Web site said.

Le Triomphant was launched in 1994 and entered service in 1997 and carries a crew of 111, according to the GlobalSecurity.org Web site. Its weapons include 16 M45 missiles capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads.

The UK has maintained a nuclear arsenal since 1956, with at least one nuclear-armed submarine somewhere at sea continuously since 1969.

In 2006 the government approved plans to update the Trident deterrent program. A new generation of submarines is due to be ready to replace the Vanguard Class submarines by 2024. But the program, which is expected to cost around £20 billion ($29 billion), has been heavily criticized by anti-nuclear campaigners

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A New Gang Comes to Los Angeles: Solar-Panel Installers

LOS ANGELES -- When Albert Ortega was released from prison four months ago, he was determined to turn his life around. So he went green.

Mr. Ortega sports tattoos of an Aztec warrior on his back, a dragon on his chest and the name of his former gang, the East Side Wilmas, rings his biceps. Drug trafficking kept him locked up for most of the past seven years, he says. But after serving his last term, for 18 months, he heard about a solar-panel installation course.

"I wanted a new way of life," says the tall, brawny 34-year-old. "Solar puts me on the cutting edge."

A training program in East Los Angeles is teaching ex-cons to install solar panels so they can improve their skill set and market themselves for the new green economy. WSJ's Russ Brit reports.
In the race to train America's "green-collar" work force, a group composed mostly of former Los Angeles gang members on parole is an early participant. Their training is funded by Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps people with criminal pasts find employment.

President Barack Obama has made the production of renewable energy one of the pillars of job creation. All sorts of people are now rushing to acquire skills to launch careers in the budding sector.

For years, Homeboy Industries put former felons to work at a bakery and cafe it runs in East Los Angeles. Last summer, founder Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, was approached by a supporter about the idea of preparing them for the green economy.

Because job-placement for ex-convicts is especially difficult in a recession, "I leapt at the opportunity," says Father Boyle, who started Homeboy two decades ago.

Homeboy joined forces with the East Los Angeles Skills Center, a public vocational school that offers a hands-on program to teach the design, construction and installation of solar panels. The course is one of only a few such programs in California and commands a months-long waiting list.


Albert Ortega
The center created an intensive course for Homeboy. "I loved the idea of doing something for these guys," says Brian Hurd, the senior instructor who designed it. "My best student ever was a Homeboy referral" in a construction course, "who needed a second chance."

Homeboy, funded by individuals, community groups and revenue from its businesses, pays the $131 tuition for each student; it also pays participants an hourly wage of $8. The class meets for two months, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"I was so motivated, I would fall asleep with the books on my bed," says Mr. Ortega. Determined to get into the course, he phoned or visited Father Boyle for two weeks, until he was asked to take a drug test. Mr. Ortega passed and was offered a spot in the class.

"I knew I was good at wiring," says Mr. Ortega, who once installed car-stereo systems. "I was always good at math."

On a recent morning, some 30 tattoo-coated students sat at desks in a basement classroom, taking notes as their instructor scrawled algebra equations and geometry problems on a chalkboard. Then they figured out such things as the area of a house's roof and the angle at which solar panels should be mounted on it.

Manuel Delgado, 42, who dropped out of high school, said he struggled at first. But, four weeks into the class, he's doing "real good," he says. "I got 76% on my last math test."

Another student, Jessica Espinoza, 23, says she couldn't find a job after being locked up for two years because she helped a felon escape from a courthouse. "The minute they saw I went to jail, employers didn't give me the time of day," she says. "Hopefully I can take what this school gave me and make a career in this new industry."

In the afternoon, the students donned protective goggles and got to work on solar panels and electrical circuits in the workshop. At one station, they drilled holes through aluminum rails where panels are mounted; others drove bolts into metal racks. A few studied the layout of a roof to figure out sizing for pipes.


Miriam Jordan / The Wall Street Journal
Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles nonprofit, helps prepare students to enter the 'green-collar' work force
Mr. Ortega helped his classmates wire up a panel. One was Ken Chung, a general contractor who decided to train for a career in solar energy after his business of building homes and pools began to dry up.

After months searching for a training program, Mr. Chung decided the Homeboy course would give him the skills he needed. But when he informed his wife that most of his classmates would be ex-felons, she was worried. "I told her, 'Honey, just give me a week to try and see,' " he recalls.

On his first day, he says a fellow student asked: "What were you in for?" Mr. Chung, a 45-year-old Malaysian immigrant, didn't understand. "I asked him to repeat the question."

The East L.A. Skills Center offers a night class in photovoltaic installation (the official name of solar-panel installation) that is open to the general public, but there's a long waiting list. That's why some "regular folks" have been clamoring to get into the Homeboy class, says Ed Ruiz, the instructor. "Most of them take one look and say 'no thanks,' " he says.

Doug Lincoln, 61, who once managed luxury-car dealerships, was offered admission to the Homeboy course after he inquired about a faster-paced class. On hearing it was mainly for ex-cons, "I thought it was a joke," he says.

Now, Mr. Lincoln is about to graduate. He plans to start a solar-panel-installation firm, he says, and hire some of his former Homeboy classmates. "These guys are more motivated than hundreds of employees I've managed," in the car business, he says.

Mr. Chung, the contractor, has also thrived in the class. He and Mr. Ortega get together for lunch on the weekends, either tacos or Chinese noodles. "Albert has taught me many things," says Mr. Chung. They challenge each other to design solar-energy systems for homes and then critique each other's work. "I know about his kids. He knows about mine," says Mr. Ortega.

Last month, Mr. Ortega passed an exam that qualifies him to install solar panels nationwide. He says he has already been approached by employers. But he says he is waiting until Feb. 16, when he's off parole, before starting work, because until then he can't travel out of Los Angeles County. When that happens, he says, "I'll be just another citizen."

Several of his classmates who completed the course are already working, earning about $15 an hour; experienced installers can make upwards of $30 an hour. Philippe Hartley, general manager of Phat Energy, a Los Angeles solar company, has hired several Homeboy graduates. The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to start hiring some graduates of the program to install 50 megawatts of solar power on its campuses. "Being former gang members doesn't preclude them from building a career in solar technology," says Veronica Soto, a school-district director.

Others are also interested. "We expect to hire out of the program as quickly as they can get them to us," says Gabriel Bork, a vice president at Golden State Power, a solar-panel installation company. "These guys are much better trained than many others I have hired."

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com

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