Focal Points Blog

Fukushima: How Can It Be So Hard to Keep Water in a Pool?

One of the most useful sources of information on Fukushima is Barry Brooks’ Brave New Climate, where he reports on the cooling tanks for spent rods:

The problem is that as these ponds heat, their deep covering of water (which acts as a radiation shield and a cooling mechanism), starts to evaporate. If they reach boiling point, because of lack of operational maintenance systems, the evaporation rate will accelerate. If exposed, there is a potential for these old fuel rods and their zirconium cladding to melt, and radiation levels will rise considerably. . . . The spent fuel pool temperature has been rising gradually since last Friday due to the loss of cooling pump (presumably no power source).

Sure, the pump may not work — ’cause a vandal (known as The Tsunami) took the handle. But why is it so difficult to keep a pool refreshed with water? It’s not as if it’s Olympic-sized.

The Japanese finally brought in firefighting vehicles to douse the rods. Then, in a desperate, if dramatic move, the Japanese used helicopters to fetch water from the ocean and bombard the plant with it.

Last night on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Jeffrey Merrifield mentioned that the Japanese made a critical mistake in overlooking the evaporating pool problem while attending to more pressing matters (presumably the explosions). As a consequence what seems like the simplest task — keeping pools filled with water after the pump has broken — has snowballed into a national emergency.

Europe’s Austerity: Like Something Out of the Brothers Grimm

Greek protest(Pictured: Greek protest.)

* In the Greek town of Aphidal, people have stopped paying road fees. In Athens, bus and metro riders are refusing to cough up the price of a ticket. On Feb. 23, 250,000 Greeks jammed the streets outside the nation’s parliament.

* The Portuguese nominated the protest song “A Luta E’ Alegria” (The Struggle is Joy) for the Eurovision song contest and, when judges ignored it, walked out in protest. They also put 300,000 people into the streets of the country’s major cities on Mar. 12.

* Liverpool bailed from a Conservative-Liberal scheme to supplement government funding with private funding when it found there wasn’t any of either, and the British Toilet Association protested the closure of 1,000 public bathrooms across the country.

In ways big and small, Europeans from Greece to Portugal, from Britain to Bavaria are registering their growing anger with the relentless assault inflicted by government-imposed austerity programs.

Wages, working conditions and pensions that unions successfully fought for over the past half century are threatened by the collapse of banking systems caught up in a decade-long orgy of speculation that the average European neither took part in, nor profited from. Even the so-called “well off” workers of Bavaria, Germany’s industrial juggernaut, saw their wages, adjusted for inflation, fall 4.5 percent over the past 10 years.

The narrative emanating from EU headquarters in Brussels is that high wages, early retirement, generous benefits, and a “lack of competition” has led to the current crisis that has several countries on the verge of bankruptcy, including Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Now, claim the “virtuous countries”—Germany, the Netherlands, and Finland—it is time for these spendthrift wastrels to pay the piper or, as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel says, “do their homework.”

It is an interesting story, a sort of Grimm’s fairy tale for the 21st century, but it bears about as much resemblance to the cause of the crisis as Cinderella’s fairy godmother does to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

While each country has its own particular conditions, there is a common thread that underlines the current crisis. Starting early in the decade, banks and financial houses flooded real estate markets with money, fueling a speculation explosion that inflated an enormous bubble. In climate and culture, Spain and Ireland may be very different places, but housing prices rocketed 500 percent in both countries.

The money was virtually free, with low interest rates on the bank side, and cozy tax deals cut between speculators and politicians on the other. That kept the cash within a small circle of investors. While Bavarian workers were watching their pay fall, German banks were taking in record profits and shoveling yet more capital into the real estate bubbles in Ireland and Spain. The level of debt eventually approached the grotesque. Ireland’s bank debts, if translated into dollars, would be the equal of $10 trillion.

The Wall Street implosion in 2008 sent shock waves around the world and popped bubbles all over Europe. While nations on the periphery of the European Union (EU) tanked first—Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Romania, Hungary, and Greece, economies at the heart of the EU—Britain, Spain, Italy, and Portugal—were also shaken. According to the Financial Times (FT), total claims by European banks on the Greek, Irish, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese debts alone are $2.4 trillion.

The European Union’s (EU) cure for the crisis is a formula with a long and troubled history, and one that has sowed several decades of falling living standards and frozen economies when it was applied to Latin America some 30 years ago. In simple terms, it is austerity, austerity and more austerity until the bank debts are paid off.

There are similarities between the current European crisis and the 1981 Latin American debt crisis. “In both cases debts were issued in a currency over which borrowing countries had no control,” says the FT’s John Rathbone. For Latin America it was the dollar, for Europe the Euro. Secondly, there was first a period of easy credit, followed by a worldwide recession.

Bailouts were tied to the so-called “Washington Consensus” that demanded privatization, massive cuts in social services, wage reductions, and government austerity. The results were disastrous. As public health programs were eviscerated, diseases like cholera reappeared. As education budgets were slashed, illiteracy increased. And as public works projects vanished, joblessness went up and wages went down.

“It took several years to realize that deflating wages and shrinking economies were inconsistent with being able to fully pay off debts,” notes Rathbone. And yet the “virtuous” EU countries are applying almost exactly the same formula to the current debt crisis in Europe.

For instance, the EU and the IMF agreed to bail out Ireland’s banks for $114 billion, but only if the Irish cut $4 billion over the next four years, raised payroll taxes 41 percent, cut old age pensions, increased the retirement age, slashed social spending, and privatized many public services. When Ireland recently asked for a reduction in the onerous interest rate for this bailout, the EU agreed to lower it 1 percent and spread out the payments, but only on the condition of yet more austerity measures and an increase in Ireland’s corporate tax rate. The newly elected Fine Gael/Labor government refused.

To pay back its own $152 billion bailout, however, the Greek government took the deal. But the price is more austerity and an agreement to sell off almost $70 billion in government properties, including some islands and many of the Olympic games sites.

But the “deal” will hardly repay the debt. Unemployment in Greece is 15 percent, and as high as 35 percent among the young. Wages have fallen 20 percent, pensions have been cut, and rates for public services hiked. Growth is expected to fall 3.4 percent this year, which means that Greece’s debt burden is projected to increase from 127 percent of GDP to 160 percent of GDP by 2013. “Your debt will continue to increase as long as your growth rate is below the interest rate you are paying,” economist Peter Westaway told the New York Times.

Austerity measures in Portugal and Spain have also cut deeply into the average person’s income and made life measurably harder. In Spain, more than one in five workers are unemployed, and consumer spending is sharply off, dropping by a third this past holiday season. Portugal is actually in worse shape. It has one of the slowest economic growth rates in Europe, a dead-in-the-water export industry, and a youth unemployment rate of over 30 percent.

In Britain, the Conservative-Liberal government has cut almost $130 billion from the budget and lobbied for what it calls the “Big Society.” The latter is similar to George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” and envisions a world in which private industry and volunteerism replaces government-funded programs. The actual result has been the closure of libraries, senior centers, public pools, youth programs, and public toilets. The cutbacks have been most deeply felt in poorer areas of the country—those that traditionally vote Labor, as cynics are wont to point out—but they have also taken a bite out of the Conservative Party’s heartland, the Midlands.

Conservative voters have organized demonstrations to save libraries in staid communities like Charlbury and to protest turning public woodlands over to private developers. According to retired financial officer Barbara Allison, there are 54 local voluntary organizations that run programs like meals on wheels in Charlbury. “We’re already devoting an awful lot of our time to charity and volunteers,” she told the FT. “Am I not doing enough? Is [Conservative Prime Minister] David Cameron going to volunteer?” In any case, as Labor Party leader Ed Milliband points out, how does Cameron expect people “to volunteer at the local library when it is being shut down?”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner strongly endorsed the Cameron program last month and said that he “did not see much risk” that the cutbacks would impede growth. But even the IMF warns that the formula of treating debt as the central problem in the middle of an economic recession has drawbacks. This past October an IMF study concluded “the idea that fiscal austerity stimulates economic activity in the short term finds little support in the data.”

But a massive program of privatization does mean enormous windfall profits for private investors and the banks and financial institutions that finance the purchase of everything from soccer fields to national parks. Those profits, in turn, fuel political machines that use money and media to dominate the narrative that greedy pensioners, lay-about teachers, and freeloaders are the problem. And austerity is the solution.

But increasingly people are not buying the message, and from Athens to Wisconsin they are taking their reservations to the streets. The crowd in Charlbury was a modest 200, and the tone polite. In Athens the demonstration drew 250,000 and people chanted “Kleftes,” or “thieves.” But the message in both places is much the same: we have had enough.

A bus driver in Athens told Australian journalist Kia Mistilis that his wages had been cut from 1800 Euros ($2,500) a month to 1200 Euros ($1,660). “There are more cuts coming into effect in the next three months, that’s why the protests are heating up. I am worried that my wages will be cut to 800 Euros ($1,110) a month, and if that happens I don’t know how I will survive.”

But he has a plan. “The situation is reaching a climax,” he told Mistilis, “because working people know that the austerity measures go too far, and with the final rollout, they can’t survive. So there is nothing to do but protest,” adding, “You wait until next summer. The situation in Greece will explode.”

It is unlikely that Greece will be alone.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

Japan Nuclear Crisis Obscures Greatest Nuclear Energy Threat of All

How quickly we forget. Overlooked, however momentarily, as we follow news of Fukushima, is the other threat that nuclear energy poses besides releasing radiaoactive material in the air or a complete meltdown. A terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, of course. Back in 2003, at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:

An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda’s objective of using America’s technology against it. In his State of the Union Message last year, President Bush announced that United States forces searching Afghan caves had indeed found diagrams of American reactors. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acting on information provided by the F.B.I., warned of a plot to crash a commercial aircraft into a plant. According to the N.R.C., the identity of the plant was not known; a captured Al Qaeda operative had told the F.B.I. that the specific target was to be chosen by a “team on the ground.”

As potential targets go, Indian Point [nuclear energy plant] seems almost too obvious. It is situated on the Hudson River, in Buchanan, New York, some twenty miles north of the Bronx and thirty-five miles from midtown Manhattan. . . . More than twenty million people live within fifty miles of the plant. A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. The same study calculated the cost of such an accident at roughly three hundred billion dollars. By an uncomfortable coincidence, American Airlines Flight 11, just minutes before it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, flew almost directly over Indian Point’s twin reactor domes. Apparently, the Hudson River was the landmark that the hijackers used to navigate by.

Adding insult to injury, the Indian Point reactors also have some of the worst safety records of any in the United States. As one who lives ten miles down river from Indian Point — which, with maddening irony, occupies one of the sweetest spots on the Hudson — I’m aware that whenever those dual threats fail to cast a pall, however subconscious, over everyday life, I’m in some serious denial.

Monbiot May Be Right, But He’s Not Doing Anti-Nuclear Forces Any Favors

Worse Nuclear Disaster Unfolding in China Than Japan. Say what? At the Guardian, the eminent and often courageous British environmental reporter George Monbiot writes:

The nuclear disaster unfolding in Japan is bad enough; the nuclear disaster unfolding in China could be even worse. “What disaster?”, you may ask. The decision taken today by the Chinese government to suspend approval of new atomic power plants. If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.

He would have us bear in mind:

I despise and fear the nuclear industry as much as any other green: all experience hath shown that, in most countries, the companies running it are a corner-cutting bunch of scumbags, whose business originated as a by-product of nuclear weapons manufacture.

But if coal’s

combustion is not curtailed, it could kill millions of times more people than nuclear power plants have done so far.

It’s tough for those opposed to nuclear energy to gain traction when the likes of George Monbiot aren’t wholeheartedly behind you. But if you read the rest of his column you’ll see that his reasoning, as usual, is impeccable. I think many opposed to nuclear energy might be like me — willing to concede Monbiot’s point, but constitutionally incapable of voicing support for nuclear energy, even only as a stopgap measure. We gag over the words.

If Monbiot is right, nuclear energy may just be the all-time lesserest of two evils.

Pro-Nuclear Energy Forces Barely Pause to Rubberneck at Fukushima

Fukushima (how convenient that it shares the same last five letters as Hiroshima) doesn’t seem to have fazed another Rim of Fire country in the least. The Associated Press reports:

Indonesia says four nuclear reactors it plans to build near a volatile fault will be safe and more modern than the Japanese plant critically damaged by an earthquake and tsunami. . . . The four reactors will be built on Bangka island by 2022. Bangka is near Sumatra, the heavily populated island where a 2004 earthquake caused the massive tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

While Indonesia may be struggling to meets its nation’s energy needs, the country with the most developed energy infrastructure doesn’t seem to have budged much either. Dave Weigel reports in a piece at Slate: Full Steam Ahead.

In Japan, there is a race against time to stop meltdowns at reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. In Washington, no one wants to overreact. There is near unanimity on the idea that the United States needs to keep building those plants, as President Obama requested in his budget and as Republicans request every day. . . . the pro-nuke ranks were swelled by liberals, who . . . are more worried about climate change than about the risk of freak accidents.

Also at Slate, Nouriel Roubini makes it more explicit why the age of nuclear energy isn’t winding down anytime soon.

Severe unrest in the Middle East has historically been a source of oil-price spikes, which in turn have triggered three of the last five global recessions. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 caused a sharp increase in oil prices, leading to the global stagflation of 1974-75. The Iranian revolution in 1979 led to a similar stagflationary increase in oil prices, which culminated in the recession of 1980-81. And Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 led to a spike in oil prices at a time when a U.S. banking crisis was already tipping America into recession. Oil prices also played a role in the recent finance-driven global recession. By the summer of 2008, just before the collapse of Lehman Bros., oil prices had doubled over the previous 12 months, reaching a peak of $148 a barrel—and delivering the coup de grâce to an already frail and struggling global economy buffeted by financial shocks.

Middle-East instability, along with looming Peak Oil and global warming (dictating the need for carbon-free energy), seems to guarantee as steep an uphill fight as ever for those of us opposed to nuclear energy. Not to mention — bearing in mind how heavily subsidized the industry is — all the money to be made from it.

Fukushima’s lack of the silver lining that backlash against the nuclear industry should, in a sane world, constitute only adds insult to injury.

In a Perfect World, Fukushima Would Halt Nuclear Renaissance in Its Tracks

Japan’s government and nuclear industry, with assistance from the U.S. military, is in a desperate race to stave off multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns.

Nuclear energy is high-risk technology with catastrophic potential. Given what’s happening at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear complex, it’s time for a serious review of what our nuclear safety authorities consider improbable: a nuclear accident at one of our facilities here in the U.S.

Despite massive subsidies and research-and-development investments, not one new American nuclear power plant has been built in decades. Two reactors are slated for construction in Georgia by Southern Co., but the company hasn’t broken ground yet on that $14 billion project.

There are several reasons why Wall Street walked away from nuclear power:

  • Spiraling costs. The average capital costs for nuclear power plants increased nearly three- to four-fold between the early 1970s and 1983.
  • Inadequate technology. Even though the first nuclear reactors were deployed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, key aspects of the technology required further research and development. This was especially so for nuclear safety systems. Instead of addressing these emerging problems, the Atomic Energy Commission (which was later replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and an agency that became part of the Energy Department) ceased much of its research and development on light-water reactors. Since the early 1960s it has focused on the “next generation” of reactors that use plutonium as fuel.
  • Not enough standardization. Despite generic design similarities, the nation’s existing nuclear power complexes are comprised of one-of-kind facilities, each with many different characteristics.
  • The Three Mile Island accident. This 1979 disaster dramatically demonstrated nuclear power’s financial risks. The costs for constructing the failed reactor and the following clean-up of the accident were $2 billion.
  • Nuclear waste uncertainties. The inability of industry or government to forge a credible disposal path for spent fuel from nuclear reactors resulted in a ban on new construction in California in 1976. It reverberated throughout the country.

    America would be better off investing in conservation, fuel efficiency, renewable energy and carbon capture technologies than building a new wave of nuclear reactors. Under the Obama administration, the Energy Department is being called on to usher in a new energy future for the U.S., but lacks the tools it needs to meet that challenge

    Critical Needs
    The Obama administration should fundamentally restructure the Energy Department, starting by placing its nuclearweapons complex in the Department of Defense, where it belongs, and realigning the agency with our critical needs.

    The Energy Department needs to ramp up our investment in green technology and mandate stringent clean-up procedures at our existing nuclear plants. We don’t need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better, safer and cheaper ways to generate electricity.

    Failure to Open “New Chapter of Engagement” Will Dog President Obama on Visit to Latin America

    Obama Chavez(Pictured: President Obama greets Venezuelan President Chavez at the 2009 Summit of the Americas.)

    When President Obama embarks on his trip to Latin America this week, he will encounter a very different political environment than he found at the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago, where Latin American leaders practically tripped over each other to shake his hand and pose for the proverbial photo op. At the Summit, which took place just months after he took office, Obama promised an “era of equal partnership” and “a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained through my administration.” Yet the good will on display in Port-of-Spain has largely dissipated among the grumblings about the lack of any new U.S. policy toward the region and the continued predominance of U.S. unilateralism over multilateralism.

    Obama travels to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador from March 19 to 23. Perhaps no country better represents the changing regional dynamics than Brazil, the hemisphere’s new regional powerhouse. Brazil’s rise in a way parallels the demise of U.S. influence in the region. Numerous factors have contributed to the United States’ waning influence, including the emergence of more progressive governments that are less inclined to follow the dictates of Washington, the creation of regional bodies such as UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), frustration over the U.S. disregard for the impact of its own economic crisis on its neighbors, and rapidly decreasing levels of U.S. economic assistance. As noted by WOLA’s Adam Isacson, “President Obama’s trip will underscore that the era of unquestioned U.S. leadership has ended.”

    Despite Obama’s declarations in Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. policy toward the region has remained on auto-pilot; indeed, at times it seems as if the previous Bush administration is still calling the shots. Take, for example, the U.S.-Colombia agreement on U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia. Not only did Obama administration officials fail to live up to promises to engage more constructively with the region by consulting prior to acting, they failed to reconsider the Bush era plans even after hearing a regional outcry about the destabilizing effect of the growing U.S. military presence in the region. (It was the Colombian Constitutional Court that ultimately derailed the base agreement, though with little impact on the already established U.S. military presence on the Colombian bases.) But perhaps no damage to regional relations was greater than that caused by the U.S. shifting position on the overthrow of the Zelaya government in Honduras. While initially vocal in condemning the coup d’état, the Obama Administration failed to follow-up with strong action, save canceling a couple dozen visas. Within months, the administration reversed course from condemning the coup to supporting an electoral path as a the solution to the crisis, sending a clear message to the rest of the hemisphere that even in this day and age, the U.S. government will turn a blind eye to the ouster of a civilian elected government.

    One Latin American Ambassador recently complained of “the incomprehensible political atmosphere in Washington,” where, on the one hand, the executive branch seems to have no political will to move any new initiatives forward, and on the other, a stalemate in congress precludes any meaningful attention to the region. And what attention there is towards the region is more often than not negative, with Members of Congress ranting against the evils of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and the like.

    Nonetheless, Obama’s first official visit to the region provides an opportunity to lay out a new course for regional relations for the second half of his presidency – one based on his promises of equal partnership and multilateralism. Although energy and trade issues are likely to dominate the bilateral talks on his first two stops, in Brazil, President Obama should also acknowledge the significant gains made in that country in reducing poverty over the last decade – and he should explore what the United States can learn from that experience for reducing poverty in our own country.

    In Chile, Obama should acknowledge the advances made in dealing with the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship and holding human rights violators accountable. And to help the process move forward, the U.S. government should respond to requests for further declassification of U.S. documents to help shed evidence on the human rights atrocities committed during the overthrow of President Salvador Allende and the dictatorship that followed – often with U.S. complicity.

    Finally, in going to El Salvador, the President is acknowledging the formal transition of power to the FMLN, the former guerrilla insurgency. Many would argue that what El Salvador needs most from the United States is comprehensive immigration reform; however, in the absence of that, the issues that will likely dominate the discussions are the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), intended to mitigate the impact of increased drug trafficking through the isthmus, development and the perennial problems in that country of gang violence and citizen security. The President would be wise to avoid discussion of a Plan Central America (modeled after Plan Colombia), as proposed by Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, and instead listen to what the Salvadoran government has to say about its approach to improving citizen security. After years of a failed “mano duro” approach, the Funes government has adopted a new approach based on improved police and judicial performance and comprehensive violence and gang prevention strategies – and for the first time in years, the homicide rate is falling. Again, there is much the U.S. can learn from this recent experience in El Salvador for confronting gang-related violence in the United States.

    In conclusion, on his trip to Latin America, Obama will encounter a region in which countries are no longer afraid to stand up to the U.S. government and in which the United States no longer calls the shots. President Obama should not go to preach, as so many U.S. presidents have done in the past, but to listen.

    Worse Than a Meltdown? Could Be, Reports “Hysterical” New York Times

    Many once opposed to nuclear energy have been convinced by looming Peak Oil and the volatility of the Middle East that it can be a bridge technology to our we’ll-figure-out-something energy future. Along with those who work in the nuclear energy industry (and the congressmen who love them) they urge us to avoid over-reacting to the Japanese nuclear crisis and becoming carried away by the hysteria of sensationalistic headlines. Such as this one:

    Japan Faces Potential Nuclear Disaster as Radiation Levels Rise

    Oh wait, that’s the New York Times, which reports:

    Readings reported on Tuesday showed . . . radiation levels [to which even] 7 minutes of exposure . . . will reach the maximum annual dose that a worker at an American nuclear plant is allowed. And exposure for 75 minutes would likely lead to acute radiation sickness. . . . “We are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario,” said Hiroaki Koide, a senior reactor engineering specialist at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University.

    Does he mean a meltdown? Possibly worse, as the Times reports in its latest article:

    Even as workers race to prevent the radioactive cores . . . from melting down, concerns are growing that nearby pools holding spent fuel rods could pose an even greater danger. [They] have lost their cooling systems and the Japanese have been unable to take emergency steps because of the multiplying crises. . . . If any of the spent fuel rods in the pools do indeed catch fire, nuclear experts say, the high heat would loft the radiation in clouds that would spread the radioactivity.

    Which would be

    “. . . worse than a meltdown,” said David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    At this point, those advising against over-reaction are whistling in the dark. Whatever the outcome, the Times reports, the plants will never be used again. Bear in mind that nuclear plants are not, out of the box, a money-making proposition. They require a huge outlay in federal funds to get them off the ground.

    As an analyst on MSNBC (can’t remember who) commented last night, a problem with nuclear reactors is that just when you need them most, they not only fail, but add a whole new dimension of problems to whatever (in this case a natural disaster) caused them to fail. If an electricity generating plant fails during a hurricane, however daunting a challenge bringing it back online may be, it’s mercifully free of side effects. You know, messy inconveniences like — oh, I don’t know — making the surrounding countryside uninhabitable. Just be careful not to over-react!

    It’s nuclear reactors, in fact, that are the drama queens of energy sources.

    When Even Lieberman Is Concerned, the Nuclear Renaissance Is in Trouble

    The fragile bipartisan consensus that nuclear power offers a big piece of the answer to America’s energy and global warming challenges may have evaporated as quickly as confidence in Japan’s crippled nuclear reactors.

    . . . reports the New York Times. In fact, on Face the Nation, even Senator Joe Lieberman (CT) said:

    “I think it calls on us here in the U.S., naturally, not to stop building nuclear power plants but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happened in Japan.”

    Recalling that Lieberman is nominally an independent, it’s a rock-ribbed Republican response you want, you can always count on the party’s Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who

    . . . said that the United States should not overreact to the Japanese nuclear crisis by clamping down on the domestic industry indefinitely. . . . “I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy,” Mr. McConnell said on “Fox News Sunday.” . . . Republicans have loudly complained that the Obama administration did just that after the BP oil spill last spring when it imposed a moratorium on deepwater oil drilling until new safety and environmental rules were written.

    When it comes to oil, Republicans jump when told to. I don’t have the figures, but one suspects the nuclear energy industry doesn’t contribute to Republican congressional campaigns on the scale that the oil industry does. Thus, conservative outliers might be willing to slow, if not stall, the nuclear energy renaissance.

    Whipping Wisps Into Storm Clouds: Iran and the “Alleged Studies”

    Laptop of deathDonald Rumsfeld’s new book Known and Unknown dredged up bad memories of the false pretexts the United States employed to invade and occupy Iraq. Among those that Colin Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council were Curveball’s claim, which he recently admitted was a lie, that he worked on an Iraqi WMD program.

    Then there were documents forged to show that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase “yellowcake” uranium from Niger. And who can forget the aluminum tubes, likely missile parts, passed off as uranium centrifuge components. Speaking of Curveball, to use another sports cliché, far from a slam dunk, they were all airballs.

    Yet the same method is being reprised to attribute WMDs to Iran as was used with Iraq. Though this time, the goal isn’t necessarily to grease the skids for a U.S. attack on Iran. Since that’s unlikely, the idea is to accustom the United States to the idea that it needs to come to Israel’s rescue when it attacks Iran and inevitably finds itself in over its head.

    This unsavory process has been chronicled by investigative historian slash journalist Gareth Porter with far more depth than by anyone else. The product of his reporting on the subject over the years appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Middle East Policy (the Middle East Policy Council‘s publication) in the form of an article titled “The Iran Nuclear ‘Alleged Studies’ Documents: The Evidence of Fraud.”

    The issues are technical, but what makes them even more daunting to follow are the machinations of those perpetrating the fraud. Since, in a demonstration of shortsightedness on the part of the publication considering how important it is, the article is behind a subscription wall, we’ll excerpt liberally.

    You’re likely not familiar with the term “alleged studies” as it’s used in this context. They’re more popularly known, in the aggregate, as the laptop of death. (For instance, sese this Arms Control Wonk post). They have even been called the laptop of mass destruction, as in Asia Times Online’s headline to a 2008 article by Porter. In the MEP piece he begins:

    For the past few years, a political consensus has formed in the United States that Iran is covertly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program under the cloak of a civilian nuclear-power program. That conclusion has been based largely on a set of supposedly purloined top-secret Iranian military documents describing just such a covert program during 2002-03. The documents have often been referred to as the “laptop documents,” but they include documents in both electronic and paper form and were called the “alleged studies” documents by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    They consist of

    a pair of “flow sheets” showing a process for uranium conversion, a set of experiments . . . similar to that used on early designs for the U.S. atomic bomb, and studies on the redesign of the . . . nose cone, of the Shahab-3 missile to accommodate what appears to be a nuclear weapon.

    While

    . . . news media have portrayed the alleged-studies documents as credible evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear-weapons program [some] senior officials of the IAEA believed from the first, however, that the documents were “fabricated by a Western intelligence organization”

    But, after former director Mohamed ElBaradei (and likely candidate for the Egyptian presidency) — considered a moderating influence on Western hostility toward Iran — left the agency

    the IAEA said the material in the documents “is broadly consistent and credible in terms of the technical detail, the time frame in which the activities were conducted, and the people and organizations involved.”

    Okay, if that’s what they believed. The problem is that post-Baradei

    . . . the IAEA has effectively shifted the normal burden of proof in regard to the intelligence documents. Instead of requiring the IAEA and those who provided the documents to give evidence of their authenticity, [recently retired director of the IAEA’s Safeguards Department Olli] Heinonen has demanded that the Iranians prove they are fabrications.

    This is reminiscent of the “you can’t prove a negative” argument that those who attempted to slow the rush to war with Iraq invoked. In other words if you’re trying to prove something, it’s obviously contrary to the applicable principles of philosophy and science to begin with the assumption that said something exists and that what needs to be proved instead is its nonexistence.

    The documents on missile re-design demonstrate how the fraud is being perpetrated. They

    . . . had the most impact on media coverage. [They consist of] a series of technical drawings or schematics — all in Farsi — of as many as 18 different ways of fitting the unidentified payload into the missile-reentry vehicle or warhead. . . . But when IAEA analysts were allowed to study the documents, they found that images of the the warhead had the familiar “dunce cap” shape of the original North Korean No Dong missile, which Iran had acquired in the mid-1990s.

    “That was odd,” writes Porter. He explains.

    [When] Iran had flight-tested a new missile in mid-2004, the warhead had not had a dunce-cap shape but a new . . . “baby bottle” shape, which was more aerodynamic than the one on the original Shahab-3 missile. The warhead schematics in the alleged-studies documents thus depicted a reentry vehicle design that the analysts knew had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new, improved one.

    When I asked Heinonen . . . how he could consider it plausible that Iran’s purported secret nuclear weapons research program would redesign the warhead of a missile that the Iranian military had already decided to replace with an improved model, he suggested that the group that had done the schematics had no relationship with the regular Iranian missile program.

    We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of firewalls between security agencies or branches of the military, but that’s ridiculous. The explanation?

    Heinonen [suggested that] missile engineers . . . were ordered to redesign the older Shahab-3 model before the decision was made by the missile program to switch to a newer missile and warhead design, and that it couldn’t change its work plan once it was decided. . . . Heinonen’s explanation assumes that the Iranian military ordered an engineer to organize a team to redesign the warhead on its secret intermediate-range ballistic missile to accommodate a nuclear weapon but kept them in the dark about its plans to replace the Shahab-3 in favor of a completely new and improved model.

    You can be forgiven if you find that far-fetched. Especially since

    . . . the reason for the shift to the new missile . . . was that the Shahab-3 [which dates from the ] early to mid-1990s, had a range of only 800 to 1,000 km [compared to the new missile which has a range of] 1,500 to 1,600 kilometers, bringing Israel within the reach of an Iranian missile for the first time.

    In other words, what would the Iranian military want with an underpowered missile? Porter then points out what should be obvious — and, in the process, demonstrates that the “alleged studies” were only looked over by those “allegedly studying.”

    The implausibility of the suggestion that a group organized to redesign the . . .warhead would not have been working with the new warhead underlines the tortuous thinking that must be used to avoid an obvious conclusion: the warhead schematics are fraudulent.

    Before we get to who’s behind the alleged studies, we’ll excerpt Porter’s summary of the fraud.

    The authors of the laptop documents left a trail of indicators that reveal their fraudulent character. Because of their ignorance of some key facts about the Iranian nuclear program and their effort to ensure that the documents would have the desired political effect, they made a series of errors. This investigation of all the available data related to the laptop documents found eight indicators of fraud.

    Among them, as noted above (emphasis added)

    The warhead schematics shown in the documents were based on a design that had already been abandoned by the Iranian military in favor of a new and improved design.

    Besides

    The premise . . . that the military would have taken responsibility for work on uranium conversion — is highly implausible. The work on a different technology had already been done by civilians under the AEOI [Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] over a period of more than a decade.

    Also

    The idea that Kimia Maadan [a private company] that had done nothing beyond completing a flow sheet outlining a process for uranium conversion would have been authorized to immediately begin making concrete plans for equipping such a facility without going through a lengthy stage of testing the technology depicted in the flow sheet. . . . is highly implausible.

    Especially damning:

    The fact that the IAEA does not know whether the original laptop documents had official stamps and security classification markings . . . . can be regarded as prima facie evidence of fraud.

    As for who

    According to the story, the files were smuggled out of Iran by the wife of an Iranian who had been recruited by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service. . . . But there is evidence that the laptop documents were brought to the U.S. consulate in Turkey by someone affiliated with . . . the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) . . . a terrorist organization that had killed both Iranian and U.S. civilians in the past.

    Israeli authors Yossi Melman and Meir Javadanfar reported, “A way to ‘launder’ information from Western intelligence to the IAEA was found so that agencies and their sources could be protected. Information is ‘filtered’ to the IAEA via Iranian opposition groups [such as MEK]. [Its] involvement . . in the laptop episode and Israel’s past use of the [MEK] for this purpose point to Israel as the original source of the documents.

    Returning to Iraq, rote, dogged repetition in the service of war-mongering carried the day. One must pay grudging tribute to Israel as well. Its campaign against Iran, equal to that against Iraq in implausibility and even more slipshod, has been successful in turning public sentiment against Iran, if not yet in convincing American authorities of the need for hostilities.

    Meanwhile, we all owe Gareth Porter a debt of gratitude for ripping the curtain on the pettiness of this deception. Shame on us if we allow such wisps carry us away on the winds of war.

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