House Postpones Witch Hunt While Nuclear Industry Awaits Results of Latest Power Play

The Salem Nuclear Power Plant is in New Jersey, not Salem, MA, but you get the idea. (photo: peretzp)

In case you were wondering what it was all about–“it” being the dealings of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission actually making the popular news for a few months–the House Committee on Energy and Commerce indefinitely postponed its Thursday hearing on the “politicization of the [NRC] and the actions and influence of Chairman Jaczko.” Gregory Jaczko, of course, announced his resignation on May 21, and President Obama nominated Allison Macfarlane as his replacement three days later.

Though stressing that his committee would keep an eye on the NRC, “including a full review of the inspector general’s pending report” on the “breakdown in collegiality at the commission,” Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) did not schedule a new hearing.

And there is no apparent update from Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and, until about the third week of last month, one of the loudest and most persistent critics of workplace morale at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before Jaczko’s resignation, Issa, too, was promising more hearings. Instead, Issa has turned again to attacking loan guarantees for renewable energy projects (and so, attempting. . . again. . . to make Solyndra an issue in the presidential election)–which also serves his masters (as in, largest campaign contributors) in the nuclear industry just fine, thank you.

Meanwhile, things are suddenly moving on the Senate side. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has given a more public blessing to the suspected private deal discussed here during the weeks leading up to Jaczko’s move. Because Dr. Macfarlane is considered an opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Senator Reid has agreed to put aside his vocal objections to a second term for NRC commissioner Kristine Svinicki and advance both nominations toward confirmation as a pair. (Stopping Yucca, of course, has been one of Reid’s top priorities throughout his political career.) California Democrat Barbara Boxer, whose Environment and Public Works Committee will conduct the hearings on the NRC nominees, has sidestepped her own strong objections to Svinicki, and now says both the current and potential nuclear regulators should be considered before the end of the month.

So, there you have it–matters supposedly related to oversight of the nuclear industry and the safety of the American people have quite visibly taken a back seat to influence peddling and classic beltway horse-trading. In an era where even cynical deals are rarely struck, some might hail this move to quickly restock the NRC as something resembling bipartisan compromise (as if that were an end in itself). But success is not measured by the number of commissioners collecting government paychecks, it is seen in the actions of regulators who actually regulate.

In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima crisis, and in the presence of countless problems at a multitude of aging American nuclear plants, there is, indeed, much regulating to be done. But when one member of the NRC is forced out for vainly advocating the most minor of safety improvements, while another commissioner is rewarded with reappointment for consistently supporting the nuclear industry, the chances of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulating much of anything seem slim. It effectively defines “regulatory capture,” and practically guarantees that, no matter how fair or interpersonally gifted Dr. Macfarlane might be, the NRC will do little to police nuclear power.

As has been noted here on numerous occasions, the regulatory system is broken. Scientists, citizens, and lawmakers cannot “assume we have a can opener” and pretend a process exists to make commercial nuclear power clean and safe. The NRC may–may–have been created to provide oversight, but, in reality, it works instead to provide cover. Without an honest and active regulatory body, there is no credible argument for a “nuclear renaissance“–there is only the promise of another nuclear disaster.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this starting to sound at all familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.)