Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Can't Compete With Whom? GE Screwed Japan on Reactors? Big Profits/Cheap Products Country: The Embarrassments of Empire & Nuclear Fires Rage in Japan

(Re: Crooks & Liars, March 16, 2011 - "The skeleton crew of workers has now been evacuated from the Fukushima nuclear plant because radiation levels are so dangerously high")

Having just recently read Amy Chua's book on the "tiger mother," I felt a personal tug when I read the following essay. It concerns us all. Although I am not a religious person, I feel a spiritual connection with each struggling person (rich or poor) and think that studying history and philosophy will teach us valid lessons about how to bear our burdens and plan for the future wisely.

. . . a recent study of developed nations by the International Monetary Fund ranked America near the bottom in income inequality, food security, life expectancy at birth, and level of incarcerated population; all of which reflect the scandalous lot of the poor. Yet the reaction to the recent economic crises from many quarters has been to slash the safety net that keeps such inequalities from being even worse.
I'm constantly reminded now of my lectures to the business classes I taught prior to and immediately after 9/11/2001, about their place in the world and what they intended to do with their lives in order to better it, leave it be or make it worse. I was regularly poo-pooed and thought ridiculous at the time for using this educational tactic to increase their sensitivity to their plans for the future and their vision of their place in the country's future. Today, it seems that I might have been on to something. (Emphasis marks and some editing was inserted - Ed.)

“Waiting on the World to Change” Me and all my friends, we’re all misunderstood They say we stand for nothing and there’s no way we ever could Now we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and those who lead it

We just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it . . . It’s not that we don’t care, we just know that the fight ain’t fair So we keep on waiting — waiting on the world to change. “Waiting” has been called the anthem for a generation, but crystallized within its pretty melodies is a sad and mysterious impotence. The American young adult is powerless while the average Egyptian’s salary is roughly $2000 per year? The Egyptian educational system is far less developed than America’s, and the opportunities for young people are far less numerous. So for young Egyptians fighting Mubarak’s rule, the fight really wasn’t fair. But Mayer and his friends “don’t have the means” to rise above? It seems to me that the song’s one false statement is that they “see everything that’s going wrong.” Either they don’t see, or they don’t honestly think the problems in America are worth challenging.

America has some serious problems; a recent study of developed nations by the International Monetary Fund ranked America near the bottom in income inequality, food security, life expectancy at birth, and level of incarcerated population; all of which reflect the scandalous lot of the poor. Yet the reaction to the recent economic crises from many quarters has been to slash the safety net that keeps such inequalities from being even worse.

Any American could worry about these problems, but being the parent of two preschool-age children brings the questions home in a special way: How is America really doing? And specifically, how are we doing at raising generations who see problems clearly and have the guts to take a stand? Kids are growing up in schools so concerned about their self esteem that they cannot set meaningful standards. They have easy access to more information than any generation has even dreamed of but it swirls around them so thickly that they can hardly sift it, and their endless “entertainment” options allow them to ignore it all anyway.

Even as I start my daughter in a public kindergarten next year, I’m troubled by what I see as a lack of deeper purpose in our country’s education systems. Obama says that we have a mandate to “win the future,” which apparently means beating China or whatever the next great power may be. We have a national fixation on China; it’s not a coincidence that the scolding of Amy Chua, the self-professed “Chinese Tiger Mom,” about the weak parenting philosophy of middle-class Western parents, touched off waves of self-flagellation on the one hand and defensive rage on the other. Our national results might be interpreted to indicate that our parents and schools don’t know what they’re doing or that we’re inferior to the Chinese; if so, that judgment would be a knife twisting in our sides.

However, there’s an odd emptiness at the center of both Obama’s and Chua’s exhortations. What Chua’s philosophy boiled down to is: Be the best, kick all those lazy kids’ butts. But if winning itself is not enough motivation (if the answer to life is not being honored by playing Carnegie Hall and getting the high-paying, prestigious job), it’s not clear what sort of motivation there would be. Similarly, if you’re not innately inspired to want to kick China’s butt, if you ask why?, you are likely to be met with blank stares at best, and accusations of insufficient patriotism at worst. Let me tip my hand. As someone who has lived and traveled all over the world, I find jingoistic calls to defeat other countries (whether militarily or economically) to ring very hollow. My wife is Chinese; if China conquers America, we’ll make our way in the new order. I teach Semitic languages; if some Middle Eastern country won the “culture war,” I’d work on my Arabic. I like America and wouldn’t choose to live elsewhere permanently, but I’m a human being and a Christian before I’m an American.

Since I teach biblical studies, I began musing: What does the Bible say about formation of character, whether national or personal? It says rather a lot of things, of course, but these recent events got me thinking specifically about the formation of community and ethics in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is, among other things, a book about national formation through covenant with God — not only a one-time covenant, but a covenant that is to be remembered and renewed so that it can continue to shape the people. The idea of remembrance is central to the book’s message, and there is an educational aspect to that: The one who shares in the covenant is supposed to make known the ways and ordinances of God to later generations so that they remember as well. One striking thing about the content of the tradition is its humility. We might expect a nation’s founding stories to be of glory and victory, but Deuteronomy wants the people to remember something different: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt . . .” The focus isn’t just that the Lord rescued them, but that the experience of slavery itself is supposed to affect the way they treat the less powerful among them. For example, they are to give children, slaves, foreigners, and even livestock each their sabbath rest. For the same reason, they are not to oppress the widow and the orphan, and they are to leave them the gleanings. Even a garment fairly taken as a pledge has to be returned by sunset so that the neighbor can rest comfortably. The parallels with ancient Near-Eastern laws show that these are common concerns, but in Israel such commandments were narrativized in a way that they were not, elsewhere: the exhortations carry motive clauses that appeal to the Israelites’ own experience of hardship. Some of the politicians who advocate for slashing the safety net came from poor backgrounds themselves, John Boehner being the most visible example. Do they remember that their parents were little better than “slaves in America”? The disparity between Deuteronomy’s commandments and those that one might extract from their policies could scarcely be more stark. The new right-wing bible reads:

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of America, so be sure to extract every dollar from your operations so that you don’t end up as one again.”

At a personal level, the Bible warns that this sort of gain is short-lived—a “greed bubble,” if you will: “One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor.” And: “the good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” But the warnings to the whole nation are similarly stern: The people are told to “put these words of mine in your heart and soul… and teach them to your children... so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land.” If not, “curses will come upon you,” and the rest of ch. 28 graphically describes them. Essentially, the Bible advocates that Israel must embrace a moral sustainability akin to the ecological sustainability to that we moderns think more about.

Could Americans wake up and embrace this kind of moral sustainability?

I don't take his assumptions about what to do to achieve this goal to heart as I believe that although sharing the burden of repairing the system is a good thing in and of itself, it is really those on top who caused this financial trauma and benefitted magnificently from it that should be penalized and taxed heavily anew to solve it, but his overall philosophy is appealing. _ _ _ _ _ _ _ And speaking of philosophy, Bob Reich has a few words about that problem (and if you like the results, just put Cheney in your prayers if he's not at the forefront there already):

Safety On the Cheap Can we please agree that in the real world corporations exist for one purpose, and one purpose only — to make as much money as possible, which means cutting costs as much as possible? The New York Times reports that G.E. marketed the Mark 1 boiling water reactors, used in TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, as cheaper to build than other reactors because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

Yet American safety officials have long thought the smaller design more vulnerable to explosion and rupture in emergencies than competing designs. (By the way, the same design is used in 23 American nuclear reactors at 16 plants.) In the mid-1980s, Harold Denton, then an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Mark 1 reactors had a 90 percent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident. A follow-up report from a study group convened by the Commission concluded that “Mark 1 failure within the first few hours following core melt would appear rather likely.” Sound familiar? The National Commission appointed to investigate the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last April recently concluded that BP failed to adequately supervise Halliburton Company’s work on installing the well. This was the case even though BP knew Halliburton lacked experience testing cement to prevent blowouts and hadn’t performed adequately before on a similar job. In short: Neither company bothered to spend the money to ensure adequate testing of the cement. Nor did Massey Energy spend the money needed to ensure its mines were safe. And so on. Don’t get me wrong. No company can be expected to build a nuclear reactor, an oil well, a coal mine, or anything else that’s one hundred percent safe under all circumstances. The costs would be prohibitive. It’s unreasonable to expect corporations to totally guard against small chances of every potential accident. Inevitably there’s a tradeoff. Reasonable precaution means spending as much on safety as the probability of a particular disaster occurring, multiplied by its likely harm to human beings and the environment if it does occur. Here’s the problem. Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms. This is why it’s necessary to have such things as government regulators, why regulators must be independent of the industries they regulate, and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations. It’s also why the public in every nation is endangered if the political clout of its biggest corporations — BP, Halliburton, Massey, G.E., or TEPCO — grows too large.

And it's all Obama's fault, is it? I guess Raygun's installation of these dictators while his funders' companies were taking over their national resources was just accidental? Notice how each new shockwave completely replaces the last in the public's imagination? Yes, Egypt is still being taken over by the military, not the "freedom fighters" (and Haiti's still in ruins). So, are we represented by the wrong man (at least the wrong man at this time)?

The Embarrassments of Empire David Bromwich Professor of Literature at Yale March 10, 2011 We have supported a succession of military strongmen in Egypt going as far back as 1952, when the CIA judged Gamal Abdel Nasser a plausible bulwark against Communism. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.3 billion annually in aid (mostly military). Of all our clients, only Israel gets more, at $3 billion annually. The view in Washington has long been that those two nations will oversee “the neighborhood” on our behalf. That is why a nonviolent insurgency on the West Bank, if it should occur, would meet as baffled a response from Washington as the February days in Egypt. The embarrassment is part of the situation. A fair surmise is that Obama was no less confusing in private than in public; that when he spoke to Mubarak, his words were muffled and decorous: "You must begin leaving, but I will never desert you" - something like that. The difference between Mubarak's shakiness in his first televised speech to the country and his evident composure in his second speech may well be explained by a signal that he took for an assurance. I will never desert you, one recalls, is the message that Barack Obama conveyed to Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (when Obama was still a candidate); to the banks and financial firms (in February 2009); to Dick Cheney and the torture lawyers (in his National Archives Speech of May 2009); to General David Petraeus (in the months preceding the 2009 administration review of the Afghan War); to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak (in the summer of 2009); and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (in February 2011). The need to give assurance seems to be an inseparable trait of Obama’s character. He deals with big decisions by first moving to cement a secure alliance with the powers-that-be, no matter how discredited they are, no matter how resounding his previous contempt for them may have been. Yet this is a reflex that often prematurely cedes control to the powerful over whom he might otherwise be in a position to exert leverage. That fight, however, is not for him. To say it another way, Obama visibly hates crisis. He is so averse to the very idea of instability that he seems unable to use a crisis to his advantage. Seldom, to judge by the evidence thus far, is he the first, second, or third person in the room to recognize that a state of crisis exists. The hesitation that looked like apathy and the hyper-managerial tone of his response to the BP oil spill offered a vivid illustration of this trait. Egypt brought out the same pattern. How did the statements and actions of the president and his advisers strike Egyptian demonstrators who were risking their lives for freedom? A February 6th story in the New York Times by Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler, and Anthony Shadid concluded that “the moves amounted to a rebuff to the protesters,” and added that this was the way things looked to those in Tahrir Square:

“By emphasizing the need for a gradual transition, only days after emphasizing that change there must begin immediately, the Obama administration was viewed as shifting away from the protesters in the streets and toward stronger backing for Mr. Mubarak’s hand-picked elite.”

To capture the zig-zag path of American policy over the 18 days before Mubarak fell is not an easy task; but it is fair to say that the administration went from thinking the protests signified next to nothing, to pleading for an orderly transition, to emphasizing the necessary slowness of an orderly transition, to upbraiding Mubarak for so obviously standing in place, to rejoicing at the triumph of liberty. All this, in the course of just over two weeks. Why could the U.S. not speak with a single voice? We say the word “democracy” and invoke its prestige with such careless fluency that we are surprised when we see its face. But here, the embarrassment was not only public and diplomatic, it was also personal and sentimental.

A dictator through long acquaintance may become a familiar and comforting associate. In the second week of February, it emerged that Wisner’s law firm, Patton Boggs, had handled arbitration and litigation on behalf of Mubarak’s government, and that Secretary of State Clinton had said as recently as March 2009: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.”

Well, what the heck. For a very long while, so did all of us.

And it continues.

Smoke Billows from Reactor 3 at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant; Workers Evacuated The smoke seen rising above from Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear power planet is believed to be emanating from reactor Unit 3, according to the Japanese government's chief spokesperson Yukio Edano who just completed a press conference moments ago. Due to high radiation levels, all workers were evacuated from the plant, and all work suspended for a time. [Update: Reuters now confirms that workers were allowed back in after radiation levels fell, as we'd originally reported.]

Edano said that at approximately 8:30am local time, white smoke began coming out of the No. 3 reactor, but that the joint task force between the government and the plant's operators, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), are still trying to determine the cause. It's believed the smoke is actually vapor coming from a rupture in the reactor's containment vessel, he said. Steam was to be let out to allow workers to pump in more sea water in hopes of keeping the reactor cool.

Earlier today there were reports of rising radiation levels near the gate of the facility, leading to the evacuation of all workers at the plant, leaving no one to fight the fire. Last night, all but 50 workers had been evacuated after an explosion at Unit 2 and a fire at Unit 4 (which had been off-line for maintenance prior to last Friday's earthquake and tsunami, and storing spent fuel rods in a pool which may have caught fire.) While workers had suspended operations, radiation levels have since begun to decrease, Edano said. They have now returned to continuing pumping sea water into Units 1, 2 and 3 in the ongoing attempts to cool down the reactors' fuel rods following failure of their emergency cooling systems. At the same time, TEPCO released a photograph of the damage at the reactor Unit 4 building following the explosion there on Sunday . . . Concerning reports of the possibility of using helicopters to spray water on the reactors, Edano said there were "risks" associated with adding great amounts of water at once, as well as concerns about the safety of the helicopter units. He said that experts were still considering that as an option, however, if it became necessary, but they hoped to continue supplying water slowly from the ground instead. As of 10:54am, he said, the radiation levels had "been coming down rapidly." A reporter asked if the government might seek protective gear from the U.S. Military, and Edano replied that they are considering offers of help from them and other countries and that, according to the NHK World translator, "We might need the help of the U.S. Military." On Sunday, after passing through a radioactive plume, the USS Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Pacific 7th Fleet, off shore for support in Japan, announced they would be repositioning to avoid further exposure. Earlier today, there were reports of a fire at Unit 4, which had been off-line for maintenance prior to the earthquake and tsunami on Friday. Spent fuel rods are currently being stored at the No. 4 reactor which also caught fire yesterday and then, reportedly self-extinguished shortly thereafter. The fire there earlier today was also reported to have gone out by itself about 30 minutes after it flared up, as radiation levels were too high to allow fire fighters access to the facility. The smoke seen billowing in the screen shot above, from NHK's live streaming video, is being shot by NHK's helicopter 30km's away. Last night, as we covered it live here, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan asked for calm while expanding the evacuation zone around Fukushima to 20km, and asked those inside the 20 and 30km zone to stay indoors and close all doors and windows. He said that the radiation levels had risen along with yesterday's fire at Unit 4 to levels that were dangerous to human health. Later, at the same press conference, Edano had said the radiation level had dropped, but that Units 5 and 6 (which had also been offline for maintenance) were also beginning to warm up. The plant's 800 man crew was evacuated last night, leaving just 50 behind to manage the crisis at four, and now possibly all six, reactors at the Daiichi facility. That crew of 50 has, according to our best understanding of Edano's press conference tonight, suspended all operation at the plant until radiation measurements returned to an acceptable level. They have since, reportedly, returned to the crippled plant to continue their fight against ever growing concerns of a full meltdown of the fuel rods in any of the reactor units.


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