NRC Vogtle Reactor Approval Should Blow Lid Off Nuclear Finance Scam

Work is well underway on the Vogtle Unit 4 turbine building. The bottom of the Unit 3 containment vessel can be seen in the background. (photo via the Southern Company)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Thursday vote to approve the combined construction and operating license application (COLA) for Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle cleared the way for adding two AP1000 nuclear reactors to the two existing units near Augusta, Georgia, but it should also shine a light on the elaborate shell game that masquerades as nuclear-powered electrical generation.

Coming almost exactly two years after the Obama administration granted the project $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees, the NRC’s OK for the project did not signal a groundbreaking at Vogtle. Thanks to a redefinition of what constitutes construction, drafted under a former NRC commissioner who now works for the nuclear industry, Southern started building on the site long before the AP1000 reactor design was finally approved by the NRC last December. And foundations were poured into the Georgia earth before environmental impact surveys were even required to be filed. So, Thursday’s move did not actually start construction, but it did start the roulette wheel turning on a massive financial gamble where Southern Company is pretty much assured of winning, and US taxpayers and Georgia utility customers are guaranteed to lose.

How much those Americans who don’t happen to own a power company will lose is an issue of some question–a question that the Department of Energy and Southern Company is making very hard to answer.

As this month marks two years since the government agreed to the loan guarantees, it will mark almost as long a time since the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the details of the deal the DOE struck with Southern Co., and thus it also marks almost two years of stonewalling by the Obama administration and the energy consortium:

To date, DOE has produced heavily censored documents that have provided little or no information in an effort to frustrate any analysis that would be useful to taxpayers. Based on the limited information produced to date, it appears that the power companies had to put almost no “skin in the game,” only promising to pay a token credit subsidy fee of what could be as little as 0.5 or 1.5 percent of the total loan principal.

Perhaps the once-pledged-to-be-the-most-open-in-history-but-now-proving-to-be-just-as-secretive administration thinks it can hide behind the idea that it is only a guarantee, and, at that, a guarantee of a private business plan, but that would be doubly troubling.

The DOE has indeed tried to use the confidential business argument, but Mindy Goldstein, acting director, Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, who is representing SACE in its FOIA case, explains just how disturbing that argument is:

DOE claims that the loan guarantee terms and credit subsidy fee estimates are confidential and may only be viewed by Georgia Power and its utility partners. Let’s hope DOE is wrong. For such information to be withheld as confidential, it must have been obtained from the utilities themselves. If the power companies are literally writing their own guarantees and credit subsidy fee estimates, the Loan Guarantee Program is more flawed than anyone could have imagined.

Alas, given the long history of industry representatives “helping” the DOE and NRC draft their regulations, Goldstein’s legal conundrum isn’t hard to imagine as the actual state of affairs.

And neither the government nor the taxpayer should take comfort from the guarantee angle:

Private lenders have declined to finance new reactors because of the enormously high cost of new nuclear power and the substantial risk that any such investment will fail. In 2003, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the chance of a loan for new nuclear reactor construction resulting in default would be “very high – well over 50 percent.”

And for the folks at Vogtle, the risk is likely much higher. The two reactors now at the Georgia site took over 15 years to complete, came in 1,200 percent over budget, and resulted in an enormous rate hike for Georgia power consumers.

The fact that even with taxpayers already shouldering the risk ratepayers are also on the hook is the remarkable second slap in the face that comes with the nuclear power con:

[Southern’s subsidiary and largest utility, Georgia Power] customers already are paying down the [Vogtle] project’s financing costs through a fee that will increase to $8.74 a month by 2015. The fee will end once reactors start producing power in 2016 and 2017.

Well, the fee is supposed to end when the reactors start producing power, which is supposed to be in 2016 and 2017. But no nuclear project comes in on time or on budget–and as was just noted, history is not Vogtle’s friend here–and not only will ratepayers continue to cough up cash while construction drags on, it is certainly not unprecedented to see them continue to get fleeced for overruns after the plants are finished (just ask the good citizens of Florida).

These, of course, are just the costs incurred if everything goes more or less right. And these, of course, are just the costs of building the reactors–it has nothing to do with the fueling, the maintenance, the waste removal and clean up should anything get, you know, “unusual.” But since the taxpayers and ratepayers pretty much built the new reactors for them, those costs should come out of Southern Co/Georgia Power’s profits once they start charging for the actual power, right?

Uh. . . wrong. As George W. Bush was headed out the door, he made sure that the Department of Energy would be liable for all costs from any high-level radioactive waste generated at the new Vogtle units. And, of course, as is true for all facilities in the US, the Price-Anderson Act indemnifies the industry against claims arising nuclear accidents.

And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval–coming when it does–does nothing to make those accidents less likely. The NRC voted for Vogtle’s COLA over the objections of its chairman, Greg Jaczko, who thought safety rules that should come from the post-Fukushima recommendations should have been stipulated as essential to any new license. And the AP1000’s design, which Toshiba-Westinghouse likes to tout as safer than its close cousin, the pressurized water reactor, is suspected to be anything but.

Meanwhile, trouble at nuclear reactors worldwide continues apace. At Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, unit two, which was said to have been brought to a “cold shutdown” in December, has experienced what is called a “re-criticality”–in other words, the temperature inside the ruptured containment vessel has begun to rise again, up more than 20 degrees Celsius since February 1. Officials from Japanese power company TEPCO have done a poor job of explaining why this might be happening or what it might mean for the future, but they do admit to the necessity of increasing the amount of water and boric acid pumped into the damaged reactor to counteract the warming. And, since there are holes and cracks in the reactor vessel, that means more radioactive waste water pouring out of the building and into the basements and surrounding plant grounds–more water on top of the 95,000 cubic meters already believed to be there, and on top of the 220,000 cubic meters that TEPCO has claimed they “processed” (and then dumped back into the environment).

And something else quite troubling has been observed in Japan–bird populations in Fukushima prefecture have taken a bigger dip than was expected from studies of similar species around Chernobyl after that nuclear disaster.

Speaking of the former Soviet Union, there was a fire last weekend at the Alikhanov Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in southwestern Moscow. The building contains an atomic collider and is home to Russia’s very first heavy water reactor, built in the 1940s, and now decommissioned. Government officials said there was no danger of a radiation leak, but others, like Greenpeace Russia, beg to differ.

Back in the USA, the San Onofre plant remains completely shutdown after one reactor was found to be leaking tritium on January 31. Meanwhile, the other reactor, offline for refueling and repairs since January 9, was discovered to have alarmingly excessive wear inside its almost new turbine tubes.

And at Prairie Island, a nuclear facility in southeastern Minnesota, Xcel Energy has copped to two separate toxic chemical and radiological spills. One happened last November, but Xcel did not alert residents of the Prairie Island Indian Community–a whopping 600 yards from the power plant–till last week. The second happened just last Friday, February 3, but Xcel waited to give notice till Monday because the leak happened “‘after business hours’ just before the weekend.”

This is but a small sample–less than a week’s worth–of the nuclear world the NRC has now voted to expand. With each of these items should come a list of questions and a cavalcade of caution, but the NRC’s rulings on the AP1000 have defied the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, the entire federal government seems hell-bent on ignoring the fiscal realities, instead choosing to guarantee that money flow from the pockets of taxpayers into the coffers of nuclear energy corporations, whether or not those corporations ever provide a kilowatt of power to those taxpayers.

It is a sad state of affairs–that almost goes without saying–but perhaps sadder is the relative silence around such a multi-layered scandal.

Political activists were rightfully outraged when the Bush administration fought tooth-and-nail to keep the minutes of Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force secret. Now, aside from the good people at SACE, who else is working to uncloak an equally secretive–and equally offensive–Obama energy deal?

Some look to leverage a scandal off the failure of Solyndra–but the loan guarantees to Southern Company are over 15 times larger than those made to the small solar manufacturer, and frankly, even today, more risky. (Solyndra may have failed, but its assets can and will be sold, and its plant will be repurposed. Very little of that potential exists for a failed nuclear endeavor.)

Many who are outraged by the bailouts of the banks should see each of these nuclear facilities as a little version of the same “socialize the risk, privatize the profit” model. A nuclear facility might only lose billions of dollars instead of trillions, but as Everett Dirksen observed in a cheaper era, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

And, of course, nuclear failures aren’t just toxic to the economy, they are toxic to the environment, too.

And for those that think this week’s $25 billion settlement with the five big financial institutions guilty of mortgage fraud is somehow a grand amount–just remember that you can’t get two new nuclear power stations for that. . . and after typical delays and cost overruns, $25 billion likely won’t even get you one.

So, take a good look at what is happening in Georgia–even if the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t. . . even if the Obama administration and the NRC don’t want you to. The nuclear industry, its acolytes, its lackeys, its supplicants and subordinates want to make the Vogtle reactors the first of many, the first of an irresistible nuclear renaissance, the start of a hard-charging, government-subsidized pushback–against activists and environmentalists, sure, but in reality, against the truth.

The truth, of course, is that without the lobbyists and the grease they spread, without the captured regulators and the purchased elected officials, the nuclear industry would be relegated to the past, right alongside its antiquated technology. The truth is that nuclear power is not clean, nor safe, nor too cheap to meter–it is dirty, dangerous, and a financial sinkhole of epic proportions. Banks and investment houses know it, ratepayers in Georgia and Florida know it, many of the residents of Japan know it, and even the government of Germany knows it–and now you know it, too. Now is the time to make sure your representatives in government–your president, your members of Congress, your state and local officials–know that you know it. Now is the time to stop this boondoggle and bailout, and then get to the business of safely uncoiling the nuclear serpent’s grip on our leaders and our imaginations. The AP1000 is not a first glimpse of the future, it is the last gasp of the past–and the sooner we stop subsidizing the old ideas, the sooner we can start investing in some new ones.

Energy Innovation: Obama’s State of the Union a Frothy Mix of Promise and Prattle

It’s an election year, another presidential campaign is upon us, and since it is going to be so very much upon us every day from now until November, it would be nice to find something about which to get excited.

There is nothing to get excited about on the Republican side of the aisle. The knock-down, drag-out contest between the stupid, the rude, and the just plain offensive may provide the Democrats with the best gift since, oh, you know, the last Republican president, but for the American people, none of the GOP contenders is a prize. It will be truly hellish to have to listen to any one of them for the duration of the campaign.

So, when I turned on the TV last night, I wanted to stand up and cheer. While watching President Obama’s State of the Union address, I felt much like I did when I watched his 2008 acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium in Denver. OK, that’s not true–not hardly. Reality has not been kind to Obama’s rhetoric, after all. But when Obama got to the energy section of the speech, I found much to applaud, not unlike in 2008. . . with some obvious caveats for his praise of dirty, dangerous, failed or flat-out fictional forms of energy production.

During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama always made a point of touting “clean coal” in his energy policy stump speech. As president, he included this nonsense phrase in both his 2010 and 2011 State of the Union speeches. This year, however, though Obama extolled an “All of the above” energy mix, and then went into some detail about what that “all” should include, there was no reference to coal, “clean” or otherwise (AKA “dirty,” AKA “the way coal actually is”).

The ’08 campaign contained frequent references to nuclear power, too. Obama also would clean those up, often by calling for “safe nuclear.” It was, to my ear, just as imaginary–and just as dishonest–as “clean coal,” and it made me wary of a candidate that I already knew was heavily dependent on nuclear industry contributions to fund his campaign. But last night, “nuclear” only came up three times–twice while talking about Iran, and once more when discussing nuclear proliferation, in general. There was no reference to nuclear power.

Funny that. I guess with 44 domestic coal mine fatalities since Obama took office, and with approximately 20 percent of US coal-fired power plants failing to meet clean air standards, maybe coal doesn’t sound so much like “winning the future.” And after nuclear power’s 2011–with Japan’s Fukushima disaster still metastasizing and dozens of smaller events at aging plants here raising important questions about safety–touting atomic energy is not how you fuel “an America built to last.”

And therein lies the big, flashing yellow caution. For while Obama’s speech did much, again, to sing the praises of investment in clean, green, renewable energy sources, I know that whatever the president allots to alternatives in his next budget (we still do budgets, right? not just hostage-taking, continuing resolution kabuki stand-offs), it will be but a tiny fraction of what he has already given to and will continue to shower upon the fossil and fissile fuel lobbies.

There are several examples of this rhetorical shell game in the State of the Union speech. While Obama did make this admirable call:

We have subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that’s rarely been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that’s never been more promising.

It was only moments after the president said:

Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my Administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.

I worry, too, that when Obama says, “I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects,” that what he means by “red tape” is what many call “environmental protections.” Or “workplace safety rules.” Or “worker rights.” Just as I worry that when I hear, “I’m directing my Administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power three million homes,” it is opening a door to more private development on public lands.

Is this cynical? Perhaps, but it is hard not to be when you hear the president claim, as he did last night, “I will not back down from making sure an oil company can contain the kind of oil spill we saw in the Gulf two years ago,” when just a day earlier it was revealed that the Obama administration actively worked to downplay the size of the BP spill.

And so what is the public to make of Obama’s section on natural gas?

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my Administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy. Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

So many questions. First off, it is important to note that Obama is talking about fracking without ever using the word. That’s what it means when the president says he will require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use–these are the chemicals that make the “hydro” in hydrofracking heavy enough to do its job. And these are the chemicals that have likely poisoned some aquifers and promise to befoul even more.

But the poisonous and all-too-secret chemical composition of the injection liquid is only one of many problems with fracked natural gas. There is mounting evidence that fracking is responsible for increased seismic activity in the US and abroad. And, of course, there is the $64 question of whether we should be investing in and smoothing the way for a finite resource that will contribute to CO2 emissions at a time when the world is fast approaching irreversible climate change.

But push that aside, and the president’s fulsome gas promises are still mostly hot air. That name-your-chemicals rule? It only applies to drilling on public lands. And the president doesn’t say if it will apply to projects already approved, or just future leases. And those 600,000 jobs? I need the administration to show its work, for that number sound suspiciously like the trumped up job figures floated in the push for the Keystone XL pipeline–where it turned out that every year of a job counted as a separate job, and that many positions were low wage or instantly redundant.

With so much so easily picked apart, it is hard not to hear “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,” as the 2012 edition of “I promise this won’t hurt a bit,” or “the check is in the mail”. . . or “clean coal.”

But, as I said, I want to stand up and cheer, and so let me close by cheering this:

Innovation also demands basic research. Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally-financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched. New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future. Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.

Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy.

. . . .

Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.

Yes, I will admit, that internal ellipsis mark covers many, many paragraphs, but though the execution laid out within is mixed, the overarching sentiment should be one of the clarion calls of this election year. As I recently explained at some length, real innovation is essential to America’s future, and basic research is essential to real innovation. And government money spent on basic research provides much more bang for the buck than money spent on propping up out-dated energy sources and the military industrial complex.

Obama doesn’t say “peace dividend,” but that is what he is talking about. It is a dividend that could grow if the president follows through with his drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and it is time to start building into the discussion the idea that this money will be repurposed to spur innovation, rebuild our infrastructure and invest in education. This is a wealthy nation, and the US should spend its wealth on programs and projects that benefit the vast majority of its people–say, 99 percent of them–and not just use the current lull in foreign incursions to fund more tax cuts for the richest one percent.

For reinforcing that frame, and for at least sowing the seeds of a re-prioritized economy, I applaud the president. Now it is up to him to play on the pitch he has planted. Given the scores of disappointments that have trailed after so many of Obama’s lofty speeches in the past, I am wary that this is little more than another field of dreams–but guess what, with alternative energy, education investment, and a modernized infrastructure, if you build it, “an America built to last” will quite possibly come.

Too hopey-changey? Well, at least he’s stopped shilling for “clean coal.”

The Party Line – December 2, 2011: Nuclear’s “Annus Horribilis” Confirms Its Future Is in the Past

In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that triggered the horrific and ongoing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power generating station, President Barack Obama went out on a bit of a limb, striking a tone markedly different from his fellow leaders in the industrialized world. Speaking about Japan and its effect on America’s energy future–once within days of the quake, and again later in March–the president made a point of reassuring Americans that his commitment to nuclear power would stay strong. While countries like Germany and Japan–both more dependent on nuclear power than the US–took Fukushima as a sign that it was time to move away from nuclear, Obama wanted to win the future with the same entrenched industry that so generously donated to his winning the 2008 election.

But a funny thing happened on the way to winning our energy future–namely, our energy present.

As November drew to a close, an article on AOL Energy (yes, it seems AOL has an energy page) declared 2011 to be “nuclear’s annus horribilis“:

March 2011 brought the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off northeastern Japan that sparked a tsunami whose waves may have exceeded 45 feet. Tokyo Electric Power Company’s oldest nuclear station, Fukushima Daiichi, apparently survived the earthquake, but its four oldest reactors didn’t survive that wall of water. Nuclear experts are still figuring out what all went wrong, and tens of thousands still haven’t returned home as Japanese authorities try to decontaminate radioactive hot spots.

In April, massive tornadoes that devastated the southeast swept near the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry plant.

In June, droughts sparked wildfires across the Southwest, including one that threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons materials are stored.

June also brought record floods across the upper Midwest. For weeks Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun nuclear plant was essentially an island.

August saw the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake just 11 miles from Dominion Energy’s North Anna plant. The plant shut safely, and returned to service mid-November after extensive checks found no damage even though ground motion briefly exceeded the plant’s design.

That list, as readers of this space will no doubt note, is far from complete. This year has also seen serious events at nuclear plants in California, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire and Ohio. But, perhaps even more troubling is the strangely positive tone of the piece.

Despite its ominous headline, it seems the message is: “Yeah, lots of nasty business in 2011, but 2011 is almost over. We got through it and no one died (at least no one in the US), so. . . problem solved!” It’s an attitude absurd on its face, of course, the passage of time is not the friend of America’s aging nuclear infrastructure–quite the opposite–but it is also a point that can’t survive the week in which it was made.

Take North Anna, for example. Yes, it is true that the NRC signed off on a restart in the waning hours of November 11, but the two generators at Dominion’s plant were not back at full power till November 28 because there was indeed damage–some of which was not discovered until after the restart process began.

A week earlier, a fire at Ohio’s crippled Davis-Besse facility cut ventilation to the reactor control room. A faulty valve in a pipe sending water to the reactor core leaked on an electrical switchbox, triggering an electrical arc, which started the fire. This could have been a potentially catastrophic emergency. . . had the reactor not been shut down seven weeks earlier to replace an already once previously replaced, corroded, 82-ton reactor lid. This “transplant operation” revealed a 30-foot crack in the concrete shield building that will require a separate repair program. . . which will in no way be completed before the end of the year.

The day after that fire, November 20, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Progress Energy’s Crystal River nuclear power plant in Citrus County, Florida, had discovered a 12-foot by 4-foot crack and crumbled concrete in its containment building in late July, but failed to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This was a patently intentional omission, as Progress Energy was already reporting to the NRC about repairs to two other major cracks in the same building dating back to October 2009 and March 2011.

The Crystal River story is long and sordid. The containment building cracked first during its construction in 1976. That crack was in the dome, and was linked to a lack of steel reinforcement. Most nuclear plants use four layers of steel reinforcement; Crystal River used only one. The walls were built as shoddily as the dome.

The latest problems started when Crystal River needed to replace the steam generator inside the containment building. Rather than use an engineering firm like Bechtel or SGT–the companies that had done the previous 34 such replacements in the US–Progress decided it would save a few bucks and do the job itself.

Over the objections of on-site workers, Progress used a different method than the industry standard to cut into the containment building. . . and that’s when this new cracking began. It appears that every attempt since to repair the cracks has only led to new “delamination” (as the industry calls it).

At this point, most have determined that the best plan going forward is to tear down the substandard structure and build a properly reinforced new one, but Progress thinks they have a better idea. Crystal River’s operator is trying to replace the wall panels–all six of them–one by one.

Funny enough, the cost of this never-before-tried retrofit is about the same as the cost of a whole new building. But the full rebuild would take more time–and there’s the rub.

Every day that Crystal River is offline costs Progress money because they have to buy energy to replace what they agreed to provide to the region from this nuclear facility. Each year that the plant is offline is said to cost $300 million. The price tag on this little cracking problem so far–not counting the actual costs of the repair–is $670 million.

Who will pay that bill? Well, if you live in Florida, the answer is: you:

Customers will pay $140 million next year so Progress Energy Florida can buy electricity from other sources while a nuclear plant remains shut down for repairs.

Consumer advocates opposed the power replacement charge, which will take effect Jan. 1, but it won unanimous approval Tuesday from the five-member Florida Public Service Commission.

The panel’s decision is a prelude to a determination next year whether a portion of the repair costs should be passed on to customers or paid in full by the company’s investors owing to problems that have delayed the work. The Crystal River plant was closed for repairs in 2009 but now isn’t expected to reopen until 2014. That’s about three years later than initially expected.

The repair bill is expected to total $2.5 billion. The utility wants customers to pay $670 million, or about a quarter of that amount.

Interesting how that $670 million exactly mirrors the replacement energy costs through today. Students of the Florida Public Service Commission would probably be skeptical that the bailout will really stop there–remember, Florida residents already pay a surcharge on their utility bills for possible (but in no way guaranteed) future nuclear power construction.

And to say that it’s all about the money would not be pure speculation. As the St. Petersburg Times reports, while the good people at Crystal River failed to notify the NRC (or the Public Service Commission) about their latest troubles in a timely fashion, Progress Energy didn’t dare keep secrets from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. On August 8, the same day it neglected to mention the new cracks in a report to the PSC, Progress filed its annual report to the SEC and stated “additional cracking or delaminations may have occurred or could occur during the repair process.”

Given the many revelations of just how casual SEC enforcement can be, it is disturbing to think a nuclear provider had more to worry about from the SEC than from the NRC, the agency given direct oversight of nuclear plant licensing and safety.

Disturbing, but not surprising. This year has also revealed the cozy relationship between the nuclear industry and the NRC. An AP exposé made that clear over the summer, but one need look no further than the AOL Energy story:

[Nuclear Energy Institute CEO Marvin] Fertel said the industry and NRC are “in very good alignment” on the issues raised by 2011 events. The concern for utilities is the “cumulative impact” of new rules, he said, and making sure they’re ranked so plant staffs attack those with the most safety benefit first and the cost is manageable.

The government and the industry agree–safety must be addressed with an eye toward cost. And the tens of millions of Americans living in the shadow of a nuclear reactor will see just what this means as the watered-down post-Fukushima recommendations are slowly proposed and implemented–with little fully required of plant operators before 2016.

Indeed, the global nuclear industry is proceeding not just as if it is business as usual–when it comes to the United States, manufacturers of nuclear plant components are already betting on a new wave of reactor construction. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Toshiba Corp. is preparing to export turbine equipment to the US.

The turbines are for Toshiba-owned Westinghouse Electric Company-designed AP1000 reactors proposed for sites in Georgia and South Carolina. As previously reported, the AP1000 is a new reactor design–a new design that has not yet officially been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Still, the operators of the plants have already started to procure the equipment.

All of which raises the question, how is it that, in an age when credit is so hard to come by, an industry so focused on the bottom line feels secure in moving forward with commitments on a plan that is still officially going through the regulatory pipeline?

The assurances come from the top, and so does the money.

In contrast to pledges to, say, close Guantanamo or give Americans a public health insurance option, when it comes to nuclear power, Barack Obama is as good as his word. In February, Obama pledged $8.33 billion in federal loan guarantees to Southern Co., the operator of Georgia’s Plant Vogtle, the proposed home of two new AP1000 reactors. Again, this pledge came in advance of any approval of the design or licensing of the construction.

So, perhaps the nuclear industry is right to feel their “annus horribilis” is behind them, at least when it comes to their business plans. And with the all-too-common “privatize the profits, socialize the risks” way the utilities are allowed to do business, one might even doubt this last annus was really that horribilis for them at all.

But for the rest of us, the extant and potential problems of nuclear power are not limited to any particular period of time. The dangers of nuclear waste, of course, are measured in tens of thousands of years, the Fukushima crisis is lived by millions every minute, and the natural disasters, “events” and accidents that plague an aging, expensive and insufficiently regulated American nuclear industry are an anytime, anywhere reminder that future cannot be won by repeating the mistakes of the past.

The Party Line – November 4, 2011: Self-Styled Clean Energy President Embraces Future That’s Dirty, Dangerous, and Expensive

“Reeling from months of protests, President Barack Obama’s advisors are worried. . . .”

So begins a November 3rd story from Reuters assessing the potential political fallout from an administration decision to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada Corp’s plan to move crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas. Reading the whole piece, one can’t help but feel that Obama is still of a mind to go ahead and OK this dangerous and much-derided plan, it is just the Obama 2012 campaign that’s agonizing over how to spin it.

Back in 2008, Obama the candidate seemed to understand the threat posed by global warming, and he spoke often of moving away from carbon-heavy fuel sources like tar sands. Now, a good part of what is considered the president’s “base,” it seems, understands that the transcontinental pipeline is not only a danger to farmlands and aquifers, but also a betrayal of a campaign promise.

Don’t think this is the dynamic at play? Look at recent administration boasts about such “green” initiatives as raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, or just read Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt in the abovementioned Reuters story:

“The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” he said. “When Americans compare the president’s record promoting clean energy and America’s energy security to those of the leading Republican candidates, who don’t even believe that climate change is an issue that we need to address and would cede the clean energy market to China, there will be no question about who will continue our progress.”

Moving beyond the observation that this is the same “We suck less” positioning that performed so poorly for Democrats in 2010, there are indeed many questions raised by Obama’s apparent take on our energy future.

LaBolt’s claim, “The president has done more to wean us off of foreign oil and transition the nation to a clean energy economy than any other,” first begs the obvious fact-check: Alberta is not in the US, and tar sands crude is no one’s idea of clean energy. But it is not a big leap to read this statement as something more inclusive, something meant to refer to all of the Obama administration’s moves in the energy sector. Indeed, with references to clean energy, climate change and China, the Obama campaign is probably hoping for some to hear a commitment to solar power, while others might understand it as an embrace of nuclear fission.

Intent notwithstanding, administration moves have underscored the latter–a White House enraptured with nuclear power–just as events continue to lay bare the lie that US nuclear power generation could fit anywhere into a tale of clean, domestic energy advocacy.

A new stupid way to boil water?

On November 1, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a new design of what is called an Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) slated for construction in South Texas. The plan to build two 1,350-megawatt reactors was originally pitched five years ago, with the original plant operator, NRG Energy (so nice they named it twice!), requesting design certification for Toshiba’s version of ABWRs in 2007.

But in 2009, the NRC made mandatory what had previously been a voluntary requirement that plants would be able to withstand a 9/11-style aircraft attack and continue to cool the reactor and spent fuel pools. The ABWR design, and its certification, had to be amended. This amended design is what just received the NRC’s thumbs-up.

A funny thing, however, happened since the original request: NRG stopped investing in the project. NRG was the prime investor in the “South Texas Project Nuclear Power Co.,” which is the name of the body that originally submitted the amended design. Without NRG, Toshiba has been shepherding the certification request, the one just approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Just one hitch, though, foreign companies are not allowed to operate nuclear power plants in the United States–a point that seems to have been missed by the NRC (and by most establishment news reports about the certification).

This design certification without funding or domestic management in place provides an almost comic counterpoint to the funding-without-certification approach taken by the Obama administration for the AP1000 reactors proposed for Georgia’s Plant Vogtle.

The AP1000, a riff on a Pressurized Water Reactor design, is supposed to provide passive cooling inside a reactor in the event of a loss of power to the active cooling system. There are many questions about the AP1000, and it too had to be altered to comply with the 2009 9/11 rules, but the most recent delay in certification comes at least in part from concerns that the design should also account for a Fukushima-like seismic event. At this point, Vogtle’s operator, The Southern Company, and the NRC have not come to a meeting of the minds.

But these concerns–or, at least, delays–did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the White House. In February of 2010, without any design certification in place, none other than Barak Obama himself announced $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for Southern. This was done with fanfare at a public event (there’s even a YouTube of the announcement).

So, certification with no funding, or funding with no certification–to the US federal government, it doesn’t matter. And it spells out two points in bold type: The Obama administration stands squarely behind nuclear power. . . and the marketplace does not. Without help from what the campaign would have voters believe is the all-time greatest champion of clean, green, domestic energy, new nuclear reactors would not be built in the United States.

Uranium extraction is not clean and never has been. The US is still paying to clean up from mining in the southwest that ended half a century ago. And today, uranium is not really a domestic fuel source, either. A list of the world’s top uranium producers looks like this: 1) Kazakhstan, 2) Canada, 3) Australia, 4) Namibia, 5) Russia, 6) Niger, 7) Uzbekistan. The US comes in eighth, accounting for just 2.9 percent of the world’s uranium production. By contrast, the US ranks third in global oil production, extracting almost 11 percent of the world’s crude.

And uranium doesn’t jump out of the ground ready to go for a nuclear reactor. The processing of uranium ore into useable fuel is a dirty, costly and energy intensive endeavor requiring loan guarantees, waste storage and safety protocols all its own. (And as if to underscore this, House Speaker John Boehner has recently requested federal loan guarantees to build a new nuclear processing plant in his home state of Ohio.)

Fukushima: a case study

A pair of new stories out of Japan provide all the evidence any president would need to honestly evaluate the role of nuclear power in America’s supposedly clean, green energy future.

Fukushima isn’t a single event, it is an ongoing, ever-evolving, always metastasizing crisis. In case anyone thought otherwise, the detection of radioactive xenon in Fukushima Daiichi reactor 2 provided a chance to again pay heed to just how serious things remain at the crippled Japanese nuclear facility.

Though Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the nominal owners Fukushima Daiichi, contend that the trace of xenon gas does not represent evidence of a nuclear chain reaction inside the reactor previously thought closest to a so-called “cold shutdown,” they still pumped in boric acid–a substance used to mitigate nuclear fission.

Tokyo Electric may or may not be telling the whole truth in this instance, but evidence from throughout this disaster dictates skepticism. For example, scientists have again revised upwards their estimates of total radiation released from the plant, and a new study explodes TEPCO’s minimalist fairytale:

France’s l’Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, or IRSN) has issued a recent report stating that the amount of radioactive cesium-137 that entered the Pacific after 11 March was probably nearly 30 times the amount stated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May.

According to IRSN, the amount of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 that flowed into the ocean from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant between March 21 and mid-July reached an estimated 27.1 quadrillion becquerels.

Quadrillion is not a number that often comes up in polite conversation, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. . . even for becquerels. Soon after the March 11 earthquake, Japan revised acceptable levels of radioactive cesium upward. . . to 500 becquerels per kilogram. Though even the 27.1 quadrillion number sort of redefines the phrase “a drop in the ocean,” the really disturbing notion is that with a relatively long half-life, the pattern of Pacific currents, and the principles of bio-accumulation and bio-concentration at play, it is possible that everyone who includes Pacific Ocean fish in his or her diet is now part of an informal, long-term experiment on the effects of low-level radioactive contamination. Or, as the same story as above snidely puts it:

The radioactive silver lining? Radioactive cesium-137 has a half life of roughly 30 years, so if the IRSN estimates are accurate, then [b]y 2041 the Pacific’s aquatic life will only be subjected to a mere 13.55 quadrillion becquerels of radiation.

But long half-lives and long-term health effects require long-range thinking, not to mention arguments about the relative value of human life. Perhaps another fresh release from Japan tells the nuclear story in numbers a deficit-obsessed DC elite can more easily comprehend:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. won approval for a 900 billion yen ($11.5 billion) bailout from the government after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe to avert bankruptcy and start paying compensation for the crisis.

Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano approved the support after the company known as Tepco committed to cutting 7,400 jobs and 2.5 trillion yen in costs. The utility forecast an annual loss of 600 billion yen, its second since the March earthquake and tsunami wrecked its Fukushima nuclear plant.

Eleven-and-one-half-billion dollars–and that only takes TEPCO through March 2013. Who here thinks the crisis will be over by then? It almost makes Obama’s $8.33 billion loan guarantee to Southern look like a bargain.

Almost.

Except that the loan guarantee is just for construction of a yet unapproved reactor design–should Southern, or whatever entity might eventually operate Plant Vogtle, experience an accident, that would likely be a whole other ball of bailout.

But what could possibly go wrong? Well, as repeatedly documented in this column, a lot. Beyond the level-7 sinkhole that is Fukushima, in the US, 2011 alone has seen manmade accidents and natural disasters that have scrammed and/or damaged more than a half-dozen reactors. And with each event, a process of shutdown, repair, inspection, authorization and startup costs time and money that does nothing to provide America with clean, safe, renewable, affordable energy.

Each event does, however, add costs to a variety of segments of the economy. Energy production and utility bills are obvious, but this nuclear obsession also drives up costs for healthcare, food safety, air and water quality, the yet-to-be-solved problem of long-term waste storage, and don’t forget the additional tax burden required to support all the bailouts, tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nuclear industry. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, has also called for a global study of the health effects of long-term radiation exposure as part of an international response to the Fukushima disaster. That, too, is an expense that should be factored into the real cost of nuclear power.

One thing, however, has gotten cheaper since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami gave the world its third top-level nuclear accident since 1979, and that would be uranium. Since March, world uranium prices have fallen some thirty percent. In fact, demand is so low, the French company Areva has decided to suspend its uranium mining in the Central African Republic–for two years.

The market is again speaking, but to those predisposed to cherish the siren song of nuclear power, cheap uranium could easily become the excuse to dash greener, safer alternative energy development.

Since the earliest days of nuclear power, that siren song has gone something like this: clean, safe, and too cheap to meter. Obviously, 2011 has proven none of that rings true, but when an administration believes it can greenwash away the political fallout from a tar sands pipeline, is it such a stretch to see them ignoring the financial and radioactive fallout of nuclear power in their attempt to package Obama as the cleanest, greenest energy president ever?

* * *

I am always happy to see the issues discussed in this column get attention from a broader audience, so I was thrilled to see Rachel Maddow take nine minutes out of her Wednesday show to call attention to what she sees as a scandal no one finds sexy enough to get excited about–namely the dangerous state of nuclear power plants across the US. But her contention that no one is paying attention irks me, at least a little. I have lost count of the number of posts I have devoted to this very subject this year, and I think, throughout, most would say I find much about this subject quite scandalous. So, Rachel, next time you want to talk about this stuff, the next time you want to share your excitement about this scandal, call me.

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 – July 29, 2011: Those Who Can’t Teach, “Compromise”

I seriously cannot believe I am again writing a post with one eye on the wire, still waiting for a conclusion to the debt-ceiling debacle, looking for real news to read, instead of just thrice re-boiled tea leaves. But here I am—here we are—sweating out a crisis that is as malicious as it is manufactured, knowing that when a “resolution” comes, no matter which version/option/compromise we get, it will be both terrible and impermanent.

That’s not easy to think about, but it is quite easy to say. There are no smart options on the table. There are not even smart planks left to use as bargaining chips. America, with its economy gasping for air, is left having to choose from a trio of plans that are all (as best as we are allowed to glimpse them) comprised of draconian cuts to so-called discretionary spending, no serious attempts at increases in revenue, and seismic blows to the bedrock programs of our social safety net—and none of which do a single, solitary thing to stimulate job creation. The only resemblance to a life preserver here is that all the plans look like a big, fat zero.

That the federal budget deficit is not even our real problem is a message completely absent from the national “debate.” That there is a difference between the debt ceiling and the deficit has been lazily obscured or purposefully ignored. And, again, the interests and desires of vast majorities of the American people—that jobs are more important than deficits, that a higher percentage of taxes should be paid by the very wealthy, and that the military should be cut before Social Security and Medicare—are marginalized as “extreme,” “not serious,” “unreasonable,” or (horror of horrors) “not adult.”

And who is out in front of this march to mindless mayhem? Believe it or not, as flawed and feckless as Congressional leaders seem, as uncompromising or unhinged as TEA Party sympathizers (T-simps?) appear, the guy that must bear the lion’s share of blame is the one with the bully pulpit.

When President Barack Obama took to the primetime air on Monday, many a Beltway pundit huzzah-ed the appearance of “the educator-in-chief.” We were told that the president went over the heads of the Washington elite to explain the complexities of the debt-ceiling debate to the people. We were told that Obama’s continued “eat your peas” tone was just the sort of talking-to that the unruly brood in the people’s house (you know, the House) needed to hear. And we were told that when the president asked folks to call Congress and say they expected compromise, he had scored a political victory (even as some poopooed his “politicizing” the moment).

And no doubt the president believed his own press, for as the week draws to an end and we are no closer to any kind of meaningful arrangement (good, bad, really bad or otherwise) to raise the debt ceiling, there is nothing new coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Well, this might come as a bit of a news flash to President Obama (not to mention the DC press corps), but being “reasonable,” or “unflappable,” or even behaving as the “adult” is not the same thing as being a leader.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich noticed this “abject failure” on Wednesday, calling Obama “seemingly without a compass. . . an inside-the-Beltway deal-maker who does not explain his compromises in light of larger goals.”

Perhaps this is because the president has no larger goals. It has often seemed that, to Obama, compromise—like “bipartisanship”—is goal enough, an end rather than just a means to an end. Perhaps, as Reich puts it, it is more important to the president that he be “seen as a reasonable adult rather than a fighter.” Or perhaps the larger goals are so singularly unpalatable that he dare not explain them. It is bad enough that the White House is stripping Democrats of a solid campaign issue by joining the GOP in its pursuit of cuts to Social Security and Medicare, if the president had to call such cuts a “goal,” as opposed to a “compromise,” his own re-election might be in peril (or even more in peril).

But the “why” is not as important as the “what”—and what is going on is deplorable, in both practical and political terms. As Reich notes:

[Obama] is well aware that the Great Recession wiped out $7.8 trillion of home value, crushing the nest eggs and eliminating the collateral that had allowed the middle class to keep spending despite declining wages—a decrease in consumption that is directly responsible for the anemic recovery. But he doesn’t explain this to the American people or attempt to mobilize them around a vision of what should be done.

Instead, even as unemployment rises to 9.2 percent and at least 14 million people look for work, he joins the GOP in making a fetish of reducing the budget deficit over the next decade and enters into a hair-raising game of chicken with House Republicans over whether the debt ceiling will be raised. Never once does he tell the public why reducing the deficit has become his No. 1 economic priority. Americans can only conclude that the Republicans must be correct—that diminishing the deficit will somehow revive economic growth and restore jobs.

Instead of powerful explanations, we get the type of bromides that issue from any White House. America must “win the future,” Obama says, by which he means making public investments in infrastructure, education, and research and development. But then he submits a budget proposal that would cut nondefense discretionary spending (of which these investments constitute more than half) to its lowest level as a share of gross domestic product in over half a century.

Reich is kind in phrasing this as a situation into which Obama has “allowed himself to be trapped,” but I fear he is being too politic. Two-and-a-half years removed from inauguration day, the president has enough of a track record to deserve the label of “active participant” in the trapping.

When the will and wisdom of the electorate has threatened to interrupt what we used to think of as a Republican narrative of “austerity for the many and rewards for the few,” it is President Obama that has time and again jumped in to shore up and shape his theoretical opponents’ frame. It was the new president that negotiated with himself a too-small stimulus and then over-promised what it would do. It was the White House that hamstrung healthcare reform with secret deals, an artificial maximum price tag, and long delays for the start of most programs, and then forced Democrats in Congress to embrace it and defend it straight through disastrous midterm elections. It was Obama that created the Catfood Commission when Congress itself failed to appease the deficit peacocks—and it was Obama that stacked the commission with members predisposed to disemboweling the social safety net. It was the president that forced his caucus to embrace his December budget deal that extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and slashed the estate tax—two major factors in our current budget shortfall. And it is Obama that continues Bush’s wars of choice—justifying them with Bush’s climate of fear—another giant drain on federal coffers.

And it is Obama now, throughout the months that this debt-ceiling circus has continued to send in the clowns (along with high-wire acts and performing seals), who has served as ringmaster.

Obama, as I have described in the past, could have argued that we have more than enough borrowing capacity, and that, with interest rates so very low, now is the time to strengthen our economy by creating jobs, expanding our safety net, and stimulating demand. He could have used this crisis to build on the New Deal, to improve his flawed healthcare law, or to help power the next great engine of American economic expansion (by perhaps giving a Kennedy-esque “moon landing” speech declaring we will replace carbon and nuclear fuels with renewables by a date certain, and then funding R&D)—and he certainly could have used all of this to draw a sharp contrast between Democrats and Republicans. But instead, the president has embraced the austerity meme, argued only for “compromise,” and has turned the entire debate into a contest over whose plan has more cuts. Obama has failed to explain to anyone how compromise, in-and-of itself, will help create a job or put food on the table, but he has succeeded in enhancing a dangerous and growing cynicism among voters well on their way to dropping out of the political process to devote more time to just making ends meet.

It might not be hard to “mobilize” people around a tactic—Congressional phone lines were jammed the day after Obama’s call to call—but a week (or two?) later, when government services have been sacrificed in the name of saving the country’s bond rating, will any of this telephone army feel like they won the fight?

It’s hard to imagine they will—certainly not the next time unemployment numbers come out, or a bridge falls down, or their kids are forced into a more crowded classroom. It is those real-life “lessons” that will do the teaching absent any true leadership from the “educator-in-chief.”

(A version of this post also appears on 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.)

Emancipation and (Self) Preservation

It is perhaps ironic in the extreme to take to the internet to extol the virtues of contemplation, and to do so while discussing a story that, by the time you read this, will be over a full day old (a near-eternity in the blogosphere), but President Obama’s allusions to the Emancipation Proclamation (or more accurately, the release of a months-old talk where he praises Lincoln’s move as a marriage of principle and pragmatism) in the contextual crucible of the debt-ceiling debate, makes me wish we could really spend some time learning, relearning, and discussing the Proclamation and Lincoln’s actions in the context of his time and the lessons they might hold for action in ours.

It would be as fun as it would be enlightening for me (and a lot of others, I’d hope) to have a back-and-forth about what President Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation did and didn’t do—for slaves in Union and Confederate states, for the war effort on both sides of America’s Civil War, and for the future of the (as opposed to “these”) United States—because there is room for argument. And, it would be great if we could first pursue the pure knowledge and understanding before having to turn it into an ironclad metaphor for our current president and his very current “crisis” (another point open to interpretation). But Obama “went there”—first in a March talk with a group of students, and this weekend with the release of tape of that talk and another video alluding to the same issue—and so the metaphor, like a battle, is joined.

Because my preamble ramble is already closer to the pre-internet-age chat than I had intended, let me shorthand a lot of my thinking on Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation and say that while I feel comfortable in raising an eyebrow about just how few slaves were freed on its first day, January 1, 1863, and also feel comfortable in asserting that Lincoln understood the shrewd politics of the Proclamation’s exact language, a day of looking at recent scholarship on these issues also has me believing that “Emancipation,” such as it was proclaimed, did much to help the Union’s war effort by adding a second “cause” (the eventual abolition of slavery in addition to the opposition to southern secession) to the fight, by painting a stark moral contrast between the warring parties to European powers that had abolished slavery themselves, but still had other reasons to aid the Confederacy (such as Great Britain), and, quite notably, by allowing northern blacks and freed southern slaves to enlist and fight, swelling the ranks for the Union side.

All of this allowed Lincoln to attain his stated primary goal—the preservation of the Union—but it also (along with some very critical acts of Congress) laid the groundwork for the degradation of slavery in Northern slave states, the outlawing of slavery in US territories, and soon after, the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery across all states. (It also helped blunt any thoughts of a challenge to Lincoln’s re-nomination from the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party in 1864, which is interesting even in today’s context, and an attractive grace note to my point here.)

With all of this (all of this) in mind, let us now examine President Obama’s words, as delivered to a politically mixed group of students:

[Obama] noted that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation permitted slavery in border states loyal to the Union, in an attempt to hold the nation together.

“Here you’ve got a wartime president whose making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that ‘right now, my job is to win the war and to maintain the union,’” Obama said.

“Can you imagine how the [liberal news outlet] Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it, ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’”

He told the students: “The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don’t get 100 percent of what you want.”

Again, setting aside just how accurate the analogy is with respect to what the Emancipation Proclamation did and/or was intended to do, and trying, too, to ignore the gratuitous hippy punching, I want to focus on the last paragraph with respect to the broader invocation of Lincoln’s pragmatism.

Obama seeks to praise Lincoln for his ability to attain his goals in light of and in spite of both factional opposition and structural impediment, and in so doing, the current president rather nakedly implies that he is doing the same. Obama essentially says: “Lincoln married his principles to process and achieved his goal, and now, so too, will I. Someday, many will appreciate what I am doing the way we now appreciate Abraham Lincoln.”

But here’s the rub: What principle? And what goal? Obama’s big lesson, he says, is “you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” but what is it that Obama wants?

I don’t think he is concerned about the actual preservation of the Union. Aside from a marginal group of racists and paranoids—and the small handful of opportunist politicians that will claim some common cause even if they intend to do nothing as noteworthy as a Jefferson Davis—few are expecting another war between the states. Is the president then thinking that the fight against America’s current economic woes is the moral equivalent of the fight to preserve the Union? Could be, but then how have his actions moved us closer to that goal? What principle is he marrying to politics?

Deficit hawking will do nothing to create jobs or consumer demand, and laying things his party holds dear on the table (or whatever euphemism Obama is using this week for offering up benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare) not only makes the personal economies of so many Americans that much more precarious, it does nothing—nothing—to affect the deficit, or, much more to the immediate point, the debt ceiling. This would not just be me saying this; this would be the vast majority of our nation’s economists. I would also wager big money that any of the president’s long trail of ex or soon to be ex economic advisors—from Austan Goolsbee to Jarred Bernstein to even (yes) Larry Summers—would agree: if your goal is to usher in a robust economic recovery, cutting trillions from public projects, social programs and so-called “entitlements” will be almost entirely counterproductive.

Is the “goal” compromise itself? Many, including myself, often feel this way. But what is that? How does that marry “principle” to “politics” when it defines them as exactly the same thing?

Which leaves me with two remaining possibilities—both unpleasant.

I am going to give short shrift to the sinister one—that Obama is a sort of “Manchurian Candidate” whose entire career was engineered for the goal of destroying the Rooseveltian welfare state and the Democratic Party that built and defended it. It might be true in practice, but the psychology and construction of this thesis requires more supposition than I am comfortable writing.

To me, it seems the more obvious answer is now the correct one—and maybe the sadder one, too: Obama’s goal, the principle and practice that the president is equating with the Emancipation Proclamation, is in fact his re-election. To Obama, the preservation of his presidency is the same as Lincoln’s preservation of the Union.

How else can we explain Obama’s “leadership” on economic issues, especially since the “grand compromise” of last December when he allowed the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy? What other “principle” dictates that the president insist on moving further and further toward a camp of greedy, rich corporatists and their Washington proxies? What “goal” is achieved by taking away from the president’s own party the one sure-fire electoral winner, the contrast between the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, and the party that openly has suggested cutting them?

These questions are even more pointed, to my ear, if we are to believe (as some keep insisting) that the president does not intend to make these cuts or move as far right as he might make it seem, but is instead just posturing to throw his opposition off balance, to reveal them as the more intractable. It is a posture that does nothing for Democrats in Congress (or anywhere down ticket, really), but it does, in the eyes of Obama’s political team, anyway, project the president as more “independent” and more appealing to some dubious grouping of “independent voters.”

Imagine, then, Abraham Lincoln approaching the same problem. Lincoln was not above politics—as noted, the Emancipation Proclamation was a shrewd document politically, and during Lincoln’s senatorial and first presidential campaigns, he would address slavery in very different terms depending on his audience—but it was politics toward a goal bigger than himself, and it would eventually come to be politics married to a principle that, even though not as enlightened as our current approach to race, still became steadfast in its alliance with the abolition of slavery.

Would Lincoln feel that simply positioning himself for a second term, giving his re-election the best of all possible chances, was the same thing as preserving the union? That one is a stretch for me. And, even though Lincoln’s initial indication of the impending Emancipation Proclamation (in September 1862) was bad for some Republican members of the House (they lost seats in the 1862 midterms), with the principle of abolishing slavery in hand, the president’s party was given an issue to run on that served them well in many places for the next 100 years.

Can Barack Obama look at his moves in the current “battle” and expect a similar legacy? He can want it, but history will be the judge. It will be, should the republic survive or no, the stuff of future discussions and scholarship. It is for time to decide, not Beltway strategists, not “independent voters,” and certainly not the president, himself.

(A version of this post appears at Firedoglake.)

The Party Line – July 8, 2011: A Broadside? That’s Rich

By now, many of you have probably read Frank Rich’s inaugural piece for New York Magazine. Freed from the bean counters and word counters of the New York Times, Rich pours forth pages (and pages) on what he calls “Obama’s Original Sin.”

That sin, as the story explains, is that the Obama administration’s failure to properly investigate the causes of the financial crisis, its failure to hold anyone accountable, and its embrace of some of the very people that helped push the US economy into the, uh, ditch have left the president’s reelection prospects on shaky ground.

Matt Taibbi (who is quoted in the Rich piece) has called the NY Mag article “Rich’s broadside,” and cites it as one of a growing list of “not quite mainstream media” stories on the epic failure that is the president’s approach to Wall Street. Taibbi sees Rich and raises him, but both are playing roughly the same hand: Frank Rich is being tough on Barack Obama.

I am not going to say that Rich is not being tough, per se, just that he isn’t as tough as he thinks.

I am sure that Frank thinks he is being tough now because he was once much less so. As Matt notes in his post, Rich was once one of Obama’s biggest cheerleaders. In fact, if I may add a personal note, I had always enjoyed reading Rich during the Bush years, but as the November 2008 election drew near, even I started to blush from the Times columnist’s overt man-crush on the Democratic nominee.

In other words, Frank Rich’s opinion of Obama has fallen a long way because Rich’s opinion had a long way to fall.

To be fair, Rich does point out that Obama has a truly dreadful record on jobs creation. Rich also bemoans how many Robert Rubin acolytes the president appointed to his economic team. And, the article rightfully chastises Obama’s embrace of the deficit peacocks and their TEA-infused austerity framing.

But Rich spends a good chunk of his piece trashing GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Now, Romney deserves trashing—he is an even bigger jerk than he is a phony—but focusing on the big, bad Republican that waits in the wings plays into the Obama team’s own defense strategy—things might be bad, but they would be worse under President Jerkoff. And that not only lets the current president off the hook a bit, it hampers those that want to organize to push Obama leftward (as in, at least somewhere back near the center).

What Rich misses is that the birth of the Tea Party (or the TEA-colored parties that we lump under that one rubric) owes something to the very positions Obama has taken with regard to the economic crisis. The Tea Party that Obama and his defenders blame for his difficulties in governing, that O & Co. warn us about as the hellish alternative to “four more years”—though in many ways incubated and manipulated by rightwing corporate interests—found fertile ground in a scared and angry population that saw a president who promised change and delivered more of the same.

That Obama ran with the Bush bailout of the banks, demanding nothing in return, while shorting his own stimulus package and marginalizing the voices that clamored for pump-priming and accountability—failing to a) produce enough jobs, while b) trying to sell the “how much worse it would have been” argument, and c) holding no one accountable—sent a message that if Obama was on a sinking ship with too few life boats, it would be Wall Street first, not women and children. . . or any of the other inhabitants of Main Street. Obama may have started as a poor kid from Hawaii, but he has cemented himself in many Americans’ minds as just another eastern elite.

I know Rich thinks he is being rough on the president—partly because, a few months back, I overheard Frank telling a table of bold-faced dinner companions sitting near me at a midtown restaurant how tough one of his columns (one of the last he’d write for the New York Times) was going to be on Obama. . . only to read the column that Sunday and find it not so tough at all. I also know Rich thinks he is being tough because he ends with a warning that no one but Obama can save Obama (and so, save America from Mitt). But only four paragraphs before that, Rich writes that “There’s not much Obama can do about the economy by 2012 given the debt ceiling fight. . . and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs. . . .”

Granted, this was written before the Thursday bombshell about Social Security being put on the table by a president eager to make a deal—any deal—on the debt ceiling, but anyone paying attention saw that (along with hits to Medicare and Medicaid) coming weeks if not months or years ago. But even so, even if Rich, like so much of the liberal establishment, has been willfully ignorant to that, the declaration that the President of the United States is fated to just sit on his hands and watch Americans suffer for the next 17 months because the big banker elites and the tea-party rabble won’t let him help America and so help himself—well, so help me, how is that being tough on Obama?

Let me be a little tougher: I never expected a hero or a real progressive when I voted for Obama in 2008, but I expected some kind of leader. I hoped that, though not my idea of a liberal, Obama was smart, would see what the great crisis of our time demanded, and would rise—at least in part—to the occasion.

Obama might think he has done that. Obama might think he is a leader, or if not quite that, at least a transcendent, post-partisan facilitator, but, if I may borrow from Apocalypse Now, Obama is neither. He is an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks—in this case, Wall Street and the corporate elite—to collect a bill.

What’s on that bill? Yes, there is real money—in the trillions. Perhaps Obama’s own downfall, too. (How ironic.) Quite possibly, the bill also demands the destruction of the Democratic Party, and even more likely, the destruction of the social safety net that Democrats have built and defended for over two generations. That’s what Team Obama has put on the table.

That’s my humble take on being “tough on Obama.” But, be it Rich or me, no matter—what Obama has delivered will be tough on all of us.

(A version of this post has been crossposted to Firedoglake.)