Friday, March 18, 2011

Negative Energy

photo: Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, California coast

That the news concerning the Japanese nuclear power plants is not greatly worse today counts as a positive development, while nuclear power in the U.S. is becoming a real topic.

On Friday, it was learned that workers at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant didn't know an emergency water pump to cool reactors wasn't working--for the past 18 months. This is only one of the known problems or "near-misses" at normally tight-lipped nuclear facilities. Diablo Canyon is also of concern because of its position on the California coast, in an earthquake prone zone. Especially since as Newsweek speculates, there have been major earthquakes recently on three corners of the Pacific plate--the only corner left is the San Andreas fault under San Francisco. But relationships between quakes are poorly understood. There are other places more or less due, including up here in far northern California, where the offshore triple junction of plates will someday produce a quake as powerful as the one in Japan. It may affect Pacific northwest cities like Seattle.

While the federal government is conducting some sort of review of nuclear plants, the Onion published one of its satirical articles that is nearly identical to the real thing: "Responding to the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan, officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sought Thursday to reassure nervous Americans that U.S. reactors were 100 percent safe and posed absolutely no threat to the public health as long as no unforeseeable system failure or sudden accident were to occur."

Meanwhile, assessment continues on the Japan situation, including these details that distinguish the Japan plant from the most catastrophic accident so far, Chernobyl. Meanwhile Climate Post reveals: According to a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks, the International Atomic Energy Agency had warned Japan more than two years ago its safety measures were out of date, and that strong earthquakes would pose “serious problems” for their nuclear reactors.

And while the earthquake and tsunami caused as yet unknown damage to these plants and set in motion the disaster now unfolding, Japan's wind power farms are doing just fine.

Finally, for those who thought bringing up the nuclear disinformation of the 50s was over the top--those bad old days when a U.S. official claimed that radiation sickness was a pleasant way to die, and pet scientists claimed fallout is harmless and even good for you, may I present Ann Coulter who refused to say that even any of the nuke plant workers in Japan were in danger, and asserted that radiation is good for you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

UN Resolution on Libya

The UN Security Council has just passed a resolution authorizing member nations to use force to protect civilians in Libya against their government. A no-fly zone is prominent in the tools, but action against tanks and artillery also appears to be within the scope of the resolution. What is specifically eliminated is any ground occupation force.

Here is what else is known: the resolution was publicly acclaimed by rebels in Libya, in their last remaining stronghold in the eastern part of the country. A crowd in the square of Benghazi cheered the news. Around that time, Gadhafi went on the radio to threaten Benghazi with "no mercy." Both of these legitimize the UN action. (There are also reports of more conciliatory statements from the government caught unprepared for the UN action.)

But whether any action will come in time is the great unknown at the moment. The first expected action is bombing of Libyan anti-aircraft installations. What else is not known, but arming rebels may not be within the resolution's authority.

So far it is pretty clear that the U.S., UK, France and Italy are preparing to act (Italy simply by allowing US planes to take off from air bases on its soil.) The question is the involvement of Arab nations. The Arab League previously signalled support for a no-fly zone. AP reports that Jordan, Qatar and the UAE may participate.

So how is this different from Iraq? This is UN authorized and truly international. Occupation of Libya, even parts of it, is not authorized. It is a response to real, visible, documented violence against large numbers of Libyan people, and there is a defined opposition to the dictatorial regime. But everything will depend on how it is handled, and the results.

The War at Home

Japan, Libya, Middle East in general: so much important happening, but there's still an ongoing war at home--the Rabid Right Class War. And there's news everyday about that: in Ohio, a jobs-busting as well as union-busting bill, protests in Michigan over that state's proposed fascistic laws, and protests in DC over the GOP raising money to make Wisconsin Governor Walker their god.

Meanwhile, columnist E.J. Dionne has gotten on the Shock Doctrine bandwagon (though he doesn't call it that), countering the domestic Shock Doctrine of 'the (state, federal) government is broke!':

"Just one problem: We’re not broke. Yes, nearly all levels of government face fiscal problems because of the economic downturn. But there is no crisis. There are many different paths open to fixing public budgets. And we will come up with wiser and more sustainable solutions if we approach fiscal problems calmly, realizing that we’re still a very rich country and that the wealthiest among us are doing exceptionally well."

"A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Heartbreak

The situation in Japan is worse still. It is heartbreaking to contemplate what the Japanese people are going through--those suffering from cold and inadequate food and water, with lost loved ones, and in jeopardy from radiation, or just riven by anxiety and shock. In terms of technology and public health systems, Japan is better prepared and better organized than almost anywhere else. In public health specifically, far better than the U.S. But in terms of history and tradition, they are bearing additional burdens. As David Sanger and Matt Wald say in the New York Times:

"In a country where memories of a nuclear horror of a different sort in the last days of World War II weigh heavily on the national psyche and national politics, the impact of continued venting of long-lasting radioactivity from the plants is hard to overstate."

In this informative story, they say that the crisis could go on for months, and the effects for many years.

If you are trying to follow this but don't have much time, I suggest you spend a TV hour watching Wednesday's Rachel Maddow. If you have another TV hour (less commercials), watch Tuesday's Maddow. Or the bits of both available with her blog.

A Nuclear Legacy

Things keep getting worse at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. The latest at the moment is that the last of the workers there--struggling to stay ahead of catastrophe at four separate reactors, and maybe six--have been evacuated because of radiation. That suggests that even worse is to come.

American TV reporters are in Japan now, and many are complaining that they aren't getting good information, and that the government is being vague at best. Slow or incorrect information also characterized the Three Mile Island accident (this one has already displaced it as the second worst in history.) A lot of the suspicion of government and scientists can be traced back to the beginning of the nuclear age, when officials and their pet scientists were evasive and misleading about the effects of nuclear radiation, and they also blatantly lied.

One of the ace liars was that guy up there, General Leslie Grove, who ran herd over the U.S. nuclear weapons program. As it happens, his worst lies were about the Japanese. When accounts of radiation effects in Hiroshima first surfaced, and for a long time afterwards, Grove led the U.S. effort to deny any such effects, even to calling them Japanese propaganda, and questioning the patriotism of anyone who took them seriously. Then when fallout from a secret U.S. hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific sickened some Japanese fishermen, the U.S. angrily denied this as well.

This legacy became part of things nuclear, and a source of general mistrust. So even now, when experts are assuring the U.S. West Coast that people here are in no conceivable danger from anything that might happen to the power plants in Japan, there may be skepticism at least. Still, those of us who have been around awhile have already taken in more radiation from numerous atomic bomb tests in the 50s and early 60s than we're likely to get here now. Our government fought knowledge of that, and of the thousands of cancers and other diseases (especially in Nevada where the tests were, and downwind in Utah) that resulted.

In terms of information, apart from checking various sources and seeing where they agree and where they differ, I've found a prime source. CNN calls itself the most trusted name in news, and while they spend a lot of time on this, it's uneven. In terms of credibility and clarity on this story, for me the most trusted name in news is Rachel Maddow.

One reason I suspect that the nuclear industry now likes to keep quiet is that actual information reveals (or reminds us) the scary and dangerous combination of mind-boggling complexity and high degree of danger involved. So when something goes wrong, and cascades into multiple failures, the consequences can be extreme. If people understood this, I wonder if they'd think that a nuclear power plant with six reactors on one site was worth the risk.

Consider just the matter of spent fuel rods, which some suspect is a big problem now at that plant. They must be cooled by a continous flow of water--for eight to ten years. All that's necessary for a huge release of radiation is if the water gets turned off. And this is apart from the instant catastrophe of a live nuclear reactor accident, or the slower but much longer danger of radioactive waste, which is dangerous for centuries.

Of course, people often don't want to know too much--they just want their electricity as cheaply as possible. They don't want to think too much about what goes into any of this--the consequences of mining and burning coal, of drilling and burning oil--and least of all, the monster of the 20th century called nuclear.

This is a brutal moment. It seems inconceivable that once again the Japanese people may be the primary victims of nuclear radiation. Especially after the tsunami made that part of Japan look like Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. Now there are more people at risk, and a more interconnected world and global economy. That means on the plus side that the Japanese won't face this alone. But it also means that everyone is going to share in some aspect of this catastrophe. Here in the 21st century, when our most potent threat is Climate Crisis, we may first knowingly feel the effects of that scourge of the 20th century, atomic fission.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"The wonderful synthesis so familiar in nature...; the union of impossibilities, which reappears in every object; its real and its ideal power,--was now also transferred entire to the consciousness of man."
in "Plato; or the Philosopher"

Photo: Hanuman Langurs.

Tumbling Dice?

The news from Japan just keeps getting worse. For example, the LA Times reports:
A fresh explosion rocked a crippled nuclear complex as rescuers from around the world converged on Japan's devastated earthquake zone, searching for survivors and ministering to the sick and hungry. With the death toll from the largest quake in Japan's recorded history expected to ultimately reach the tens of thousands, more than a half-million people have been displaced by growing radiation fears and the massive swath of destruction.

If all this weren't enough, a volcano erupted in southern Japan.

Further consequences of these disasters--including economic--are apt to be with us for some time, even as we enter the work week after this weekend set of catastrophes. The images alone may well support a apocalyptic mood, while cooler heads cast wary eyes at this and wonder whether it is a global tumbling dice event, the beginning of a radically different world.

But even before any of this began, the hysteria in America among some of the greedy rich as well as the misguided fundamentalists of various persuasions, was evident in the national and state politics of the moment. I am not the only one who suspects that the very extremism of what's going on indicates an extreme level of either misguided or unacknowledged fear.

Some of the misguided fear may well be due to ideology or incorrect analysis. But a lot of it seems to spring from the same unacknowledged causes. Denial and panic are two sides of the same coin. Those who deny the effects of the Climate Crisis, of various other ecological destructions, of the enormous gulf between the very few who are rich and the many who are not, may rail against phantom, crazy causes--health care reform, a commie takeover--but they know we're in very serious trouble. They feel it. And unable to face the actual or at least more likely causes, they panic. Denial is in this case a form of panic.

Some thoughtful people have known for a long time that humanity was going to be mortally tested, even after we apparently kept our heads well enough to avoid thermonuclear annihilation, at least so far. But what we've done to our planet was going to result in a long-term test: were we going to face it and do our best to deal with it, or were we going to deny it and panic? Some of these people--those with more insight into human nature, or who had studied human evolution and ecology--knew that chances are we will deny it and panic, which is what we are doing now, at least in important political ways. It would take humanity to rise above its past to deal with such a set of crises, that could be anticipated but their effects not actually felt by everyone until it was too late. By facing these crises, humanity and human civilization would take a giant step forward.

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan suggest what a future full of disasters with similar effects may be like. We are changing the world's climates, we are poisoning and destroying the oceans, depleting the soil, puncturing the lungs of the planet--the forests. And by denial and panic, by tearing our social cohesion apart with conflict and deep mistrust, by depriving our public institutions of the capacity to respond to crises, we are making it all worse.

We aren't in that future quite yet, at least not so deeply that it changes everything. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. When it does get there (and we wonder if something like what's happened in Japan isn't what sets the dominoes to falling and the dice to tumbling), we will depend on those who have worked hard to face what's coming and develop tools to deal with it. We will depend on people--young people especially--who have learned compassion and courage, tolerance and generosity, and learned to face reality with imagination but without delusion and denial.

Shock Doctrine Continued

Although she didn't advertise it this way, Rachel Maddow presented another facet of the domestic Shock Doctrine that billionaires like the Koch Brothers (and when I say billionaires, I mean brothers who made nine billion dollars--just last year) are getting their hysterical Rabid Right minions in the states to take care of, in the guise of dealing with a fiscal crisis.

(This was her Thursday program, which I was going to blog about on Friday when the transcript became available, but then...Japan happened.)

In addition to busting unions and demonizing public servants like teachers and firefighters, or on a national level trying to take government support away from the poor, the sick, the old, the arts, the closest thing we have to public interest media, to public transportation--to just about everything not entirely controlled by profit-making corporations, and just about everybody except the extremely rich--in addition to all that, the Rabid Right is going after the vote. Or more precisely, the ability of those to vote who are more likely to vote against the Rabid Right.

The short-term politics is clear. Maddow:

Republicans in 32 states are considering adding more onerous ID requirements to make it harder to register and harder to vote, which should bring down the number of Democratic voters nicely in time for the 2012 presidential election, and which should limit any electoral damage these guys might be expecting from pushing for even wildly unpopular redistribution of resources and rights away from America‘s middle class.

Which makes the long-term politics follow: further redistribution of power to the few. I think you can think of a few names for that.

I'll have more to say at a later date about all this, but I don't want this program or transcript to slip away without taking note of it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Wisconsin!

Not to be lost in the news: a crowd officially estimated as up to 100,000 people rallied Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin to demonstrate their disapproval of the tactics and union-busting intent of Governor Scott Walker and the GOP--a protest bigger than those during the Vietnam War, when Madison was a center of such gatherings. Protestors included a tractor convoy of farmers supporting their union neighbors. Meanwhile, if there was any doubt that union busting by state government is a coordinated GOP plan, Think Progress has found that such bills in several states contain nearly identical language. But the quote of the week came earlier, just as the Wisconsin Senate was finishing up its extralegal and undemocratic actions on behalf of wealthy outside interests, when school-age children joined their union parents in protests at the state capital. "I'm learning so much about the government that I never knew," said Chelsea Clark Edmiston, 14.

Japan to California: The Past Few Days

While the nuclear plant situation in Japan is still far from resolved and both the actual information as well as the ramifications of the earthquake and its aftermath are going to continue for quite a while, a few summary thoughts might be in order now.

I've concentrated here on my most immediate situation, that of far northern California, where in fact the tsunami generated as the result of Japan's offshore earthquake had the most consequence. But even with damages estimated at $50 million and likely to go higher, and with the only life lost in the U.S.--a young man who got too close while trying to take photos--we got off lightly.

That the tsunami hit at low tide may have been part of it, or because of other physical factors. I am more concerned with the quality of information, and my own knowledge, especially in view of future possibilities. The earthquake and the tsunami hit when it was night here and in the U.S. generally, on a Friday. The nuclear plant problems are happening now, on the weekend. So national news outlets are even weaker than usual, and it turns out that on television and to some extent on the web, they are weak indeed. The only consistent source of information in those early hours particularly was CNN, and it remained among the best on TV. Once NBC got its "A" people on it, they were as good or better. (I also learned that hereabouts we don't even get the Today show--it must be on too early for those interested in news here. On the NBC affiliate we instead got poker. I am not joking--apparently gambling is what viewers want at 4 am.) ABC seemed the weakest, and CBS was not worth watching either.

But none of the national news was up to the standards of network news in the 1970s or particularly in the 1980s, when a robust CNN and CNN Headline News pushed the networks into competition. Now there is no Headline News (it was still nonstop celebrity trash on HLN--a real travesty to pass through it between tsunami footage on CNN and MSNBC), CNN and the networks' news operations are phantoms of what they were.

Then there is the question of judgment, which is harder to answer. There certainly was a lot of misinformation given out--not just of wrong early estimates of the earthquake's strength, for example, but of how long a tsunami takes to get across the Pacific, which one channel insisted for awhile was 24 hours (it's under 12.) But there's also the question of alarmism. A couple of the meteorologists were emphatic in repeatedly emphasizing worse case scenarios, even beyond what official information was. This could be viewed as responsible, in making sure people knew to take it seriously and to not be surprised by the freakish but possible disaster. Or it could be viewed as the seriously bad habit of weather forecasters and their ilk in ginning up oncoming rain or snowstorms out of proportion, to scare people presumably into staying glued to their TV between panic fillups and grocery store sprees. This was happening before I left the mid-Atlantic, and I've been told it has annoyingly continued.

I've always felt more vulnerable here however because of the dearth of professional local TV news. We're down to one station now, which seems to employ a staff of about 3 reporters and anchors. When something big happened in Pittsburgh, I could count on three TV stations with large news staffs that included seasoned and serious reporters, a mix of veteran locals who knew the area intimately, and young reporters and anchors in town for seasoning on their way up the chain in network and bigger market news.

I found that the official information, however conveniently available on the Internet now, to be too limited to be very useful. The radio was a haphazard source but all things considered the best one for local information. All of this is not much comfort for a big disaster here, since electricity and microwave transmission are apt to go along with everything else for awhile. We'll probably be left with what we had the last time we had big storms and a significant power outage here--by the grace of a few dedicated people who find a way to keep broadcasting on the radio, with enough phone lines open to gather information and receive calls.

My own process, documented for good or ill in my blog posts, had my concern growing. Whether it grew out of proportion remains in part a question that can't be answered, given the possibilities that might have been realized. However, I should have known that even the worst scenarios I was hearing would not put this house in direct danger. Still, in the course of a few hours, life in general here could have changed significantly for all of us for some unknown period of time. Contemplating that was a part of this experience that probably has its uses.

While it is prudent to think first of impact on one's own home and loved ones, the horrific weight of all this continues to be felt in Japan, where the death toll continues to rise, perhaps to many thousands, and now this nuclear nightmare unfolding--especially with the possibility of another explosion , with widespread destruction including perhaps a wasteland for decades to come. This dwarfs our worries here.