Focal Points Blog

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.

    Will Fukushima Reactor Crisis Finally Sour Japanese on All Things Nuclear?

    Are nuclear energy and Japan, always an uneasy alliance, headed for divorce? Has Japan finally had it with all things nuclear. First, of course, it’s the only nation in the world that was attacked by nuclear weapons. Then, reports the New York Times, its nuclear energy industry — all 17 nuclear plants comprising 55 reactors — has been beset with difficulties and the inevitable cover-ups. From the Times:

    Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

    In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world’s largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator — Tokyo Electric — had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault. [Unknowningly? — RW] A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public’s fear. But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened in 2009.

    Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.

    As for the damaged reactors Fukushima Daiichi and Daini, you may have heard that, in Chinese, the word crisis is represented by two characters that represent danger and opportunity. While not precisely true, it’s certainly a useful axiom and one that might apply to this situation. The Times again:

    Benjamin Leyre, a utilities industry analyst with Exane BNP Paribas in Paris . . . said that politicians in Europe and elsewhere would almost certainly come under increased pressure to revisit safety measures.

    “What is likely to come will depend a lot on how transparent the regulators in Japan are,” Mr. Leyre said. “There will be a lot of focus on whether people feel confident that they know everything and that the truth is being put in front of them.”

    With the advent of Peak Oil — or for those constitutionally capable of admitting its existence, a perceived need to free the West, or at least the United States, from its dependency on the Middle East for our fossil fuels — receptivity to nuclear energy is on the upswing. Still none have been built in the United States for decades. Fukushima may have a bright side: it could help channel renewed sympathy for nuclear energy toward wind, solar, and other alternative energies.

    Putin’s Extravagant Proposal to Abolish Visas Echoes Gorbachev and Nukes

    “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed to visiting US Vice President Joe Biden that Russia and the United States abolish visas in a ‘historic’ step to seal a revival in ties,” reports Agence France Press.

    “If the United States and Russia agree to implement a visa-free regime . . . ” Putin told Biden “[this]would break all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States. . . . everything would start over.”

    While

    Biden hailed the “reset” in US-Russia relations . . . his comments were upstaged by Putin’s unexpected offer.

    In other words, the Obama administration’s “reset” was trumped by Putin’s overhaul. Meanwhile, doesn’t when in 1986 then Secretary General of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons by the year 2000.

    In any event, Putin can afford to be generous. The Moscow Times reports:

    Russia nearly doubled its number of billionaires this year, producing 101 of the 1,210 world’s wealthiest people, compared with 62 last year, Forbes magazine said in its annual world billionaires ranking.

    More to the point

    Moscow had won back its status as the world’s billionaire capital, from last year’s champion New York.

    Japan Faces Possible Three-Mile Island

    After the cooling system in Tokyo Electric Power’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor failed and the Japanese government declared it an emergency, Donna Leinwand of USA Today contacted IPS’s own Robert Alvarez.

    “It has the potential to be catastrophic,” said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and a former senior policy adviser to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton administration. . . The venting may relieve some pressure and give workers more time to restore the emergency cooling systems. They have a 12- to 24-hour window, Alvarez said.

    “I don’t think the venting is going to result in a catastrophic release, but it’s definitely an indication that all is not well there,” he said.

    If the cooling is not restored quickly, the core can overheat, causing the water to boil over and exposing the core to air. The interior can catch fire and cause a meltdown, releasing nuclear material into the concrete containment dome that surrounds the reactor, Alvarez says.

    “Is this barrier going to be sufficient?” Alvarez said. “It’s a dicey proposition. The best you can say is, stay tuned.”

    If they re-establish a stable power supply and restore the cooling, “We should all breathe a sigh of relief,” Alvarez said. “If they can’t, it’s very serious.”

    Here’s Robert’s own post for IPS:

    In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, 5,800 residents living within five miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.

    Plant operators haven’t been able to cool down the core of one reactor containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling. In a race against time, the power company and the Japanese military are flying in nine emergency generators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the U.S. Air Force has provided cooling water for the troubled reactor. Complicating matters, Japan’s Meteorological Agency has declared the area to be at high risk of being hit by a tsunami.

    The plant was operating at full power when the quake hit and even though control rods were automatically inserted to halt the nuclear reaction, the reactor core remains very hot. Even with a fully functioning emergency core cooling system, it would take several hours for the reactor core to cool and stabilize. If emergency cooling isn’t restored, the risks of a core melt, and release of radioactivity into the environment is significantly increased. Also, it’s not clear if piping and electrically distribution systems inside the plant have been damaged. If so, that would interfere with reactor cooling.

    A senior U.S. nuclear power technician tells me the window of time before serious problems arise is between 12 and 24 hours.

    Early on, Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation had been released. However, because the reactor remains at a very high temperature, radiation levels are rising on the turbine building — forcing to plant operators to vent radioactive steam into the environment.

    The devastating Japanese quake and its outcome could generate a political tsunami here in the United States. For instance, it may become impossible for the owners of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operating licenses.

    These two California reactors are sitting in high seismic risk zones near earthquake faults. Each is designed to withstand a quake as great as 7.5 on the Richter scale. According to many seismologists, the probability of a major earthquake in the California coastal zone in the foreseeable future is a near certainty. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the largest registering 8.3 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco in 1906.

    “There have been tremblers felt at U.S. plants over the past several years, but nothing approaching the need for emergency action,” Scott Burnell, a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters.

    As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe approaches next month, Japan’s earthquake serve as a reminder that the risks of nuclear power, when things go seriously wrong. The Chernobyl accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. More than 100,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of radioactive contamination. And area an equal to half of the State of New Jersey was rendered uninhabitable.

    Fortunately, U.S. and Japanese reactors have extra measures of protection that were lacking at Chernobyl, such as a secondary concrete containment structure over the reactor vessel to prevent escape of radioactivity. In 1979, the containment structure at the Three Mile Island reactor did prevent the escape of a catastrophic amount of radioactivity after the core melted. But people living nearby were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the accident and deliberate venting to stabilize the reactor. With one hour, the multi-billion dollar investment in that plant went down the drain.

    Meanwhile, let’s hope that the core of the Japanese reactor can be cooled in time. We shouldn’t need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better and much safer ways to make electricity.

    One of Hiroshima’s Objectives: To Prove the Manhattan Project Wasn’t a Money Pit

    First John Dower’s formidable book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton), published last year, was reviewed by Greg Chaffin for Foreign Policy in Focus. Then I extracted excerpts to examine for two Focal Points posts: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Sabotaged Prospects for a True Post-War Peace and Beneath Shortening the War and Shocking the Soviet Union Lay Another Reason for Hiroshima.

    The third reason to which I allude in the latter post mentioned above was a desire on the part of the United States to keep the Soviet Union from entering the war — even though that’s credited by many as critical to Japan’s surrender — in order to prevent it from gaining a foothold in the Far East. Now we come to yet another reason beyond that, as mentioned in the title to this post. Here Dower writes about the Franck Report, generated by seven scientists associated with the Chicago branch of the Manhattan Project, which

    . . . referred almost matter-of-factly to [a] political consideration. “Another argument which could be quoted in favor of using atomic bombs as soon as they are available,” the report observed critically, “is that so much taxpayers’ money had been invested in the Projects that the Congress and the American public will demand a return for their money.” This, indeed, had been one of the several discouraging conclusions that [physicist Leo] Szilard and his [Chicago] colleagues came away with after their miserably unsuccessful attempt to persuade [Truman’s Secretary of State James] Byrnes that hasty use of the bomb would be internationally disastrous. As Szilard recalled it, Byrnes essentially told the scientists what he had confidentially told Roosevelt a few months earlier: that “we had spent two billion dollars on developing the bomb, and Congress would want to know what we had got for the money spent.” Szilard also quoted the cagey former senator as relating this consideration to future appropriations for nuclear research, which the scientists were eager to ensure. “How would you get Congress to appropriate money for atomic energy research,” he recalled Byrnes saying, “if you don’t show results for the money which has been spent already?”

    [British physicist and 1948 Nobel laureate P.M.S.] Blackett, writing a few years later, found it appalling that such partisan considerations might have influenced the decision to use the bomb. . . . “If the United States Government had been influenced in the summer of 1945 by this view, then perhaps at some future date, when another two billion dollars had been spent, it might feel impelled to stage another Roman holiday with some other country’s citizens, rather than 120,000 victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the chosen victim. The wit of man could hardly devise a theory of the dropping of the bomb, both more insulting to the American people, or more likely to lead to an energetically pursued Soviet defense policy.

    When asked about the step-up in tempo at Los Alamos after Germany was out of the war, Oppenheimer acknowledged that “we were still more frantic to have the job done and wanted to have it done so that if needed, it would be available. . . . I don’t think there was any time where we worked harder at the speedup than in the period after the German surrender and the actual combat use of the bomb.” This captures, with unusual and perhaps unintended sharpness, the double-edge nature of the enterprise; that the bomb was desirable to end the war, but also that there was an almost frantic effort to have the bomb and use it before the war ended. [Emphasis added.]

    In other words, we needed the bomb to shorten the war, but even more important we didn’t want the war shortened until we could use the bomb. Taking yet one more step beyond, U.S. insistence on unconditional surrender, which the Japanese refused because they feared it would entail removal of the emperor, may have been another means of keeping the war going until the bomb was ready. If true, that may be the most deadly case ever of the dog wagging the tail.

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