Naoto Kan and the End of ‘Japan Inc’

by Tim Shorrock

The Nation (March 30 2011)

On March 13, forty-eight hours after Japan’s Tohoku region was rocked by a catastrophic earthquake, a ferocious tsunami and partial meltdowns at several nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked his citizens to unite in the face of “the toughest crisis in Japan’s sixty-five years of postwar history”. Emperor Akihito underscored the gravity of the situation by announcing his “deep concern” for the nation in his first public speech since ascending the throne in 1990. His address brought back sharp memories of his father, Emperor Hirohito, who ended World War Two in a famous radio address in August 1945 that asked Japan to “endure the unendurable”.

But even as Japan was reeling from the disaster’s death toll – which is expected to surpass 20,000 – and growing increasingly frightened by the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactor complex, there was growing unease at the lack of straight information from both the government and Tepco, a utility with a troubled history of lies, cover-ups and obfuscation {1} dating back to the late 1960s.

The information gap became an international issue on March 16, when US Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Gregory Jaczko openly contradicted the Japanese government by declaring that water in one of Tepco’s reactors had boiled away, raising radiation in the area to “extremely high levels”. He recommended evacuation to any Americans within fifty miles of the site – nearly double the evacuation zone announced by the Japanese government (which immediately denied Jaczko’s assertions). The New York Times piled on {2} the next day with a major article that pilloried the Kan government. “Never has postwar Japan needed strong, assertive leadership more – and never has its weak, rudderless system of governing been so clearly exposed”, the reporters declared.

To be sure, Tokyo’s response to the disaster has been erratic, and the paucity of information about Fukushima was one of the first complaints I heard {3} about the situation from my friends in Japan. But much of the criticism poured on Japan has obscured the many ways its political system has shifted since a 2009 political earthquake, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) {4} was swept out of power for the first time in fifty years. The changes, particularly to people who remember the government’s pathetic response to the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which killed nearly 6,500, have been striking.

Back then, “the central government was paralyzed, and the city, prefectural, and national police, fire brigades, water authorities, highway authorities, and Self-Defense Forces were shown to be unreliable”, the Australian historian Gavan McCormack wrote in his seminal book The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (1996) {5}. McCormack, who has lived in Japan for decades, documented that only twenty of sixty-two offers of foreign assistance were accepted; a US offer to dispatch an aircraft carrier as a floating refugee camp was refused; foreign doctors were initially rejected because they lacked proper registration; and “sniffer” dogs that could have been searching for victims were held for days in airport quarantine. Japan’s bureaucratic response was “cold and more concerned with the preservation of its own control” than with humanitarian relief, McCormack concluded.

Kan, who rose to fame as an opponent of Japan’s turgid bureaucracy, has been far more decisive. After a few days of delay and confusion – not surprising, given the magnitude 9.0 quake, the largest in Japanese history – his government moved swiftly on many fronts. Military relief helicopters and ships were dispatched to the worst-hit areas. A US Navy armada was welcomed to the coastal areas hit by the tsunami (although the ships have since moved far away to avoid fallout from the radiation). Foreign offers of resources, including medical and relief teams, were welcomed and teams dispatched within days. Kan’s spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, has constantly been on the air, briefing reporters and the public (including on Twitter {6}). Kan himself flew by helicopter to view the stricken reactors and took personal charge of the nuclear crisis.

As the situation at the reactors deteriorated and Tepco’s explanations became increasingly opaque, Kan quickly lost patience. “What the hell is going on?” he was overheard asking on the phone to Tepco after one frustrating briefing. On March 16 Kan shifted responsibility for the crisis from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Tepco to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Tepco “has almost no sense of urgency whatsoever”, he complained. By this time, too, many Japanese had grown weary of the alarmist warnings of foreign governments and journalists. One group even posted an online “Wall of Shame” to document the “sensationalist, overly speculative, and just plain bad reporting” from foreign journalists.

* * *

That reporting, and the fact that so many media organizations had to fly journalists to Japan, underscores how much that country has disappeared from our political discourse since the early 1990s, when Japan’s economic juggernaut was halted by a financial and banking crisis that led to two decades of stagnation. At the same time, some of the US criticism of Kan seems to stem from nostalgia for the years when the LDP ruled supreme through a system in which – in the Times reporters’ words – “political leaders left much of the nation’s foreign policy to the United States and domestic affairs to powerful bureaucrats”.

That is extremely misleading. Beginning in the early 1950s, the LDP was financed heavily by the CIA {7} as a bulwark against the once-powerful Japanese left, and successive LDP governments acted as a junior partner to the United States {8} in the cold war. While Washington provided the weapons (and the soldiers) to fight communism, the Japanese elite provided military bases and profited by funneling economic aid and investments to US allies in South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.

At home, the LDP and its corporate backers fought ferociously to suppress labor unions and civic groups that organized to protect workers, human rights and the environment. The end result was an LDP-created “Japan Inc” – an undemocratic, corporatist state in which bureaucrats blessed and promoted nuclear power and other industries they were supposed to regulate, and then received lucrative jobs in those industries upon retirement – a system known as amakudari {9}.

But during the 1990s the LDP-style of governing came crashing down. A key turning point – and the one that brought Naoto Kan to prominence – came in 1996 over a notorious scandal over tainted blood {10}. The scandal began in the early 1980s, when the US government, warning that blood supplies were corrupted by HIV, licensed the production of heat-treated blood (which killed the virus) for use in transfusions. The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare learned of the contamination problem as early as 1983 but publicly dismissed the threat to the public. As a result, hundreds of people, primarily hemophiliacs, received transfusions of unheated, corrupted blood; more than 500 died. The Japanese public later learned that the Health Ministry deliberately refused to license heated blood for several years, not out of health concerns but because it was available only from foreign companies (“To have licensed its use before domestic firms had set up production would have significantly affected market share”, the London Independent reported at the time). Worse, the ministry’s chief adviser on blood transfusions and HIV received large sums of money from Green Cross, one of the companies that supplied unheated blood. And, in a classic form of amakudari, Green Cross hired several former high-ranking ministry officials in senior positions while the tainted blood was still an issue.

These facts were unearthed in 1996 by Naoto Kan when he was minister of health and welfare in a brief coalition government of the LDP and several small parties. Outraged by the scandal, Kan forced ministry officials to release documents showing that they had allowed public use of HIV-tainted blood, and he publicly apologized to the victims. As a result, Kan became wildly popular and at one point was dubbed “the most honest man in Japanese politics”. I was working as a journalist in Tokyo at the time and vividly recall how his embrace of accountability and sharp critique of the bureaucracy surprised and delighted the Japanese public.

But Kan, who became prime minister in June 2010, is also unusual because he isn’t part of a political dynasty. Unlike many Japanese politicians, he emerged from a middle-class family and (like President Obama) first made his mark as a civic activist for progressive causes. In 1997 he was elected to lead the Democratic Party, an amalgam of disillusioned LDP members, trade unionists and the remnants of the left-wing Social Democratic Party. As the party leader in 2003, he took on LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for sending military forces to back up President Bush in Iraq, at one point calling Bush’s war “mass murder”.

Kan’s Democratic Party finally took control of Japan when it scored a landslide victory over the LDP in the August 2009 parliamentary elections. That contest was won by then–party leader Yukio Hatoyama, who campaigned on a plan to strike a line in foreign policy more independent of the United States. His first order of business was to scrap a 2006 agreement with the Bush administration to relocate Futenma {11}, a US Marine Corps air base in Okinawa, to another site on the crowded island, and to send a large contingent of the Marines to Guam. By a wide majority, the people of Okinawa, home to about 75 percent of US bases in Japan, backed Hatoyama’s counterproposal to Washington, which involved removing the Marine base from Japan altogether.

To the Pentagon, however, Hatoyama’s initiative was a nonstarter. As soon as Obama took power, US officials launched a full-court press to dissuade Japan’s new ruling party from scrapping the 2006 agreement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued relentlessly that the Marine presence in Okinawa (which has been continuously occupied by US forces since 1945) was critical, not only to Japan’s security but to US global strategy as well, and insisted it was particularly important in repelling threats from North Korea and China. Last May, Hatoyama gave in. He withdrew the proposal, reaffirmed the agreement with slight modifications and apologized to Okinawa for failing to remove the base. That cost him the leadership of his party and allowed Kan – who’d resigned as party leader in 2004 – to take his place.

Kan has taken a softer line on the US bases, declaring that security agreements with the United States will remain a cornerstone of Japanese policy. But the difficulties of the US–Japan relationship were underscored a few days before the Tohoku earthquake when Kevin Maher, head of the State Department’s Japan desk, was quoted in a speech denouncing the people of Okinawa as “masters of manipulation and extortion” – apparently for their strong opposition to US bases. Maher was quickly removed from his post (he remains at State). But the incident is a sad illustration of America’s Big Brother approach to Japan and symbolizes a bilateral relationship that the late Chalmers Johnson {12} once compared to the servile ties between the Soviet Union and East Germany. With the formerly compliant LDP out of power, US policy-makers are still trying to understand that they’re in a whole new ballgame.

But it’s unclear how Kan and his party will pull through. Just before the quake, Kan’s popularity had sunk to below twenty percent, largely as a result of a scandal involving illegal campaign donations from foreigners and stalled parliamentary negotiations over Japan’s budget; there had even been talk of new elections. In a poll published on March 27, however, Kan’s numbers rose to 28 percent, while a hefty 58 percent approved of his government’s handling of the disaster (but the same percentage disapproved of Kan’s handling of the nuclear crisis, and an astonishing 47 percent urged that atomic power plants be immediately abolished).

Meanwhile, the triple disaster continued to unfold as the smoldering reactors spewed high amounts of radioactivity into the environment and Japan began a rebuilding process that will continue for years. Despite the suffering, the Japanese press on, just as they did after World War Two. A week after the earthquake and tsunami struck, my Japanese stepmother, Yasuko, who lived in Tokyo during the war, reminded me that her parents had met as Christian relief workers after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 {13}, which almost wiped Tokyo off the map. “If it wasn’t for that earthquake, I wouldn’t be here today”, she told me. “Out of darkness, you know, there’s always hope”.















Liberty’s Easy Slide into Tyranny

by Prof John Kozy

Global Research (February 23 2011)

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns – 1785

No matter how hard we try, no one can control the future, and we cannot assume the future will be like the present.

Woodrow Wilson signed the law that established the Federal Reserve. He later rightly lamented having done so. He writes,

“I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated Governments in the civilized world no longer a Government by free opinion, no longer a Government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men”.

Oh, how right he is, and oh, the mischief the FED has wrought! But establishing the FED must have seemed right to Wilson when he signed the law.

Harry Truman {1} had similar qualms about the CIA:

[I]t has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency …

assuming the President himself possesses a knowledge of our history, a sensitive understanding of our institutions, and an insight into the needs and aspirations of the people, he needs … the most accurate and up-to-the-minute information on what is going on everywhere in the world, and particularly of the trends and developments in all the danger spots …

every President has available to him all the information gathered by the many intelligence agencies already in existence …

But their collective information reached the President all too frequently in conflicting conclusions. At times, the intelligence reports tended to be slanted to conform to established positions of a given department …

Therefore, I decided to set up a special organization charged with the collection of all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have those reports reach me as President without department “treatment” or interpretations.

I wanted and needed the information in its “natural raw” state and in as comprehensive a volume as it was practical … But the most important thing about this move was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions – and I thought it was necessary that the President do his own thinking and evaluating …

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.

I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue …

I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment … and that its operational duties be terminated …

We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.

Of course, nobody paid any attention. And oh, the mischief the CIA has wrought!

The problem is that what seems like a good idea to someone with pristine motives turns into something horrid when placed in the hands of someone else. Those pristine motives “Gang aft agley”. So it is with what has come to be known as executive privilege.

Executive privilege is the claim made by members of the executive branch that they can refuse to comply with certain subpoenas and other requests from the legislature and courts, but executive privilege is not mentioned in the Constitution. Some claim the privilege is a form of the common-law principle of deliberative process privilege whose roots are often traced to English Crown Privilege. Viewed that way, it is clearly a monarchial attribute that is distinctly antidemocratic. But the Supreme Court has validated it.

In US vs Nixon, Chief Justice Burger writes: “Whatever the nature of the privilege of confidentiality of Presidential communications in the exercise of Article II powers, the privilege can be said to [emphasis mine] derive from the supremacy of each branch within its own assigned area of constitutional duties. Certain powers and privileges flow from the nature of enumerated powers; the protection of the confidentiality of Presidential communications has similar constitutional underpinnings”. No one, it seems, noticed that “can be said to” is not synonymous with “is”.

Chief Justice Burger further writes,

In United States vs Reynolds … the Court said:

It may be possible to satisfy the court, from all the circumstances of the case, that there is a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged. When this is the case, the occasion for the privilege is appropriate, and the court should not jeopardize the security which the privilege is meant to protect by insisting upon an examination of the evidence, even by the judge alone, in chambers.

Mr Burger seems not to have noticed that he gave the executive branch the combination to the safe in this passage. From this point on, all the executive branch has to do to sustain a claim of executive privilege is to say that complying with the subpoena or request would entail a reasonable danger that military matters would be exposed or the nation’s security would be impaired. These claims have now become standard practice.

Until the end of World War Two, assertions of executive privilege were rare. In 1796, George Washington refused to comply with a request from the House of Representatives for documents related to the negotiation of the Jay Treaty. The Senate alone plays a role in the ratification of treaties, Washington reasoned, and therefore the House had no legitimate claim to the material. So Washington provided the documents to the Senate but not the House.

Thomas Jefferson asserted the privilege in the trial of Aaron Burr for treason. The Court denied it and he complied with the Court’s order.

But from 1947 to 1949, several major security cases arose. A series of investigations followed, ending with the Hiss-Chambers case of 1948. At that point, the Truman Administration issued a sweeping secrecy order blocking congressional efforts from FBI and other executive data on security problems. Security files were moved to the White House and administration officials were banned from testifying before Congress on security issues.

During the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, Eisenhower used executive privilege to forbid the “provision of any data about internal conversations, meetings, or written communication among staffers, with no exception to topics or people”. Department of Defense employees were also instructed not to testify on any such conversations or produce any such documents. The reasoning behind the order was that there was a need for “candid” exchanges among executive employees in giving “advice” to one another. Eisenhower made the claim 44 times between 1955 and 1960. The Supreme Court has validated such claims saying there is a “valid need for protection of communications between high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their manifold duties” and that “[h]uman experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decisionmaking process”.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton became the first President since Nixon to assert executive privilege and lose when a Federal judge ruled that Clinton aides could be called to testify in the Lewinsky scandal.

The George W Bush administration invoked executive privilege on numerous occasions. So has the Obama administration. Executive privilege has now become a tool for not only protecting military secrets and other secrets the revelation of which would endanger the nation’s security, but a way of covering up executive branch wrongdoing.

Nixon tried to use executive privilege in an unsuccessful attempt to cover up his administration’s complicity in the Watergate break in. Clinton attempted to use executive privilege to cover up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. George W Bush asserted executive privilege to deny disclosure of details about the scandal involving the FBI’s misuse of organized-crime informants and Justice Department deliberations about President Bill Clinton’s fundraising tactics, none of which had anything to do with national security or military secrets. And now it is reported that the Justice Department has in the last few months gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of some software technology out of court because the details if revealed would threaten national security. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that the software’s designer bamboozled federal officials.

Huge conspiracies aren’t what destroys people’s freedom, they are too easy to undo. The accumulation of errors, failed policies, and little and big unfairnesses destroy it. It happens because

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.

The FED, CIA, Executive Privilege, The Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and more, by themselves, are bad but not disastrous. Together, however, they are the tools of tyranny that are tyrannizing America, because they provide people who are not answerable to the people with powers that can be and often are abused. It happens because those who implement ideas that seem sound never ask what happens when the powers these ideas entail fall into the hands of the unscrupulous.

The insidiousness of these tyrannical tools is that they can exist amid the trappings of democracy, along with political parties and regular elections. The result is a tyrannical nation masquerading as a democracy.

All of these agencies as part of the executive branch act secretly. And we have forgotten that,

Secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of a regular government.

Jeremy Bentham



John Kozy is a retired professor of philosophy and logic who writes on social, political, and economic issues. After serving in the US Army during the Korean War, he spent twenty years as a university professor and another twenty years working as a writer. He has published a textbook in formal logic commercially, in academic journals and a small number of commercial magazines, and has written a number of guest editorials for newspapers. His on-line pieces can be found on and he can be emailed from that site’s homepage.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Centre for Research on Globalization. The contents of this article are of sole responsibility of the author(s). The Centre for Research on Globalization will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article.

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Food is the New Frontier in Green Tech

by Ali Partovi (April 24 2011)

This is a guest post from Ali Partovi {1}, angel investor, startup advisor and serial entrepreneur. He co-founded iLike {2}, acquired by Myspace in 2009, and LinkExchange {3}, acquired by Microsoft for $265 million in 1998. His portfolio has included successes as far-ranging as Zappos, Facebook, DropBox and OPOWER. He was among the first to recognize the significance of the Facebook platform {4}, and among the earliest to grasp the business opportunity of search {5}.

Around Earth Day, we’re reminded about global warming and pollution, as well as the “green” technologies and consumer choices that may save our planet. We don’t hear as much about agriculture, one of the world’s largest polluters, nor do we appreciate the environmental impact of our diet.

According to research by the World Resources Institute, agriculture is mankind’s biggest contributor to climate change, generating at least 26 percent {6} of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide – more than from all electricity and industry or from all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles. Other estimates suggest agriculture generates 36 percent {7} of emissions.

Feeding the growing world population using today’s practices is increasingly unsustainable. Just as we need new technologies in areas like renewable energy, we need more “renewable” approaches to producing the most primal form of energy: food. Brace yourself for this two-minute video from the University of Minnesota, which summarizes the problem with some startling facts:

As an Internet entrepreneur and investor, my interest in food and agriculture began at home, taking care of my body and my kids. In 2008, my wife and I decided to adopt a healthier and more sustainable diet for our family. We switched to exclusively grass-fed meat and ate a bit less meat altogether, added more vegetables, and began raising egg-laying chickens in our backyard. That enabled our seven-year-old daughter to run a startup selling our egg surplus.

I was pleased to lose about 35 pounds within six months. But I was also surprised to find how inconvenient, obfuscated, and expensive it was simply to eat healthful, natural foods. I began studying the business and politics of food, convinced there must be investment opportunities that align with improving the system. Surely, I thought, there must be healthful, sustainable, yet scalable and profitable alternatives to our unsustainable food and agriculture sectors.

As a student of the space, I’ve seen enough parallels between food and energy to posit that food may be the next frontier in green tech. Like energy, food and agriculture are big, slow, and highly regulated sectors. But also like renewable energy, there might be opportunities for innovation and profit in “renewable food”, fueled by consumer preference today and by shifts in policy tomorrow.

Within the giant food sector the “organic” segment is growing fast thanks to a combination of consumer consciousness and government support. Organic food has enjoyed double-digit growth {8} in the US for two decades (from $1 billion in 1990 to almost $25 billion in 2009) and is growing to over $100 billion globally by 2015 {9}. Yet, organic agriculture still represents only one percent of US farmland today. That leaves plenty of room for growth and opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors, especially given the increasingly apparent ties between food and global warming.

“The Other Inconvenient Truth”

We cannot forever feed ourselves on fossil fuel, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Today’s food and agriculture practices consume enormous amounts of fossil fuel for transportation, operation of farm machinery, and chemical production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides: roughly ten calories of fossil fuel {10} go into every calorie of food we eat, representing nineteen percent of all US energy consumption {11}.

Agriculture emits greenhouse gases {12} with an order of magnitude worse global-warming potency than carbon dioxide, such as methane (from intensive livestock operations and rice fields) and nitrous oxide (from fertilizers and factory farm waste lagoons). Another agricultural emission, nitric oxide, is the main driver of the new acid rain {13} that is killing forests and fish. Run-off of excess fertilizer from cropland and excess manure from factory farms is the primary cause of enormous aquatic dead zones {14} in coastal waters globally, devastating marine life (and ironically, threatening human seafood supply). These marine dead zones in aggregate represent 95,000 square miles {15} (about twenty times larger than the area impacted by last year’s BP oil spill).

Agriculture is overwhelmingly the biggest cause of global deforestation {16} (image, below), driven by livestock {17} and growing Western demand for food commodities like palm oil {18}.

Marin Sun Farms

There is hope of mitigating these issues. Via “new” techniques it should be possible for the food and agriculture sector not only to reduce its own emissions, but also to offset emissions from other sectors by removing carbon from the atmosphere. (I say “new” because in many cases the solution involves a return to nature-based, less industrial processes.) More importantly, it should be possible to make money and improve the environment – because the current system is inefficient and wasteful, leaving enormous room to move the needle by eliminating waste.

I’ve encountered promising opportunities, and in several cases personally invested {19} in startups tackling these problems as an angel investor.

Reducing Food Emissions

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of our food is by eating locally grown food, reducing the fuel spent on transportation. However, the practicality of this varies regionally. Here are some companies making local food more widely available.

In the San Francisco area where I live, farmers’ markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) programs enable consumers to buy food from local farms rather than from thousands of miles away. A CSA is a subscription that delivers weekly food from a local farm. Although this offers advantages to both consumer and farmer, such programs are less prevalent in other regions and represent a negligible fraction of the food sector.

A tech startup I invested in, Farmigo {20}, is stimulating this alternative food system for consumers to purchase directly from local farms, removing middlemen and reducing food transportation. Farmigo’s Web platform enables buying directly from a farm while simplifying logistics for farmers.

What about regions that simply don’t have the climate to produce fresh food year-round? If you live in the East Coast or Midwest, your lettuce and tomatoes have likely spent an expensive week riding thousands of miles in a refrigerated truck from Mexico or the West Coast. Another startup I’ve invested in, BrightFarms {21}, aims to eliminate shipping costs by building greenhouses on the roofs of supermarkets, producing the most “local” food imaginable.

The business model is directly analogous to what’s scaled successfully in solar electricity – and not a coincidence, because both represent techniques of converting sunshine to energy that humans can use. BrightFarms is an excellent example of aligning environmental goals with profit by eliminating waste, because photosynthesis is very efficient, whereas trucking a tomato 3,000 miles in a fuel-guzzling fridge is not.

Transportation aside, agriculture’s carbon footprint includes the natural gas and petroleum consumed to produce chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the nitrous oxide released to the air due to over-application of those fertilizers. A startup named Solum {22} hopes to help on both sides, by enabling farmers to reduce fertilizer usage via more accurate, real-time measurement of soil chemistry. Solum is backed by Khosla Ventures {23}, one of the world’s leading green-tech investors.

Carbon Sequestration

For millions of years, atmospheric carbon was trapped by photosynthesis and stored in the ground. Human agricultural practices have upset this balance.

For example, much of North America, once covered by carbon-trapping grass, has been transformed to grow corn, using fuel-intensive inputs and releasing greenhouse gases into the air from tilling and over-fertilization, largely to feed animals that eat grass in the first place. Cornfields require annual tilling, which releases soil carbon to the atmosphere. They conduct photosynthesis only part of the year, and most of the carbon and calories they capture stay in the kernels, soon to return into the air via digestion. Grass, on the other hand, is a carbon sink, burying most of its carbon and calories in the soil, where it remains.

Americans eat only a small fraction of the corn we produce and much of it in the guise of ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup that aren’t essential for human nutrition. About seven times more {24} corn than what we eat is used to feed livestock like cattle (which can digest grass more easily than corn).

Livestock represents a disproportionate part of food’s carbon footprint. If more sustainable techniques are scalable, they might be among the most leveraged ways available to combat global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists has recently stated that raising cattle on grass can be a net carbon sink {25} whereas feedlot cattle operations are a net carbon emitter. Studies suggest that grassland sequesters more carbon than a forest {26}. There is also evidence that grass traps more carbon when grazed {27}, provided that the livestock be moved periodically (moderate grazing causes grass to grow back healthier, whereas clear-grazing kills the grass).

This sounds great for the environment, but is it economically feasible? The Savory Institute {28} is using managed rotational grazing (MRG) techniques to restore America’s grassland while often doubling or even quadrupling livestock capacity {29} at the same time.

The premise of MRG is to mimic the behavior of roaming ruminants that evolved over millions of years: a herd chews the grass, stimulating plant and root growth and letting sunlight reach the growth points. Then the herd moves on to greener pastures, leaving behind manure (fertilizer) and hoofprints that soften the soil and help water retention and seed germination. MRG mimics this by moving cattle from one plot of grass to another daily. Wild birds also fit in nature’s cycle: they follow a herd to feed on dung beetles, in the process providing pest control and spreading the manure. A new breed of farms mimics this by raising chickens in mobile cages and coops that are moved into a plot of land once the cattle have left it. Essentially, MRG uses livestock to do the job of fuel-intensive tractors, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Increased consumer awareness is fueling demand for 100 percent “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” meat and poultry raised using these practices. A growing sustainable food movement, the culinary equivalent of renewable energy, is enabling Bay Area meat and poultry producer Marin Sun Farms {30} (image below) to enjoy an enviable combination of high-margin sales and exponential growth.

The biggest obstacle impeding Marin Sun Farms’ growth today is inadequate capital. It cannot secure land, water, and animals fast enough to meet the growing demand. This dynamic reminds me of the early days of Zappos, when Tony Hsieh was desperately seeking capital to secure shoes fast enough to meet the growing demand.

One might ask, is this scalable, or is it an anomalous niche? As it was for Zappos, that is the billion-dollar question, and I don’t know the answer. But it certainly makes basic economic sense. Feeding livestock on grass is patently efficient. The animals convert inedible, naturally occurring vegetation to human food, while recycling nutrients to sustain the grass, without requiring costly fuel-intensive chemicals or machinery.

How did we end up with a system so inefficient?

In the US, we’ve had decades of corn subsidies that motivate farmers to over-produce corn, resulting in a surfeit of corn that has skewed market dynamics. This has made it artificially “affordable” to feed corn even to animals that were never evolved to digest it (salmon, for example). Such subsidies might have made sense if America’s problems included a shortage of food calories. But today, we face different problems, such as a health-care and budget crisis, a fuel crisis, and a climate crisis. Our policies ought to reward farming practices that alleviate these problems. Consumer consciousness may be enough to make sustainable food profitable in the short-term; but in the long-term, shifts in policy are necessary.

The good news is that governmental policy can be aligned to help in more ways than one. The most elegant but most politically infeasible solution might be to cut corn subsidies. But there are many other regulatory levers. For example, government could offer a “grass subsidy” to reward land use that traps carbon in the soil, aligning with a broader carbon policy. The FDA has suggested that it might regulate antibiotic use in livestock {31}, which would make our food system not only safer but also better for the environment.

Health-based efforts to combat obesity will likely help the environment as well. Carbs in our diet and carbon in our atmosphere are closely linked, and generally lead back to corn subsidies (aka “carb subsidies”). Lastly, the US Department of Agriculture {32} “Certified Organic” labeling program is a huge marketing boon to environment-friendly practices and can be expanded.

The government could offer additional subsidies to help farmers bridge the transition to organic, or tighten its criteria for animal products to support more carbon-neutral practices. For example, last year, the USDA released tighter standards for organic dairy {33}, requiring that dairy animals be at least thirty percent grass-fed to qualify as “Organic”.


Our food and agriculture system is particularly broken, but we can’t simply wait for the government to fix it. As with clean energy, there are many opportunities for private enterprise to stimulate progress while making a profit. Some of the short-term opportunities in food might be to leverage consumer awareness and build a brand that stands for environmental consciousness, while aligning for longer-term regulatory changes to level the playing field.

Broader consumer awareness of the problem is critical, whether to make the private enterprise opportunities more scalable, or to precipitate political change. This is why I’m personally considering engaging more vigorously on this issue, using my background in social platforms and grassroots marketing to help more Americans discover the truths about their food and to build a movement to fix it. Please check out my one-day-old website and lend your voice there {34}.

We cannot feed ourselves forever on the current system. The time for developing more sustainable alternatives is right now.


Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, by Neil Palmer for CIAT, International Center for Tropical Agriculture {35} under CC license

United States Capitol Building in Washington DC by Ken Hammond, via USDA {36}

All other photos, courtesy of Ali Partovi and







































Based in San Francisco, Ali is an angel investor, startup advisor, and serial entrepreneur. He co-founded and sold two high-profile startups: iLike, acquired by MySpace in 2009, and LinkExchange, acquired by … Learn More

Location: Menlo Park, California, United States
Founded: 2009
Funding: $2.05 million

Solum makes a field-deployable measurement tool that can give answers on soil nutrient needs. Their services and tools give farmers analystics that they can improve their yields by applying fertilizer in the right amount, at the right place, and at … Learn More

Location: San Rafael, California, United States
Founded: August 2009
Funding: $2 million

Farmigo’s Internet service links organic farms directly with families, restaurants, schools, and hospitals to order food directly from local farms and to have the food delivered fresh from harvest. Farmigo’s solution creates farm networks that … Learn More

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Nuclear Waste

Keep out – for 100,000 years

Few architects have to design anything to last more than 100 years, so how do you build a nuclear waste facility to last for millennia? And what sign do you put on the door?

by Steve Rose {1} (April 24 2011)

Ceremonies will be held around the world on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster {2} but, in truth, Chernobyl is one event we’re in no danger of forgetting. For one thing, the earthquake in Japan {3} has given the world a second Level Seven incident {4} on the International Nuclear Event Scale {5}, refreshing public fears with almost cosmic timing. For another, the legacy of Chernobyl will be remembered for much, much longer than anyone would wish. According to estimates, this area of northern Ukraine will be uninhabitable for decades, if not centuries.

We like to think of our architectural treasures as milestones of human progress. The Egyptian pyramids {6}, say, or the Eiffel Tower. Perhaps we imagine a Planet of the Apes-like scenario {7} where our ruined monuments will stand as testament to our civilisation long after we’re gone. But what will most probably outlive anything else we have ever built will be our nuclear legacy. Whatever its pros and cons as an energy source, one thing that’s non-negotiable about nuclear power {8} is the construction it necessitates. Less than a century after we first split the atom, we’re now coming to appreciate the vast technological, engineering, financial and political resources nuclear technology demands. In terms of scale, complexity and longevity, much of this stuff makes Dubai’s Burj Khalifa {9} look like a sandcastle.

It is too early to know what will be done about Fukushima. A twenty kilometre exclusion zone has been imposed and radiation levels will not be brought down to safe levels for at least another six months. Even at Chernobyl, the 1986 accident is by no means dealt with. Immediately afterwards, the Soviets hastily cobbled together the most effective structure they could to contain further radioactive contamination. Unromantically named the Object Shelter {10}, it was a concrete and steel sarcophagus resting on the remains of the ruined reactor. Owing to the high levels of radioactivity, it had been impossible to bolt or weld the Object Shelter together, so within a decade it was on the verge of collapse. Given that 95% of reactor four’s nuclear materials are still inside, another nuclear disaster remains a possibility. Hence the current longer-term plan, called the New Safe Confinement {11}. This 1.6 billion Euro (GBP 1.4 billion) project calls for the erection of an arch-shaped hangar, bigger than a football pitch and high enough to fit the Statue of Liberty inside. Because of the radiation levels, it must be built 500 metres away then slid over the top of the reactor and the Object Shelter. At 32,000 tonnes, it is just about the heaviest object ever moved.

“In some ways, this is how the engineers of the pyramids must have felt”, says Eric Schmieman, chief technical adviser on the New Safe Confinement. “The steel structure has a design life of 100 years, so there are very rigorous requirements to demonstrate all the materials will last that long. The Eiffel Tower has been around that long but it’s been protected from corrosion by painting. You can’t repaint this because of the radiation.”

The structure of the New Safe Confinement is carbon steel, protected by inner and outer layers of stainless steel cladding. Its purpose is not to shield radioactive emissions but to prevent the release of radioactive dust and other materials, and to keep out rainwater, which could carry contaminants into the water table. Work is currently proceeding on the foundations, and the arch will be assembled and slid into place by 2015. Then huge, remote-controlled cranes inside will dismantle the Object Shelter and begin retrieving the hazardous materials inside.

The structure will be visible from space, a hulking shell of steel in the midst of a landscape of industrial devastation. By the time it reaches the end of its 100-year life span, it is hoped that all the radioactive material will have been removed, but then comes the problem of where to put it. At the beginning of the nuclear era, the emphasis was very much on the power stations, including Basil Spence’s heroic 1950s design for Trawsfynydd, in Snowdonia {12}. But very little consideration was given to what came after. Those early power stations became obsolete: Trawsfynydd was decommissioned in 1991. What’s more, the industry has so far generated nearly 300,000 tonnes of high-level nuclear waste {13}, and counting. To be safe, it must be isolated from all living organisms for at least 100,000 years.

Current opinion is that the best thing to do with nuclear waste is put it underground in what is known as a “deep geological repository”. At present, there are no such repositories in operation anywhere. In Britain, all the nuclear waste produced since the 1940s is stored above ground in Sellafield. Preliminary moves have been made towards finding a site in Cumbria but there’s a powerful local resistance to such schemes, and no long-term solution is expected before 2040. In the US, a site was earmarked decades ago at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, 100 miles from Las Vegas, but the Obama administration finally abandoned the scheme last year {14}.

Some countries are further ahead, though. Sweden {15}’s nuclear operation presents itself as a model for the rest of the world, and shows how much effort a fully joined-up operation requires. After cooling on site for a year, spent fuel from Sweden’s three coastal nuclear sites is transported in purpose-built casks, on a specially designed ship, to a central interim storage facility. There, robotic arms transfer the fuel into storage cassettes underwater. These cassettes are then sent to another storage pool 25 metres beneath the facility to cool for at least another thirty years. Then the waste is moved to another plant to seal in copper canisters before it arrives at its final resting place in the geological repository.

Sweden has numerous other nuclear facilities, including the Aspo hard rock laboratory {16}, an underground research laboratory open to visitors. Bizarrely, Aspo’s surface buildings could be mistaken for a traditional farmstead: a collection of buildings in red and white timber. The folksy tweeness only points up how alien the rest of the nuclear landscape is. This is the heaviest of heavy industries, and it is often the least visible: a hidden parallel realm of anonymous industrial facilities, restricted zones, clinical chambers and subterranean vaults.

Sweden has identified a site for its deep geological repository, in Forsmark {17}, but the Finns have been building theirs since 2004. Situated on the northwest coast, a few miles from its Olkiluoto nuclear power stations {18}, it consists of a five kilometre long tunnel spiralling 400 metres down to the bedrock, where a honeycomb of storage vaults fans out. Named Onkalo {19}, which is Finnish for “hiding place”, it was the subject of a documentary last year, Into Eternity {20}. Retitled Nuclear Eternity and broadcast on More4 tomorrow, the film fully appreciates the Kubrickian visual aspects of the nuclear landscape and the staggering challenges the project presents to our notions of permanence, history – even time itself. Onkalo will be ready to take waste in 2020, and then will be finally sealed in 2120, after which it will not be opened for 100,000 years. By that time, Finland {21} will probably have been through another ice age. Little trace of our current civilisation will remain. The prospect of designing anything to last even 200 years is unlikely for most architects; the Egyptian pyramids are “only” about 5,000 years old.

Plan like an Egyptian

This longevity poses Onkalo’s custodians, and others in their position, with another unprecedented design issue: what sign should you put on the door? As one expert says in Into Eternity, the message is simple:

This is not an important place; it is a place of danger. Stay away from the site. Do not disturb the site.

But how to communicate with people so far in the future? Put up a sign in a language they don’t understand and they are sure to open it just to see what’s inside. Ancient Egyptians on the pyramid planning committee probably grappled with the same issues. One of the Finns suggests using an image of Munch’s The Scream {22}; another suggests a series of monoliths with pictographs and an underground library explaining the tunnel; another wonders if it is better not to tell anyone Onkalo is there at all. When a team pondered the same issue in the US in the 1990s, they came up with proposals for environments that communicated threat and hostility. They imagined landscapes of giant, spiky, black thorns or menacing, jagged earthworks, or vast concrete blocks creating narrow streets that lead nowhere.

If architecture is about designing spaces for human habitation, this is practically its opposite. These subterranean cities are places no human will ever inhabit or see, places designed to repel life and light. They are a mirror image to our towering achievements above ground and, like the pyramids, they are both monument and tomb. Every nuclear nation is compelled to build them, at great effort and expense, and to continue building them until we find a better way to deal with nuclear waste or a better alternative to nuclear power. Until then, we must live with the thought that in some unimaginable future aeons hence, this could be all that remains to prove our species was ever here.

True Stories: Nuclear Eternity {23}, a documentary about Onkalo, is on More4 tomorrow at 10 pm. (c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

























Why Nuclear is Dead on Arrival

And the Energy Source That Will Take Over

by Matthew Weinschenk

Wall Street Daily (March 22 2011)

For decades, environmentalists had labeled nuclear power as too dangerous.

But Chernobyl aside, the industry earned respect by boasting a strong overall safety record and low emissions. It also offered a viable energy alternative to oil.

Then the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

And not only did it cripple operations at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it caused a full-blown radiation catastrophe.

Despite the crisis, though, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t the earthquake that damaged the reactors. They were built to withstand such an impact – and did so. It was the resulting tsunami that damaged the reactors and generators.

Regardless, the safety of nuclear power is once again under a microscope – and the very future of the industry is under a cloud.

But it doesn’t matter whether you’re for or against it. The real reason to move on from nuclear is that we simply don’t need it. Why?

You Can’t Plan for a “Worst-Than-Worst-Case” Scenario

For all the “best-laid plans”, the simple truth is that you can sometimes never fully account for such massive shocks. So-called “100-year events” have the power to destroy landscapes, buildings and lives.

For example, the World Trade Center towers were built to withstand a crash from a Boeing-707 aircraft … but were struck by much larger Boeing-767s.

The New Orleans levees could handle a Category Three hurricane … but Katrina was a Category Four.

So with regard to environmental disasters, the key question is this: Are these unforeseeable risks worth the benefits of clean, affordable energy?

The question holds major political, scientific, ethical and philosophical questions. But I believe it’s moot. Nuclear power has missed its opportunity.

Why Solar Power Momentum is Gathering Pace

Peak Oil. Global warming. National security implications.

Whatever the reasons for cultivating alternative energy sources {1}, there’s no doubt that we need to.

Slowly but surely, the world is realizing it – and acting. The solutions are on the way and the fact is, for all the massive investment into nuclear power, technological advances and investment into other clean energies have left nuclear in the dust.

Take solar power, for example. In just 14.5 seconds, the sun provides as much energy as humans use in an entire year. The power is there … it’s just a matter of capturing it efficiently and affordably.

Regarding efficiency, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows solar efficiency – under laboratory conditions – as high as 41%. Simply put, that means 41% of the energy hitting the solar panels gets turned into useable electricity.

And on the cost side, we’re making progress there, too. Solar costs have fallen at an exponential rate since 1980. Why? Two reasons:

1. The cost of producing solar cells is falling.

2. As I noted above, the efficiency of solar cells is rising.

What we’re looking for here is grid parity. That is, when the cost of a watt of solar energy is the same as the average from other sources. That’s expected to happen by 2020 at the latest, with some projections pegging it as soon as 2015.

To put that in perspective, the US power plants currently under construction won’t even be built by that time.

A Safer, Cheaper Solution to Our Global Energy Problem

In the early days of the alternative energy movement, solar power seemed like it would be too expensive. But as technology advances, the cost is getting cheaper at an exponential rate.

There are many precedents for this formula. In 2007, for example, it would have cost you nearly $400 to buy a one-terabyte computer hard drive. Today, you can get one for about $70.

Solar is following the same trend.

For the record, I’ve got nothing against nuclear power {2}. In fact, given the options a few years ago, I believe it’s been worth the risk, as the world strives for alternative energy sources.

But any current expansion of nuclear power won’t come online until solar is cheaper, safer, and ubiquitous. So why risk it?

Ahead of the tape,

Matthew Weinschenk

Get Your Daily Dose of Reality

Related Articles:

* Crisis in Japan Piles Pressure on Uranium Prices {3}

* US Nuclear Power Friction {1}

* Bubble Alert: Wind Power Company Plummets {4}

* Azores Island Undergoes Energy Revolution {5}

* Japan’s Market Stumbles in Wake of Disaster {6}

More on this topic (What’s this?) {7}

The Spotlight Shines on Natural Gas, As Japan’s Nuclear Fallout Continues {8} (Investment U, 3/16/11)

The nuclear fallout post Japan: nuclear and uranium ETFs crashing today: risk and opportunity {9} (ETF REPORT, 3/14/11)

Japan Nuclear Crisis: New Power Plant Construction Renaissance in Peril {10} (Money Morning, 3/16/11)

“The Nuclear Problem You’re Not Hearing About” {11} (Stock Gumshoe, 3/17/11)

Read more on Nuclear Energy {12}, Energy {13} at Wikinvest {14}

URLs in this post:

{1} alternative energy sources:

{2} nuclear power:

{3} Crisis in Japan Piles Pressure on Uranium Prices:

{4} Bubble Alert: Wind Power Company Plummets:

{5} Azores Island Undergoes Energy Revolution:

{6} Japan’s Market Stumbles in Wake of Disaster:

{7} (What’s this?):

{8} The Spotlight Shines on Natural Gas, As Japan’s Nuclear Fallout Continues:

{9} The nuclear fallout post Japan: nuclear and uranium ETFs crashing today: risk and opportunity:

{10} Japan Nuclear Crisis: New Power Plant Construction Renaissance in Peril:

{11} “The Nuclear Problem You’re Not Hearing About”:

{12} Nuclear Energy:

{13} Energy:

{14} Wikinvest:

Copyright (c) 2011 Wall Street Daily. All rights reserved.

No Word for Meltdown

The Return of Nukespeak

by Rory O’Connor (March 15 2011)

George Orwell argued that controlling language offered the ultimate tool for getting people to accept the unacceptable – such as the catastrophic risks of operating nuclear power plants. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), each new edition of the Newspeak dictionary had fewer words than the previous one, making it harder and harder even to think a thought that might challenge Big Brother.

So Orwell would not have been surprised to learn, as the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert helpfully pointed out this week [below] , that there is literally no word for “meltdown” in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s glossary of atomic-related words and phrases.

A Google search for the past month showed more than 1.93 billion hits for “meltdown”. Yet the regulators at the NRC remain wary of listing the word that everyone else in the world uses to summarize the full horror of what will ensue if uranium fuel at the core of a commercial nuclear power plant is left uncooled long enough for it to melt. It’s no surprise, since the nuclear industry’s proponents speak a different language than the rest of us, a special language where euphemism and obfuscation reign, as we first pointed out thirty years ago in our book Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset (1982). Nukespeak is the language of the nuclear mindset – the worldview or system of beliefs of nuclear developers and enthusiasts, to whom there are never any accidents – only “events” or “incidents”, “abnormal evolutions and normal aberrations”, or “plant transients”.

Some things never change: the Orwellian impulse to hide the truth about nuclear dangers remains the same as when we first wrote on the subject. And the nuclear priesthood (to borrow a phrase from the father of our “Nuclear Navy”, Admiral Hyman Rickover) still uses many words and concepts that were already shopworn decades ago.

Minimization of risk is one essential component of Nukespeak. In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured us on March 13th that given the weather conditions and the distance, “Hawaii, Alaska, the US Territories and the US West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radiation”. Note the use of the discussion-ending categorical “any”.

Similarly, in the opening phases of the ongoing disaster, Japanese officials continually insisted there was little possibility of large releases of radioactive materials. After a second explosion at one of the plants on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yuko Edano said, “I have received reports that the containment vessel is sound. I understand that there is little possibility that radioactive materials are being released in large amounts.”

Or take that old standby, “no evidence”. On March 13, Dr David J Brenner of Columbia University’s Center for Radiological Research, comparing the situation in Japan with the meltdown at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, suggested we should not worry about events in Japan because “There is no evidence that anybody at all got sick [from Three Mile Island], even decades later”.

In listening to nuclear proponents, it is impossible to underestimate the extent of their belief that we are capable of anticipating and defending against every conceivable accident, the “nothing can wrong” syndrome. The fact that we have as little information as we do about what is happening inside the damaged Japanese reactors is a result of this extraordinary hubris. After Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, where similar confusion reigned supreme, one might have assumed that nuclear operators everywhere would add an array of video cameras, radiation detectors, and the like, to provide the most complete information possible in the event of an accident.

But that never happened: hence the paucity of information being released by the Japanese and American governments. If you believe that “nothing” you have not already imagined “can go wrong”, why spend money to install more sensors than your original “design basis accident” plan called for?

Crises pose a special challenge to users of Nukespeak, since the extreme pressures of the moment tend to produce irruptions of unsettling new metaphors. In an eerie echo of the debate that swirled around Bill Clinton’s definition of the word “is”, for example, we find the New York Times explaining that the “essential problem” in Japan now is “the definition of ‘off’ in a nuclear reactor”. And while we learned from the meltdown of the financial industry about the technique of “pump and dump”, we find that the Japanese plant operators are using a desperate “feed and bleed” procedure, pumping seawater into a reactor to cool the fuel and then relieving the pressure by pumping out radioactivity into the atmosphere.

President Obama has also been playing these Orwellian word games. In the effort to stop global warming, environmentalists have long pushed the idea of setting a federal renewable energy standard. But when Obama delivered the 2011 State of the Union, he used a slightly different phrase: a “clean energy standard”, which was so sweeping that it included not only nuclear power but even so-called “clean coal”, a technology that does not even exist at an industrial scale. The fact that neither the federal government nor the utility industry has figured out what to do with highly radioactive nuclear waste after more than fifty years of trying should give the President pause when he abuses that seemingly straightforward word “clean”.

If they are lucky, the Japanese may still be able to prevent the worst possible outcome. But for the rest of us, it’s time we rejected the feel-good, head-in-the-sand language about nuclear power as a “clean” and “safe” technology. There are plenty of more cost-effective, cleaner, and safer solutions to providing us with the energy we need. What we need to hear from President Obama now is some straight talk instead about a commitment to a future program of energy efficiency and solar-based renewables – and not, as he has called for, an expansion of dangerous nuclear plants.


Rory O’Connor and Richard Bell are co-authors, with Stephen Hilgartner, of Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Myths, and Mindset (1982).

Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Green Cross International (April 11 2011)

The nuclear disaster resulting from the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in early March has revived the debate over the future of nuclear power worldwide. Public opinion polls around the world reveal record anti-nuclear public attitudes. According to recent surveys, 87% of people in Switzerland (Le Matin,19.03.2011) and around seventy percent in the US want to move away from nuclear energy. A number of countries, such as Germany, Italy, China, India, Russia and Venezuela, have either put their plans for new plants on hold, called for reviews of their safety procedures, or called for upgraded security measures for new plants.

The disaster in Japan has highlighted the limits of human ability in keeping dangerous technologies free from catastrophic accidents. Natural disasters, combined with human error and negligence, have once again proven a potent force for undermining even the best-laid plans. The faith in human perfection reflects a hubris that has led to other major failures of dangerous technologies in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Of course, what has occurred accidentally in Japan as a result of the confluence of natural disaster and human error could be triggered deliberately by an act of terrorism or war.

As Japan struggles to confront a nuclear disaster that could turn out to be the worst in history, it is vital that any discussion about the future of nuclear energy addresses the issue comprehensively and in all its complexity.

Nuclear power, despite numerous accidents in many countries, has been presented as a financially sound, economically efficient, clean and safe solution that will bring about energy security and drive economic growth. Recently, the so-called “nuclear renaissance” has hitched a free ride on the back of the need to find low-carbon solutions to the climate crisis.

One must note that Japan has a history of nuclear accidents dating back to 1978 when a malfunctioning nuclear reactor took seven hours to shut down.  In 1995 the Monju fast-breeder reactor leaked sodium coolant and caught on fire; it did not reopen until 2010.  In 2003 seventeen nuclear reactors were shut down after false inspection reports.  And in 2007 a 6.8 earthquake started a fire at a reactor in northwest Japan and led to a radioactive water leak.

Nuclear power is neither the answer to modern energy problems nor a panacea for addressing climate change.  We should not overcome challenges by resorting to “solutions” that create even more problems. Nuclear energy does not add up economically, environmentally or socially. Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital intensive, decommissioning is prohibitively expensive and nuclear waste carries a multi-faceted burden that continues centuries after a plant is closed.

With all these shortcomings it is not surprising that global nuclear energy production has been declining since 2006. Its share of the world electricity mix has dropped even more rapidly as global energy demand has grown. Since its peak in 1986 at sixteen percent of the total electricity mix globally, nuclear power’s contribution has dropped down to thirteen to fourteen percent in 2009.

Despite multi-billion dollar direct and even larger indirect subsidies to the nuclear energy sector – all at the expense of the taxpayer – private capital continues to shy away from the industry. Investments in nuclear power are primarily industry lobbied and taxpayer financed. In the US, for instance, direct subsidies to nuclear energy amounted to $115 billion between 1947 and 1999, with a further $145 billion in indirect subsidies. Most recently, the Obama administration has promised some $55 billion in new subsidies to nuclear power. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar combined during the same period totaled only $5.5 billion. Nuclear power plants are outrageously expensive. Their construction and maintenance are plagued by delays and massive cost overruns. One of the newest nuclear power plants now under construction, a European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto, Finland, being built by the French company, Areva, is now over four years behind schedule and some fifty percent over budget.

The decommissioning of ageing nuclear plants including deconstruction of the facility and long-term waste remains a drag on public finances and taxpayers long after a plant has closed. Power plants in the US have accumulated nearly 72,000 tons of nuclear waste across 31 states, reaching the capacity of temporary storage facilities with no permanent solution in sight. In the United Kingdom the cost of dismantling outdated plants amounted to GBP 40.7 billion while the construction and lifetime costs of a deep geological disposal facility required a further GBP 3.4 billion. The financial and safety liabilities of storage sites will be borne by many generations to come.

The bottom line on the economics of nuclear power is that it simply does not add up. That is why private investment is wisely focusing on better alternatives. In the US a dollar invested in energy efficiency can deliver five times more electricity than nuclear power while investments in wind energy can produce 100% more electricity. Renewable energy – wind, solar, and geothermal – comprised more then ninety percent of the increase in global electricity production in 2007 and 2008.  Some fifty percent of new generating capacity in 2008 and 2009 was renewable. And in 2010 renewables won $151 billion of private investment and added over fifty billion watts in electric generating capacity.  Since 2007, nuclear energy growth has added less than solar power in annual output.

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to think that we can abandon nuclear power overnight. With fifteen countries relying on nuclear for 25% or more of their electricity, we have to get to grips with the presence of nuclear plants for years to come.  More than 440 nuclear reactors are operating in the world today. However, after what happened in Japan, we can anticipate growing calls for decommissioning older plants. 66 reactors are listed as “under construction”, although some have been in that status for decades and most of them still have no start date. Interestingly, fifty are in just four countries – China, India, Russia and South Korea, all of them state subsidized. It is unlikely that the nuclear power industry will reverse its downward trend in the wake of the Japan disaster.

Therefore, GCI believes that in order to exit the vicious circle of “poverty versus safe environment” the world must accelerate the transition to energy efficiency and renewables to bring about enormous economic, social and environmental benefits. After all, solar and wind energy have reached maturity and are already cost competitive in many markets, even with the direct and indirect subsidies and other “externalities” of fossil fuels and nuclear energy – costs not factored into market prices. Not to mention that these externalities often include negative and long-term impacts on public health – as dramatically shown by the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

The world needs to create a new energy policy model that integrates demand with supply within the limits of sustainable development. This integration does not need to bring about a decline in quality of life; on the contrary, in the mid-term it will make it possible to extend decent living standards to the world’s population.

The lowest hanging fruit is implementing cost-effective, readily available energy efficiency measures.  Energy waste and misuse is an enormous economic and environmental burden for rich and poor countries alike. Estimates are that twenty to thirty percent of primary energy could readily be saved if governments and people applied the appropriate policies. Saved energy is the cheapest, safest and most readily available option for producing “new” energy supply.

The pursuit of energy efficiency and renewable energy is not only important for the environment; it is important for our world’s security. It would reduce many of the current international tensions and security issues created by policies that destabilize the climate and intensify international competition for finite and declining resources – threats largely created by the power of special interests in the fossil and nuclear industries.

It is imperative therefore that members of the international community work together to develop clean and renewable sources of energy and a realistic path to phase out nuclear power. We have an opportunity to reverse energy-related environmental degradation before it becomes irreversible and to help alleviate energy poverty for nearly two billion people. In the process, we will help ensure stability and security for the world at large and prevent the next Windscales (1957), Three Mile Islands (1979), Chernobyls (1986) and Fukushimas (2011).–fukushima-and-the-future-of-nuclear-power