The Party Line – September 23, 2011: In Post-Fukushima Reality, What is the Future, and Who is Winning It?

Beginning a story with a correction for what might seem a technical detail might not provide the most attention-grabbing lede, but it opens the door to a broader, and important, observation.

Last week’s column contained reference to “large nuclear power-generating nations,” and then listed Australia as part of that group. That, as pointed out by reader Dgdonovan, was incorrect:

Australia is not a large nuclear power producing nation, in fact none of Australia’s electricity is produced by nuclear power. Australia is a large uranium producing nation, however.

Indeed, while Australia may posses nearly a quarter of the world’s remaining uranium deposits, it has not commissioned a single industrial-scale nuclear reactor for electrical power generation. While the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant makes that look prudent, given the expansion of nuclear power over the last 50 years, it does seem odd.

Australia is hardly an industrial backwater. A member of the G20, Australia is the world’s 13th largest economy in terms of GDP. And it is not as if Australia has not considered building nuclear plants, most recently about five years ago. But nuclear power has never gotten off the ground in Australia for a rather basic reason: it is not supported by a majority of its people.

What the public wants, however, (as some recent events in the US seem to indicate) is not always what the public gets. Also required is a mechanism for the electorate to impose their will.

As previously observed, in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel committed her country to phasing out nuclear power generation in relatively short order, choosing to instead invest in renewables and efficiency. Merkel may have come to this decision based on the facts as now understood post Fukushima, but German domestic politics almost certainly came under consideration, too.

Merkel’s ruling coalition in the Bundestag currently includes her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), and the rightwing Free Democratic Party (FDP). By every indication, the FDP is heading for substantial losses in the next federal election, so the CDU will need a new coalition partner to keep Merkel in power. The most productive option is expected to be the Greens, and to woo them, Merkel found an opportune moment to move on a core Green Party issue.

Australia’s system is not identical to Germany’s, but the parliamentary (or Westminster) plan of the lower house introduces some of the same power dynamics. (Liberal-National Coalition PM John Howard proposed developing nuclear power in 2006; his party lost to anti-nuke Labor in 2007.) Federal and most regional elections are also decided by “preferential voting” (also known as IRV, or “instant runoff”). This form of democracy tends to give voters more options, and allows tertiary parties, and their issues, to gain a foothold in the system. Australia also accords a great deal of autonomy to its six state governments, where, for instance, it would be virtually impossible for the federal Australian government to put a nuclear power plant in a state if that state’s government had rejected it.

Contrast this with the United States, where, rather than responding to the new, post-Fukushima realities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signaled it is “full speed ahead” on the relicensing of old nuclear facilities (many of which are nearly identical to the Fukushima reactors; all of which are reaching the ends of their projected lifespans). Seabrook, in Connecticut New Hampshire, has just been granted permission to proceed toward relicensing, and it looks like re-upping the Massachusetts Pilgrim plant will also be moving ahead. This movement runs counter to the NRC’s own recent task force report advocating a new safety regime that incorporates lessons learned from Japan. And this relicensing also runs counter to substantial objections from state governments, nuclear watchdogs, and community activists.

Shouldn’t the chief regulatory agency wait until its new, proposed regulations are in place before giving out licenses for another 20 years of potentially dangerous operation? Under a governmental system that draws its regulators from the industry it regulates and funds its two-party, first-past-the-post elections with money from that industry, it appears not.

And regulatory protocol is not the only point of contrast. In Germany, the marketplace has already recognized the changing reality. Siemens, a German industrial giant, has announced that it is getting out of the nuclear power business:

It [Siemens] will build no further nuclear plants and is canceling its nuclear joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built all 17 of Germany’s existing nuclear plants. Siemens chief executive, Peter Loescher, (pictured) praised the Merkel government’s decision to close all its nuclear plants by 2022 and aim for an 80% to 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, calling it “a project of the century.”

Siemens recognizes that without government support, and without an automatic customer, there is no profit in nuclear power.

In the United States, where President Obama (a beneficiary of large campaign contributions from nuclear power companies) went out of his way to affirm the US commitment to nuclear generation immediately following the Japanese quake and tsunami, and where the federal government continues to offer loan guarantees for maintaining and operating nuclear plants, a very different picture is emerging:

Exelon Corporation and Constellation Energy have filed for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval of their proposed merger. In the filing, the companies commit themselves to divesting three of Constellation’s non-nuclear power plants totaling [sic] 2648 MWe in a step to ensure the merger will not cause power market or competitive concerns in the PJM (Pennsylvania, Jersey, Maryland) Power Pool in which they operate.

Constellation is the owner of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, which has recently come under scrutiny (OK, closer scrutiny, it has a long history of safety concerns) because of an emergency shutdown triggered by a transformer explosion during Hurricane Irene. Exelon, itself the product of a merger brokered by former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of Barack Obama’s largest campaign contributors. Exelon already operates more US nuclear plants than any other power company.

And this isn’t the only consolidation move in the US power sector. Duke Energy and Progress Energy, companies that operate nuclear facilities throughout the southeast, are seeking to form the country’s largest electric utility.

The Exelon-Constellation deal is facing opposition from Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, while the Duke-Progress merger has raised questions in North Carolina. But the final say on whether either deal goes through rests with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

FERC is comprised of five commissioners, each appointed by the president to a five-year term (in theory, anyway–one commissioner is still there, despite his term supposedly ending in June). As currently constituted, three members are George W. Bush appointees, two were picked by President Obama (though that does not necessarily predict how they will act). FERC’s decisions are final, and are not subject to any kind of Congressional vote.

The differences are stark. In Germany, where electoral realities have forced to the government to take an honest look at nuclear safety, market realities have delineated a path away from nuclear power and toward a renewable energy economy. In the US, where government is not only insulated from popular opinion but also beholden to corporate largess, elected officials, regulators and industry work hand-in-hand to perpetuate dangerous, expensive and inefficient technologies (while, on Capitol Hill, House Republicans vote to slash already threadbare programs meant to encourage renewable energy development).

In an age where so many economies are desperately trying not to lose any more ground in the present, could it be that the ones more responsive to their rank-and-file electorates are the ones in the best position to (to borrow a quickly forgotten phrase) win the future?

The Party Line – September 16, 2011: Though Nuclear Crisis Continues, IAEA Can’t Force Safety Overhaul

On Monday, September 12, an incinerator explosion at a French nuclear waste processing center killed one, injured four, and created just enough nuclear news to edge this week’s other nuclear story right out of the headlines.

The explosion, which is reported not to have caused any leak of radiation, was at a facility that reprocesses used nuclear reactor fuel in order to create a more toxic, less stable form of fuel commonly known as “mixed oxide” or MOX. MOX, which is a tasty blend of uranium and plutonium, was in at least some of the rods in some of the reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility when it suffered catastrophic failures after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami–and the presence of MOX fuel made the fallout from explosions at the Japanese plant more dangerous as a result. (More dangerous than already extremely dangerous might seem like a trivial addendum, but it is of note if for no other reason than the manufacture and use of MOX fuel is what nuclear power proponents think of when they call it a “renewable resource.”)

And it was the Fukushima disaster that brought diplomats, nuclear scientists, and government regulators to the negotiating table in Vienna for this week’s annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At issue, a June proposal by IAEA chief Yukia Amano that the world’s nuclear nations respond to the Japanese crisis with tougher safety regulations and mandatory inspections.

The proposal–which included a one-year deadline for new safety standards and an 18-month window for stress tests on all reactors–had the backing of large nuclear power-generating nations such as Canada, Germany, and Australia, as well as many non-nuclear nations across the globe, but that support and the ongoing disaster in Japan were not enough to overcome sustained, behind-the-scenes efforts to derail this plan. When the IAEA finally took up a draft resolution on Tuesday, it contained no timelines, deadlines or mandatory inspections. Instead, IAEA safety checks, peer reviews, and other moves to ensure nuclear safety may be taken up “upon request” of the nuclear state in question.

Which parties were behind the near-total neutering of the IAEA proposal? Who was responsible for reassuring the global nuclear power industry that virtually no lessons would be learned from the continuing crisis in Japan? It should be no surprise to find traditional foes of nuclear oversight such as Russia, China, Pakistan, and India (along with Argentina) pushing hard against the IAEA. And, given Barack Obama’s very public proclamations of support for nuclear power within days of the Japanese quake, it should probably also not surprise anyone to find the United States right there with them:

[T]he United States was also comfortable with the decision to strip the plan of language entrusting the agency with more clout that was present in earlier drafts and leaving oversight to governments, national safety authorities and power companies. . . .

And now, courtesy of the same AP story, the comic relief:

Such a stance reflects Washington’s strong belief in domestic regulatory bodies having full control of nuclear safety.

The Associated Press, which deserves immense credit for this summer’s exposé on the cozy relationship government regulators have with the nuclear industry it is supposed to police, clearly didn’t give this story the same level of effort (click through for the amusing use of the word “establish” in the penultimate paragraph). . . or maybe it did, and is just bad at communicating the sarcasm. As documented in the months since the start of the Fukushima crisis, a small collection of too-weak recommendations from a Nuclear Regulatory Commission task force is now dying a slow death thanks to lobbying from the nuclear industry, and the NRC commissioners and elected officials receptive to it.

This week’s physical explosion might have taken place in southern France, but the shot that needs to be heard around the world is the IAEA firing blanks, thanks in part to the concerted efforts of a United States government in the grip of a dangerous but powerful industry. At the same time a relative non-event like the Solyndra bankruptcy seems to be growing scandalous legs thanks to obsessive media attention, the real Obama administration scandal is its addiction to old, expensive, dangerous, and non-renewable forms of energy. (See here, too, a very interesting piece tying America’s decline to dwindling petroleum supplies.) That this “The business of America is business-as-usual” story has not made headlines is, itself, probably not news, but what can–and likely will someday–happen because the US government is adamant that Fukushima changes nothing will not be so easy to ignore.

The Party Line – September 9, 2011: Shaken, But Still Not Stirred

Sunday, September 11, will of course be the tenth anniversary of a tragedy that fundamentally changed America in ways we are still trying to understand. But this 9/11 is also a day for other anniversaries, ones that will likely get little, if any, recognition in the US.

In 1985, for instance, September 11 saw a Keystone Kops-like collection of miscues during a test of the remote shutdown protocols at the Limerick Generating Station, a boiling water nuclear reactor outside of Philadelphia. During the shutdown, a valve on a cooling system failed to open, and attempts to manually open the valve were met by a locked door, and a call for a key, which, after a 15-minute wait, turned out to be the wrong key. Once the proper key was found and the door was opened, the operators found the valve’s hand wheel chained and padlocked to prevent accidental opening. Those keys were in the abandoned control room. Bolt cutters had to be used before the operators could finally open the valve.

All that time, the reactor core’s temperature was increasing. Fortunately, the test was done during startup, when decay heat is relatively low, so control rods were able to slow the reaction enough to provide time to overcome the multiple barriers to opening the valve. Had the plant been operating at full power when this series of problems occurred, the outcome would likely have not been so rosy.

September 11 will also mark six months since the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northern Japan triggered a series of cataclysmic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. That accident provides no amusing anecdotes or happy endings, but those horrible events should provide a loud wakeup call and numerous object lessons for nuclear power programs across the globe.

As previously noted, the Japanese nightmare and domestic political realities have spurred German Prime Minister Angela Merkel to announce a rather rapid phase out of her country’s nuclear plants. The Japanese government, too, has spoken of turning away from nuclear power and toward renewable alternatives.

But here in the United States, six months on from Japan’s quake, there are no such proclamations or pledges–if anything, quite the contrary–and almost no movement on even the most incremental of recommendations.

In the face of lessons still not learned, a trio of nuclear experts gathered in Washington, DC on September 8 to highlight key concerns that still have not been addressed six months after the start of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Included on the list are several issues discussed in this space since the Fukushima quake (this is a partial and edited list–please use the link for more concerns and more explanation):

The U.S. regulatory response since Fukushima has been inadequate. “Six months after Fukushima, it seems clear that the U.S. is not going to undertake the type of fundamental, no-holds-barred look at its nuclear regulatory practices that followed the much less serious accident at Three Mile Island some 30 years ago.”

America should avoid post-9/11 mistakes in tightening reactor safety standards. “In responding to Fukushima by issuing orders, the NRC should not make the same mistakes as it did following 9/11, when industry stonewalling delayed implementation of critical security measures for many years. Even today, some post 9/11 security upgrades have not been completed at numerous plants. . . . The U.S. must respond to Fukushima in a much more comprehensive way or it may soon face an accident even worse than Fukushima.”

The U.S. was warned of Fukushima-style problems but failed to act … and is still failing to do so. “U.S. reactors have some of the shortcomings of the Fukushima plants. Furthermore, citizen groups and scientists had tried to call one of these – spent fuel pool vulnerability — to Nuclear Regulatory Commission attention during the last decade. The NRC dismissed these efforts. . . . Without a root cause analysis of its own failure to heed the now validated warnings about spent fuel pools, the NRC may patch the technical problems revealed by Fukushima, but it won’t fix the underlying shortcomings that allow defects to persist until catastrophic events rather than regulatory vigilance force the nuclear industry and the public to face up to them.”

Emergency planning zones in the U.S. must be expanded. “In contrast to the [NRC] Task Force conclusions, we believe that emergency planning zones should be expanded, certain hydrogen control measures should be immediately enforced and spent fuel transfer to dry casks should be accelerated. Also, the safety margins of new reactors need to be reassessed.”

The recent East Coast earthquake should spur more NRC safety analysis. “The earthquake near the North Anna nuclear plant, which reportedly exceeded the plant’s seismic design basis, reinforces the urgency of the NRC Fukushima task force’s recommendation that all plants immediately be reviewed for their vulnerability to seismic and flooding hazards based on the best available information today.”

To that last point, as noted before, the earthquake that struck Mineral, VA in late August should have moved US nuclear regulators to quickly adopt the recommendations of the Fukushima task force. Well, the quake doesn’t seem to have moved the NRC much, but it did move some things, like most of the 117-ton dry storage casks at the North Anna facility. . . and, as we now have learned, pretty much everything else there:

Last month’s record earthquake in the eastern United States may have shaken a Virginia nuclear plant twice as hard as it was designed to withstand, a spokesman for the nuclear safety regulator said on Thursday.

Dominion Resources told the regulator that the ground under the plant exceeded its “design basis” — the first time an operating U.S. plant has experienced such a milestone. . . .

That a facility experienced such a milestone is now known because, over two weeks after the fact, data from the so-called “shake plates” has finally been released (almost a week after it was expected):

“We are currently thinking that at the higher frequencies, the peak acceleration was around 0.26″ g, which is a unit of gravity that measures the impact of shaking on buildings, said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman.

The plant was designed to withstand 0.12 g of horizontal ground force for parts that sit on rock, and 0.18 g for parts that sit on soil, Burnell said.

Dominion’s sensors recorded average horizontal ground force of 0.13 g in an east-west direction and 0.175 g in a north-south direction, officials said.

The apparent discrepancy seems to stem from the distance between instruments used by the US Geological Survey and those cited by North Anna’s operator, Dominion, but even taking the smaller numbers, the design limits of the plant were exceeded.

Dominion officials have been quick to point out that even though some things have moved and some structures show cracks, those changes are merely cosmetic and in no way dangerous. But nuclear engineer John H. Bickel says that vessels and pipes are not the first things to go in a quake:

[A]n analysis of plants hit by earthquakes had shown that the most vulnerable components were ceramic insulators on high-voltage lines that supply the plants with power and electrical relays, which resemble industrial-strength circuit-breakers and switches.

Even if the relays are not damaged, they might be shaken so that they change positions, cutting off the flow of electricity or allowing it to flow without any command from an operator.

As previously noted (with more than a hint of irony), in order to safely generate electrical power, nuclear plants need an uninterrupted supply of electrical power. Without electricity, cooling systems and important monitors in both the reactors and spent fuel storage pools cannot function. Without effective cooling, nuclear facilities are looking at a series of disasters like the ones encountered at Fukushima Daiichi. That the most quake-vulnerable components directly affect a nuclear plant’s power supply is yet another data point underscoring the urgent need to review and enhance seismic safety at US facilities.

But even before that nation-wide examination can take place, the damage to the shaken North Anna plant needs to be surveyed and analyzed so that Dominion might restart its reactors. What does Dominion need to show in order to get the thumbs up, what criteria need to be met, what repairs or retrofits should be required? To paraphrase the head of the NRC: Who knows?

In an interview last week, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko told Reuters it was unclear what the plant would need to show to resume operations because it is the first time an operating plant has sustained a beyond-design-basis quake.

As Hurricane Irene revealed the lack of national guidelines for what to do in the face of an approaching storm, the Virginia earthquake has shown that the United States has no regulatory regime for learning, analyzing, or acting on data from events that exceed the often-negotiated-down design parameters of its nuclear facilities.

In fact, the NRC does not even have a post-quake inspection protocol. Inspections of North Anna are being done according to procedural guidelines drawn up by the Electric Power Research Institute, “a nonprofit utility consortium that has inspected dozens of industrial plants hit by earthquakes around the world.”

Yes, the nuclear industry has written its own post-event checklist, and, in the absence of any other standard, is left alone to use it.

That sort of self-policing leads to some noteworthy analysis, like this from a nuclear industry attorney: “You shake something really hard, and it’s not designed to be shaken that hard — it doesn’t mean that it’s broken.”

But there is something even more disturbing, if that is possible, propagated by the weak regulations and weak-willed regulators. It leaves space for arguments like this one from that same industry lawyer:

The incident helps make the case for new-generation nuclear plants, which have additional safety features. . . . “If you can have a car from 2011 vs. a car from 1978, what are you going to put your toddler in?”

Beyond the fact that no one is actually suggesting the 1978 plants get traded in for newer models (just augmented with them), cars have to compete for consumer dollars in a way that nuclear plants do not. Nuclear plants could not be built, fueled, operated or maintained without massive subsidies, loan guarantees, and infrastructure commitments from the federal government.

Also of note, a 2011 automobile is safer and more efficient than a 1978 model because of government regulation. The auto industry has fought improvements like mandatory airbags, three-point restraints, and CAFE standards, but a strong government imposed those requirements anyway. And your toddler is safer in that car because the Consumer Product Safety Commission reviews the design of child car seats, and laws mandate their use.

Where the comparison does work, however, is that both represent a false choice. Just as a car is not the only way to transport a toddler, nuclear plants are not the only means by which to generate power. And in 2011, there are many more choices, and many safer choices, than there were in 1978.

Which recalls the important contrast between a country such as Germany–which, faced with a restive electorate and lessons to be learned from Japan’s misfortune, has made a commitment to not just trade in nuclear but trade up to renewable alternatives–and the US, where corporate influence and politics as usual have left the government with seemingly few options beyond willful ignorance and calcification.

Even without recognition of the Japan quake’s semi-anniversary, September 11 will probably be a tense day for most Americans, especially those with personal connections to the events of ten years ago. But while remembrance will be hard, it will mostly be so because of an event now relegated to history.

Residents of Japan, still living with an ongoing and ever-evolving threat, cannot so neatly define their anguish. And if there is a message to be found in this coincidental concurrence of dates, it perhaps springs from there. While Americans can debate what could have been done to prevent the attacks of 9/11/2001, it is a debate held in hindsight. For the Japanese dealing with the aftermath of their disaster, hindsight still seems like a luxury to be enjoyed very far in the future.

But, for the United States, a debate about what can be done to prevent a Fukushima-like disaster here is theoretically blessed, both because it is a debate that can be had before the next crisis, and because it is a debate that can be informed by events. And experience, science, economics and common sense are all pretty clear on what needs to be done.

The Party Line – September 2, 2011: Earthquakes, Hurricane Highlight Serious Flaws with Nuclear Power and its Regulation

On Friday, August 26, as Hurricane Irene began its slow journey up the US central Atlantic coast, power companies operating 20 nuclear reactors in nine states made plans to deal with the storm and its potential aftermath.

North Carolina’s Brunswick reactors, operated by Progress Energy, were powered down to 70 percent of peak capacity. At New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, near Barnegat Bay, plant operator Exelon chose to shutdown its reactor completely. Dominion Resources, owner of New London, Connecticut’s Millstone plant took one reactor down to 70 percent, the other to 50 percent.

Dominion’s Surry plant in Virginia stayed at full power, as did Entergy’s Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, and the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts.

The reason some plants chose to reduce output or go offline was because, if an accident caused or required the plant to scram–that is, quickly and completely shut down–the stress on the reactor increases the chance of a future safety breach. As Bob Alvarez, of the Institute for Policy Studies, explains:

Keep in mind that when these large reactors scram, it’s like a jumbo jet making a quick forced landing. The sudden insertion of control rods creates unexpected stress on the reactor. This is why when a reactor is normally shut-down for refueling, it is done gradually. If a reactor experiences several scrams during a year, this should raise a red nuclear safety flag.

While working in DOE, I was involved in energy emergency planning, and electricity blackouts, NRC staff were definitely concerned about the safety of increased scrams caused by forced power outages.

By reducing output, a reactor comes under less stress during a rapid shutdown. It is like hitting the brakes at 35 mph as opposed to slamming them on at 60 mph. The stop is faster and results in less wear-and-tear on the vehicle.

One plant that decided not to reduce output was Constellation Energy Group’s Calvert Cliffs facility near Lusby, Maryland. That was probably a mistake:

A nuclear power reactor automatically went offline late Saturday in Calvert Cliffs after its main transformer was hit by a piece of aluminum siding that Hurricane Irene had peeled off a building. . . .

A follow-up NRC Daily Event Report filed on August 29 by Constellation Energy to the NRC identified that the wind blown debris crashed into an electrical transformer at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear station causing an electrical short and “An unanticipated explosion within the Protected Area resulting in visible damage to permanent structures or equipment.”

To be clear, automatically going offline is a scram.

That is bad news for CEG, which has to keep the reactor offline pending a full inspection by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it might have actually been good news for the surrounding communities. As it turns out, the transformer explosion was not the only problem encountered at Calvert Cliffs during Irene’s visit. As the NRC’s August 29 Daily Event Report [PDF] states:

At 2400, 8/27/2011, numerous alarms on the 1A DG [Diesel Generator] started to be received. These were investigated and it was found that water was intruding down the DG exhaust piping resulting in a DC ground. Based on these indications the 1A DG was declared inoperable and appropriate technical specifications implemented.

In other words, the backup power generator would not have worked if the Calvert Cliffs reactor had lost its main power source. As previously observed, nuclear plants require a steady stream of electric power to operate safely, as cooling systems and monitoring devices depend on it.

It was also noted in the NRC event report that Hurricane Irene “disabled public notification sirens in two counties in the reactor’s emergency planning zone.” They lost power, and CEG had not provided any battery back-up system. So, if an accident severe enough to require precautions or evacuation took place that night, large numbers of people would have been left in the dark, as it were. As the editors of Beyond Nuclear put it, “So much for defense in depth.”

And so much for oversight, it seems. The problems at Calvert Cliffs are not really a revelation–at least not to the NRC:

Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland is due for closer scrutiny by federal regulators after unspecified security lapses discovered there earlier this year.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has finalized a “greater than green” finding of security deficiencies spotted during a special inspection from January to July of this year, according to a letter released Wednesday. The agency has not disclosed the nature of the problems, saying that releasing such information might help someone to attack or sabotage the twin-reactor plant in Lusby in Calvert County.

That is the sum total of an item in the August 31 Baltimore Sun. Curious civilians with an abundance of time can access some of the reports through the NRC’s Calvert Cliffs page, but there is no digest for lay readers.

And even the untrained eye might take issue in light of recent developments. For instance, a May report [PDF] on an inspection instigated in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima disaster gave a passing grade to backup equipment designed to kick-in if a so-called SBO, or Site Blackout, occurred. As observed, rainfall from Irene rendered a backup diesel generator inoperable.

The lingering safety questions, coupled with dual mishaps caused by high winds and heavy rain, appear not to have resulted in a dangerous event at Calvert Cliffs this time. However, it is just this kind of “what are the chances?” one-two punch that so exacerbated the crisis in Japan, and it is events like this that again should serve as an urgent wakeup call for regulators and legislators alike to quickly implement safety improvements to America’s nuclear facilities.

But step back, and an even larger systemic problem takes shape. Each private energy company made its own decisions on what to do with each of its reactors in the face of an approaching (and somewhat predictable) natural disaster. The call on whether to decrease output or shutdown reactors in advance was not the federal government’s call, not the NRC’s, and not the call of at-risk states or municipalities. There is no federal rule, and, apparently, no federal authority to direct plants on how to operate in cases of multi-region events such as a hurricane.

The NRC’s post-Fukushima-disaster task force did not specifically address this issue, but it did recommend a reexamination of the way the entirety of US nuclear power generation is regulated. The majority of NRC commissioners, however, found even that vague recommendation to be too urgent, and any consideration of this question is now at least 18 months away.

Meanwhile, at North Anna’s quake-damaged plant. . . .

On August 26, Dominion, the company that operates the reactors at Virginia’s North Anna plant, notified the NRC that the 5.8 magnitude Earthquake centered in Mineral, Virginia, might have caused more shaking than the facility was designed to withstand. (Some confusion has surrounded the seismic standard to which North Anna was built. The tolerances are often shorthanded to a Richter scale magnitude number, but, in fact, plant design is supposed to be evaluated against the amount of shaking a quake will cause. Shaking at one point depends on magnitude, but also on the distance from the epicenter and the depth of the quake, as well as other geological factors.) Full results of an examination of the “shake plates” (which measure ground motion) are supposed to be released later today (September 2).

What is already known, though, is that the shaking caused many of North Anna’s dry casks–a type of spent-fuel storage container–to move by as much as four inches. Twenty-five of the 27 vertical casks moved as a result of the quake. Each of those steel and concrete casks contains 32 spent fuel rods and weighs 115 tons. Newer horizontal casks did not move, but some of the 26 (13 already full of spent fuel) show what has been termed “cosmetic damage” to exterior concrete.

As discussed, but, as noted here, not addressed in the NRC task force report, dry cask storage is preferable to the spent fuel pools where “fresher” old fuel is stored at most US plants. Pools require a dependable electrical source to keep liquid circulating and completely covering stored fuel rods. An interruption of power or damage to the cooling system can cause dangerous conditions where the liquid overheats, boils away, and even “cracks” as a result of the nuclear reaction, which accelerates as the pools heat and disappear, and hydrogen explosions are possible, further damaging the vessels and sending radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Dry casks store fuel further removed from “active service,” and are cooled by naturally circulating air.

While the March quake and tsunami provoked the described dangerous events in Fukushima Daiichi’s spent fuel pools, there are no reports of any problems with any of Japan’s dry casks.

But the movement of and damage to North Anna’s casks, though minor, is not meaningless. Beyond the contrasts with liquid storage, the August event highlights the lack of a national repository for spent-but-still-highly-radioactive nuclear fuel. Fifty-five of the nation’s nuclear facilities currently have dry casks on site, but the United States has no centralized facility for the long-term storage. And, since the Obama administration declared Nevada’s partially built Yucca Mountain repository closed, the US has no current plan for the disposal of this dangerous material.

The NRC Fukushima task force acknowledges the need for a long-term plan, but there exist no specific recommendations and no process or funding for developing any.

And speaking of Fukushima. . . .

Al Jazeera has a disturbing report on radioactive waste from the ongoing nuclear disaster overwhelming sewage treatment facilities hundreds of miles from Fukushima.

In Japan, before March, processed sewage sludge was often shipped out for use by fertilizer and concrete manufacturers. But now, even far from the destroyed nuclear plant, the sewage is too dangerous for any use. As a result, piles of highly radioactive sludge are accumulating at sewage plants that have no capacity or expertise for handling the toxic material. Instead, containers and piles of sludge are just being lined up at the processing plants, out in the open, covered by simple plastic tarps. Workers are told they face no imminent danger, but Geiger counters say otherwise.

 

The Japanese government has no plan for dealing with this latest sinister wrinkle, saying only that it is not yet an urgent problem.

Such a lack of urgency is stunning and sad for a country and a people so directly in harm’s way, but a similar lackadaisical, industry-coddling attitude in the US should be no less troubling. True, nothing as terrible as Japan’s catastrophe has yet occurred at an American nuclear plant, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility, as almost every passing week or natural disaster seems to accentuate.

Theoretically, the United States has a body tasked with responding to these new probabilities–the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And if the NRC won’t do its job, the US has a body with strict oversight powers–Congress. The Congress and the president also have the ability to demand from the nuclear industry improvements in safety and emergency preparedness in exchange for the federal subsidies and loan guarantees the industry needs to operate at all.

But if the Commission or the politicians cannot break free of their cozy relationships with–and the campaign donations from–private energy companies, then who or what, beyond nature, will hold the nuclear industry accountable?

The lifespan of a nuclear plant or a political career is short, but the half-life of many byproducts of nuclear power generation is long. In some cases, very, very long. Is any nation’s political system able to take that long a view?

The Party Line – August 26, 2011: Virginia Quake Yet Another Wakeup Call for Sleepy Nuclear Regulators (Plus: Japan’s PM Resigns)

Late Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) made this observation over at The Huffington Post:

Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety. Without electricity, nuclear power plants are unable to pump cooling water through reactor cores and spent fuel pools to prevent overheating and fuel melting.

Without power, plant operators cannot control reactor activity or remotely monitor spent fuel.

It was the loss of electrical power that led to the partial-meltdown of multiple reactors, significant radiation release and damage to the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the devastating 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March.

First, I can’t move on without noting two problems there in the last paragraph.

I don’t know how Feinstein defines it, but I think most of the world has dropped the “partial” from the assessment of the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Maybe DiFi has some secret pictures that show tiny bits of intact cladding floating on top of the blobs of corium now understood to be at the bottom of at least some of the damaged reactors, and so she feels uncomfortable going all the way, but the company that nominally runs the facility and the country that is unlucky enough to serve as its home feel sure enough to call it a meltdown without the modifier, so I think US Senators should, too.

Also, it is now believed that a meltdown in at least one of the reactors started before the tsunami that followed Japan’s March 11 earthquake. In other words, as I reported previously, the earthquake damaged the containment vessel or, more likely, the cooling system before the massive wave knocked out the backup generators and, thus, power to the cooling system. So, the loss of power did not lead to at least some of the meltdown—earthquake damage did.

That is not just an academic nitpick, it goes directly to how Feinstein and the entire US regulatory structure should evaluate the safety of domestic nuclear power plants.

Second: “Uninterrupted electricity is essential for nuclear safety.” Just think about that for a second. Uninterrupted electricity is essential for the safe generation of electricity. It is a logic that seems as vulnerable to reason as nuclear cooling systems are to seismic and tidal events.

But third, I do want to congratulate Senator Feinstein for recognizing and writing the obvious:

The incident [Tuesday’s magnitude 5.8 quake centered in Virginia] was a stark reminder of how vulnerable America’s nuclear power plants are to natural disasters.

I mean that congratulations sincerely. Yes, we didn’t really need a new reminder—Japan’s Fukushima disaster is recent and ongoing—but the Mineral, VA earthquake was another indication that our nuclear plants are vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters at many points. And more American politicians should say just what DiFi said, instead of brushing off Japan’s already extant stark reminder as a “can’t happen here” event, or quickly forgetting Tuesday’s quake because it resulted in “minimal damage and no loss of life” (to use Feinstein’s own rosy words).

Feinstein continues by laying out four “lessons” that Japan and Virginia should teach us. (It is really more like two or three points with repeats, but that’s OK.) The headlines:

First, our country needs a comprehensive, national policy to address the management of spent fuel, the radioactive waste produced while generating electricity by fission.

Second, today’s efforts to protect against seismic and flooding hazards may not be sufficient.

Third, we must improve the redundant safety systems to respond to disasters.

Finally, for spent fuel stored at reactor sites, dry casks are safer and more secure than permanent storage in spent fuel pools.

Both the first and fourth points note that storing spent fuel in pools of circulating water is not a particularly safe, efficient, or cost-effective way of dealing with one of nuclear power generation’s biggest problems. Not only are these pools also dependent on an uninterrupted source of electricity to keep water circulating and levels high enough to keep the rods—now packed in at many times the pools’ original designed capacity—from overheating and melting themselves or cracking the water and triggering hydrogen explosions, the cooling systems for the pools are also vulnerable to seismic events.

Feinstein says that spent rods should be moved to dry casks and eventually to a secure repository, observing that spent fuel in Japan housed in dry casks had no problems after the March 11 quake and flood. Strangely, though, the senator cites the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s special taskforce report on the aftermath of the Japanese disaster as the inspiration for making this call for dry casks and a national fuel repository—strange because, as both Physicians for Social Responsibility and I noted back when the report was released, the task force pointedly did not make any recommendations for moving spent fuel to dry casks or to off-site repositories.

Feinstein also says she has learned that protections against earthquakes and flooding may not be sufficient. Again, DiFi modifies—there is really no need to say “may” here. From Fukushima Daiichi to the reactors in Virginia known as North Anna 1 and 2, it should now be very clear that nuclear plants are walking a precarious line between “minimal damage” and catastrophic failure.

Let’s look more closely at what happened on Tuesday. A 5.8 earthquake centered 15 miles from the North Anna nuclear power generating facility cut electrical power to the plant. Backup diesel generators kicked in to provide power to the cooling systems, averting the overheating of either the reactor core or the pools of spent fuel. Good news, as far as it goes, but there are several disconcerting caveats.

First, we don’t know if the plant—which is theoretically designed to withstand a quake of a 6.2 magnitude—has actually emerged from Tuesday’s tremor completely unscathed. The reactors are currently being brought to a cold shutdown so that they may be inspected further. Not only must the containment vessels be more closely inspected, the cooling system must be tested for leaks. Some of the pipes and conduits for that system are underground. As reactor expert Paul Gunter has noted, an underground rupture, one that might be leaking radioactive tritium into ground water, is quite possible and needs to be investigated more fully.

(As a caveat to the caveat, I must note that we also need to find a way to verify that the public is being fully informed about any damage and radioactive leaks—not a sure thing in light of both the evolving story of cover-up in Japan and this summer’s expose on collusion between the NRC and the nuclear industry.)

Second, the North Anna plant gets its name from Lake Anna, an artificial lake created to provide a reservoir for the cooling requirements of the nuclear facility. What if the quake had caused the dam that holds the water in Lake Anna to rupture? Beyond the dangerous flooding to well-populated communities downstream, the water level in the reservoir would drop to a point where the nuclear plant’s cooling system would fail. If this were to happen, no amount of redundant power generation would fix the problem. Does this sound farfetched? It is not. Virginia is noteworthy for its lack of attention to its aging infrastructure—in fact, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ infrastructure report card [PDF], the condition of Virginia’s dams gets a D-minus.

(It should be noted that the initial inspection of the Lake Anna dam after Tuesday’s quake showed no new damage.)

Third, not all of North Anna’s backup generators worked on Tuesday. Only three of the four came online after power was lost. (Hooray for required redundancy.) What is not clear is what effect this had on the plant’s ability to function normally, or what would have happened if grid power had not been restored as quickly to the facility.

Fourth, there is emerging evidence that seismic activity can increase as the result of the pressure from dammed reservoirs, as well as from hydraulic fracturing (which has been going on in the vicinity of Tuesday’s epicenter).

And finally, to simply give a Richter scale number as a sort of assurance of the safety of a nuclear facility is overly simplistic if not downright deceptive. Here’s why:

As noted here today and before, there are many systems that have to survive an earthquake—the reactor containment vessel, its cooling system, the spent fuel pools, their cooling systems, the reactor building, the monitoring equipment, and a plant’s connection to a steady supply of electrical power. In theory, all these systems were evaluated when the plans for a nuclear facility were initially approved. They all should survive a quake of a specified magnitude.

However, all of America’s nuclear facilities were licensed during a time when regulators assessed designs based on what is called Deterministic Seismic Hazard Analysis (DSHA). But, as noted in a May Congressional Research Service report [PDF]:

Since then, Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis (PSHA) has been adopted as a more comprehensive approach in engineering practice. Consequently, the NRC is reassessing the probability of seismic core damage at existing plants.

I am not an expert in plate tectonics, but what I read tells me that you would feel more secure with a PSHA-generated standard—and what I have learned from Fukushima is that I want that standard applied to all the systems needed to safely operate a nuclear power plant. But what this report tells me is that the NRC is only in the midst of some process of reevaluating plants’ seismic vulnerability—a process that was to have begun last year but has moved very slowly (and this is only the evaluation stage)—and that this re-evaluation is of the probability of core damage, which, to my eye, is not the same as an evaluation of every system needed for the reactor and the spent fuel pools to remain safe.

And I am not alone in my worries. Here’s the NRC itself after it looked at North Anna in April (via the Institute for Southern Studies and the Center for Public Integrity):

Specifically, the NRC report notes that portions of water and gaseous suppression systems and hose stations “are not seismically designed.”

The report noted that “potential leakage can occur through penetrations following seismic event.”

And with specific regard to the spent fuel pools, ISS continues:

There’s also concern about what a major quake would mean for the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants. Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who recently authored a report on the dangers of spent fuel storage in the United States, addressed the issue in a piece on the IPS blog posted shortly after the quake:

The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

Alvarez went on to note that almost 40 percent of the radioactivity in North Anna’s spent fuel pools is in the form of cesium-137, a long-lived isotope that presents serious health risks and accumulates in the food chain. He continued:

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.

This goes to explaining the confusion I see over whether just parts or the entirety of a nuclear facility is required to meet a specific earthquake safety standard. But what it doesn’t do is imply that a single, plant-wide standard will be used in the future.

As noted when the special task force report came out earlier this summer, the recommendation that the current patchwork of safety rules should be unified and standardized was actually being slow-walked by three of the five NRC commissioners. Finally, one week ago, the commission agreed to give its technical team 45 days to analyze some of the recommendations, but they will be given a full 18 months to analyze the recommendation that the NRC revise its entire regulatory framework in light of lessons learned after the Fukushima disaster.

It should also be noted that there is currently no law that requires the NRC to apply the new, better seismic standards when evaluating requests for license renewals or the building of additional reactors at existing facilities. (There is a bill, languishing in the House, designed to fix this. . . did I mention it was languishing?)

Which brings us back to Senator Feinstein, or, really, her California colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works and has oversight responsibilities over the NRC. While DiFi has written about the lessons of this week’s Virginia quake, Boxer has demanded action on the NRC taskforce report on the lessons learned from Fukushima. At a hearing on August 2, Boxer demanded the NRC pick up the pace on evaluating the recommendations and report back to her by November. With the NRC’s decision on how it will move forward, and the latest in a lengthening string of “wakeup calls” having caused incidents at North Anna and a number of other eastern nuclear facilities, perhaps both of California’s Senators might consider official hearings before then.

It must also be mentioned that while I was writing this post, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has stepped down. Stories on the resignation concurrently cite his dismal poll numbers from an anti-nuke electorate, and the lack of support from pro-nuclear members of his party. Kan, who had previously hinted at leaving after the Fukushima crisis was brought under control (it seems I correctly predicted he’d be gone well before that), has also signaled that he wanted to wean Japan off nuclear power for electrical generation and move more aggressively toward renewable sources. Both possible reasons for his early exit speak to some form of accountability—one to the public, the other to entrenched nuclear industry masters—and both have probably played some roll. But what matters going forward is to whom the next leader will answer, and what happens with Japanese nuclear facilities will make that very clear.

In the US, we have a less clear choice—no one has proposed a move away from nuclear power (quite the contrary)—which, alas, probably tells us who calls the shots in our country. But that ugly political reality doesn’t change the physical one—United States nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to numerous seismic and tidal threats. As Diane Feinstein concludes, “We need to learn the lessons we can to assure that next time we are ready—not just lucky.”

The Party Line – August 19, 2011: Japan Nuclear Crisis Continues, Highlighting More Potential Dangers in US

Imagine, if you will, living somewhat close to a nuclear reactor—not right next door, but close enough—and then imagine that an accident at that reactor causes a large release of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Certainly scary, but maybe less scary because you know your government has computer models that show where the nuclear fallout will blow and fall, and they explain that the amounts that will blow and fall on you are negligible.

Sure, you might think twice about that reassurance, but it is not like they are saying everything is OK. The government, after all, did evacuate some people based on their fallout models. . . so they are on top of it.

Then imagine five months later, after you’ve breathed the air, drank the water, and tramped dirt and snow in and around your home, the government reveals that even though they had the models, and even though they knew the amounts of radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear plant, they didn’t input the known amounts into the fallout model, so that when the government was reassuring people, it was doing so based on a minimum measurable number used to build the model, and not the actual amounts then being released. So, now, you find that not only have you been living in a place that was well within a zone now littered with hazardous fallout, you find that many who were evacuated were moved directly into the path of that radioactive plume.

While you’re at it, imagine that you’ve been eating contaminated beef, because the government failed to stop the distribution of radioactive rice straw. And, also, imagine you’ve been drinking tea containing three times the allowable limit of radioactive cesium because the government didn’t think they needed to monitor tea that was grown over 100 miles from the failed reactor.

Imagine, too, that your children are safe because the amount of ionizing radiation they are exposed to is under the government’s annual limit. . . because the government just increased the allowable annual limit twenty-fold, from one millisievert to 20 mSv.

Of course, as I am sure you have already surmised, if you live in many parts of Northern Japan, you don’t have to imagine any of this—this is your everyday reality.

This rather terrifying reality really isn’t limited to Northern Japan, however. Yes, that region has suffered the worst of the triple play that was a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, but the contaminated food has been found all over Japan (and now there is word that tuna is also showing evidence of contamination), and in Tokyo, outside the evacuation zone and even the worst of the newly revealed plume models, a rainstorm ten days after the earthquake increased levels of background radiation in the city, and they have remained high ever since.

A professor at Tokyo University recently made a speech before the Japanese Diet in which he compared levels of contamination and exposure from the Fukushima disaster to that from the atomic blast at Hiroshima—the current crisis being upwards of twenty times worse.

More troubling still—for the Japanese, and anyone, frankly, that shares a jet stream with them—the last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a fourth meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, and, perhaps even more disturbing, news of highly radioactive steam emerging from cracks in the ground around the reactor buildings. What makes that last point especially scary is that some believe this is evidence that the “corium” (the molten mess of fissile material that was once fuel rods inside of a reactor) has not only melted through the bottom of the containment vessel, but has started to burn through the concrete floor of the complex and is sinking toward the water table. (Images of Jane Fonda and Jack Lemon make this seem less serious to me, but you will hear others talk of this and reference The China Syndrome.) A constant leaking of a sort of radioactive smog is bad enough—it makes working on the cleanup go from ridiculously difficult to nearly impossible—but the bigger concern is an interaction between the corium and the groundwater that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, causing a big explosion, sending more contaminants up into the atmosphere.

Such a scenario also sets up another imagination exercise: try to imagine just what effect this development will have on the already dubious plan to cover the breached reactor buildings with giant tarps. That’s one you will still have to imagine, because, as yet, there is no reported adjustment in the containment and cleanup plan from the Japanese government.

Of course, as terrible as this all is, it seems terribly removed from what should concern inhabitants of the mainland United States. After all, the US has not suffered this nuclear accident, it has no issues with leaking radioactive isotopes, America is a much larger and less densely populated country than Japan, and, after all, the dual disaster that caused the Fukushima reactors to meltdown is near to completely impossible for almost any of the reactors based in the US.

Except that none of that is true.

Though none have yet risen to the size and scope of the Fukushima disaster, the US has a long history of nuclear accidents. Some are of the instantaneous crisis variety, like Three Mile Island (to name only the most obvious of several), but many are of the slowly evolved, quietly revealed variety. For instance, just this week, health officials announced that radioactive tritium released from aging pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility had leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Connecticut River. In past years, strontium contamination had also been linked to the same plant. Vermont Yankee officials, now lobbying for a license renewal, have basically responded with “Pipes? What pipes?” and “Those are not our isotopes.”

And Vermont Yankee is just one of a long list of aging nuclear facilities built dangerously close to population centers. One third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.

Feeling eerily similar to the Japanese response, the US government has met elevated readings of background radiation and radioactive isotopes triggered by the fallout from Fukushima with a decrease in the reporting of such data (and in some cases, an actual decrease in data collected). There is talk (behind closed doors, of course) of revising upward the acceptable amounts of radioactive contamination in certain foods. An AP report exposed a history of US government regulators working closely with the nuclear industry to weaken safety requirements and paper-over violations. And, even a series of relatively modest recommendations on how to enhance nuclear safety based on what has been observed in Japan is being slow-walked into non-implementation.

And maybe most disturbing of all, the very premise that is supposed to comfort us, that the meltdowns in Japan were the result of a catastrophic coincidence of events—an earthquake shutting off electricity to the plant, a tsunami knocking out the diesel back-up generators, thus leaving the facility with no way of powering the cooling systems—while already not wholly impossible in the United States, might turn out to be seriously flawed and overly optimistic. Evidence is beginning to emerge that some of the Fukushima meltdowns might have begun almost immediately after the earthquake, likely the result of multiple ruptures to the cooling system itself caused not by the tsunami, but by the tremor. In other words, even with full power to the plant, the cooling systems would have failed.

Reports right after the March earthquake in Japan found a disturbing number of US nuclear plants in active seismic zones, and found several near large population centers in the east to be even more vulnerable to earthquake damage than the two oft-cited California facilities. But here’s the clincher, those probabilities of whether a nuclear plant can survive an earthquake of a size likely to occur in a particular area are calculated on whether the tremor will damage the reactor core—those numbers do not factor in damage to the cooling system as the cause of a crisis.

How does the US government assess risk if a double whammy is not necessary? How does the NRC rate a facility if a breach of the containment vessel is not required to start a meltdown (or an explosion in an overheated spent fuel pool, for that matter)? As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

Imagination, as the song says, is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It makes a bee think of honey. . . but it doesn’t cover-up reality when a real-world disaster continues to provide measurable data and cause considerable suffering. Governments on both sides of the Pacific might want to pretend that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but the facts will prove that whether we know or not, the pain—both physical and economic—will be felt far and wide.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – August 12, 2011: Obama, Drew Westen, and Me

Watching Barack Obama deliver his jobs speech Thursday in Holland, MI, I couldn’t help but wonder if the president had read Drew Westen’s critique in last weekend’s New York Times.

Under the headline “What Happened to Obama?” Westen, an Emory University psychology professor and Democratic communications guru of a sort, tried to divine the source of the Obama administration’s trouble. The seeds were sown, Westen explains, in the opening minutes of the presidency, as Obama delivered his inaugural address.

As Westen recounts (in words remarkably similar to ones I’ve used in the past), Obama’s speech failed to tell the story of the disaster that had befallen America during the Bush years:

That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

In fact, Westen and I use the exact same phrase for the core message that Obama needed to communicate out of the box: “your government has your back again.”

That would be as opposed to Wall Street’s back, or the Banksters’ backs, corporations’ backs, or the wealthiest of the wealthy’s backs.

Westen reminds us that narrative—a structure for understanding the world around us as old as humanity itself—needs opposing forces. Narrative honors heroes, yes, but in order for there to be heroes, there also has to be a villain—and Obama’s seemingly obsessive refusal to name the villains not only undermined his administration’s narrative, it communicated that the architects of America’s misfortunes would not be held accountable.

This (again, as I have often said) created the space for the various TEA parties, and their sympathizers and sycophants. Yes, this so-called populist anger has been nourished, exploited, and in some cases manufactured by some of the very people and organizations—let’s go ahead and call them villains—that helped tank the economy, but it would have been a much harder task to gin up this “movement” if Obama had dared to call out these villains from the get-go.

But he didn’t then, and he continues to spare the rod and spoil the spoiled today. Even with popular opinion overwhelmingly favoring higher taxes on wealthy individuals and windfall corporate profits, President Obama bent over backwards to again avoid naming names.

As witnessed Monday by NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, this avoidance is comprehensive and conscious:

It was striking how far they went to try not to point fingers. As a matter of fact, just before the president began speaking today, I was able to see the printed text of his comments on the teleprompter, and I watched a last minute edit that may give some insight. One passage of the speech referred to asking for sacrifice from those who can most afford to pay their fair share. And as I was looking at the teleprompter, the phrase wealthy Americans and corporations was highlighted and deleted from the text.

Because of that failure to finger, and a striking lack of proactive ideas in general, Obama’s Monday White House matinee served up a nothing-burger deluxe—not at all rare these days, I’m afraid, and also not well done. He wasn’t selling the steak, he wasn’t selling the sizzle, and he wasn’t telling a very good story in structural terms, either.

But the president very much needs to tell a story—to construct a narrative—because he very much needs to sell something: himself.

And so, in what was very clearly a campaign-style appearance at the Johnson Controls factory in Holland, president/candidate Barack Obama tried his hand at crafting a Drew Westen-style traditional narrative:

We know there are things we can do right now that will help accelerate growth and job creation –- that will support the work going on here at Johnson Controls, here in Michigan, and all across America. We can do some things right now that will make a difference. We know there are things we have to do to erase a legacy of debt that hangs over the economy. But time and again, we’ve seen partisan brinksmanship get in the way -– as if winning the next election is more important than fulfilling our responsibilities to you and to our country. This downgrade you’ve been reading about could have been entirely avoided if there had been a willingness to compromise in Congress. See, it didn’t happen because we don’t have the capacity to pay our bills -– it happened because Washington doesn’t have the capacity to come together and get things done. It was a self-inflicted wound.

So, “brinksmanship” is the big, bad wolf? Washington is the villain? Well, as Obama tells it, yes, but more specifically, it has been decided by the White House political team that the Lex Luthor to Obama’s Superman (if not his kryptonite) is Congress:

They’re common-sense ideas that have been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans, things that are supported by Carl Levin. The only thing keeping us back is our politics. The only thing preventing these bills from being passed is the refusal of some folks in Congress to put the country ahead of party. There are some in Congress right now who would rather see their opponents lose than see America win.

And that has to stop. It’s got to stop. We’re supposed to all be on the same team, especially when we’re going through tough times. We can’t afford to play games — not right now, not when the stakes are so high for our economy.

And if you agree with me –- it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an independent — you’ve got to let Congress know. You’ve got to tell them you’ve had enough of the theatrics. You’ve had enough of the politics. Stop sending out press releases. Start passing some bills that we all know will help our economy right now. That’s what they need to do — they’ve got to hear from you.

I will give the president a tiny bit of credit in that, instead of the wholly empty pleading for a similar call to Congress that he stroked during the debt-ceiling circle-jerk, Obama did list a series of actions he’d like Congress to approve (as meaningless, dangerous or counterproductive as many of them may be). But Obama also bragged about what he was able to get done without having to go through Congress. And Obama made it clear throughout: America, you’ve got problems, and those problems have their provenance on Capitol Hill.

Running against the “Do-nothing Congress” may have worked well for Harry Truman, and running against Washington is a time-tested tactic for many aspirants to higher office, but where does this get us?

It might work out OK for Obama. He has pretty much made being “above it all” his raison d’être, and by avoiding direct engagement with the big issues of our day, he might be able to slough off some of the Beltway taint. But where does it leave the rest of the Democrats? We really don’t have to ask because we have an example, it’s called the midterms. Obama did plenty of Congress-bashing during the summer of 2010. He railed against establishment Washington, even though he and his party had been that establishment for the previous twenty months, and when the dust cleared, America had the “divided government” Obama likes to point out “America voted for.”

Except they didn’t. America doesn’t elect our government on a national proportional basis. America votes state by state and district by district, and if voters in those specific races voted at all, they voted against a disappointing two years, not for a political concept.

And if the antagonist in Obama’s campaign narrative is Congress, then, in practice, the villain he wants Americans to rally against is elected government itself.

And that’s not only dangerous to sitting members of Congress, that’s dangerous for the democracy. It affirms the agenda of the elites, it confirms the fears of the TEA parties, and it will make voters across the board more cynical and less inclined to get involved.

So, did the president or his political team read the Westen piece, and did they decide to refine this Congress-as-villain narrative as an answer? I have no way of knowing, of course, but if they did, I do know they’re doing it wrong.

But in crafting his critique of the president’s path, Drew Westen also might have made some mistakes. First, Westen doesn’t allow himself to take the next step—beyond story-craft to actual belief. In wondering “What happened to Obama,” Westen can’t bring himself to conclude the answer might be “nothing.” It is possible, sad though it may be, that while America thought it was electing a man from the party of FDR, it instead got a confirmed Hooverite. So much of Obama’s language of late seems to point that way, not to mention his policies, and let us not forget the time he spent raising elbows with the magical marketeers at the University of Chicago.

Second, Westen also bemoans the “dialing for dollars” culture that pervades and pollutes national politics. Huffington Post senior Washington correspondent Dan Froomkin also tried to explain it earlier this week:

Progressives say Washington’s governing class absorbed its bias toward austerity — and, implicitly an agenda favoring the wealthy — by osmosis.

“The people who do fundraisers are the people who don’t want to pay taxes,” [Roosevelt Institute fellow Rob] Johnson said.

Politicians “spend an awful lot of time calling people with assets,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal think tank. “You don’t spend a lot of time with people who aren’t affluent, and you certainly don’t have extended discussions with them about economic policy.” Over time, Borosage said, “you develop a set of self-justifying rationalizations,” he said.

Westen makes it seem like it is virtually impossible for the president—or any president, really—to both single out Wall Street and Corporate elites for blame and simultaneously ring them up for campaign cash. But Westen doesn’t call out the president for failing to capitalize (as it were) on his ability to change that culture.

Obama has hinted at wanting to be a transformational figure (and others have assigned that role to him, outright), and one of the things that once made that seem possible, at least to me, was the way he ran his 2008 campaign.

Prior to Obama, from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign onward, the prevailing logic in national campaigns was that they had to emulate the Republican successes of the 1980s—chase big-donor money, and you can effectively buy all the votes you need. However, with Hillary Clinton having locked up much of the early establishment money in ’08, the Obama campaign set up an unprecedented (dare we say “transformative?”) structure for collecting small-donor contributions. . . and then they set out to motivate those potential small donors. Yes, in time, big-donor bucks did fund half of Obama’s awesome campaign coffer, but initially the strategy was seemingly the opposite of the Terry McAuliffe-Bill-and-Hillary Clinton tack—instead of chasing the money to woo the voters, Team Obama chased the voters to woo the money.

But that is not what the Obama campaign is doing this time. Publicly hostile to his liberal political base, and privately nervous about his Obama for America, small-donor fund-raising base, the president is heading straight for the big money for 2012. The Chicago campaign staff is already bragging about its bankroll. Obama has been courting classic big-ticket bundlers at old-school four- and five-figure-a-plate fundraisers, and, in fact, on his way back from Michigan, the president stopped off in New York for just such a soirée.

It is in this case where Obama once proved that he could change the game—that he could be a transformational figure—and it is here where he has pointedly chosen not to. There comes a point where we have to stop looking for outside factors that prevent the president from accomplishing what we want, and admit that Barack Obama might be accomplishing exactly what he wants.

What happened to Obama? He was elected president. All other answers are based more on hope than change.

The Party Line – August 5, 2011: Japan Worries About More Radiation, US Officials Worry About Red Tape

News this week out of Japan that workers at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have detected extremely high levels of radiation in and around reactor 1. The first incident, on August 1, pinned the Geiger counter at 10 sieverts (1000 rem)—yes, that’s as high as the device could measure, so that number is a minimum—and was taken at the base of a ventilation stack. The second reading, the following day, clocked in at five sieverts per hour inside the reactor building.

I have yet to read an explanation for the discovery of the second reading, but the initial, sky-high measurement on Monday has me and many others scratching heads. A thousand rem is not some little ho-hum number. A half-hour of exposure at that level is fatal in a matter of days, I am told. Where did that radiation come from? When did contamination occur? How is it that such a dangerous level could go unreported for what is now over 140 days?

Officials from the Japanese power company, TEPCO, who have been repeatedly criticized for withholding critical information, insist that contamination likely happened in the first few days of the disaster when workers tried to vent hydrogen from the reactor building in a futile attempt to prevent an explosion. Somehow, though, this part of the facility (which, it should be noted, has been extensively mapped for radioactive hotspots over the last several months) was not measured till August.

Others, such as Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer at Fairwinds Associates, believes levels this high would not have gone undetected this long, and that these new readings represent a recent accumulation. Because the measurement was taken at the base of a ventilation stack that has continued to vent undisclosed amounts from the damaged reactors, Gundersen believes that condensation and radioactive cesium trickled down to the base of the stack—which means that some amount of radioactive isotopes continues to be vented into the atmosphere. And it seems, some not inconsequential amount.

Back in April, TEPCO was ordered to give an accounting of the amounts of radiation released during the crisis, and TEPCO promised to do so by August. It is now August, but there is no sign yet of this report or an indication of when it will be released.

And, just to wrap up newish news from Japan, the government has announced plans to build a wall around Daiichi reaching 60 feet below ground to try to stop contaminated groundwater from reaching the sea. Beef contaminated with radioactive cesium from the plant has turned up in more markets across Japan, and the government has banned the sale of most beef from the north.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has fired three government officials with ties to the crisis, including the leader of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which would be roughly the Japanese equivalent of the US NRC. Officially, the reason is because the agency did a lousy job of preparing for a tsunami and its disastrous effects, but it also recently came to light that this official had planted pro-nuclear-industry shills at town hall meetings in an attempt to steer public opinion.

Back in the United States, one can only imagine what that kind of accountability would look like—but why imagine, when we have the videotape!

On August 2, when most eyes (like, you know, everyone’s) were on the floor of the Senate, a few of us (probably a very few, it wasn’t even on CSPAN-3) were watching the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works full committee and subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety joint hearing entitled “Review of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century.” (Sounds so much more important when you spell it all out.)

This was the hearing on the report I discussed three weeks ago, and besides the obvious observation that there’s 150 minutes of life I’ll never get back, there were a few points worth mentioning.

First, it was clear from the opening statements that no Senator (perhaps with the exception of Bernie Sanders. . . perhaps) was going to come close to making a call for a shift away from nuclear power in the US the way leaders in Germany and Japan have in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In fact, the tone was very much about moving forward with some version of a flourishing nuclear industry.

For Republicans on the panel, the response was predictable. The only thing that is keeping us from rushing headlong into a glorious future with upwards of 100 fabulous, new nuclear plants is excessive government regulation. In fact, Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Sessions seemed stunned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had the primary responsibility of protecting the health and safety of the public rather than helping to foster an environment favorable to the expansion of the nuclear industry. (A funny protest, really, considering that the NRC has long been criticized for acting as a booster club for the industry it is supposed to regulate—and especially risible in light of this summer’s AP exposé on the cozy relationship between power companies and regulators.) The GOP contingent chastised NRC members for thinking of themselves as guardians of public safety without regard to what it would cost what they always euphemistically referred to as “stakeholders” (as did the more overtly pro-industry commissioners).

This, in turn, earned the senators a chastisement of their own from EPW chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who literally threw the book at them. . . ok, she didn’t throw the book, she just read from the law that empowers the NRC.

Indeed, Boxer had a more refreshing take on government regulation. The California Democrat said that if the industry wanted to operate and expand, it had to demonstrate that it could do so safely. Boxer stressed that it was important that citizens saw regulators as their defenders, able to act quickly in response to a crisis and honestly assure the safety of nuclear facilities. It takes a trusted regulatory regime for an industry to prosper.

That is a fair point, and one that applies to a much broader discourse about government regulation. Alas, in this case, it papers over a slow, lax regulatory history and a nuclear industry that has done a solid job of dumping campaign cash into the coffers of most of the politicians responsible for oversight.

On the always amusing “did he just say that?” front, there was Sen. Alexander saying that we didn’t have to worry about anything like what happened in Japan because we had a different system, blithely adding that no one had ever been killed by an accident at a US nuclear plant or on a US nuclear submarine. This will be news to the families of the four workers killed in two separate accidents at Surry 2 in Virginia, or to the crews of the USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Or to the one man killed in the 1959 Navy reactor explosion. (Nitpickers will argue, of course. Lucky for them, the four dead at Surry 2 died from steam burns before they had to worry about radiation, and the two subs imploded after plummeting below their crush depth, and so cannot be classified with surety as “nuclear” accidents. The 1959 USS Triton accident happened on a prototype at a Navy training center, so I guess that won’t count, either.)

And, of course, Alexander has no room in his worldview for the 430 infants (PDF) (the most conservative estimate) that died from radiation released during the Three Mile Island disaster.

Jeff Sessions is a circus sideshow all by himself (an imperious, ignorant sideshow). He used most of his time to criticize Gregory Jaczko, Chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for assuming emergency powers in the days after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled Fukushima Daiichi. In essence, Sessions was upset that Jaczko empanelled the task force quickly, rather than allow the process to be sabotaged by commissioners more friendly with those aforementioned stakeholders.

Sessions also used the story of how the Japanese are pulling together to conserve energy now that so many of its nuclear power plants are offline to negatively paint the dystopian hellscape that awaits the US if we were to shift away from nuclear power. Conservation, including the royal family using flashlights in their garden, lord save us! (This New Yorker had to laugh when Sessions told of the horrors of Japanese subway platforms that now went un-air-conditioned for three hours a day.)

The senator also tossed out that nuclear was a clean, safe and cheap domestic source of energy. None of those things are true, of course. Mining and refining the fissile materials for the reactors is polluting and comes with a large carbon footprint. We still have no clear plan to deal with “spent” fuel. Fukushima, TMI, Chernobyl, and dozens of less famous disasters belie the “safe” assumption. As far as “cheap,” when you add in the government subsidies, loan guarantees, tax breaks, security costs, and the need for a fuel -disposal infrastructure, nuclear power is not just not “cheap,” it is one of the most expensive options out there. And, as for “domestic,” as I have detailed before, we import most of our uranium—and not always from the nicest people.

Alas, no one had the inclination in this Senate session to respond with any of that to Sen. Sessions. The real problems facing our nuclear future were not really on the table this week.

What the two-and-a-half hour hearing really boiled down to, really hinged on, was that NRC Chair Jaczko believes that 90 days is plenty of time for disposal of the recommendations (that’s how he put it—we are not talking implementation here, just the decision that the task force recommendations should be turned into rules. . . which would then take about five years to enact), but three of the five-member NRC do not. Those commissioners and their Republican brethren on the committee steadfastly refused to commit to any timeframe on anything, insisting that they needed first to hear from “stakeholders” (yes, that word again).

Democrats for the most part tried to buttress Jaczko, asking for commissioners to at least admit that some of the recommendations could be disposed in 90 days. The results of that request were inconclusive. Boxer, to her credit, vowed to hold hearings every 90 days to push for action on the task force report. (Will any more people be paying attention in November. . . right before Thanksgiving. . . when the SuperCommittee is supposed to deliver its budget-cutting plan? No breaths were held in the crafting of this question.)

But I feel funny rallying around this flag. As I mentioned when the Near-Term Task Force report came out, there is nothing I can see particularly wrong with any of the recommendations, as far as they go, but they fail to address any of the bigger issues, from used fuel disposal to the decommissioning of old, poorly designed, geographically vulnerable facilities. Yes, the NRC should prove that it can act—authoritatively and quickly—in the wake of a disaster. And, the federal government should prove it can rise above campaign considerations to exercise real oversight. But until people like the Senators on the EPW committee, or members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, or the president, face up to the dangers of nuclear power revealed (again) by the Japanese disaster, or confront the myths of an energy source once called “clean, safe, too cheap to meter,” then hearings like this will feel more like redecorating than real policy.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 22, 2011: Fixing a Hole

Focusing on broad, long-term goals while ignoring obvious, near-term problems is order of the day, be it in the Fukushima reactors or deficit-obsessed DC.

I feel like I am saying this every week, but tear yourself away for a minute, if you can, from the daily deficit follies—I promise we’ll get back to them.

As I detailed last week, a study called the Near-Term Task Force Review listed a set of suggestions for ways the US nuclear power industry could improve safety in the wake of the meltdowns and continuing crisis in Japan’s Fukushima reactors. The recommendations were a mixed bag of mostly regulatory tweaks–nothing particularly bad, as far as they go–but obviously missing from the report was any program that would effectively improve the way spent fuel rods are stored.

Earlier this week, the task force officially presented its report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and NRC chair Gregory Jaczko said the full commission should move to accept or reject the recommendations within 90 days, and implement any new rules within five years.

That sounds glacial, especially given the ongoing Japanese crisis and many US plants of similar design facing the possibility of similar problems, but even this cautious approach to some cautious recommendations was more-or-less opposed by three of the five commissioners.

The commissioners reacted much like the Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee did a day earlier, asking for a “full and deliberate process of review”—a rather naked demand that the NRC slow-walk these recommendations with an eye toward weakening or killing them. The ECC has yet to schedule any hearings on the task force report.

On the Senate side, I am told that the Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold hearings in August, but nothing as yet is listed on the committee website. (EPW is chaired by Barbara Boxer; if you want, give her a call and express your interest in a timely hearing.)

Sadly, it seems like the US takeaway from the triple meltdown and massive environmental disaster in Japan is that we need to stick up for our domestic nuclear industry. In fact, just yesterday, the NRC approved a 20-year operating license extension for Hope Creek in New Jersey. Hope Creek is a boiling water reactor, just like Fukushima Daiichi 1, and stores spent fuel in above-ground pools, just as was done in the now-crippled Japanese plants.

Conveniently, practically no one in the US has any time to devote to nuclear concerns—after all, we are facing a debt-pocalypse!

I write that with a healthy degree of sarcasm, but it seems to me more than a happy accident that absolutely nothing else can get done in Washington because of the never-healing, self-inflicted wound that has tied our governing in knots and threatens to cripple the entire government. Forgive the cheap allusion, but it is a meltdown of accountability.

An easy turn of phrase, but I have been feeling like there is some deeper connection—or, if not connection, parallel—between the ongoing crisis in Fukushima and the never-ending “crisis” in Washington.

Earlier in the week, TEPCO (the power company that owns Fukushima Daiichi) and the Japanese government updated their plans for cleanup and containment of the disaster area. They announced that their goal is a cold shutdown of the crippled reactors in three to six months, and with that, they hope to reduce the radiation level around the plant to one millisievert per year by mid-January. That would be substantial. Officials even talk of allowing some to return to the quarantine area if that goal is met.

But for that goal to be met—for any of the goals to be met, really—the crews at Fukushima will have to do something else first. Namely, emergency workers must find and fix the cracks and holes in the containment vessels of the damaged reactors that continue to allow contaminated, radioactive water to leak into the reactor buildings, the surrounding tunnels and neighboring facilities, and onto the ground, possibly into the ground water, and, almost certainly, into the sea. Yet, the problem of fixing the holes, a goal that was part of the previous plan of action, a goal that has not been met, is not in the latest Japanese report.

When asked about the omission, officials said that they expect progress to be made on the leaks. They did not say how. They did not say when. But, you know, obviously, that will be addressed. The main thing is, though, focus on the big, happy, longer-term goals.

Is this starting to sound at all familiar?

In the current context, I can certainly find fault with many of the details, but let’s say, OK, long-term deficit reduction is not a bad goal, in and of itself. It would, in theory, be good to spend less on interest, and more, say on education or infrastructure. . . .

But that is not how I hear President Obama addressing this. Instead, I hear him mimicking self-interested deficit hawks, blurring the difference between debt and deficit, allowing the Tea-OP to frame budget cuts as linked to the debt ceiling, and purposely dragging entitlements into the mix when they don’t have a bearing on the matter at hand. And, worst of all, the president and practically every other leader in DC has made deficit reduction the stand-in for the warm, fuzzy goal of rebuilding the economy—which is, at best, putting the cart before the horse, but is more likely a damaging and dangerous lie.

Before we get to jump in to the magic happy balanced-budget pool, perhaps there are a few holes and cracks the administration might want to spackle. And the cracks are legion, aren’t they?

Of course, there is the war. . . the wars. . . the three, three-and-a-half, or four wars, sucking trillions out of the economy.

And, of course, there are the very-much-still-here-even-though-they-should-have-already-expired Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy. And there is the hedge-fund-manager’s loophole and any number of other breaks for the rich that deprive the supposedly going-up-in-flames system of a cooling river of cash.

But I want to talk about an even more obvious, immediate, gaping hole, a hole that should be goal one in any discussion of the economy, and yet is embarrassingly absent from the beltway back-and-forth:

Jobs.

Before we spend another breath of air or drop of ink on the goal of deficit reduction, the federal government should be focusing on the goal of decreasing unemployment—focusing on the goal of creating jobs. It is, in fact, the obvious first step, the obvious hole you plug on the way to broader economic health. With more and better-paying jobs, you pump more money into the marketplace, increase demand, and spur expansion. And you also create a more robust revenue stream for the government. Almost every new job is a new taxable income.

And right now, when interest rates are so extremely low, when money is cheap for the government, now is an excellent time to invest in the country by spending. You know what would make this a less-good time for borrowing? Defaulting on our debt.

If the jerk circus in Washington fails to raise the debt ceiling, sends a message that it is some degree less than a sure thing that America will honor its obligations, then the cost of borrowing could go up, and then maybe we have a real problem.

Now, if you were president, what frame would you rather be forced to defend?

Why not take advantage of this situation—which has the added advantage of being the truth—and demand a clean vote, and only a clean vote, on the debt ceiling? Why not tell the American people that if we do this, and keep the money supply cheap and fluid, then government can do what it is supposed to do—what it can do: care for its people, create jobs in a time of need, repair aging infrastructure, research and develop new, greener energy sources (hint, hint—which will not only wean us off of expensive oil and nuclear power, but it could help build the economic engine that could power the US economy for the next decade), and provide a better life for every level of society?

Then, when we are back on terra firma, when we have plugged the gaping hole, we can re-examine the big rosy budget goals. But then we can do so from a place of strength, do so from a place where we are not trying to bail out a sinking ship with a perforated bucket, do so without running from crisis to crisis like terrified citizens in some Japanese horror film.

Let’s at least try to learn one thing from the Fukushima crisis: Make our goal to fix the hole.

 

(A version of this post also appeared at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 15, 2011: Japan’s PM Recommends Shift Away from Nuclear Power; US Report Recommends Regulatory Tweaks

While most of creation is still trying to predict if Congress will raise the debt ceiling, and what will happen to the economy if they don’t, I thought I’d spend some quality time with disasters quite present, and in some ways, quite predictable. I am talking about nuclear power in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

As I detailed a few weeks back, Germany’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel, announced a plan to shut down all of her country’s nuclear reactors by 2022. This week, Japanese PM Naoto Kan made similar noises:

We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy. When we think of the magnitude of the risks involved with nuclear power, the safety measures we previously conceived are inadequate.

And, also this week, here in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released, via its website, an 80-something-page report on the Japanese nuclear disaster [PDF], which included a series of recommendations for improving safety and disaster response at US nuclear power facilities.

Just doesn’t have the same oomph, does it? Kind of missing the gravity or sense of urgency of a head of state declaring an unambiguous move away from nuclear power, no?

Style points aside—I mean, you can hardly expect President Obama to break away from round-the-clock deficit hysteria to address a looming threat that also happens to siphon billions of dollars from federal coffers in the form of subsidies and loan guarantees—the content of the report itself, its findings and recommendations, also leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

As noted, the report is long–and it is dense–but as I understand it, the task force recommends that regulators pay more attention to what the report calls “low-likelihood, high-consequence events”. . . you know, like earthquakes and floods that damage nuclear reactors and safety systems.

Hard to argue with that. . . but then the task force also says that the sort of high-consequence disaster that happened in Japan can’t happen in the US—and that is a point that I and many experts and activists would argue against. To put it very briefly, the United States has many reactors past their projected life spans, many similar in design to Fukushima’s, and many built in areas vulnerable to seismic activity, floods and, yes, even tsunamis.

Also recommended, that the government standardize safety regulations and emergency response plans—and make them actual rules as opposed to voluntary industry initiatives (aka “suggestions”)—which is good as far as it goes, but in the wake of a multi-part AP exposé showing how the NRC conspired with the nuclear industry to lower safety standards, I’m thinking that doesn’t go that far.

Perhaps what is most important, however, is what’s missing from the Near-Term Task Force Review. As noted by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the report makes no recommendation for moving spent nuclear fuel from over-packed pools to hardened on-site storage. A striking omission considering that used fuel rods stored in pools inside the Fukushima reactor buildings were and continue to be a serious part of the crisis in Japan.

Also highlighted by PSR, though completely outside the prescribed scope of the investigation, the task force states that there is an “expectation of no significant radiological health effects” from the Fukushima disaster.

No significant radiological health effects. When I first read that, I assumed the NRC review was referring to the United States—an assertion that already strains credulity as far as I’m concerned, but one that can be debated, given the distance and the data (or paucity of data). But, as I read it—uh, re-read it—this “conclusion” is a general one, as in everywhere, as in an expectation of no significant radiological health effects in Japan.

Now, that assertion, without any long-term health screenings or any epidemiological studies, is as worthless as it is irresponsible, but to make such a statement a week after a Japanese report revealed that 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture have thyroids that show evidence of exposure to radiation makes one wonder what the US task force used for data. . . or if they felt the need to use data at all. Also revealed at the end of June, soil samples from the city of Fukushima—an area well outside of the quarantine radius—contained radioactive cesium at levels 1.5 to 4.5 times greater than the legal limit. (Radioactive cesium 137 has a half-life of approximately 30 years and tends to accumulate in plant tissue and fungal spores.)

But wait, there’s more:

Another sample taken from a street ditch — where nuclear fallout often accumulates — registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per sq. meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq. meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

An earlier survey on soil in the city of Fukushima by the science ministry has found 37,000 becquerels of radioactive substances per 1 kg — equivalent to 740,000 becquerels per sq. meter.

That’s Japan. Here in North America, we found out this week that the Environmental Protection Agency was measuring radioactive iodine in rainwater out west at levels 30, 40, and, in one case, 130 times what is considered the safety standard for drinking water. Granted, a drinking water standard is not the same as a rainwater measure (as I understand it, the drinking water standard is based on the chances that consumption of a glass a day for 30 years will result in cancer), but that does not mean that this revelation doesn’t raise many questions.

For instance, what about negative non-cancer health effects? Has rain-borne radiation contaminated reservoirs, wells, or watersheds? What about bioaccumulation, what about the radiation that winds up in and on plants and animals? And what about—and this has been one of my big questions since the early days of this crisis—what about other isotopes, ones with other deleterious health effects, ones with half-lives measured in decades (like Cs-137) as opposed to days (like I-131)? And, of course, since it has been determined that there is no such thing as a “safe” level of radiation exposure, no matter the source, shouldn’t the government do a better job of informing the public of any significant increases?

To that last point, the report on radioactive rainwater, which is from Heart of America Northwest, also revealed that, in many cases, there was a lag time of a week between the radiation readings and the posting of the information on the EPA’s RadNet website. So, even for those that could parse the data on the less-than-lay-friendly site, the news was nowhere close to real-time, and so nowhere close to immediate enough for individuals trying to assess risk and adjust behavior accordingly.

The same report notes that though the EPA says it stepped up rainwater sampling following the start of the nuclear disaster in Japan, several sites (Portland, OR, for example) do not show additional sample dates beyond the standard once per month. That leads one to assume that the EPA was less diligent than they claimed, but could it also be that the EPA collected samples but chose not to post the data? (That’s an honest question—I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it did occur to me.)

By the way, that increase in sampling—it ended on May 3. . . because, of course, the Fukushima crisis is over. . . .

But, of course, the crisis is not over. Beyond the melted cores in several Fukushima reactors—where Japanese response teams are still trying to understand the shape and temperature of fuel and the integrity of the containment vessels—there are the pools of spent fuel rods, still very radioactive, still sitting in reactor buildings without roofs (which were destroyed by hydrogen explosions in the days after the earthquake and tsunami). Those pools are still sending an unknown amount of radiation into the atmosphere, and those pools will remain exposed for months to come (the first attempt to cover one of the reactor buildings is expected in late September).

So, that’s a lot to digest—for me, yes, and maybe for you, too—but at least I am trying to take it all in. Did the NRC task force take in any of this before they issued their report? Did they digest it? Yes or no, I find their assertion of no significant radiological health effects hard to swallow.

The differences in the levels of response—Germany announcing a plan to end its use of nuclear power, and Japan’s PM stating that his country should do the same, versus the United States quietly releasing a wonky report with a set of recommendations for a sustained nuclear future—tells me that the US government will not learn the lessons of the Fukushima disaster, and I find that hard to stomach.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)