Focal Points Blog

Fukushima: Where Do Aliens Store Their Spent Fuel Rods?

When the massive tsunami smacked into Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant was stacked high with more uranium than it was originally designed to hold. . . . the equivalent of almost six years [almost 4,000] of the highly radioactive [spent] uranium fuel rods produced by the plant . . . stored in deep pools of circulating water built into the highest floor of the Fukushima reactor buildings.

. . . reports Reuters.

The pile-up of used radioactive fuel stored at Fukushima underscores a dilemma that the nuclear power industry has faced in Japan and in the United States for decades: there is no easy answer to the question of where to store radioactive nuclear fuel after it has been used to produce power. In the United States, industry planners had once assumed that spent fuel rods would be moved to the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada. But political opposition in that fast-growing state helped put the plan on hold, meaning spent fuel has largely piled up in on-site cooling ponds.

Just the Vermont Yankee nuclear energy plant alone, reports Christian Parenti at the Nation “has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.”

Increasingly, spent fuel rods — with the half lives of their radioactive elements running into the tens of thousands of years — are finally taking a star turn in the leading role of nuclear risk. For those who advocate nuclear energy as a “bridge” technology to more carbon-free fuel, or as the devil we know, or for those who, with unapologetic counterintuitiveness, declare (I’m talking to you, George Monbiot) “the crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power,” what do you propose that we do with all the spent fuel rods?

As one frankly biased toward the possibility of life on other plants (at however far a remove), it helps me to provide perspective by asking, “How did they handle it on another planet?” With the financial crisis, I can’t help but conclude that capitalism was but a blip in their history. But that’s another story. If, because of the dilemma disposal of nuclear waste poses, nuclear energy was also a blip, what did they do with their spent fuel rods?

Why shove them over the edge of a black hole, of course. But it may have been 10,000 years after their nuclear period that they developed the technology to ship their fuel rods out of sight and out of mind. Unless we want to wait until that time when we too can dispatch space freighters to black holes, perhaps we should consider whether we want to consider using an energy technology that produces such lethal waste.

Arab League Walks a Tightrope With Libya Intervention

Arab League(Pictured: The Arab League leaders, once upon a time.)

Two days after Western forces struck Libyan military targets, halting Qaddhafi’s attack on civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere, some observers wonder whether the Arab League will withdraw its support for the intervention.

The League had unanimously endorsed the no-fly zone on March 12th—a “turning point” that compelled America to pursue passage of a U.N. resolution authorizing air strikes. However, the League’s rare commitment to action appeared to be flagging on Sunday when its secretary general, Amr Moussa, averred that the air strikes had gone too far.

Moussa told reporters that “What happened differs from the no-fly zone objectives,” adding, “What we want is civilians’ protection not shelling more civilians.”

His comment about “shelling more civilians” was an allusion to Qaddhafi’s claim that the Western strikes had killed a number of innocents. (That assertion, however, appears to be yet another one of the Libyan leader’s orchestrated shams—see here and here.)

Today, Moussa backpedaled from Sunday’s comments, saying in a press conference with U.N. President Ban Ki-Moon that the League has “no conflict” with the U.N. resolution and supports the rebels.

So what accounts for the Arab League’s apparent waffling?

One reason is Egyptian politics. Moussa, who commands respect in Egypt for standing up to Israel, plans to run for president now that the Mubarak regime has been ousted. He may have been shielding himself against future criticism for his role in green-lighting Western military action in Libya, should things go wrong.

Another reason is that the Arab League faces the same challenge as the kleptocrats and despots who make up its membership: trying to retain relevance in the face of a powerful current of change washing over the Arab world.

League members such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Bahrain’s Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa have responded to protests in their own countries with thuggish violence. They are thus wary of encouraging foreign involvement in another Arab country, as it might set a precedent for their own removal. On the other hand, the last thing Arab rulers want is further instability—including scenes of Qhaddafi-inflicted carnage and chaos.

“People might not like it but the only other option is to allow a civil war to develop in Libya; you’re going to create another Somalia,” Mustafa Alani, a scholar at the Gulf Research Center in the UAE, told the LA Times. “They don’t like military intervention, but in this case it is seen as the lesser evil.”

The Arab rulers are in a “delicate situation,” another expert in the LA Times piece, Mustafa Labbad, noted. “They wouldn’t want to see foreign powers aiding rebels against their regimes. They also don’t want the prospect of another Iraq.”

Stopping Qaddhafi, whose unpredictable antics are now on full display, is therefore seen as the best available option by Arab leaders. At least for now.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs on Islam and America at his website, Crossing the Crescent.

Thanks to Fukushima Light Shed on U.S. Nuclear Facility Located on a Volcano

The light shining on the safety of nuclear energy as a result of the Japanese nuclear crisis has been of such powerful wattage that it’s even flushing safety issues with nuclear weapons labs and manufacturing facilities out of hiding. Roger Snodgrass reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

On Friday, President Barack Obama asked the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review the safety of American nuclear power plants. . . . At Los Alamos National Laboratory, nuclear safety issues have been complicated with seismic concerns, as geological studies have uncovered an increasingly precarious underground structure.

Los Alamos, of course, is the national lab in New Mexico created for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Still a work in progress after all these years, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) facility is being built to the tune of a cool $4.3 billion. That’s six times the cost (adjusted for inflation) of the division of the Manhattan Project that was based in Los Alamos.

The CMRR will be used to increase the capacity to produce plutonium “pits,” which is where a nuclear weapon’s chain reaction occurs. If that doesn’t sound like disarmament, you’re right. Funding for the project by the Obama administration was intended, in part, to win Republican votes for the ratification of New START. But, in terms of pure disarmament, it not only cancels out New START, it ensures the health of the nuclear-industrial complex for many years.

Snodgrass writes:

Everet Beckner . . . formerly a high-ranking official in the National Nuclear Security Administration during the Bush administration, called Friday for a pause in the design work underway [at the CMRR. He said] “the earthquake event in Japan was outside the current window of expectations because it was larger than a thousand-year event. . . . Maybe that isn’t enough of a margin.”

Turns out that at

. . . Los Alamos National Laboratory [LANL], nuclear safety issues have been complicated with seismic concerns, as geological studies have uncovered an increasingly precarious underground structure. . . . in the late 1990s [faults were] found to run near and even beneath some LANL nuclear facilities. . . . A survey found a number of LANL buildings to be at considerable risk of earthquake-induced collapse.

But this information

. . . was not immediately applied to building siting and design . . . . “When they set up Los Alamos initially, they didn’t care about these things. They were looking for an isolated site,” said [Greg] Mello [of the Los Alamos Study Group], who has studied seismic issues at the lab since 1996. . . . “Since then, many people have questioned the wisdom of putting a plutonium processing facility and now a nuclear pit manufacturing facility on the side of a volcano.”

In fact, when it comes to locating such facilities on the side of a volcano in an area prone to seismic activity, there’s no wisdom whatsoever to question.

Is There a Cause and Effect Between Fukushima and Attacking Libya?

Chernobyl(Pictured: Chernobyl from a distance. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder, University Archives, World Peace Council: Rob Prince, Folder 2, images)

In 1989, Japanese director Shohei Imamura made ‘Black Rain’ (note: not the film with Michael Douglas), a film about life in the Hiroshima region of Japan in the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear bombing near the end of World War II. The protagonists were not in Hiroshima at the time of the nuclear blast, but in a boat not far away where ‘black rain’ – radioactively contaminated moisture – fell on them.

The film explores how Hiroshima survivors tried to deal with radiation sickness. 44 years, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and several thousand nuclear power plants after the fact, we know little more now than we did then how to treat the condition.

As it did in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, once again black rain is falling on Japan, this time from continuing collapse of the nuclear power complex in Fukushima in the aftermath of the worse earthquake in Japanese recorded history. Japanese have been warned to stay indoors to avoid radiation, especially during rain storms.

For the past half a century, the world has been living with a lie – one dangerous to all life on earth – that while nuclear weapons are ‘dangerous’, nuclear power is ‘controlled’ and ‘safe’.

As if Three Mile Island and Chernobyl weren’t enough, the nuclear accident unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichu nuclear power complex in Japan has pretty much destroyed the myth of safe nuclear power.

Nuclear power provides some one third of all Japan’s energy needs. As the radiation from the tsunami-triggered accident spreads across the island nation and, soon far beyond, the dangers of the stuff, long pooh-poohed as little more than pacifist hysteria by those in the industry itself, become chillingly clear. Turns out those anti-nuclear activists whose influence has waned since the end of the Cold War know what they are talking about.

Nuclear energy has been developed in large measure to limit exposure to Middle East oil and to counter the effects of global warming, its obvious extraordinary dangers downplayed. Modern humanity dates from about 150,00 years ago. Depending on the element, radioactive isotopes can last up to 250,000 years. To date, no human technological fix has been devised to neutralize their profoundly poisonous effects. Disposing of radioactive wastes remains largely unresolved.

The danger of accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, caused by nature or human error (or both) are not ‘supposed to’ happen, despite industry assurances that new nuclear plants with their enhanced safety precautions are so well designed and improved as to minimize nuclear disaster to nil.

Still, in the aftermath of Fukushima, already, several countries have put the brakes on nuclear power development:

  • The Chinese government has placed its nuclear power construction program on freeze. The 27 Chinese nuclear power projects under construction are only about a quarter of Chinese plans to build a whopping 110 nuclear power plants in the foreseeable future.
  • Likewise Venezuela, constructing a nuclear power plant in cooperation with Russia, has also frozen production.
  • Germany and Switzerland have announced they will scale back their nuclear power programs. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, described the Japanese nuclear disaster as ‘a decisive moment’ for the world, vowing that nuclear safety was her highest priority.
  • Sweden and Turkey will do likewise.
  • Britain, Bulgaria and Finland are calling for nuclear safety review.

Others will undoubtedly follow.

On the other hand, despite Fukushima, Chile intends to proceed to construct its first nuclear power plant as a part of a ‘nuclear cooperation deal’ with the United States. India has insisted it will continue with its nuclear program. Doing his best to argue the impossible, French nuclear industry spokesman Eric Besson downplayed Fukushima. ‘It is a serious accident, not a nuclear disaster’ he is quoted as saying. (Tell that to the people of Sendai Province in Japan.)

As with the recent BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill where deep water drilling was temporarily lifted, only to be restarted again despite the consequences on humanity and nature, at this point there is little to indicate that nuclear power will suffer more than a temporary reverse. The discussion focuses mostly on temporary freezes, ‘insuring safety’ but not on dismantling one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Both tight oil markets and concern about global warming combine to suggest a nuclear industry recovery.

United States ‘number one’ in nuclear power plant proliferation
At one time during the Nixon years, there was a plan afoot to build 1,000 nuclear reactors in the USA to counter U.S. growing dependence on Middle East oil. Didn’t happen but the results were serious enough. According to the European Nuclear Society there are currently 441 nuclear energy plants worldwide, another 65 currently under construction and some 324 others on the drawing board. Nearly a quarter of those operating worldwide are in the United States (104), almost double the number of the two countries with the next most numerous facilities (France – 58, Japan – 54). The Russian Federation comes in a distant fourth with 32 nuclear power plants. South Korea (21), India (20), United Kingdom (19) China (13 on the mainland and 6 on Taiwan) and Canada (18) all also make extensive use of nuclear energy.

Although mainland China trails ‘the leaders’, it has, until a few days ago anyway, the most extensive plans to ‘catch up’ with 27 under construction. Russia has 11 more under way, India five and South Korea the same.

Much global nuclear power construction accelerated after two Middle East events – the October 1973 Middle East War (between Israel, Egypt and Syria) that included an oil embargo of the U.S. and the Netherlands for their support of Israel and the 1979 Iranian Revolution which resulted in the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That double whammy resulted in dramatic increases in global oil prices and concern among oil consuming nations (i.e. – most of the world) about their reliance on Middle East oil.

Japan and South Korea – both 100% dependent on foreign oil – considered nuclear energy as a viable alternative and developed their nuclear energy industries accordingly as did France and the U.S. With the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still seared in its collective memory, despite widespread domestic opposition, Japan’s conservative government plowed ahead all the same. China’s attempt to stay oil independent essentially flopped as early as the 1970s. More and more dependent upon foreign oil sources, it sought, like the others, to soften its imported oil requirements with crash nuclear power plant development.

Middle East oil will be more strategic, undoubtedly more expensive, the region unstable and explosive
Without serious consideration of alternative energy sources, world energy bounces back and forth between oil, natural gas and nuclear energy. As trust in nuclear energy diminishes, reliance on oil and natural gas increases accordingly. Without any serious initiatives to develop alternative energy sources, overnight, Middle East oil has become even more strategic than it has been. Controlling both the production and transport of Middle East oil more central to U.S. global plans.

This is already playing out in the U.S. led NATO attack on Libya. While not particularly strategic for the United States, Libyan oil is vital for Europe, especially Italy, France and UK. As the Fukushima accident spiraled out of control, Khadaffi let it be known that in the near future he’d be cancelling contracts with European partners and seeking oil development relationships with BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The next day, the positions of France and the UK towards Khadaffi hardened and a week later, France – a country whose human rights record in the Third World, especially Africa, would be laughable if it weren’t so deplorable – became the champions of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ in Libya.

Are there other factors involved in the attack on Libya besides oil? Maybe. Maybe not.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Fukushima: Which Is It? “Certain level of success” or “crisis still not resolved”?

Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports CNN, isn’t too sanguine.

“The crisis has still not been resolved, and the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant remains very serious,” Yukiya Amano, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told its board of governors Monday after a visit to the site. “Buildings have been damaged by explosions,” he said. “There has, for the most part, been no electric power. Radiation levels are elevated. It is no exaggeration to describe the work of the emergency teams as heroic.”

Still, reports the Wall Street Journal, to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, their success bringing down the temperature in the reactors represents “a certain level of success.” WSJ agrees.

Japan appears to have turned the tide in its battle to stave off nuclear disaster, restoring power to parts of the Fukushima Daiichi plant and bringing down radiation levels with a marathon water-spraying operation. . . . Fighting its way through rubble in heavy protective gear, the [Tokyo fire department’s] Hyper Rescue Squad poured [the] equivalent to dumping an entire Olympic-size swimming pool on the No. 3 reactor’s area for spent fuel. . . . From the start, the battle at Fukushima Daiichi was about water. Without a way to pump large quantities into the plant, Tepco suffered a daily parade of disasters in the early days.

Why the wait? As I posted earlier

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.

To give the Japanese their due, even though it was just water — with which the region was, of course, inundated — supplying it to the reactors proved was more difficult than one would think.

Officials later learned that Tepco had already sought to borrow some of the squad’s vehicles. According to Mr. Ishihara, squad members drove up to Fukushima but had to come back to Tokyo after it became clear that the vehicles were too complex for Tepco’s in-house firefighters to operate.

At a news conference, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said “It’s such a shame we had wasted a lot of time.”

Americans might gloat that such inefficiency in the face of a disaster could never happen here. But, as many have already pointed out, six years ago our tardy and fragmented response to Hurricane Katrina — George Bush or no — gave the lie to that national myth. Anyway, a hyper, hyper hooray to the Hyper Rescue Squad.

In the End, Fukushima a Gift to the Nuclear Energy Industry?

At Pro Publica, in an article titled Even In Worst Case, Japan’s Nuclear Disaster Will Have Limited Reach Abrahm Lustgarten

. . . spoke with seven top nuclear engineers and scientists to at least establish some boundaries for the disaster’s potential health and environmental impacts. The rough consensus: The long-term and most severe effects from radiation at the plant, where four of six reactors are in crisis and hundreds of tons of spent fuel is a risk, will be largely contained to the area around the plant, affect a relatively limited population and will likely not spread outside Japan.

So what, as Reuters reports, if the

. . . unprecedented multiple crisis will cost the world’s third largest economy nearly $200 billion and require Japan’s biggest reconstruction push since post-World War II.

Uncovered by insurance because it was an act of God (however Old Testament)? No problem.

The highly specialized German Nuclear Reactor Insurance Association (DKVG) partially insured Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant to the tune of tens of millions of euros. But the Cologne-based insurer won’t be paying anything.

“We do have a stake in the risks in Japan, generally speaking. But the property insurance and liability insurance policies exclude damages from earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions,” DKVG chief executive Dirk Harbrücker told Deutsche Welle.

Never mind that when it comes to building new reactors, the Independent reports that “some estimates suggest extra safety will add at least another 10 per cent.”

The case will be made that the Fukushima reactors, despite how old they were, survived both an earthquake and tsunami with attendant explosions, fires, and loss of water to spent fuel rods with minimal (by some standards, anyway) leakage of radiation into the atmosphere. Fukushima could turn into the gift that keeps on giving for nuclear energy advocates.

Except for one small stumbling block: because neither Fukushima’s nor any other reactors have been attacked by terrorists, it remains to be seen how one would stand up to subversion from within, assault by ground troops, or a plane loaded with explosives crashing into it.

Will Libya Become a Second Iraq?

Since the United States performed an abrupt about-face on Libya, supporting a U.N. resolution that authorizes “all necessary measures” to counter Qaddafi’s assault on the rebels, military intervention appears likely. Opponents of intervention urge their audiences to recall the Iraq invasion—also launched, in part, on humanitarian grounds—and keenly insist on drawing parallels with that disaster.

But are comparisons with Bush’s attack on Iraq accurate?

The argument for invading Iraq was couched in the context of fighting terrorism and made by political forces who sought to capitalize on that context. Neoconservatives, who saw the political climate as an opportunity to advance Israeli interests by subsuming them under the “war on terror,” avidly pressed for war. Republicans, eager to exact revenge for September 11th and aggrandize power, cared little whether the Arabs selected for destruction were perpetrators of the offending crime.

As for Iraqis, while many hoped for Saddam’s demise, few supported American invasion. The most zealous Iraqi advocates of war were opportunists who lived abroad in posh self-imposed exile. And while hawks sounded the appropriate noises about “liberation” now and again, that rhetoric saturated the discourse only after—and only because—the earlier pretexts of WMDs and al-Qaeda “links” vanished.

Today, the political mood could scarcely be more different. The revolt that now sweeps the Arab world stands as a devastating rejoinder to neoconservatives, who painted Arabs and Muslims as innately fond of terror and despotism. Authors of yesterday’s events, neoconservatives are now desperate just to appear in the footnotes. They have vacillated wildly, with some decrying the Egyptian revolution only to urge help for Libya’s rebels.

Whatever their opinion, it is the Libyans and the Arabs themselves who have most urgently raised the call for intervention. Libya’s rebel commanders and the transitional government in Benghazi have for weeks demanded a no-fly zone and air support. The Arab League, an ossified organization nervous over the prospect of further roiling the masses, reflected popular Arab opinion by stamping its seal of approval on the rebels’ pleas. Indeed, when the UN passed the resolution inviting air strikes, Benghazi erupted in euphoria.

The differences in both the political climate and the balance of forces on the ground clearly differentiate Iraq from Libya. But they do not “disappear” the possibility that Libya may end up like “post-war” Iraq: a nation deeply divided not by sect and language but by geography and tribe. For Western warplanes may shield rebel enclaves and cities, but what role will the French, British, and Americans play when the rebels try to advance westward and capture or recapture areas run by Qaddafi? Though the choreographed displays of “support” suggests Qaddafi’s base may be broad rather than deep, he still retains the support of his tribe and other allied tribes.

As one civilian in Tripoli opined after learning of the U.N. resolution’s passage, “Civilians holding guns, and you want to protect them? It’s a joke, We are the civilians. What about us?

This complicated reality blunts the persuasive force of the interventionist position, but also dampens the appeal of the non-interventionist one. Action today may pose risks for tomorrow, but inaction today poses risks for today as well as tomorrow: can we truly tell Libyans, “I don’t support intervention because I know better than you and, believe me, it’s better if you are crushed by Qaddafi than rescued by air strikes that may pose risks down the line?”

That is one of many questions that both sides of the debate will need to pose, and answer, in the coming days and weeks.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs on Islam and America at his website, Crossing the Crescent.

Chevron’s Outlandish Fraud Charges Deprive Ecuadorians of Justice

Ecuador TexacoJust weeks after an Ecuadoran court handed down its landmark decision against American multinational Chevron, the oil giant has filed an appeal to prevent having to pay billions in environmental damages wrought in the Amazonian rain forest. The court had ruled that Chevron pay a $9.5 billion fine for the destruction Texaco—which merged with Chevron in 2001—inflicted on the Amazon through its operations, a decision the company dismissed as corrupt. In a statement released last Friday, Chevron reported that it’s prepared to demonstrate “the pattern of fraud by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, supporters and others that has corrupted the trial, as well as the numerous legal and factual defects in the judgment.”

The appeal comes as no surprise. Chevron moved immediately before the verdict last month to initiate proceedings in The Hague designed to block the enforcement of any ruling against the company and extend arbitration. The oil multinational also filed papers in the United States to affect a similar outcome and, according to the BBC, accused “the claimants and lawyers in the case of racketeering, tampering with witnesses and obstructing justice.”

Whatever the result, Chevron’s challenge spells the indefinite suspension of justice for local Ecuadorians suffering decades-old environmental and human rights abuses.

The roots of the case can be traced back decades. Texaco, now owned by Chevron, first prospected for oil in the Amazon in 1964, quickly finding enormous reserves and contracting with national oil companies to extract their find. In the process, the multinational reportedly dumped nearly 20 billion gallons of toxic sludge in the jungle and was responsible for another 16 billion gallons of oil spilled over the course of its twenty-five year presence in the country. The damage sustained was extensive, poisoning the region’s soil and water and, according to plaintiffs in the case, causing a spiking rise in cancer deaths and birth defects. In 1993, lawyers representing a group of 30,000 affected Ecuadorans brought suit against Chevron in a US court to seek damages.

Chevron’s claim that it didn’t receive a fair shake by the Ecuadoran legal system is questionable in the extreme, seeing as the company fought tooth-and-nail at the start of proceedings to have the case removed from US jurisdiction and tried in South America. Nevertheless, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled last week in New York that plaintiffs in the case could not seek reparations from Chevron in the United States due to “abundant evidence before the court that Ecuador has not provided impartial tribunals or procedures compatible with due process of law.” Kaplan’s decision effectively nullifies the ruling in Ecuador, where Chevron no longer operates or possesses any assets.

The company also defends itself with the flimsy argument that Texaco had previously invested in cleanup efforts and toxic removal to a tune of $40 million. Put in perspective, the Exxon Valdez spill—which amounted to less than a third of the oil damage suffered by the Amazon—cost billions to clean up, and the US government heaped a whopping $5 billion fine on the company for its malfeasance and irresponsibility. Moreover, the poorly funded efforts by Texaco to clean up its mess proved inadequate to the task. Dozens of spillage sites throughout the Amazonian region still exhibit “concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals at hundreds and sometimes thousands of times higher than US acceptable standards,” according to the Inter Press Service.

So what’s next? Years of continued deliberation in various courts, in all likelihood, with little chance of just resolution. Speaking with the Associated Press in February, Wall Street analyst Fadel Gheit cynically noted that the plantifs “thought they could get something, but it’s not going to happen. If so, it would be unprecedented. Companies like Chevron have been accused of polluting for decades” in resource-rich, underdeveloped countries without any consequences.

Meanwhile, local populations that do not have the luxury of simply picking up and moving on after plundering the land of its resources continue to suffer. Rates of cancer, miscarriages, birth defects, and leukemia diagnosed in children continue to register at significantly higher rates in oil-infected areas throughout the Amazon. But the impact of the toxic contamination isn’t witnessed purely through statistics. According to the activist group Amazon Watch, even the basic routines of everyday life offer reminders of Texaco’s legacy of irresponsibility. Beyond the startling “epidemic of these deadly health problems, far more people suffer from frequent illness of a more minor type. Those who bathe in contaminated rivers report skin rashes. Those who drink the water report diarrhea. In this way, oil contamination has become a constant, oppressive, inescapable fact of life for thousands of residents” in the Amazon.

For Clue to How U.S. Would Respond to Its Own Fukushima, Look at Financial Crisis

At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson writes, “As an anthropologist, I am always interested in what humans learn from their mistakes. . . . what lessons will we learn from the nuclear accident at Fukushima, an accident thought to be impossible just two weeks ago?”

More to the point, what will be the United States’s “takeaway” from this crisis? Gusterson:

A good way to think through this question is to look at how the United States responded to its last meltdown — the meltdown of its banking system in 2008. To prevent a future recurrence of this disaster, the US government should have broken up banks that were “too big to fail,” restored the Glass-Steagall Act’s prohibitions on the commingling of investment and depository banks, and moved aggressively to regulate credit default swaps and financial derivatives. It did none of these things because the banks did not want it to, and the banks now run the show. . . . Our democracy and our regulatory agencies are husks of what they once were.

Free Trade’s Winners and Losers in Latin America

Cross-posted from Other Words.

President Barack Obama is traveling to Latin America, seeking refuge from budget battles at home by promoting increased trade with countries across the region. During his trip to Chile, Brazil, and El Salvador, he’s expected to highlight the benefits of so-called “free trade” to U.S. and Latin American businesses.

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many conservatives in Congress will cheer him on, the truth is that free trade has been a curse for farmers and the poor throughout Latin America for years. It’s time for a better approach.

Avid free-traders will tell you trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown nearly five-fold since NAFTA was enacted in 1994. They’ll say two-way trade between the United States and Central America and the Dominican Republic was $37.9 billion in 2009, a significant expansion thanks to the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement.

While free trade can dramatically increase exports–and boost corporate profits–its impact on the working class and poor isn’t so rosy.

Examining the impact of NAFTA–the hallmark free-trade agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico–provides a glimpse at free trade’s impact on Latin America’s poor. Research has shown that the 1.3 million jobs created in Mexico during the peak period of the maquiladora industry between 1994 and 2001 only provided a small portion of the jobs needed to cover the millions of workers pushed off their farms or forced out of Mexico’s devastated domestic industries.

Researchers have found that only 10 percent of Mexicans have seen any rise in their incomes or standard of living thanks to NAFTA. In fact, the vast majority are far worse off.

Mexican corn farmers–the cornerstone of Mexico’s agricultural economy before NAFTA–have been hit the hardest. Some estimates suggest millions of Mexican corn farmers were driven off their land, unable to compete with highly mechanized U.S. corn imports. Left with no job options at home, many have come here.

Now Obama wants Congress to ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia signed during the Bush administration. This deal won’t just turn a blind eye towards egregious labor rights violations in Colombia, where more union leaders were assassinated in 2010 than the rest of the world combined. Most likely, it will push more farmers into producing coca, the raw material for cocaine.

A free-trade agreement with Colombia would devastate that country’s small farmers–just as NAFTA did in Mexico. The escape valve for Mexican farmers has been emigration to the United States, with an estimated 30 crossing the border every hour. The escape valve for Colombian farmers will be farming coca.

Colombia is already the world’s leading cocaine manufacturer and a top producer of coca, the drug’s main ingredient, with an estimated 120,000 hectares in production. It’s slightly more profitable than farming food crops. A free-trade agreement that floods Colombian markets with cheap U.S.-produced grains would put poor farmers in an unenviable position: fall deeper into poverty or switch to coca production.

That’s why the Chamber of Commerce isn’t the only group salivating over the prospect of Congress ratifying the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. Drug traffickers would welcome the surge in coca production that tariff-free trade with that South American nation would trigger.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year history monitoring U.S. policy in Latin America.

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