Archive for September, 2013

Russia Offers Fukushima Cleanup Help as Tepco Reaches Out

by Yuriy Humber and Jacob Adelman

Bloomberg (August 26 2013)

Russia repeated an offer first made two years ago to help Japan clean up its accident-ravaged Fukushima nuclear station, welcoming Tokyo Electric Power Company’s decision to seek outside help.

As Tokyo Electric pumps thousands of metric tons of water through the wrecked Fukushima station to cool its melted cores, the tainted run-off was found to be leaking into groundwater and the ocean. The approach to cooling and decommissioning the station will need to change and include technologies developed outside of Japan if the cleanup is to succeed, said Vladimir Asmolov, first deputy director general of Rosenergoatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear utility.

“In our globalized nuclear industry we don’t have national accidents, they are all international”, Asmolov said. Since Japan’s new government took over in December, talks on cooperating between the two countries on the Fukushima cleanup have turned “positive” and Russia is ready to offer its assistance, he said by phone from Moscow last week.

After 29 months of trying to contain radiation from Fukushima’s molten atomic cores, Tokyo Electric said last week it will reach out for international expertise in handling the crisis. The water leaks alone have so far sent more than 100 times the annual norms of radioactive elements into the ocean, raising concern it will enter the food chain through fish.

‘Last to Realize’

The latest leak of 300 metric tons of irradiated water prompted Japan’s nuclear regulator to label the incident “serious” and question Tokyo Electric’s ability to deal with the crisis, echoing comments made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earlier this month. Zengo Aizawa, a vice president at Tepco, as the Tokyo-based utility is known, made the call for help at a press briefing in Japan’s capital on August 21.

In addition to the leak, Tepco today announced that one of its two filters treating contaminated water was taken offline on August 8 because of corrosion and will be shut until at least next month. The lost layer of filtration adds to the contamination levels of water in the storage tanks.

“It was clear for a long time that Tepco was not adequately coping with the situation”, Asmolov said. “It looks like Tepco management were the last to realize this”, he said. “Japan has the technologies to do this, but they lacked a system to deal with this kind of situation”.

The Fukushima accident of March 2011 is the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since the Soviet Union faced the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.

So far, Tokyo’s solution to cooling melted nuclear rods at Fukushima that otherwise could overheat into criticality, or a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, has been to pour water over them. That’s left more than 330,000 tons of irradiated water in storage tanks at the site so far. The water is treated to remove some of the cesium particles in it, which in turn leaves behind contaminated filters.

‘Vast Volumes’

The sheer quantity of water used is the most at a nuclear accident since the 1972 London convention banned the dumping of waste and radioactive water into the sea, said Peter Burns, formerly Australia’s representative on the United Nations scientific committee on the effects of atomic radiation.

“Until they figure out how to deal with such vast volumes of water, how to manage it, the problem” including of leaks will persist, Burns, a retired radiation physicist, said from Melbourne.

Retaining thousands of tons of radioactive water in tanks was the wrong strategy from the start and Tepco’s handling of the task is a “textbook picture of a failure of management”, Michael Friedlander, who has thirteen years of experience running nuclear stations in the US, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV in Hong Kong.

Pumping Water

The idea of pumping water for cooling was never going to be anything but a “machine for generating radioactive water”, Asmolov said. Other more complex methods such as the use of special absorbents like thermoxide to clean contaminated water and the introduction of air cooling should be used, he said.

Russia’s nuclear company, Rosatom, of which Rosenergoatom is a unit, sent Japan a five kilogram (eleven pound) sample of an absorbent that could be used at Fukushima almost three years ago, Asmolov said. It also formed working groups ready to help Japan on health effect assessment, decontamination, and fuel management, among others, Asmolov said. The assistance was never used, he said.

“Since the arrival of the new Japanese government, the attitude’s changed”, he said. “So far the talks have been on a diplomatic level, but they are much more positive. And we remain open to working together on this issue. To follow developments I monitor Fukushima news every morning.”

Tap Experts

Japan can tap experts in France and the US as well as Russia to help it tackle the situation at Fukushima, he said.

The US’s long history with atomic research, including the nuclear weapons site at the Hanford Engineer Works in Washington state, has provided expertise in cleaning up contaminated sites, said Kathryn Higley, who heads the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics department at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

“We have individuals that are working on groundwater contamination and using technology and developing new technologies to clean up strontium in groundwater, for example, at the Hanford site”, she said. “So there are individuals around the world that have been doing this and certainly they would be more than willing to help in this process”.

France’s Areva SA (AREVA) had designed a radiation filtration system that was used for several months at the Fukushima site as temporary cover before Tepco installed its own facilities. Japanese delegations have also visited US nuclear waste sites together with CH2M Hill Cos, an engineering company based in Englewood, Colorado.

Experienced Hands

This month a group of seventeen Japanese companies including Toshiba Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries formed an association, called International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, to support Tepco’s efforts.

The association, which aims to research removal of spent fuel from reactor pools and clearance of debris, plans to liaise with international organizations such as the US Department of Energy on its work, Hajimu Yamana, head of the association, told reporters in Tokyo on August 8.

Tepco is in talks with a team of retired US government officials, who worked on water management after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, according to Dale Klein, the chairman of an advisory panel to Tepco and a former head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Klein said the officials had served in the Department of Energy and the NRC, declining to identify them.

“It will be beneficial for Tepco to get people who have real live experience in dealing with contaminated water from nuclear events”, Klein said.

An announcement on a deal with the contractors could come within a month, Klein said.

Tepco’s “experience should be in being a safe, reliable electricity generator”, said Klein. The company’s “core competencies have not been having to deal with the massive cleanup that is now facing them”.


To contact the reporters on this story: Yuriy Humber in Tokyo at; Jacob Adelman in Tokyo at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jason Rogers at


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Ad Absurdum

by Thomas Frank

Harper’s Magazine Easy Chair (August 2013)

Suppose we decide to take a look at the Sixties from a fresh perspective. Suppose we start not with politicians, or soldiers in Vietnam, or civil rights protesters, or Woodstock performers in their fringes and flares, or with the charmingly tongue-tied Forrest Gump. No, let’s say we start instead with advertising executives. And suppose we approach these admen, their works, and the whole crazy whirl in which they lived as objects of nostalgia – as symbols of a bygone world that is comforting just to think about.

That was my idea back in 1991, when I started working on my doctoral dissertation. I thought there was something sweet and innocent about Kennedy-era advertising, with its dainty society women sipping Pepsi and its tail-finned cars bearing men in stingy-brim hats about their smiling business.

What I was really sentimental about, though, was the critique of advertising that was so common during the Sixties. According to this view, the advertising industry enforced an alarming pattern of conformity, molding us into a nation of unthinking robots. There was even a sense that prosperity itself was hazardous to our spiritual health. By the 1990s, these worries seemed kind of quaint – the stuff of vaguely remembered church sermons about materialism, of old Life magazine articles about mass society and suburban alienation. How easy it had been, back in those days, to see what was wrong!

Nostalgia is not history, however. Eventually I got over those warm feelings about the reassuring past and discovered something I thought was even more interesting: that as the Sixties went on, the advertising industry absorbed this critique and even enlisted it as a weapon in the eternal war of the brands. Worries about conformity became a linchpin of consumer society, echoed in endless advertisements and TV shows. This was the thesis of what turned out to be my first book, The Conquest of Cool, published in 1997.

I had overcome nostalgia, then. But as soon as I ventured out on the lecture circuit, nostalgia overcame me in turn. Far more interesting than my theories, it seemed, were the old ads themselves, which I would present with a slide projector. What people wanted to talk about were the family cars of their childhood, or a beloved Lite-Brite jingle, or that commercial for something or other. Did I remember that one?

A few years ago, a friend phoned me in a state of considerable agitation. He had just seen an episode of Mad Men in which the main character – an advertising executive named Don Draper, whom we follow through the tumultuous Sixties – takes his family on a picnic. They’ve driven to the park in his brand-new 1962 Cadillac, with food and drink in the cooler, and at the end of the episode, they simply toss their trash on the ground and leave.

My friend was annoyed because he thought the scene a crude anachronism. Wasn’t it unrealistic to portray an adman of the day as such a casual polluter? People from all walks of life littered, I replied, but yes, it was strange to tar an advertising executive with that particular brush, given that the industry was doing high-profile pro bono work for the Keep America Beautiful campaign during that very era.

I didn’t see the scene myself until a few months ago, when I finally sat down and watched seventy back-to-back episodes. And now I know what everyone else in America knows: that the show is fueled both by nostalgia and by its seeming opposite, a self-righteous superiority toward the benighted people of the past. In its romp through the Sixties, Mad Men gives us not only those beloved old ads but fantastic cars, perfect clothes, tastefully decorated houses, handsome men, beautiful women, fondly remembered songs. And then it takes careful note of the many ways in which our parents failed to live up to the polite standards of today.

These people are bad. Not only do they litter, they smoke – on airplanes, or when they’re pregnant. They let their kids play with dry-cleaning bags, they don’t bother with seat belts, and they slap children not their own. They drink and drive and drink some more, and say mean things, racist things, leeringly sexist things. They probably coat their nursery walls with lead paint too.

Were this all that Mad Men delivered, we could dismiss it as generational triumphalism of the usual kind. But the show doesn’t stay on this well-trod path for long. The exaggerated wickedness that suffuses the first few seasons eventually diminishes. What persists is the purple haze of nostalgia, along with a certain larger strain of criticism. In fact, Mad Men is saturated with references to the same “mass society” critique I myself once viewed so fondly.

Take the picnic scene. It finally dawned on me that this wasn’t just another bit of self-congratulatory comedy but a dramatization of a famous passage from John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society (1958). A family goes for a drive in a fancy car; litter and “commercial art” (that is, ads and billboards) are everywhere. They proceed to picnic on “exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox” and go to sleep “amid the stench of decaying refuse”.

Other vignettes lean no less heavily on the literature of consumer society and suburban anomie. The Draper family’s life in Westchester County, for example, could well have been drawn from A C Spectorsky’s 1955 book The Exurbanites, with its cast of conforming, commuting, boozing, womanizing ad executives. There are references to films such as The Apartment (1960), with its lampooning of corporate sexism, and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a tale of organizational madness whose main character swipes the identity of an officer who dies next to him in battle, just like Don Draper. And the show’s central conceit of sending a world-weary individualist wading through the swamp of falsehood that is the advertising industry was first developed by Frederic Wakeman in his 1946 bestseller The Hucksters.

The people of Mad Men are lonely in the heart of the crowded city; in the suburbs they are sick from boredom. The women have been programmed to pursue superficial beauty, the men to run on an endless career treadmill. Everyone is so sad in this postwar paradise. The characters’ eyes constantly glisten, as though they’re just about to bawl. They are afflicted with ulcers because their lives are needlessly stressful, or with numbness of the hands because they have forgotten how to feel. They are forever vomiting, no doubt because they suffer from acute existential nausea (at one point, Don attends an avant-garde play in which the beer commercials on TV make an onstage Everyman barf). And when one of the admen is driven – finally, inevitably – to hang himself, the note he leaves behind is a form letter announcing his resignation from the agency.

Mad Men has a reputation for extreme verisimilitude, and in certain categories – the costumes, the office interiors, the decor of the various Draper abodes – it has certainly earned that distinction. In other respects, however, the show is littered with anachronisms. {1} The worst of these is the title itself. According to the text that appears onscreen prior to the first episode, “Mad Men” is a “term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it”. Just about everyone has since accepted this etymology, and it is now commonplace to read references to the “Mad Men Era” in advertising.

I myself had never heard this phrase before. Clowns of Commerce, yes. Ulcer Gulch, sure. But how had I overlooked Mad Men? A Harper’s Magazine researcher and I asked five admen who were prominent during the Sixties whether they recalled hearing their colleagues referred to as Mad Men, and all of them said no – some with a certain vehemence. We also contacted three well-known academic historians of the period; again, the answer was no. We tried Martin Mayer, author of Madison Avenue, USA, the authoritative 1958 book on the industry, and got the same answer. The only instances of the phrase that we could find from Don Draper’s heyday occurred in a 1957 Saturday Review article and in an obscure novel published the next year, both of them by one James Kelly. That his pet coinage spread no further is hardly a surprise, since the ad industry of the day understood itself as a rational, even scientific, enterprise rather than a hotbed of lunacy. {2}

The show’s treatment of the ad game, which is its nominal focus, is also surprisingly weak. Mad Men is set during what industry insiders called the Creative Revolution, when advertising professionals stopped bowing and scraping before the client and overturned the traditional language of advertising itself. This big change is alluded to many times but never addressed in earnest; indeed, the show can’t make up its mind about which side of the revolution its characters are on. In the initial episodes, Don Draper seems to be a Madison Avenue reactionary, crafting Unique Selling Propositions out of nothing. He disparages the most inventive campaigns of the era (like the Volkswagen ads produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach); his agency is “traditional” and apparently anti-Semitic; it employs a psychological researcher of the kind Vance Packard made notorious in The Hidden Persuaders (1957).

Later on, Don appears to have changed completely. He walks out of his firm when it is swallowed up by a public-relations conglomerate and opens a “creative agency”, delivering risky sales strategies and dismissing clients who fail to grasp what the Great Genius dreams up. But even with the new-and-improved Don in charge, the show retains its Fifties understanding of ad agencies as places of canned flattery for the owners of corporate America. And the only selling we ever see is when Draper and his dipsomaniacal gang pitch their ideas to the client – a performance at which Don is supposed to be almost mystically gifted. The far more momentous act of selling to the general public is pretty much left to our imagination. {3}

What we have, then, is a polished office drama with meticulously observed period costumes. It could have been set in an accounting firm or a defense contractor as easily as an advertising agency. So why pick on Madison Avenue?

Because the adman is the consummate vehicle for both types of nostalgia. He was a modish figure, and thus the perfect mannequin upon which to drape those sack suits and period references. He was also one of the great evildoers of the age, the symbol of everything that people believed was wrong with American capitalism. If you think – as the show’s producers clearly do – that the mass culture of those days denied people’s individuality, or made them stupid, or sickened them with pointless consumption, then the adman is the bad guy for you. “Madison Avenue has replaced Wall Street as the whipping boy”, said a prominent adman in 1966 (in an article that is, of course, mentioned in Mad Men). “There has been a transference of villainies from the principals to the agents”.

Despite this villainy, Don Draper seems to be just about the only one in the show’s enormous cast who knows that it’s all make-believe – that “you’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts”. Which, in some perverse way, makes Draper the most upright man there is, a brave independent surrounded by stuffed shirts and yes-men.

The other alternative, by the standards of the Sixties, was to reject consumerism altogether, a fantasy that was in those days usually projected onto the counterculture. This option is hinted at countless times in Mad Men, but it is stated most forthrightly in Season 5, by a left-wing Canadian intellectual who is the father of Don’s new wife. “This apartment, this wealth that someone handed to you – this was what Karl Marx was talking about”, he lectures his Americanized daughter. “And it’s not because someone else deserves it. It is because it is bad for your soul.”

Actually, this wasn’t what Karl Marx was talking about. The idea that mass affluence posed grave perils for the bourgeois soul was mostly associated with American social critics during the great postwar boom. This was what William H Whyte was talking about in The Organization Man (1956), and what Paul Goodman was talking about in Growing Up Absurd (1960), and what Charles Reich was talking about in The Greening of America (1970).

This postwar critique was quaint enough when I began pondering The Conquest of Cool in 1991. By the time Mad Men began its run, in the summer of 2007, it was obsolete in nearly every particular. Mass affluence and excessive leisure time weren’t problems any longer; decades of union-busting and “free trade” had seen to that. The Organization Man and the good jobs that made him possible were disappearing. As for the “whipping boy” of the corporate order – less than two weeks after the first episode of Mad Men aired, the financial world was shaken by the collapse of two Bear Stearns funds that had invested heavily in complicated mortgage-backed securities. The second season appeared just as another tranche of impossible-to-understand financial instruments pushed the global economy out the skyscraper window – bankrupting such enterprises as General Motors, the colossus of Don Draper’s world.

No wonder we longed for the problems of postwar mass society: those were corporate sins we could actually comprehend, and that we found downright soothing to contemplate. As the economy buckled, Americans tuned in to Mad Men in increasing numbers. The show’s loving indictment of an affluent society spoke to us in tones of libidinal fascination. Forget credit-default swaps or the misanthropic billionaires of Greenwich: tell us again about man’s search for meaning or the sweet alienation people felt when they shopped at some suburban grocery store stocked with the cherished brand names of our childhood.

Faced with incomprehensible disaster, we viewers chose to dream about a lost capitalist paradise in which individualism was something both brave and profitable. And while we did so, capitalism as it actually exists was melting everything solid and familiar into air – the way it does in the retro title sequence of Mad Men – leaving us to tumble into an abyss of dubious and desperate memories.


{1} To name a few, all from Season 1, before I stopped keeping track: The Lucky Strike slogan “It’s Toasted” was invented not in 1960 but many decades previously; it is unlikely that anyone in 1960 would have made a joke about the “military-industrial complex”, since the phrase wasn’t coined until the following year; neither is it likely that anyone would have said, “The medium is the message” (as Joan, the office manager, does in Episode 6), since the book in which that famous phrase appears wasn’t published until 1964.

{2} When we contacted AMC about the origin of the term, they evaded our question with corporate finesse: “That’s not something we’d be able to provide for you”.

{3} The advertisements produced by Draper’s agency range in quality from dreadful to meh. I concluded that the persistent awfulness of their work had to be some kind of running joke among the show’s producers and not an unintended shortcoming.

(c) 2013 Harper’s Magazine

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The Crisis at Fukushima Four

Time for a Global Takeover

by Harvey Wasserman

CounterPunch Weekend Edition (September 20 to 22 2013)

We are now within two months of what may be humankind’s most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is no excuse for not acting. All the resources our species can muster must be focused on the fuel pool at Fukushima Unit Four.

Fukushima’s owner, Tokyo Electric (Tepco), says that within as few as sixty days it may begin trying to remove more than 1300 spent fuel rods from a badly damaged pool perched 100 feet in the air. The pool rests on a badly damaged building that is tilting, sinking and could easily come down in the next earthquake, if not on its own.

Some 400 tons of fuel in that pool could spew out more than 15,000 times as much radiation as was released at Hiroshima.

The one thing certain about this crisis is that Tepco does not have the scientific, engineering or financial resources to handle it. Nor does the Japanese government. The situation demands a coordinated worldwide effort of the best scientists and engineers our species can muster.

Why is this so serious?

We already know that thousands of tons of heavily contaminated water are pouring through the Fukushima site, carrying a devil’s brew of long-lived poisonous isotopes into the Pacific. Tuna irradiated with fallout traceable to Fukushima have already been caught off the coast of California. We can expect far worse.

Tepco continues to pour more water onto the proximate site of three melted reactor cores it must somehow keep cool. Steam plumes indicate fission may still be going on somewhere underground. But nobody knows exactly where those cores actually are.

Much of that irradiated water now sits in roughly a thousand huge but fragile tanks that have been quickly assembled and strewn around the site. Many are already leaking. All could shatter in the next earthquake, releasing thousands of tons of permanent poisons into the Pacific. Fresh reports show that Tepco has just dumped another thousand tons of contaminated liquids into the sea ( ).

The water flowing through the site is also undermining the remnant structures at Fukushima, including the one supporting the fuel pool at Unit Four.

More than 6,000 fuel assemblies now sit in a common pool just fifty meters from Unit Four. Some contain plutonium. The pool has no containment over it. It’s vulnerable to loss of coolant, the collapse of a nearby building, another earthquake, another tsunami and more.

Overall, more than 11,000 fuel assemblies are scattered around the Fukushima site. According to long-time expert and former Department of Energy official Robert Alvarez, there is more than 85 times as much lethal cesium on site as was released at Chernobyl.

Radioactive hot spots continue to be found around Japan. There are indications of heightened rates of thyroid damage among local children.

The immediate bottom line is that those fuel rods must somehow come safely out of the Unit Four fuel pool as soon as possible.

Just prior to the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami that shattered the Fukushima site, the core of Unit Four was removed for routine maintenance and refueling. Like some two dozen reactors in the US and too many more around the world, the General Electric-designed pool into which that core now sits is 100 feet in the air.

Spent fuel must somehow be kept under water. It’s clad in zirconium alloy which will spontaneously ignite when exposed to air. Long used in flash bulbs for cameras, zirconium burns with an extremely bright hot flame.

Each uncovered rod emits enough radiation to kill someone standing nearby in a matter of minutes. A conflagration could force all personnel to flee the site and render electronic machinery unworkable.

According to Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with forty years in an industry for which he once manufactured fuel rods, the ones in the Unit Four core are bent, damaged and embrittled to the point of crumbling. Cameras have shown troubling quantities of debris in the fuel pool, which itself is damaged.

The engineering and scientific barriers to emptying the Unit Four fuel pool are unique and daunting, says Gundersen. But it must be done to 100% perfection.

Should the attempt fail, the rods could be exposed to air and catch fire, releasing horrific quantities of radiation into the atmosphere. The pool could come crashing to the ground, dumping the rods together into a pile that could fission and possibly explode. The resulting radioactive cloud would threaten the health and safety of all us.

Chernobyl’s first 1986 fallout reached California within ten days. Fukushima’s in 2011 arrived in less than a week. A new fuel fire at Unit Four would pour out a continuous stream of lethal radioactive poisons for centuries.

Former Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata says full-scale releases from Fukushima would destroy the world environment and our civilization. This is not rocket science, nor does it connect to the pugilistic debate over nuclear power plants. This is an issue of human survival.

Neither Tokyo Electric nor the government of Japan can go this alone. There is no excuse for deploying anything less than a coordinated team of the planet’s best scientists and engineers.

We have two months or less to act.

For now, we are petitioning the United Nations and President Obama to mobilize the global scientific and engineering community to take charge at Fukushima and the job of moving these fuel rods to safety.

You can sign the petition at:

If you have a better idea, please follow it. But do something and do it now.

The clock is ticking. The hand of global nuclear disaster is painfully close to midnight.


Harvey Wasserman edits and is author of Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth (2006).  His Solartopia Green Power & Wellness Show is at

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Crushing the Middle Class

The Trouble with ZIRP

by Mike Whitney

CounterPunch (September 25 2013)

The Federal Reserve (“FED”) presently lends money at a lower rate than anytime in history. In fact, the rate at which the Fed lends money is more than a full percentage point below the current rate of inflation. That means the Fed is subsidizing borrowing. Naturally, zero rates create price distortions which are greatly amplified by the Fed’s asset purchase program called Quantitative Easing (“QE”). During its three rounds of QE, the Fed has ballooned its balance sheet by more than $2.8 trillion inflating the prices of financial assets across-the-board while establishing itself as the world’s biggest buyer of US Treasuries, the benchmark asset class upon which every financial asset in the world is priced. Those prices are now grossly distorted due to the Fed’s presence in the market. (Note: Fed chairman Ben Bernanke set the Federal funds rate in the range of zero to 0.25% in December, 2008 and has kept it there ever since. The policy is called zero-interest-rate-policy or ZIRP.)

When rates are cut to zero, it means that the demand for credit is weak. If the economy was growing at a faster clip, then the demand for funds would increase and the Fed would raise rates so they were closer to their normal range. But the Crash of 2008 triggered deflationary pressures (particularly massive deleveraging by homeowners who saw their home equity go up in smoke during the downturn) unlike anything experienced since the Great Depression. For the Fed to adequately address the sharp drop in demand, it would have had to set its target Fed funds rate at minus six percent which is impossible since the Fed cannot set rates below zero. (This is called ZLB or zero lower bound problem.) Thus, the Fed has implemented other strategies which are supposed to achieve the same thing.

Bernanke’s asset purchase program, QE, is an attempt to push rates below zero by reducing the supply of risk-free assets. By loading up on US Treasuries (“UST”) and agency mortgage-backed securities (“MBS”), the Fed tries to lure investors into stocks and bonds hoping to push prices higher. Higher prices create the so called “wealth effect” which paves the way for more consumption and investment. Hence, soaring stock prices create a virtuous circle which boosts demand and jump-starts the flagging economy. That’s the theory, at least. In practice, it doesn’t work so well. Five years after the policies were first implemented, the economy is still sluggish and underperforming (GDP growth is below two percent for the last twelve months), the output gap is still roughly $1 trillion per year, and unemployment is still sky-high. (Unemployment would be fourteen percent if the people who have dropped off the unemployment rolls and who are no longer actively looking for work were counted.) For all practical purposes, ZIRP and QE have been a bust.

The traditional antidote for a “liquidity trap” (that is, when normal monetary policy doesn’t work because rates are already at zero) is fiscal stimulus. In other words, when monetary policy can’t gain traction because consumers and businesses refuse to borrow, then the government must use its balance sheet to keep the economy growing. That means widening the budget deficits and spending like crazy to increase demand until consumers and businesses are in a position to resume their spending. Bernanke’s monetary policy is the polar opposite of this time-tested remedy. The Fed’s policy provides zero-cost reserves to poorly run zombie banks who refuse to pass on the savings to their customers via credit cards or mortgage rates. If the Fed was serious about expanding credit and strengthening growth, it would require the banks to cut their credit card rates and mortgage rates so that consumers benefit equally from the Fed’s cheap money. (In other words, if the Feds funds rate dropped from six percent to zero percent then credit card rates should be slashed from eighteen percent to twelve percent. That would stimulate more consumer spending.) But the Fed has made no demands on the banks. Instead, all of the gains from the wider spreads have gone to the banks, which is why ZIRP and QE have had virtually no impact on lending at all.

The main beneficiary of the Fed’s policies has been the investor class. While low rates have helped households reduce their debtload more easily, low interest lending coupled with the ocean of liquidity provided via QE has triggered a long-term stock market rally that has increased equities funds inflows to new records, boosted margin debt to precrisis levels, quadrupled stock buybacks from their 2008 lows, buoyed covenant-lite loan sales to $188.7 billion (“far surpassing the record of 2007”), and sent all three major indices to new highs. Unable to find profitable outlets for investment in the real economy, investors have taken their lead from hedge fund manager Ben Bernanke, snatching up stocks and bonds in a ravenous, yield-crazed flurry of speculation. Indeed, they have done quite well too, raking in sizable profits even while the real economy is still flat on its back. The bottom line: All the gains from ZIRP and QE have gone to Wall Street with precious little trickling down to the workerbees.

After five years of monetary policy that has failed to produce a strong, sustainable recovery, reasonable people have begun to wonder if Bernanke’s real objectives are different than those in his official pronouncements. After all, the Dow Jones and S&P 500 have more than doubled in the last four years, corporate earnings just hit an all-time high of $2.1 trillion, the banks announced record profits of $42 billion in the second quarter of this year, and – according to a new study by Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at University of California at Berkeley – the top ten percent of earners in the US captured 50.4% of total income in 2012, a level higher than any other year since 1917 (Los Angeles Times). Meanwhile, 47 million people are scraping by on food stamps, labor’s share of productivity gains have never been smaller, median household income has plummeted by 7.3 percent since the end of the recession (Sentier Research), and 46.5 million Americans now live in poverty (US Census Bureau). Inequality – which is already at levels not seen since the Gilded Age – continues to widen at an accelerating pace while the battered and rudderless economy drifts from one crisis to another.

To pretend that the objectives of ZIRP and QE are different than the results they’ve produced (that is, greater concentration of wealth and political power, and the crushing of the middle class) is laughable given the fact that they’ve been in place for more than five years without any significant change. This suggests that the Fed’s policies are doing what they were designed to do, shift more wealth upwards to the uber-rich while political leaders dismantle vital saftey net programs which protect ordinary working people from the ravages of unregulated capitalism. The Central Bank and the political establishment in Washington are working hand-in-hand to restructure the economy along the same lines as they would any third world banana republic.

And that’s the real goal of the current policy.


Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (2012). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Whitney’s story on declining wages for working class Americans appears in the June issue of CounterPunch magazine. He can be reached at

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The Nuclear Industry’s Meltdown

Former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Says Every Single Reactor in the US Should Be Shut Down

by Emily Schwartz Greco {2} and William A Collins {3}

OtherWords (September 04 2013)

Alternet (September 04 2013)

The first thing to remember about nuclear power is that it’s not safe. Just ask Japan.

The second thing to remember is that nuclear power isn’t cheap. Connecticut draws half its juice from nuclear reactors {4} and has the second-highest rates in the country {5}, after Hawaii.

The third thing to know is that everybody lies about it. The power plant designers lie, the builders lie, the utility companies lie, the regulators lie, and the politicians lie.

Take Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the utility that ran the reactors in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture that failed after a tsunami and earthquake struck. Tepco still won’t admit just how serious a disaster that was and continues to be.

But kids living downwind are alreadygetting thyroid cancer {6}, fish in the nearby sea are no longer safe to eat {7}, and radioactive tuna are cruising the California coast {8}. As with the Chernobyl disaster, tens of thousands of people may never be free to return home {9}.

Meanwhile at many US nuclear reactors, efficiency is declining and the risk of accidents is rising. Unlike at a coal-fired power plant, you can’t just hit the off switch if there’s a flood, drought, or power failure. All those spent nuclear fuel rods have to be cooled for years to come, whether you have water handy or not.

In Connecticut, Dominion Resources is seeking permission to keep pumping water {10} from Long Island Sound, even when global warming has heated that body up beyond the temperature allowed by federal regulations {11}.

Still not worried? Consider this: Former Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory B Jaczko declared in April that he believes every single nuclear power plant {12} operating in the nation should be shut down, starting with the riskiest.

This isn’t completely far-fetched. So far this year, power companies have announced plans to close five reactors {13}. Most recently, Entergy relented on its mission to keep its creaky Yankee nuclear plant in Vermont {14} operational over the state government’s clear objections.

At least 37 more reactor closures could follow {15}, according to Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment.

Can environmentalists celebrate this nuclear downsizing trend?

Nope. Most experts aren’t attributing this rash of reactor closures to any newfound safety concerns among the industry’s leaders. Instead, they’re blaming the fracking boom.

As it devastates the environment, cheap fracked gas is sapping demand for nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants.


Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords {16}, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.

OtherWords {16} columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

See more stories tagged with nuclear energy {17}



















Categories: Uncategorized

Which Way To Heaven?

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (September 25 2013)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

The religious sensibilities I’ve been discussing in recent posts here on The Archdruid Report have an interesting property: they’re hard to define with any degree of precision, but remarkably easy to recognize in practice. It’s a little like the old joke about how you know that an elephant’s gotten into your refrigerator; like the telltale footprints in the butter dish, the traces left by a given religious sensibility are hard to miss.

The sensibility that seized the imagination of the western world after 600 BCE, and has begun to lose its grip only in our time, is no exception to this rule. I’ve already talked about its distinctive central theme, the passionate insistence that human beings deserve more than nature, history, and the human condition are prepared to give them, and that there must be some way to escape from the trammels of humanity’s ordinary existence and break free into infinity and eternity. There are plenty of other tracks in the butter dish of western culture, for that matter, but the one I want to discuss this week is as simple as it is revealing: the spatial direction in which, according to the sensibility we’re discussing, the way out of the human condition is most likely to be found.

To the cultures of the modern west, it seems self-evident that the only possible location for heaven is “up there”, and plenty of people assume that that’s universal among human beings. It isn’t, not by a long shot. To the ancient Greeks, for example, the gods and goddesses lived in various corners of the world – some of them lived on Mount Olympus, a midsized mountain in Thessaly, but Poseidon was normally to be found in the ocean, Pan in the woodlands of Arcadia, Hades in the underworld, and so on; when Zeus wanted to hold a council, he had to send a god or goddess around to summon them all to Olympus. In Shinto, the polytheist religion of Japan, some of the kami – the divine powers of Shinto – live in Takama no Hara, the Plain of High Heaven, but others dwell on earth, and every year in the month corresponding to October, they all travel to the Izumo shrine in  western Japan and are not to be found elsewhere.  The old Irish paradise, Tir na nOg, was on the sea floor of the Atlantic somewhere off west of Ireland – well, I could go on for quite some time with comparable examples.

Within the sensibility that’s now fading out across the western world, by contrast, the route to heaven was by definition a line pointing straight up from the Earth’s surface. I want to stress here that this is part of the religious sensibility of an age – that is, a pattern of emotions and images in the collective imagination – rather than a necessary part of the theist and civil religions that existed in that setting and thus were shaped by that sensibility. It’s not too hard, in fact, to find ways in which the teachings of these religions were manhandled, sometimes very roughly, to make room in them for the images and emotions that the sensibility of the age demanded.

Here’s an example. In the New Testament, the two gospels that describe what later came to be called the Ascension of Jesus describe the event in very simple terms; Mark says “he was received up into heaven” (Mark 16:19), and Luke says “he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).

Those Christian friends of mine who know their way around theology assure me that heaven is a wholly spiritual state or condition of being, which is no more above the earth than it is, say, northeast of Las Vegas. The pressure exerted by the religious sensibility of the last two millennia, though, was such that the Ascension has nearly always been portrayed in art as an exercise in levitation.

This has not uncommonly been taken in a very literal manner. It so happens, for example, that Christian symbolism plays a central role in some of the higher degrees of Freemasonry, and members of one of those degrees thus celebrate an Ascension Day service annually. Here at the Cumberland Masonic lodge, there’s an extraordinary early 20th century trompe l’oeil painting, which is hidden away behind another piece of symbolic art, and uncovered for the Ascension Day service and certain other functions. It’s a landscape view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; the Temple is below, with the rest of the city around it, and the Judean landscape reaching away into the distance. The foreground scene on the Mount of Olives is painted on a piece of metal, a little in front of the canvas background, and there are clouds handled the same way at the top of the painting.

There in front, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus stands among his disciples. At the right moment of the ceremony, one of the brethren pulls on a hidden string, and the figure of Jesus rises up from the circle of disciples and soars slowly into the air, rising straight up until he’s lost to sight behind the clouds. It’s a remarkably powerful image, you can hardly help imagining the disciples staring openmouthed at the miracle, and people down below in the streets of Jerusalem catching a glimpse of the sight and thinking, good heavens, that looks like a man rising up into the sky!

I don’t know of a better example of the way the collective imagination of the modern world shifted gears when Sputnik I broke free of the atmosphere and opened the Space Age. Until then, the top of the atmosphere might as well have been a sheet of iron, as the Egyptians thought it was. (Their logic was impeccable: polished iron is blue, and so is the sky; iron is strong and heatproof, and the sky would need to be both to deal in order to support the boat named Millions of Years on which Ra the sun god does his daily commute; besides, the only iron they knew came from meteorites, which they sensibly interpreted as stray chunks of sky that had fallen to earth. Many of our theories about nature will likely seem much less reasonable from the perspective of the far future.)

It’s an extraordinary experience to go back and read what sensible people in the first half of the 20th century thought of the claims then being retailed by the small minority who dreamed of going to the Moon and the other planets. Outer space – take a moment to think about the implications of that conventional phrase! – was to most people an abstraction, not a place, and when the Moon and Mars weren’t just lights in the sky, they served as convenient new labels for fairyland. Equally, the idea that human machines or human beings, might someday pop through the atmosphere into that “space outside” was raw material for fairy tales.

Nor were the fairy tales slow to appear. An earlier post here {1} explored the extraordinary role that science fiction played in shaping the collective imagination of our age, even when it was considered the last word in lowbrow reading.  The civil religion of progress, as I suggested in last week’s post, needed a mythic image of salvation from nature, history, and the human condition before it could break loose from the competition and become the established religion of our time; science fiction provided that, and in the process underwent a massive transformation of its own. Until the early 1940s, science fiction was still what it had been in the time of H G Wells and Jules Verne, a literature that explored the whole gamut of imaginable technological advances; thereafter, it fixated more and more precisely on one specific suite of imagined technologies and the central image around which they clustered.

The close similarity between this image and the one shown earlier in this post, I’d like to suggest, is no accident. As pointed out in an earlier post in this sequence {2}, civil religions derive their core imagery and emotional tone from the theist religions they replace, and the image of man’s ascension into space took on the same role in the religion of progress that Jesus’ ascension into heaven has in Christianity. What science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke called, in the title of a hugely popular nonfiction book of his, The Promise of Space (1968) was the precise equivalent – or as precise an equivalent as a materialist and anthropolatrous civil religion could manage – to the promise of salvation at the heart of Christian faith.

Listen to those of today’s cornucopian true believers who don’t simply put their faith in the endless prolongation of business as usual, and it’s rarely difficult to hear the ringing voice of the Christian evangelist coming through the verbiage about limitless energy sources, new worlds for mankind, and the rest of it. How many times, dear reader, have you heard the great leap upward into space described as humanity’s mission, its destiny, even its sole excuse for existing in the first place? How many times have you read enthusiastic claims about space-based manufacturing, orbital colonies and the like that assume as a matter of course that benefits will outweigh costs and difficulties will inevitably be overcome, because, well, going into space is humanity’s mission, its destiny, et cetera? Let’s just say that if you write a blog that asks hard questions about the mythology of progress, you can count on fielding outraged comments along these lines several times a week from now until star date fill-in-the-blank.

Now it so happens that there’s a very good reason to doubt these claims, and in particular to challenge the notion that orbital colonies, settlements on Mars, and the rest of it will inevitably prosper if we just find the quadrillions of dollars necessary to pay for them and the infrastructure necessary to build them in the first place. In an article published in Nature in 1997, a team of economists headed by Richard Costanza set out to calculate how much value is contributed to the global economy by the Earth’s natural systems; their midrange estimates works out to an annual contribution roughly three times the size of the world’s gross domestic product. Put another way, of every dollar’s worth of goods and services consumed by human beings each year, around 75 cents are provided free of charge by nature, and only 25 cents have to be paid for by human economic activity.

That immense contribution to human well-being – call it the “biosphere dividend” – isn’t available anywhere else in the solar system. (Even if Titan, say, has a biosphere of its own, its version of that dividend will apply only to life forms who enjoy sipping liquid methane and gazing at the bright orange sky on a balmy  – 290 degree Fahrenheit afternoon, not to human beings.) Here on Earth, human beings get air to breathe, water to drink, shelter from radiation, topsoil in which to grow crops, and a dizzying array of other goods and services at no charge from the planetary system; anywhere else, all these things have to be provided by human labor, and require constant inputs of resources that human beings must also provide. That burden somehow gets left out of the sort of glowing rhetoric so often circulated among true believers in progress – one of many examples of the remarkable blindness to the economics of complex technology I’ve discussed here in several posts already {3}.

Such arguments have little impact on those who believe. Still, civil religions are considerably more vulnerable to disproof than the theist religions they supplant, in that they belong wholly to the world of ordinary experience, and are far more difficult to uphold in the face of ordinary experience than their theist cousins. When advances in rocket science made it impossible to ignore the fact that what was up there above the clouds had nothing in common with heaven, Christians all over the industrial world recalled that most schools of Christian theology define heaven, as already noted, as a spiritual state or condition rather than a physical place at high altitude. Long-established habits of thought had to be changed, to be sure, but those habits didn’t touch the core commitments of the faith.

The civil religion of progress didn’t have the same advantage, since its core commitments were supposed to manifest in the world of ordinary experience, not in a spiritual condition inaccessible to any eyes but those of faith. Once the religion of progress embraced the fairy-tale logic of science fiction and set out, like Jack climbing the beanstalk, to find the giant’s palace of its dreams somewhere up there in the sky, it was vulnerable to catastrophic disproof – and catastrophic disproof is what it got, too, though I’m not at all sure the believers have yet noticed just what it was that hit them.

The vulnerability here was precisely its dependence on borrowed imagery from the theist faiths it supplanted. Decades of science fiction primed the collective imagination of the western world to see the ascent from earth to space as an ascension from earth to heaven, a passage out of ordinary reality into something wholly other – even if that “wholly other” too often consisted of nothing better than the sort of tacky adventure-fantasy so many science fiction authors splashed across a galaxy of forgettable imaginary worlds.  The torrent of propaganda and pageantry the United States invested in the Space Race against Russia helped feed the sense of expectancy, and brought it to a climax that summer day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped down a spidery ladder onto the surface of the Moon.

After the speeches and the TV specials and the ticker-tape parades were done with, though, something very different began to whisper through the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination – something that could be summed up fairly neatly as “Was that all?” We went to the Moon, not once but repeatedly, and every trip made it harder to ignore the fact that the Moon wasn’t wholly other at all. It wasn’t fairyland. It was monotonous gray desert without air, water or life, and the only thing you could see there that was of interest to anybody but a handful of scientists was the extraordinary blue-and-white sphere of Earth hanging motionless in the black and starless sky.

To make matters worse, that’s more or less what orbiters and landers found everywhere else in the solar system, too. Mars, the scene of countless fantasies since the dawn of science fiction, turned out to have a remarkable resemblance to the less interesting corners of Nevada, without even the rattlesnakes and poisonous scorpions to lend a bit of human interest.  Every world in the solar system that human spacecraft reached offered the same less than overwhelming spectacle: sand, scattered rocks, and basically nothing else. Even if Mars had turned out to have some analogue of blue-green algae huddled on the underside of the occasional damp rock, even if the Huygens lander on Titan had spotted unmistakably biological growths basking in the dim glow from the distant sun, a few space missions and a few more National Geographic specials later, the same reaction would inevitably have followed, because the emotions and fantasies that gathered around the promise of space had nothing to do with what was actually out there in the solar system, and everything to do with images and ideas of salvation and transcendence that had been surreptitiously borrowed from older theist religions.

The drawback to that borrowed imagery is that you can’t actually transcend nature, history and the human condition by riding a rocket to the Moon, to Mars, or even to some hypothetical exoplanet circling Proxima Centauri, any more than you can do it by riding a cross-country bus to Nevada.  Ironically, a close reading of science fiction could have warned of that well in advance; the sense of wonder and exaltation that came to early readers of the genre as they read of voyages to the Moon soon palled, and had to be rekindled with ever more elaborate journeys to ever more distant worlds, until finally characters in science fiction novels were voyaging across multiple universes in an effort to give readers the same rush they got in Verne’s time from a simple trip in a balloon. That’s what happens when you try to make a quantitative difference fill in for a qualitative one, and use mere distance or size as a surrogate for a change in the essential character of existence.

To return to an image introduced earlier in this essay, it’s rather as though some misguidedly materialist believer in the Ascension had convinced himself that heaven really was somewhere up there in the upper atmosphere, and worked out some way to copy those artistic depictions and levitate straight up into the air from the Mount of Olives. His disciples would no doubt have stared with equal awe as he rose into the clouds, and there might well have been people down below on the streets of Jerusalem who caught a glimpse of the sight and thought, good heavens, there goes another one!

It’s what follows, though, that makes the difference. According to Christian tradition, the Ascension ended with Jesus being received into heaven and taking his throne on the right hand of God the Father. For our imaginary imitator, of course, no such welcome would await. Somewhere above 8,000 feet, altitude sickness would cut in; somewhere above that, depending on the weather, frostbite; above 26,000 feet, the oxygen content of the air is too low to support human life, and death from anoxia would follow if hypothermia hadn’t gotten there first. If nothing interrupted the ascent, the planet’s already substantial collection of orbiting space junk would shortly thereafter be enriched by the addition of a neatly freeze-dried corpse.

All metaphors aside, it’s rarely if ever a good idea to try to take a vision of transcendence and enact it in the world of matter.  That effort is the stock in trade of civil religions, which tend to emerge in ages that have lost the capacity to believe in transcendence but still have the emotional needs once met by the theist religions of their cultures, and it accounts for the way civil religions have of failing catastrophically when their efforts to act out simulacra of transcendence collide with the awkward realities of the world as it is.  The implosion of the civil religion of Communism thus promptly followed the collision between fantasies of the Worker’s Paradise and the bleak bureaucratic reality of the Eastern Bloc nations; the implosion of the civil religion of Americanism is taking place right now as a consequence of the collision between what America thinks it stands for and what it’s all too plainly become; and the implosion of the civil religion of progress is arguably not too far off, as the gaudy dream of infinite knowledge and power through technology slams face first into the hard limits of a finite planet and a solar system uninterested in fueling human fantasies.

In the historical vision of Oswald Spengler, after the failure of each high culture’s great age of rationalism comes the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of theist religion as a core institution and organizing principle of society. The Second Religiosity is not the same as the First, and not uncommonly rises out of a different religious sensibility than its predecessor. How that might work out over the decades and centuries ahead is a complex question; we’ll begin discussing it next week.


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {4} 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 {5}, 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.

And please consider putting a tip in the Archdruid’s tip jar. Many thanks!







Categories: Uncategorized

The Real Problem …

The REAL Fukushima Danger

by WashingtonsBlog (September 14 2013)

The fact that the Fukushima reactors have been leaking huge amounts of radioactive water ever since the 2011 earthquake is certainly newsworthy.  As are the facts that:

* Tepco doesn’t know how to stop the leaks

* Scientists have no idea where the cores of the nuclear reactors are

* Radiation could hit Korea, China and the West Coast of North America fairly hard

But the real problem is that the idiots who caused this mess are probably about to cause a much bigger problem.

Specifically, the greatest short-term threat to humanity is from the fuel pools at Fukushima.

If one of the pools collapsed or caught fire, it could have severe adverse impacts not only on Japan … but the rest of the world, including the United States.   Indeed, a Senator called it a national security concern for the US:

The radiation caused by the failure of the spent fuel pools in the event of another earthquake could reach the West Coast within days. That absolutely makes the safe containment and protection of this spent fuel a security issue for the United States.

Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen and physician Helen Caldicott have both said that people should evacuate the Northern Hemisphere if one of the Fukushima fuel pools collapses. Gundersen said:

Move south of the equator if that ever happened, I think that’s probably the lesson there.

Former UN adviser Akio Matsumura calls removing the radioactive materials from the Fukushima fuel pools “an issue of human survival”.

So the stakes in decommissioning the fuel pools are high, indeed.

But in two months, Tepco – the knuckleheads who caused the accident – are going to start doing this very difficult operation on their own.

The New York Times reports:

Thousands of workers and a small fleet of cranes are preparing for one of the latest efforts to avoid a deepening environmental disaster that has China and other neighbors increasingly worried: removing spent fuel rods from the damaged Number Four reactor building and storing them in a safer place.

The Telegraph notes:

Tom Snitch, a senior professor at the University of Maryland and with more than thirty years’ experience in nuclear issues, said  “[Japan officials] need to address the real problems, the spent fuel rods in Unit Four and the leaking pressure vessels“, he said. “There has been too much work done wiping down walls and duct work in the reactors for any other reason then to do something … This is a critical global issue and Japan must step up”.

The Japan Times writes:

In November, Tepco plans to begin the delicate operation of removing spent fuel from Reactor Number Four [with] radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb … It remains vulnerable to any further shocks, and is also at risk from ground liquefaction. Removing its spent fuel, which contains deadly plutonium, is an urgent task … The consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere, putting much of Japan  –  including Tokyo and Yokohama  –  and even neighboring countries at serious risk.

CNBC points out:

The radioactive leak at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant is far from under control and could get a lot worse, a nuclear energy expert, who compiles the annual “World Nuclear Industry Status Report” warned.

The big danger – and it was identified by Japan’s atomic energy commission – is if you lose water in one of the spent fuel pools and you get a spent fuel fire.

CNN reports:

[Mycle Schneider, nuclear consultant:]  The situation could still get a lot worse. A massive spent fuel fire would likely dwarf the current dimensions of the catastrophe and could exceed the radioactivity releases of Chernobyl dozens of times. First, the pool walls could leak beyond the capacity to deliver cooling water or a reactor building could collapse following one of the hundred  of aftershocks. Then, the fuel cladding could ignite spontaneously releasing its entire radioactive inventory.

Reuters notes:

The operator of Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant is preparing to remove 400 tons of highly irradiated spent fuel from a damaged reactor building, a dangerous operation that has never been attempted before on this scale.

Containing radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima 68 years ago, more than 1,300 used fuel rod assemblies packed tightly together need to be removed from a building that is vulnerable to collapse, should another large earthquake hit the area.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) is already in a losing battle to stop radioactive water overflowing from another part of the facility, and experts question whether it will be able to pull off the removal of all the assemblies successfully.

“They are going to have difficulty in removing a significant number of the rods”, said Arnie Gundersen, a veteran US nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education, who used to build fuel assemblies.

The operation, beginning this November at the plant’s Reactor Number Four, is fraught with danger, including the possibility of a large release of radiation if a fuel assembly breaks, gets stuck or gets too close to an adjacent bundle, said Gundersen and other nuclear experts.

That could lead to a worse disaster than the March 2011 nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant, the world’s most serious since Chernobyl in 1986.

No one knows how bad it can get, but independent consultants Mycle Schneider and Antony Froggatt said recently in their World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2013: “Full release from the Unit Four spent fuel pool, without any containment or control, could cause by far the most serious radiological disaster to date”.

The utility says it recognizes the operation will be difficult but believes it can carry it out safely.

Nonetheless, Tepco inspires little confidence. Sharply criticized for failing to protect the Fukushima plant against natural disasters, its handling of the crisis since then has also been lambasted.

The process will begin in November and Tepco expects to take about a year removing the assemblies, spokesman Yoshikazu Nagai told Reuters by e-mail. It’s just one installment in the decommissioning process for the plant forecast to take about forty years and cost $11 billion.

Each fuel rod assembly weighs about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) and is 4.5 meters (fifteen feet) long. There are 1,331 of the spent fuel assemblies and a further 202 unused assemblies are also stored in the pool, Nagai said.

Spent fuel rods also contain plutonium, one of the most toxic substances in the universe, that gets formed during the later stages of a reactor core’s operation.

“There is a risk of an inadvertent criticality if the bundles are distorted and get too close to each other”, Gundersen said.

He was referring to an atomic chain reaction that left unchecked could result in a large release of radiation and heat that the fuel pool cooling system isn’t designed to absorb.

“The problem with a fuel pool criticality is that you can’t stop it. There are no control rods to control it”, Gundersen said. “The spent fuel pool cooling system is designed only to remove decay heat, not heat from an ongoing nuclear reaction”.

The rods are also vulnerable to fire should they be exposed to air, Gundersen said. [The pools have already boiled due to exposure to air.]

Tepco has shored up the building, which may have tilted and was bulging after the explosion, a source of global concern that has been raised in the US Congress.

The fuel assemblies have to be first pulled from the racks they are stored in, then inserted into a heavy steel chamber. This operation takes place under water before the chamber, which shields the radiation pulsating from the rods, can be removed from the pool and lowered to ground level.

The chamber is then transported to the plant’s common storage pool in an undamaged building where the assemblies will be stored.

[Here is a visual tour of Fukushima’s fuel pools, along with graphics of how the rods will be removed:

Tepco confirmed the Reactor Number Four fuel pool contains debris during an investigation into the chamber earlier this month.

Removing the rods from the pool is a delicate task normally assisted by computers, according to Toshio Kimura, a former Tepco technician, who worked at Fukushima Daiichi for eleven years.

“Previously it was a computer-controlled process that memorized the exact locations of the rods down to the millimeter and now they don’t have that. It has to be done manually so there is a high risk that they will drop and break one of the fuel rods“, Kimura said.

Corrosion from the salt water will have also weakened the building and equipment, he said.

And if an another strong earthquake strikes before the fuel is fully removed that topples the building or punctures the pool and allow the water to drain, a spent fuel fire releasing more radiation than during the initial disaster is possible, threatening about Tokyo 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.

ABC Radio Australia quotes an expert on the situation (at 1:30):

Richard Tanter, expert on nuclear  power issues and professor of international relations at the University of Melbourne:

Reactor Unit Four, the one which has a very large amount of stored fuel in its fuel storage pool, that is sinking. According to former prime Minister Kan Naoto, that has sunk some 31 inches in places and it’s not uneven. This is really not surprising given what’s happened in terms of pumping of water, the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami, the continuing infusions of water into the groundwater area. This is an immediate problem, and if it is not resolved there is an extraordinary possibility we really could be back at March 2011 again because of the possibility of a fission accident in that spent fuel pond in Unit Number Four.

Xinua writes:

Mitsuhei Murata, a former Japanese ambassador to Switzerland has officially called for the withdrawalof Tokyo’s Olympic bid, due to the worsening crisis at Fukushima, which experts believe is not limited to storage tanks, but also potential cracks in the walls of the spent nuclear fuel pools.

Japan Focus points out:

The spent-fuel pool … was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, and is in a deteriorating condition. It remains vulnerable to any further shocks, and is also at risk from ground liquefaction.

If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire.

This is literally a matter of national security – another mistake by Tepco could have incredibly costly, even fatal, consequences for Japan.

Like Pulling Cigarettes Out of a Crumpled Pack

Fuel rod expert Arnie Gundersen – a nuclear engineer and former senior manager of a nuclear power company which manufactured nuclear fuel rods – recently explained the biggest problem with the fuel rods (at 15:45):

I think they’re belittling the complexity of the task. If you think of a nuclear fuel rack as a pack of cigarettes, if you pull a cigarette straight up it will come out  –  but these racks have been distorted. Now when they go to pull the cigarette straight out, it’s going to likely break and release radioactive cesium and other gases, xenon and krypton, into the air. I suspect come November, December, January we’re going to hear that the building’s been evacuated, they’ve broke a fuel rod, the fuel rod is off-gassing.

I suspect we’ll have more airborne releases as they try to pull the fuel out. If they pull too hard, they’ll snap the fuel. I think the racks have been distorted, the fuel has overheated  –  the pool boiled – and the net effect is that it’s likely some of the fuel will be stuck in there for a long, long time.

In another interview, Gundersen provides additional details (at 31:00):

The racks are distorted from the earthquake  –  oh, by the way, the roof has fallen in, which further distorted the racks.

The net effect is they’ve got the bundles of fuel, the cigarettes in these racks, and as they pull them out, they’re likely to snap a few. When you snap a nuclear fuel rod, that releases radioactivity again, so my guess is, it’s things like krypton-85, which is a gas, cesium will also be released, strontium will be released. They’ll probably have to evacuate the building for a couple of days. They’ll take that radioactive gas and they’ll send it up the stack, up into the air, because xenon can’t be scrubbed, it can’t be cleaned, so they’ll send that radioactive xenon up into the air and purge the building of all the radioactive gases and then go back in and try again.

It’s likely that that problem will exist on more than one bundle. So over the next year or two, it wouldn’t surprise me that either they don’t remove all the fuel because they don’t want to pull too hard, or if they do pull to hard, they’re likely to damage the fuel and cause a radiation leak inside the building.  So that’s problem Number Two in this process, getting the fuel out of Unit Four is a top priority I have, but it’s not going to be easy. Tokyo Electric is portraying this as easy. In a normal nuclear reactor, all of this is done with computers. Everything gets pulled perfectly vertically. Well nothing is vertical anymore, the fuel racks are distorted, it’s all going to have to be done manually. The net effect is it’s a really difficult job. It wouldn’t surprise me if they snapped some of the fuel and they can’t remove it.

And Chris Harris – a, former licensed Senior Reactor Operator and engineer – notes that it doesn’t help that a lot of the rods are in very fragile condition:

Although there are a lot of spent fuel assemblies in there which could achieve criticality  –  there are also 200 new fuel assemblies which have equivalent to a full tank of gas, let’s call it that. Those are the ones most likely to go critical first.

Some pictures that were released recently show that a lot of fuel is damaged, so when they go ahead and put the grapple on it, and they pull it up, it’s going to fall apart. The boreflex has been eaten away; it doesn’t take saltwater very good.

Like Letting a Murderer Perform Brain Surgery On a VIP

What’s the bottom line?

Tepco has an abysmal track record:

* Engineers warned Tepco and the Japanese government many years before the accident that the reactors were seismically unsafe … and that an earthquake could wipe them out

* The Fukushima reactors were fatally damaged before the tsunami hit … the earthquake took them out even before the tidal wave hit

* An official Japanese government investigation concluded that the Fukushima accident was a “man-made” disaster,  caused by “collusion” between government and Tepco and bad reactor design

* Tepco knew right after the 2011 accident that three nuclear reactors had lost containment, that the nuclear fuel had “gone missing”, and that there was in fact no real containment at all.  Tepco has desperately been trying to cover this up for two and a half years … instead pretending that the reactors were in “cold shutdown”

* Tepco just admitted that it’s known for two years that massive amounts of radioactive water are leaking into the groundwater and Pacific Ocean

* Tepco – with no financial incentive to actually fix things – has only been pretending to clean it up. And see this:

* Tepco’s recent attempts to solidify the ground under the reactors using chemicals has backfired horribly.  And NBC News notes: “[Tepco] is considering freezing the ground around the plant. Essentially building a mile-long ice wall underground, something that’s never been tried before to keep the water out. One scientist I spoke to dismissed this idea as grasping at straws, just more evidence that the power company failed to anticipate this problem … and now cannot solve it.”

Letting Tepco remove the fuel rods is like letting a convicted murderer perform delicate brain surgery on a VIP.

Top scientists and government officials say that Tepco should be removed from all efforts to stabilize Fukushima.   An international team of the smartest engineers and scientists should handle this difficult “surgery”.

The stakes are high …


The original version of this article, at the URL below, contains numerous links to further information not included here.

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