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Why the Rich Love Unemployment

by Mark Provost

Naked Capitalism (May 25 2011)

Christina Romer, former member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, accuses the administration of “shamefully ignoring” the unemployed. Paul Krugman echoes her concerns, observing that Washington has lost interest in “the forgotten millions”. America’s unemployed have been ignored and forgotten, but they are far from superfluous. Over the last two years, out-of-work Americans have played a critical role in helping the richest one percent recover trillions in financial wealth.

Obama’s advisers often congratulate themselves for avoiding another Great Depression – an assertion not amenable to serious analysis or debate. A better way to evaluate their claims is to compare the US economy to other rich countries over the last few years.

On the basis of sustaining economic growth, the United States is doing better than nearly all advanced economies. From the first quarter of 2008 to the end of 2010, US gross domestic product (GDP) growth outperformed every G-7 country except Canada {1}.

But when it comes to jobs, US policymakers fall short of their rosy self-evaluations. Despite the second-highest economic growth, Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press (AP) reports {2}: “the US job market remains the group’s weakest. US employment bottomed and started growing again a year ago, but there are still 5.4 percent fewer American jobs than in December 2007. That’s a much sharper drop than in any other G-7 country.” According to an important study by Andrew Sum and Joseph McLaughlin, the US boasted one of the lowest unemployment rates in the rich world before the housing crash – now, it’s the highest. {3}

The gap between economic growth and job creation reflects three separate but mutually reinforcing factors: US corporate governance, Obama’s economic policies and the deregulation of US labor markets.

Old economic models assume that companies merely react to external changes in demand – lacking independent agency or power. While executives must adapt to falling demand, they retain a fair amount of discretion in how they will respond and who will bear the brunt of the pain. Corporate culture and organization vary from country to country.

In the boardrooms of corporate America, profits aren’t everything – they are the only thing. A JPMorgan research report {4} concludes that the current corporate profit recovery is more dependent on falling unit-labor costs than during any previous expansion. At some level, corporate executives are aware that they are lowering workers’ living standards, but their decisions are neither coordinated nor intentionally harmful. Call it the “paradox of profitability”. Executives are acting in their own and their shareholders’ best interest: maximizing profit margins in the face of weak demand by extensive layoffs and pay cuts. But what has been good for every company’s income statement has been a disaster for working families and their communities.

Obama’s lopsided recovery also reflects lopsided government intervention. Apart from all the talk about jobs, the Obama administration never supported a concrete employment plan. The stimulus provided relief, but it was too small and did not focus on job creation.

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities. In the first Great Depression, President Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of institutions – the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) – to directly relieve the unemployment problem, a crisis the private sector was unable and unwilling to solve. In the current crisis, banks were handed bottomless bowls of alphabet soup – the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) – while politicians dithered over extending inadequate unemployment benefits.

The unemployment crisis has its origins in the housing crash, but the prior deregulation of the labor market made the fallout more severe. Like other changes to economic policy in recent decades, the deregulation of the labor market tilts the balance of power in favor of business and against workers. Unlike financial system reform, the deregulation of the labor market is not on President Obama’s agenda and has escaped much commentary.

Labor-market deregulation boils down to three things: weak unions, weak worker protection laws and weak overall employment. In addition to protecting wages and benefits, unions also protect jobs. Union contracts prevent management from indiscriminately firing workers and shifting the burden onto remaining employees. After decades of imposed decline, the United States currently has the fourth-lowest private sector union membership {6} in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

America’s low rate of union membership partly explains why unemployment rose so fast and – thanks to hectic productivity growth – hiring has been so slow.

Proponents of labor-market flexibility argue that it’s easier for the private sector to create jobs when the transactional costs associated with hiring and firing are reduced. Perhaps fortunately, legal protections for American workers cannot get any lower: US labor laws make it the easiest place in the word to fire or replace employees, according to the OECD.

Another consequence of labor-market flexibility has been the shift from full-time jobs to temporary positions. In 2010, 26 percent of all news jobs were temporary – compared with less than eleven percent in the early 1990s recovery and just 7.1 percent in the early 2000s {7}.

The American model of high productivity and low pay has friends in high places. Former Obama adviser and General Motors (GM) car czar Steven Rattner argues that America’s unemployment crisis is a sign of strength:

Perversely, the nagging high jobless rate reflects two of the most promising attributes of the American economy: its flexibility and its productivity. Eliminating jobs – with all the wrenching human costs – raises productivity and, thereby, competitiveness.

Unusually, US productivity grew right through the recession; normally, companies can’t reduce costs fast enough to keep productivity from falling.

That kind of efficiency is perhaps our most precious economic asset. However tempting it may be, we need to resist tinkering with the labor market. Policy proposals aimed too directly at raising employment may well collaterally end up dragging on productivity. {8}

Rattner comes dangerously close to articulating a full-unemployment policy. He suggests unemployed workers don’t merit the same massive government intervention that served GM and the banks so well. When Wall Street was on the ropes, both administrations sensibly argued, “doing nothing is not an option”. For the long-term unemployed, doing nothing appears to be Washington’s preferred policy.

The unemployment crisis has been a godsend for America’s superrich, who own the vast majority of financial assets – stocks, bonds, currency and commodities.

Persistent unemployment and weak unions have changed the American workforce into a buyers’ market – job seekers and workers are now “price takers” rather than “price makers”. Obama’s recovery shares with Reagan’s early years the distinction of being the only two post-war expansions where wage concessions have been the rule rather than the exception. The year 2009 marked the slowest wage growth on record, followed by the second slowest in 2010. {9}

America’s labor market depression propels asset price appreciation. In the last two years, US corporate profits and share prices rose at the fastest pace in history – and the fastest in the G-7. Considering the source of profits, the soaring stock market appears less a beacon of prosperity than a reliable proxy for America’s new misery index. Mark Whitehouse of The Wall Street Journal describes Obama’s hamster wheel recovery:

From mid-2009 through the end of 2010, output per hour at US nonfarm businesses rose 5.2% as companies found ways to squeeze more from their existing workers. But the lion’s share of that gain went to shareholders in the form of record profits, rather than to workers in the form of raises. Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, rose only 0.3%, according to the Labor Department. In other words, companies shared only six percent of productivity gains with their workers. That compares to 58% since records began in 1947. {10}

Workers’ wages and salaries represent roughly two-thirds of production costs and drive inflation. High inflation is a bondholders’ worst enemy because bonds are fixed-income securities. For example, if a bond yields a fixed five percent and inflation is running at four percent, the bond’s real return is reduced to one percent. High unemployment constrains labor costs and, thus, also functions as an anchor on inflation and inflation expectations – protecting bondholders’ real return and principal. Thanks to the absence of real wage growth and inflation over the last two years, bond funds have attracted record inflows and investors have profited immensely {11}.

The Federal Reserve has played the leading role in sustaining the recovery, but monetary policies work indirectly and disproportionately favor the wealthy. Low interest rates have helped banks recapitalize, allowed businesses and households to refinance debt and provided Wall Street with a tsunami of liquidity – but its impact on employment and wage growth has been negligible.

CNBC’s Jim Cramer provides insight into the counterintuitive link between a rotten economy and soaring asset prices:

We are and have been in the longest ‘bad news is good news’ moment that I have ever come across in my 31 years of trading. That means the bad news keeps producing the low interest rates that make stocks, particularly stocks with decent dividend protection, more attractive than their fixed income alternatives. {12} In other words, the longer Ben Bernanke’s policies fail to lower unemployment, the longer Wall Street enjoys a free ride.

Out-of-work Americans deserve more than unemployment checks – they deserve dividends. The rich would never have recovered without them.

Links and Notes:

{1} http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/04/04/recovery-in-the-u-s-beats-other-advanced-economies/

{2} http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42349181/ns/business-world_business/

{3} “The Massive Shedding of Jobs in America”. Andrew Sum and Joseph McLaughlin. Challenge, 2010, volume 53, issue 6, pages 62 to 76.

{4} http://www.zerohedge.com/article/profit-recovery-driven-plunging-labor-costs-explains-why-pe-multiples-will-remain-depressed

{5} http://rankingamerica.wordpress.com/2009/05/01/the-us-ranks-27th-in-unions/

{6} http://www.oecd.org/document/11/0,3746,en_2649_33927_42695243_1_1_1_1,00.html

{7} http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/20/business/economy/20temp.html

{8} http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-right-path-on-jobs-jobs-jobs/2011/01/30/ABqPCME_story.html

{9} David Wessel, Wall Street Journal, January 30 2010. “Wage and Benefit Growth Hits Historic Low”
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704343104575033250546866096.html

Chris Farrell, Bloomberg Businessweek, February 05 2010. “US Wage Growth: The Downward Spiral”
http://www.businessweek.com/investor/content/feb2010/pi2010025_902249.htm

{10} http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2011/03/05/number-of-the-week-workers-not-benefiting-from-productivity-gains/

{11} http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704530204576237182248727802.html

{12} http://www.cnbc.com/id/42308019/When_Bad_News_Is_Good_News
_____

Mark Provost, a freelance writer from Manchester, New Hampshire. He can be reached at gregsplacenh@gmail.com.

Cross posted from TruthOut.

http://truthout.org/why-rich-love-high-unemployment/1305061465

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/05/mark-provost-why-the-rich-love-unemployment.html

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Categories: Uncategorized

A Fashion for Austerity

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (May 25 2011)

The tempest in a media teapot over the apocalyptic predictions of California radio evangelist Harold Camping, it seems to me, provides a useful glimpse into the state of the collective imagination here in America. Camping, for those of my readers who somehow managed to miss the flurry of news stories, announced some months ago that the Rapture – the sudden miraculous teleportation of every devout Christian from earth to Heaven, which plays a central role in one account of the end times that’s popular just now in American Protestant circles – was going to happen at six pm last Saturday.

Now it so happens that I spent a large part of the last year or so researching and writing a history of apocalyptic prophecies, so the trajectory traced by Camping and his followers through the modern zeitgeist came as no surprise. What seems worth noting, though, is the amount of attention given to this latest prediction. At any given time, it’s a safe bet that somebody is proclaiming the end of the world within the next year or so, but it’s very rare that such prophecies make the news. Admittedly, your run of the mill doomsday prophet doesn’t splash his prophecy on billboards across the United States, and Camping did that; one even found its way to the quiet Appalachian town where I live, though it attracted little more than laughter. Cumberland’s well stocked with churches, and they seem to be well attended, but the antics of radio evangelists are apparently not much to local taste.

Still, I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing. When times are good, the guy with the sandwich board reading THE END IS NIGH is easy to ignore. When times are bad, on the other hand, there’s a real temptation to buy into even dubious claims that some outside force is going to rescue you. When things are bad and getting worse, furthermore, and any inquiry into why they’re bad and getting worse points straight to choices that you’ve made and are not yet willing to unmake, the hope that someone or something other than yourself will save you from the consequences of your own actions can be one of the few comfortable ways to deal with the resulting cognitive dissonance.

Since most of the people in the industrial world right now are in that situation, it’s probably safe to assume that a bumper crop of doomsday prophecies will feature prominently in the near future. The flurry of mutually contradictory claims surrounding the supposed end of the Mayan calendar in 2012 is likely to play a large role here. It’s probably a waste of breath at this point to mention that the Mayan calendar doesn’t actually end in 2012, that Classic Mayan inscriptions contain precisely one offhand reference to that date, that the reference supports precisely none of the gaudy claims currently being circulated about it, and that plenty of other Mayan inscriptions include dates that fall decades, centuries, and millennia past 2012.

For that matter, I doubt many people care that the entire 2012 business was invented out of whole cloth by New Age mystics Terence McKenna and Jose Arguelles back in the 1980s, when the field of Mayan archeology was still cluttered with a great deal of nonsense the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics in the following decade tipped into the dumpster. For whatever reason, the collective conversation of our time has seized on 2012 as a convenient inkblot onto which fantasies of mass enlightenment and/or mass extermination can be projected at will. My guess is that as we get closer to December 21 2012, the prophetic three-ring circus centering on that date will likely make Harold Camping green with envy.

Meanwhile, less futile responses to the crisis of industrial civilization are moving slowly inward from the fringes toward the cultural mainstream. Members of the peak oil community who track stories in the mainstream media have noted with some bemusement in recent months that the financial press has suddenly given up its habit of blithely dismissing peak oil as a nonissue. Even the Wall Street Journal, which not that long ago was a bastion of cornucopian insouciance, had a piece in yesterday’s issue talking nervously about the end of easily extracted oil reserves. Where the Wall Street Journal goes, the rest of the media generally follows; I think it’s fair to say that peak oil’s arrival as a cause celebre in the cultural mainstream is very nearly in sight.

One of the best arguments for this last suggestion, ironically, is the recent explosion of comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that this can’t possibly happen. There’s an odd but understandable shift that happens in movements that start out on the outermost fringes of a culture, as the contemporary peak oil movement did. When they’re still comfortably settled in exile from the mainstream, such movements routinely churn out grand and sweeping proposals for worldwide change; it’s entirely acceptable to propose relocating the entire American population into lifeboat ecovillages, let’s say, or sinking half the world’s gross domestic product into a crash program to build solar power satellites, because nobody really expects to have to deal with the gritty details of putting their plans into effect.

Those movements that find themselves drawn inward from the fringes, though, routinely go through a sudden loss of nerve once it becomes clear that something might actually be done about whatever issue the movement is attempting to address. It’s not hard to understand why this should be so. Imagine for a moment, dear reader, that your phone rings, and the voice on the other end of the line belongs to your Congressperson. The government, he or she tells you, has belatedly realized that peak oil is the crisis you’ve always said it was; both parties are in a state of panic; a joint Congressional committee has just been formed, at the president’s urging, to figure out how to deal with it. Your Congressperson wants you to come to Washington and tell the committee what immediate, practical response the nation should make to the crisis. Could you face such a call without breaking into a cold sweat?

Now of course the chance that most of us will ever field such a phone call is pretty remote. If I were Richard Heinberg or Tom Whipple, mind you, I’d make sure I had a list of talking points ready, but as far as I know, no archdruid has ever been asked to speak to a Congressional committee, and I don’t expect to be the first. Still, the point remains the same even when it takes less dramatic form. As peak oil goes mainstream, those of us who have been studying and speaking about it for years are going to have to present meaningful, realistic plans for action. That’s a daunting prospect, and it goes a long way to explain the recent flurry of posts and comments in the peak oil blogosphere insisting that industrial society can’t possibly change its course, because extravagant consumption of energy and other resources is hardwired into our genes or our nervous systems, or enforced by the nature of human hierarchy, or what have you.

It requires only a fairly brief glance at history to show that this is quite simply nonsense. Plenty of human societies, from Old Kingdom Egypt straight through to Tokugawa-era Japan, have deliberately set aside growth-oriented policies for the sake of survival. Ancient Egypt bought itself three thousand years of cultural continuity; Japan maintained its independence in the face of the rapacious European empires of the time; neither of these societies was exactly free of political and economic elites with an interest in their own enrichment, you’ll notice, but they and other societies with the same burden have found the transition to a steady state worth pursuing. America threw aside its promising initial steps in that direction at the end of the 1970s; thirty years later, most of the easy options have already been foreclosed on, and the combined impact of the end of the age of cheap energy and the implosion of America’s overseas empire is going to make the next few years a very difficult time no matter what decisions get made. Still, there’s a great deal that can still be done even this late in the game.

Ironically, one of the changes that has most often been dismissed as completely out of reach – the suggestion that Americans can and should use a great deal less energy and resources – is one that shows the strongest signs of catching on. One of the more useful pieces of evidence for this shift is the defensive tone of blogs like this one {1} that have taken to denouncing the idea. Nobody wastes time being publicly outraged by notions that their audiences would never think of accepting, you know. It was when the mainstream media began dismissing peak oil in heated language that I realized, and mentioned here, that peak oil might just manage to go mainstream; the huffy tone of blogs rejecting out of hand the idea that people might actually decide to choose a radically simpler lifestyle, unburdened by most of the technological so-called conveniences that clutter up so many lives just now, is a good indicator that a movement toward drastically lower consumption is stirring in the deep places of our collective imagination.

When it comes right down to it, after all, today’s high-consumption, hyper-connected lifestyle is a fad, right up there with hula hoops and swallowing live goldfish. Thirty years ago, the thought that people would voluntarily put themselves at the beck and call of anybody who wanted to contact them, at all hours of the day and night, would have inspired a mix of horror and hilarity. Thirty years from now, those who now can’t imagine being offline for twenty-four hours at a stretch will look back on their current habits with much the same embarrassed amusement that you get from today’s fifty-something Republicans when they remember their long-haired, pot-smoking youth. It’s precisely in the waning phase of a fad that’s passed its pull date that its participants tend to get shrill and defensive toward those who have begun to drift away – or, perhaps, who never got involved at all.

All this implies, of course, that the strategy I’ve called LESS – Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation – could very well become fashionable in exactly the same way. If it catches on at all, it will inevitably pick up faddish dimensions; there will be those who devote their lives to various forms of conspicuous non-consumption, those who treat some particular austerity as a litmus test while neglecting broader principles, and so on. Those dubious habits existed in the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, to be sure, and for that matter the same sort of thing can be found in every social movement. Furthermore, to the extent that LESS becomes a fad, it will have a limited shelf life – fads always do – and there will come a point when it stops being fashionable and some other trend takes its place. That, too, has happened with every other social movement you care to name.

I’m not at all sure that a fashion for austerity would be entirely a bad thing, though. Right now, unless my sense of the flow of events is completely off kilter, we’re moving into the second and probably much more serious phase of the crisis kicked off in 2008 by the implosion of the real estate bubble, which has been metastasizing ever since under the band-aid applied to it by the industrial nations’ print-and-pretend policies. In Europe, extremist parties are making hay off the political mainstream’s insistence that the only possible option is to load trillions of Euros of bad debt onto the backs of taxpayers and ordinary working people; in America, an even more vacuous political consensus is avoiding every significant issue we face; rising powers elsewhere are claiming a growing share of the world’s energy and resource base, largely at America’s expense; festering social strains and rising economic pressures here and abroad are moving toward the breaking point.

Exactly how the resulting mess will play out is a complicated question. Still, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a fashion for austerity, however faddish its surface forms might turn out to be, might be a very good thing to adopt and even to encourage. Even if it only lasts for a decade or two, that may be enough to help a lot of people weather the immediate impact of the crisis. Whatever fashions emerge in its wake, though, it’s safe to say that today’s fad for frantic consumption won’t be among them, for the simple reason that the resources that make that fad possible are running short. Whatever fads and fashions spring up in the aftermath of the approaching crisis will have to make do with a much smaller resource base.

A fashion for austerity may be temporary, in other words, but the austerity will endure. Responding to that latter will demand significant changes to each of our lives. It’s crucial here not to make the mistake (or, more precisely, one of the mistakes) that doomed the climate change movement – that is, the habit of treating the inevitable changes ahead of us as something that can be fobbed off on the rest of humanity through unequal treaties, or conjured into being by collective action that somehow never gets around to affecting one’s own lifestyle. We are all, every one of us, going to have to get by with less energy and less of the products of energy; we are all going to have to do things for ourselves that we’ve come to assume, often unthinkingly, that machines powered by cheap abundant energy will always do for us; we are all going to have to accept a great deal more in the way of discomfort and inconvenience than we do today.

Changes on the collective level, whether driven by fashion or enacted by the Congressional committee I imagined earlier in this post, aren’t going to prevent any of that. If they happen – and I think they can, although that possibility by no means guarantees that they will – their function will be to make it easier to adjust, to provide more options, more useful information, more incentives, more encouragement. It will still be up to each of us, as individuals, to make the hard changes that will have to be made – and to do so, if at all possible, before there’s no other choice, when there’s still the time and the opportunity to work through the learning curves of unfamiliar skills and be prepared to manage the crisis with some measure of grace. As Harold Camping’s followers learned the hard way this weekend, no outside force is going to rapture us away from the consequences of three centuries of mistaken faith in exponential growth, or the act of collective blindness thirty years ago that threw away our best chance at getting through this mess in good order. The world we’ve got is the world we’re going to have to live with, and it’s going to take a lot of work to make it livable.

_____

John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {2}and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star’s Reach {3}, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future. Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow.

Links:

{1} http://tinyouroboros.wordpress.com/

{2} http://www.aoda.org/

{3} http://starsreach.blogspot.com/

http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/05/fashion-for-austerity.html

Categories: Uncategorized

Fukushima and the Radioactive Sea

Chernobyl Times Ten

by Harvey Wasserman

CounterPunch (May 26 2011)

New readings show levels of radioisotopes found up to thirty kilometers offshore from the on-going crisis at Fukushima are ten times higher than those measured in the Baltic and Black Seas during Chernobyl.

“When it comes to the oceans”, says Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceonographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “the impact of Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl”.

The news comes amidst a tsunami of devastating revelations about the Fukushima disaster and the crumbling future of atomic power, along with a critical Senate funding vote today.

Fukushima’s owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has confirmed that fuel at Unit One melted BEFORE the arrival of the March 11 tsunami.

This critical revelation confirms that the early stages of that melt-down were set in motion by the earthquake that sent tremors into Japan from a relatively far distance out to sea.

Virtually all of Japan’s 55 reactors sit on or near earthquake faults. A 2007 earthquake forced seven reactors to shut at Kashiwazaki. Japan has ordered shut at least two more at Hamaoka because of their seismic vulnerability.

Numerous reactors in the United States sit on or near major earthquake faults. Two each at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, California, are within three miles of major fault lines. So is Indian Point, less than forty miles from Manhattan. Millions of people live within fifty miles of both San Onofre and Indian Point.

On January 31 1986, the Perry reactor, 35 miles east of Cleveland on Lake Erie, was damaged by an earthquake rated between 5.0 and 5.5 on the Richter Scale – orders of magnitude weaker than the one that struck Fukushima, and that could hit the sites in California, New York and elsewhere around the globe.

TEPCO has confirmed that at least three of the Fukushima reactors – Units One, Two and Three – have suffered at least partial fuel melts. In at least one case, the fuel has melted through part of the inner containment system, with molten radioactive metal melting through to the reactor floor. A wide range of sources confirm the likelihood that fission may still be proceeding in at least one Fukushima core. The danger level is disputed. But it clearly requires still more commitment to some kind of cooling regime that will send vast quantities of water into ocean.

At least one spent fuel pool – in Unit Four – may have been entirely exposed to air and caught fire. Reactor fuel cladding is made with a zirconium alloy that ignites when uncovered, emitting very large quantities of radiation. The high level radioactive waste pool in Unit Four may no longer be burning, though it may still be general. Some Fukushima fuel pools (like many in the United States) are perched high in the air, making their vulnerability remains a serious concern. But a new report by Robert Alvarez indicates the problem in the US may be more serious that generally believed.

Unit Four is tilting and may be sinking, with potentially devastating consequences. At least three explosions at the site have weakened critical structures there. Massive leakages may have softened the earth and undermined some of the buildings’ foundations. Further explosions or aftershocks – or a fresh earthquake – could bring on structural collapses with catastrophic fallout.

TEPCO has now confirmed that there are numerous holes in the containment covering Unit Two, and at least one at Unit One. The global nuclear industry has long argued that containments are virtually impenetrable. The domes at Fukushima are of very similar design and strength as many in the US.

The health impacts on workers at Fukushima are certain to be devastating.

After Chernobyl, the Soviet government sent more than 800,000 draftees through the seething wreckage. Many stayed a matter of ninety seconds or less, running in to perform a menial task and then running out as quickly as possible.

Despite their brief exposure, these “liquidators” have suffered an epidemic of health effects, with an escalating death toll. Angry and embittered, they played a significant role in bringing down the Soviet Union that doomed them.

At Fukushima, a core of several hundred workers essentially sacrificed themselves in the early stages of the disaster. They courageously entered highly contaminated areas to perform tasks that almost certainly prevented an even worse catastrophe.

David Brenner, the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center, said of the workers: “Those are pretty brave people. There are going to be some martyrs among them.”

“I don’t know of any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war”, said University of Tokyo radiology professor Keiichi Nakaga.

Unfortunately, the toll among Fukushima’s workers is certain to escalate. As few as two in five being sent into the Fukushima complex are being monitored for radiation exposure. According the Mainichi Shimbun, just 1,400 workers at Fukushima had been given thorough checkups, with just forty getting their results confirmed.

Even at that, Japanese officials have raised the allowable dosages for nuclear workers from 100 millisieverts to 250, five times what’s allowed for US workers, and 125 times what reactor workers typically receive in a year.

Some 88% of Japan’s reactor work force are part-timers, sparsely trained and often paid extra money to race into highly radioactive areas and then run out.

But Nobuaki Terasaka, head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, May 16 confirmed some 4,956 cases of internal exposure to radiation among workers at reactors around the country. Of those, 4,766 were originally from Fukushima and had moved to other sites, but had re-visited the prefecture after the 3/11 disaster.

Some of the stricken workers believe they were contaminated when they returned home for their families, even though they may have stayed only briefly.

Workers at Fukushima itself report spotty testing and dangerous facilities, including a leaky earthquake-resistant building where they took their breaks. “We had our meals there, so I think radioactive substances came into our bodies”, says one male worker. “We just drink beer and wash them down”.

A “dead zone” around Fukushima similar to the one surrounding Chernobyl is likely in the making. According to a report published in the Japan Times, levels of contamination in areas around Fukushima are at least comparable to some around Chernobyl.

But people outside the official evacuation zone are also vulnerable. Radiation detected in Tokyo, nearly 200 miles away, at one point prompted the Japanese government to recommend mothers not use tap water to mix formula for their infants.

Nonetheless children have been observed attending schools while bulldozers were removing the radioactive soil from their playgrounds outside. Amidst global protests, the Japanese government has weakened the limits of allowable radiation exposures to children.

In the midst of the disaster, the owners of the Indian Point reactors have announced their refusal to upgrade fire protection systems which New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman says are “.”

More than seventy percent of the plant remains unprotected, he says, a “reckless” practice. Schneiderman accuses federal regulators as being too cozy with the plant’s owners. Schneiderman and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo want the two Indian Point reactors shut.

Over the weekend only four of Germany’s seventeen reactors were operating, but the country suffered no apparent energy shortages. Prime Minister Angela Merkel has ordered seven older reactors shut, and the rest to be closed by 2011. But six of the newer ten closed for various technical reasons.

More than 20,000 Swiss citizens rallied to demand an end to plans to build new reactors there. The Swiss government has now confirmed it will not build new reactors, another major blow to the industry, this time resulting in the cancellation of plans for at least three projects.

Japan is standing by its decision to build no more reactors, while China has put some 28 proposed projects on hold. China’s reaction to Fukushima will be crucial to the future of nuclear power, as it is by far the largest potential market for new reactors. Though prevailing winds head the other way, Fukushima is relatively close to China, and some fallout has been detected there.

The Obama Administration has still produced no comprehensive monitoring of radioactive fallout coming to the United States and has provided no guidance as to how American citizens can protect themselves, except to say not to worry. Polls now show more Americans opposing new reactors than favoring them, and grassroots opposition is fierce.

But the industry is pushing ahead with demands for $36 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors, with a preliminary vote expected soon in a House Appropriations Subcommittee. Nuclear opponents are asked to call the White House and Congress steadily through the 2012 budget process.

Also, today (May 26) may see a vote in a Senate committee on a CEDA plan that would provide still more money for new nukes. Safe energy advocates are urged to call their Senators asap.

The International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, has announced it sees no health effects at Fukushima. The pronouncement comes as no surprise from an agency whose mandate is focused on promoting atomic energy.

The IAEA has consistently low-balled death toll estimates at Chernobyl and regularly ignores industry critics. The pronouncement comes as the agency begins a long-term study of Fukushima’s health effects. Meanwhile, a French watchdog agency has urged that 70,000 more people be evacuated from the Fukushima area. Coming from France, among the world’s pro-nuclear nations, the warning is a grim reminder of how deadly the contamination surrounding Fukushima must be.

But for all the focus on land-based contamination, the continuing flood of radioactive materials into the ocean at Fukushima could have the most problematic long-term impacts. Long-term studies of radiological impacts on the seas are few and far between. Though some heavy isotopes may drop to the sea bottom, others could travel long distances through their lengthy half-lives. Some also worry that those contaminants that do fall to the bottom could be washed back on land by future tsunamis.

Tokyo Electric has now admitted that on May 10 and 11, at least 250 tons of radioactive liquid leaked into the sea from a pit near the intake at Unit Three, whose fuel was spiked with plutonium. According to the Japanese government, the leak contained about 100 times the annual allowable contamination.

About 500 tons leaked from Unit Two from April 1 to April 6. Other leaks have been steady and virtually impossible to trace. “After Chernobyl, fallout was measured”, says Buesseler, “from as far afield as the north Pacific Ocean”.

A quarter-century later the international community is still trying to install a massive, hugely expensive containment structure to suppress further radiation releases in the wake of Chernobyl’s explosion.

Such a containment would be extremely difficult to sustain at seaside Fukushima, which is still vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. To be of any real use, all six reactors and all seven spent fuel pools would have to be covered.

But avenues to the sea would also have to be contained. Fukushima is much closer to the ocean than Chernobyl, so more intense contamination might be expected. But the high radiation levels being measured indicate Fukushima’s most important impacts may be on marine life.

The US has ceased measuring contamination in Pacific seafood. But for centuries to come, at least some radioactive materials dumped into the sea at Fukushima will find their way into the creatures of the sea and the humans that depend on them.

_____

Harvey Wasserman, a co-founder of Musicians United for Safe Energy, is editing the nukefree.org web site. He is the author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, AD 2030 at www.solartopia.org. He can be reached at: Windhw@aol.com

http://counterpunch.org/wasserman05262011.html

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Fukushima May Become Graveyard …

… for Radioactive Waste From Crippled Plant

by Shigeru Sato

bloomberg.com (May 26 2011)

Japan’s atomic energy specialists are discussing a plan to make the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant a storage site for radioactive waste from the crippled station run by Tokyo Electric Power Company.

The Atomic Energy Society of Japan is studying the proposal, which would cost tens of billions of dollars, Muneo Morokuzu, a professor of energy and environmental public policy at the University of Tokyo, said in an interview yesterday. The society makes policy recommendations to the government.

“We are involved in intense talks on the cleanup of the Dai-Ichi plant and construction of nuclear waste storage facilities at the site is one option”, said Morokuzu.

Radiation leaks from the three reactor meltdowns at Fukushima rank the accident on the same scale as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The twenty-kilometer exclusion zone around Fukushima has forced the evacuation of 50,000 households, extermination of livestock and disposal of crops, drawing comparisons with the Ukraine plant.

Areas up to thirty kilometers from Chernobyl remain “a dead zone”, Mykola Kulinich, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, said in Tokyo on April 26, the 25th anniversary of the disaster.

Waste Proposal

Tokyo Electric shares have plunged 85 percent since the day before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit the Fukushima plant. The stock today rose 2.2 percent to 322 yen in Tokyo.

Local authorities in Fukushima, 220 kilometers (137 miles) north of Tokyo, aren’t aware of a proposal to make the Dai-Ichi station a nuclear waste storage site, said Hisashi Katayose, an official at the prefectural government’s disaster task force. He declined to comment.

Building storage for radioactive waste at Fukushima could take at least ten years, said Morokuzu, one of fifty people on a cleanup panel that includes observers from Tokyo Electric and the Trade Ministry. Tokyo Electric would need five years to complete decontamination of the reactors, which includes removal of hydrogen to prevent explosions, he said.

Japan’s three storage facilities for highly radioactive waste are at Rokkasho, at the northern tip of the country’s largest island of Honshu, and a nearby site at Sekinehama. The third site is at Tokaimura in Ibaraki prefecture, near Tokyo.

Intermediary Use

As the sites are for intermediary use, the nation is still searching for a deep underground storage site for the waste, according to the World Nuclear Association. The selection is due to be completed by 2025 and become operational from 2035, the London-based association says.

About ninety percent of the world’s 270,000 tons in used nuclear fuel is stored at reactor sites, mostly in ponds of seven meters deep, such as those exposed at the Fukushima site when hydrogen explosions blew the roofs off reactor buildings.

“Intensive discussion is needed before reaching any conclusion on what to do with the Fukushima site”, said Tetsuo Ito, the head of the Atomic Energy Research Institute at Kinki University in western Japan. “This is one that the government should take responsibility for and make the final decision”.

In the past two weeks, the utility known as Tepco has said fuel rods in reactors one, two, and three had almost complete meltdowns. That matches US assessments in the early days of the crisis that indicated damage to the station was more severe than Tepco officials suggested.

Melted Rods

“Most of the fuel rods melted and damage to the cores is most severe in the Number One reactor, followed by the Number Three and then Number Two”, spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said in Tokyo May 24.

The utility on April 17 set out a so-called road map to end the crisis in six to nine months. Tepco said it expects to achieve a sustained drop in radiation levels at the plant within three months, followed by a cold shutdown, where core reactor temperatures fall below 100 degrees Celsius.

“We have yet to determine how to deal with the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant site, or how to store reactor parts after decommissioning”, Megumi Iwashita, a spokeswoman for the company said by telephone. “Tepco will determine at the right time taking the government’s advice”.

Waste Disposal

The disposal of high-level waste is more complicated since it needs to be solidified into borosilicate glass and placed inside heavy stainless steel cylinders about 1.3 meters high, the World Nuclear Association said. The casks are then usually transferred to interim storage sites before a long-term underground repository is built.

Besides Japan, Russia, Belgium, China and the US are working on plans to build final storage sites, though progress is slow. Belgium will not begin construction until 2035, according to the association. China expects to select a site by 2020, while France and Russia are still investigating areas.

The US plan to build a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, in 2002 was overturned by President Barack Obama, whose administration terminated the project’s funding this year.

This leaves the US with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which began work in 1999 storing defense-related nuclear waste 2,150 feet below the surface. The facility has a 10,000-year regulatory period, according to the US Department of Energy website.

Three Mile Island

For cleaning up Fukushima, Japan’s disaster has more similarities to the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in the US in 1979, not Chernobyl, Morokuzu said. Three Mile Island is in a decommissioning process, while Chernobyl was entombed in concrete and steel.

Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown of a reactor, causing the most serious nuclear plant accident in the US. Removal of fuel was completed in 1990 and the plant will be decommissioned when the license for an operational reactor at the site expires in 2034.

Japan’s efforts to find other places to store high-level nuclear waste included offering two trillion yen ($17 billion) over sixty years to the town of Toyo on Shikoku island to accept a facility. The proposal in 2007 was backed by Mayor Yasuoki Tashima in his re-election bid. He lost.

_____

To contact the reporter on this story: Shigeru Sato in Tokyo at ssato10@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Amit Prakash at aprakash1@bloomberg.net.

(c) 2011 Bloomberg L P. All Rights Reserved.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-26/fukushima-may-become-graveyard-for-radioactive-waste-from-crippled-plant.html

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IAEA Knew Within Weeks of Japanese Earthquake …

… that Reactors Had Melted Down … Public Not Told for a Month and a Half

Washington’s Blog (May 25 2011)

As I noted {1} last week, Reactors One, Two, and Three all melted down within hours of the Japanese earthquake.

On Monday, Mainchi Daily News provided an important tidbit:

A meltdown occurred at one of the reactors at the Fukushima Number One Nuclear Power Plant three and a half hours after its cooling system started malfunctioning, according to the result of a simulation using “severe accident” analyzing software developed by the Idaho National Laboratory.

Chris Allison [a former manager and technical leader at Idaho National Laboratory], who had actually developed the analysis and simulation software, reported the result to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late March. It was only May 15 when Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) admitted for the first time that a meltdown had occurred at the Number One reactor at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

According to Allison’s report obtained by the Mainichi, the simulation was based on basic data on light-water nuclear reactors at the Laguna Verde Nuclear Power Plant in Mexico that are about the same size as that of the Numbers One, Two, and Three reactors in Fukushima. {2}

According to the simulation, the reactor core started melting about fifty minutes after the emergency core cooling system of the Number One reactor stopped functioning and the injection of water into the reactor pressure vessel came to a halt. About an hour and twenty minutes later, the control rod and pipes used to gauge neutrons started melting and falling onto the bottom of the pressure vessel. After about three hours and twenty minutes, most of the melted fuel had piled up on the bottom of the pressure vessel. At the four hour and twenty minute mark, the temperature of the bottom of the pressure vessel had risen to 1,642 degrees Celsius, close to the melting point for the stainless steel lining, probably damaging the pressure vessel.

In other words, the IAEA knew in late March that there was a meltdown. The IAEA informs all of its member states of important nuclear developments.

Government agencies sat on this information, and the world didn’t learn the truth until the operator of the stricken reactors itself made the announcement a month and a half later.

This is not entirely surprising given that governments have been covering up nuclear meltdowns for fifty years to protect the nuclear industry {3}.

Links:

{1} http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2011/05/fuel-rods-most-likely-melted-completely.html

{2} http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/news/20110523p2a00m0na019000c.html

{3} http://www.washingtonsblog.com/2011/03/governments-have-been-covering-up.html

More on this topic:

Air Radiation Level In Tokyo, Unofficial Version (EX-SKF, 5/16/11)
http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/05/air-radiation-level-in-tokyo-unofficial.html

Fukushima I Nuke Plant: Japan Nuclear Technology Institute Senior Advisor Says “Reactors 1, 2, 3… (EX-SKF, 4/30/11)
http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/2011/04/fukushima-i-nuke-plant-japan-nuclear.html

Switzerland follows Japan in killing Nuclear Energy bowing to huge public protests against Nuclea… (Green World Investor, 5/28/11)
http://greenworldinvestor.com/2011/05/29/switzerland-follows-japan-in-killing-nuclear-energy-bowing-to-huge-public-protests-against-nuclear-power

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/05/guest-post-iaea-knew-within-weeks-of-japanese-earthquake-that-reactors-had-melted-down-public-not-told-for-a-month-and-a-half.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+NakedCapitalism+%28naked+capitalism%29

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A Lesson from Japan

The Single-Tax for Centuries in Practical Operation, and Its Result.

The Arena, Volume 35 (1906)

IN HIS large and important work entitled Great Japan (1906), Mr Alfred Stead treats many interesting and successful examples of Socialism, using the term in its broad signification, that have long been in practical operation in Japan. In one division of the Japanese empire, as will be seen by the following statement, the Single-Tax has been in operation for centuries. Here the community, instead of taxing land values and leaving the land undisturbed, as advocated by Henry George, levies all the tax on the land, but every eleven, thirteen or seventeen years the land is impartially apportioned among the people. Mr Stead in speaking of this subject observes:

There are even at the present moment in existence several socialistic communities within the empire. These are recognized and are not interfered with. So interesting are these communities that a somewhat detailed account of the conditions there is of value to give guidance and instruction to those anxious for the age of practical socialism.

And in giving a description of the special community to which we have referred above, our author quotes a detailed account as given by Mr Katayama, the leading socialist writer of Japan:

We can show a most convincing proof of socialism fully and actually in force for centuries in a land once a kingdom and now one of the prefectures of our empire. This prefecture is Okinawa, formerly the kingdom of Riukiu. Riukiu comprises thirty-six islands, with 170 square miles and 170,000 people. Here in these islands we have a complete and well-developed socialism that has had long practice. The peace-loving islanders have been living under the system of socialism undisturbed for several centuries. They have their own land system; one that may surprise the world in this age of competition and greed. It has been a long and time-honored institution with these people that every eleventh year, in some cases thirteenth or seventeenth year, the whole land is divided equally into as many as there are able-bodied persons in the community. During this term each is obliged to pay nothing but a tax imposed upon him for the section of land allotted to him. Besides these allotments the community owns a large tract of land as common land, where they plant banana trees. These plants are cultivated and preserved carefully to feed all the people on them in time of famine. Thus these islanders are assured of their means of subsistence as long as they are willing to cultivate their allotted piece of land. The taxes on the land are very light, and they are secure of attacks from greedy capitalists or landlords. There is no landlord in the whole of the islands. No one owns the land, but every one is entitled to get an allotment and live on the fruits of his own labor. There is no anxiety for him to increase his portion by acquirement or by intrigue or by purchase, as is so common a fact and a miserable burden in the so-called civilized communities. They do not own land, therefore they cannot mortgage or sell the land which they cultivate, but they are fully assured of possessing the results of their own labor. Thus every one owns his own income, which is the result of his own work. Private property is not in the land, but in the income from the land; there is no rent because there is no landlord, and there is no capitalist who may squeeze and exploit the poor, because there are no poor in the whole community. Every one can live by his own labor because he owns a piece of land to cultivate so long as he is a member of the community. They have not lost individuality or independence, but maintain fully their own personality. The very absence of poor in the whole island is the strongest argument in favor of socialism. There are no poor there, and at the same time there are no rich, because private monopoly consists of income only. It is said that the richest in the island is no wealthier than 200,000 yen (GBP 20,000). In spite of some attempts to encroach upon their institutions, so far the people have been able to maintain the land system. They are opposed to change, lest the happiest and best form of socialism should be done away with within a few years. But be this as it may, it is the undeniable fact that there has existed for centuries the workability of socialism.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TaxShift/message/1323

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Open Letter on TPPA

To Right Honorable John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand

The open letter closed off at 5 pm Wednesday 10 February, ahead of the negotitions in Chile starting Monday.

February 10 2011

Your government, our elected representatives, say the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) you are negotiating will be a 21st century trade agreement.

For us, a 21st century agreement must address the challenges that will shape our livelihoods, communities and our planet over the next ninety years – climate change, financial instability, indigenous rights, food sovereignty, energy scarcity, pandemics, insecurity, inequality and poverty, and constraints on corporate greed.

Instead, we understand that the proposed TPPA would intrude far behind our national borders to not only restrict our financial regulation and grant new rights for foreign investors, but also limit how things like healthcare, energy, natural resources and culture will be regulated; how our tax dollars may be spent; what sort of food safety and labelling will be allowed; whether medicines will remain affordable; and more.

What you are proposing and the way it is being negotiated are undemocratic and hypocritical.

First, a TPPA would bind our domestic policies and laws for decades ahead; even when an elected government has a different mandate or faces new realities, its hands will be tied.

Second, New Zealand’s obligations under the agreement would be enforced in international, not domestic courts: as a minimum, the government could face trade sanctions if it failed to comply; and, at worst, foreign investors could sue the government in a secret international court to enforce their special new rights.

Third, you are proposing a trade treaty that gives foreign investors guaranteed rights and enforcement powers that you deny to Maori under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Fourth, you are conducting these negotiations in secret, something citizens and legislators would never tolerate for new domestic legislation. A more transparent TPPA process would provide some basic safeguards against errors and identify risks that may not be apparent to negotiators and the government. It could also help convince people that a TPPA really will replace the past trade pact models that benefitted and privileged special interests and multinational firms.

The excuse that greater transparency would undermine negotiations presumes that your proposals would not survive the sunshine of scrutiny. Even the World Trade Organization (WTO), hardly renowned as a bastion of transparency, now posts country documents and negotiating texts on its website for scrutiny. If politicians and negotiators cannot convince the public through robust, open and informed debate about what you are proposing in our name, the talks should not proceed.

We are demanding, at a minimum, that the New Zealand government commits itself to publish simultaneously on its website all documents that it tables at the TPPA negotiations and proposes to all the other the TPPA negotiating parties at the forthcoming negotiations in Chile in February 2011 that they agree collectively to:

1. Create and maintain a public website which governments and civil society can post information and participate as equals in a dialogue and debate;

2. Post the draft text of each chapter as it is completed to open them to expert and public scrutiny. Given the global financial crisis, the perfect starting point is the texts on investment and financial services, completed in the December 2010 Auckland round;

3. Post countries’ position papers on specific subjects that are tabled during negotiations;

4. Guarantee that all civil society has equal access to information and engagement with the process, regardless of whether they are supportive or critical of the proposed agreement, ending the privileged treatment that pro-TPPA corporate lobby groups have enjoyed to date.

Failure to agree to such transparency and allow for open debate will further discredit the TPPA negotiating process.  It will strip any negotiated text of democratic legitimacy and the goodwill needed from people and parliamentarians to make it work for the 21st century.

Signed by (organisations listed first): The list is at

http://tppwatch.org/what-is-tppa/release-the-text/

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