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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since March 2011

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Meltdowns Grow More Likely at the Fukushima Reactors

March 13, 2011 ·

Japan's government and nuclear industry, with assistance from the U.S. military, is in a desperate race to stave off multiple nuclear reactor meltdowns — as well as potential fires in pools of spent fuel.

As of Sunday afternoon, more than 170,000 people have been evacuated near the reactor sites as radioactive releases have increased. The number of military emergency responders has jumped from 51,000 to 100,000. Officials now report a partial meltdown at Fukushima's Unit 1. Japanese media outlets are reporting that there may be a second one underway at Unit 3. People living nearby have been exposed to unknown levels of radiation, with some requiring medical attention.

Meanwhile, Unit 2 of the Tokai nuclear complex, which is near Kyodo and just 75 miles north of Tokyo, is reported to have a coolant pump failure. And Japan's nuclear safety agency has declared a state of emergency at the Onagawa nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan because of high radiation levels. Authorities are saying its three reactors are "under control."

The damage from the massive earthquake and the tsunamis that followed have profoundly damaged the reactor sites' infrastructure, leaving them without power and their electrical and piping systems destroyed. A hydrogen explosion yesterday at Unit 1 severely damaged the reactor building, blowing apart its roof.

The results of desperate efforts to divert seawater into the Unit 1 reactor are uncertain. A Japanese official reported that gauges don't appear to show the water level rising in the reactor vessel.

There remain a number of major uncertainties about the situation's stability and many questions about what might happen next. Along with the struggle to cool the reactors is the potential danger from an inability to cool Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel pools. They contain very large concentrations of radioactivity, can catch fire, and are in much more vulnerable buildings. The ponds, typically rectangular basins about 40 feet deep, are made of reinforced concrete walls four to five feet thick lined with stainless steel.

The boiling-water reactors at Fukushima — 40 years old and designed by General Electric — have spent fuel pools several stories above ground adjacent to the top of the reactor. The hydrogen explosion may have blown off the roof covering the pool, as it's not under containment. The pool requires water circulation to remove decay heat. If this doesn't happen, the water will evaporate and possibly boil off. If a pool wall or support is compromised, then drainage is a concern. Once the water drops to around 5-6 feet above the assemblies, dose rates could be life-threatening near the reactor building. If significant drainage occurs, after several hours the zirconium cladding around the irradiated uranium could ignite.

Then all bets are off.

On average, spent fuel ponds hold five-to-ten times more long-lived radioactivity than a reactor core. Particularly worrisome is the large amount of cesium-137 in fuel ponds, which contain anywhere from 20 to 50 million curies of this dangerous radioactive isotope. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium-137 gives off highly penetrating radiation and is absorbed in the food chain as if it were potassium.

In comparison, the 1986 Chernobyl accident released about 40 percent of the reactor core’s 6 million curies. A 1997 report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by Brookhaven National Laboratory also found that a severe pool fire could render about 188 square miles uninhabitable, cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities, and cost $59 billion in damage. A single spent fuel pond holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined. Earthquakes and acts of malice are considered to be the primary events that can cause a major loss of pool water.

In 2003, my colleagues and I published a study that indicated if a spent fuel pool were drained in the United States, a major release of cesium-137 from a pool fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than created by the Chernobyl accident. We recommended that spent fuel older than five years, about 75 percent of what's in U.S. spent fuel pools, be placed in dry hardened casks — something Germany did 25 years ago. The NRC challenged our recommendation, which prompted Congress to request a review of this controversy by the National Academy of Sciences. In 2004, the Academy reported that a "partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."

Given what's happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, it's time for a serious review of what our nuclear safety authorities consider to be improbable, especially when it comes to reactors operating in earthquake zones.

On the Brink of Meltdown: The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

March 11, 2011 ·

In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, 5,800 residents living within five miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.

Plant operators haven't been able to cool down the core of one reactor containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling. In a race against time, the power company and the Japanese military are flying in nine emergency generators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that the U.S. Air Force has provided cooling water for the troubled reactor. Complicating matters, Japan's Meteorological Agency has declared the area to be at high risk of being hit by a tsunami.

The plant was operating at full power when the quake hit and even though control rods were automatically inserted to halt the nuclear reaction, the reactor core remains very hot. Even with a fully functioning emergency core cooling system, it would take several hours for the reactor core to cool and stabilize. If emergency cooling isn't restored, the risks of a core melt, and release of radioactivity into the environment is significantly increased. Also, it's not clear if piping and electrically distribution systems inside the plant have been damaged. If so, that would interfere with reactor cooling.

A senior U.S. nuclear power technician tells me the window of time before serious problems arise is between 12 and 24 hours.

Early on, Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation had been released. However, because the reactor remains at a very high temperature, radiation levels are rising on the turbine building – forcing to plant operators to vent radioactive steam into the environment.

The devastating Japanese quake and its outcome could generate a political tsunami here in the United States. For instance, it may become impossible for the owners of the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operating licenses.

These two California reactors are sitting in high seismic risk zones near earthquake faults. Each is designed to withstand a quake as great as 7.5 on the Richter scale. According to many seismologists, the probability of a major earthquake in the California coastal zone in the foreseeable future is a near certainty. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the largest registering 8.3 on the Richter scale devastated San Francisco in 1906.

"There have been tremblers felt at U.S. plants over the past several years, but nothing approaching the need for emergency action," Scott Burnell, a spokesman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Reuters.

As the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe approaches next month, Japan's earthquake serve as a reminder that the risks of nuclear power, when things go seriously wrong. The Chernobyl accident required nearly a million emergency responders and cleanup workers. More than 100,000 residents from 187 settlements were permanently evacuated because of radioactive contamination. And area an equal to half of the State of New Jersey was rendered uninhabitable.

Fortunately, U.S. and Japanese reactors have extra measures of protection that were lacking at Chernobyl, such as a secondary concrete containment structure over the reactor vessel to prevent escape of radioactivity. In 1979, the containment structure at the Three Mile Island reactor did prevent the escape of a catastrophic amount of radioactivity after the core melted. But people living nearby were exposed to higher levels of radiation from the accident and deliberate venting to stabilize the reactor. With one hour, the multi-billion dollar investment in that plant went down the drain.

Meanwhile, let's hope that the core of the Japanese reactor can be cooled in time. We shouldn't need yet another major nuclear power accident to wake up the public and decision-makers to the fact that there are better and much safer ways to make electricity.

Europe Takes the Lead in Drive to Tax Speculators

March 10, 2011 ·

Protestors in Germany advocating for the Robin Hood TaxHigh-speed rail, universal health care, quality cheese. Let's face it — the Europeans often leave us Yanks way behind. And now they appear on track again, with solid progress this week towards adopting an innovative proposal to pay for the costs of the global economic crisis.

On March 8, the European Parliament voted 360-299 in favor of introducing financial transactions taxes, tiny levies on trades of stocks, derivatives, currency, and other financial instruments. The proposal could generate an estimated $200 billion per year in revenue for European governments to channel into job creation and other urgent needs. At the same time, it would discourage the type of risky, short-term speculation that got us into this economic mess in the first place.

What's most astounding is that the tax proposal sailed through despite the European Parliament's strong right-wing majority. Yes, there are still places in the world where folks from across the political spectrum can have a rational discussion about fair taxation.

The vote came after more than a year of global advocacy by labor union, anti-poverty, environmental, and other citizens groups. On February 17, activists in 25 countries carried out a Global Day of Action. See this video and this map to get a sense of the breadth of this campaign, from Nepal to Mexico in the global South and from Canada to Japan in the North. German activists staged one of the most elaborate publicity stunts. They dressed up as glamorous Robin Hoods and Maid Marians to crash the Berlinale film festival, arriving in a white limousine and then parading down their own red carpet.

While the message seems to be getting through in Europe, U.S. activists have not had much luck. While not publicly offering much of an explanation, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has reportedly consistently dismissed the idea at G-20 meetings. A WikiLeaks cable from 2009 revealed that then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was deeply frustrated by Geithner's opposition.

This week's vote signaled that many key European leaders are no longer willing to let the Obama administration hold them back. The Parliament's resolution calls on the EU to adopt transactions taxes, regardless of whether the United States or other major economies take similar action.

On the bright side, the United States doesn't appear to be actively trying to block European progress. This is a pretty big deal, considering that President Barack Obama stacked his European embassies with former financial executives (e.g., former Citigroup Vice Chair Louis Susman in London and former Goldman Sachs executive Philip D. Murphy in Berlin) and the Wall Street lobby would no doubt love the administration's help in preventing what for them would be an unnerving precedent.

The campaign for Europe to pioneer financial transactions taxes is, however, far from over. The European Parliament has clout as a directly elected body, but it does not have binding authority over taxation matters. National governments will make the final decision, and while heavyweights Germany and France are strongly in favor, there are some problematic holdouts, namely Italy and the UK. The European Commission, the civil service for the EU, is also not yet convinced.

Nevertheless, according to Owen Tudor, Head of International Relations for the UK's Trade Union Confederation, the European Parliament vote broke a big logjam. One of the main obstacles, Tudor says, "has been the buck-passing of world leaders, who are always looking for someone else to make the first move, or for everyone else to agree before they will. Apart from the clear failure to understand what the word 'leader' actually means, this is almost always only an excuse for inaction, which lets the financial sector off the hook while public services are slashed, the poor get poorer and the world heats up."

More than 20 years after Europeans could zip along on bullet-speed trains, Americans are still stuck on bumpy railways or clogged freeways. The Obama administration recently announced plans to expand U.S. investment in high-speed rail. It's also high time for them to get on board the international campaign to tax the speculators, in part as a way to pay for things like transportation infrastructure. Otherwise, this could well be one more area where we'll be stuck in the slow lane for years to come.

Wisconsin Union Struggle Is All Too Familiar for Excluded Workers

March 10, 2011 ·

In the midst of an economic crisis that has shaken the foundations of our society, creating massive unemployment that's unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers are battling proposals to cut more jobs; restrict or destroy collective bargaining rights; revoke "prevailing wage" laws; terminate union negotiated contracts; remove required binding arbitration; and prevent unions from collecting dues from their members.

These attacks come with a sharp, racist edge — targeting a sector where more than 1 in 5 black workers are employed.

The Excluded Workers Congress represents nine sectors of the U.S. workforce, including domestic workers, farm workers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day laborers, guestworkers, workers from Southern right-to-work states, workfare workers, and formerly incarcerated workers. We know very well what life is like without a union contract.

In some southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, collective bargaining is already banned outright for public sector workers. Farm work, one of the most dangerous occupations in the US in terms of workplace injuries and exposure to toxins, is legally excluded from OSHA, among other protections. Household workers, like nannies, housekeepers, and even caregivers for the elderly and disabled, are similarly excluded from the right to organize, overtime protections, and OSHA. Guestworkers, who come to the United States on work visas, not only lack the right to organize for workplace protections, but face deportation and retaliation if they speak out against violations and abuse. And workfare employees aren't even considered workers in many places.

The right to organize and bargain collectively is the basic human right to pool our individual power into a unified voice that's strong enough to stand up against unfair or abusive workplaces and to ensure fair pay and benefits. When workers are denied their most basic right to bargain collectively, rampant abuse and exploitation are inevitable.

We know this because it's already our reality.

The struggle of Wisconsin's workers has emerged as an international emblem, though worker rights are under attack across the nation. Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey, among other state governments, are using a trumped-up argument about supposed "budget shortfalls" to justify stripping workers of their human right to organize and bargain collectively. Closing tax loopholes, ensuring that the wealthy pay their fair share, and ending Wall Street bailouts are clear alternatives, but the wealthy aren't being asked to sacrifice.

Teachers, firefighters, bus drivers, and millions more are being put on trial for the crimes of investment bankers, hedge-fund managers and the corporate executives who have actually made money on the backs of the laid off, foreclosed on workers.

Scapegoating workers for the budget shortfalls that Wall Street caused diverts attention from solutions that would require sacrifice from wealthy individuals and corporations. We reject the argument that good jobs paying a living wage — those with pensions and benefits, are unfair since some workers don't have them. Rather than race to the bottom, where no one has rights, why shouldn't we work together to ensure that everyone does? As excluded workers, we stand in solidarity with public sector unions under attack in Wisconsin and across the country, even while we are still fighting for the most basic workplace protections and recognition for ourselves.

Tiffany Williams is the advocacy director of Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies, and an advisor to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Erica Smiley is the southern regional organizer for Jobs with Justice. More information on the Excluded Workers Congress is on our website www.excludedworkers.org.

Name This Moment

March 8, 2011 ·

In two short months, we've seen two dictators leave power and the tide of the Tea Party movement begin to turn. Young people are connecting using new forms of communication and stating that the ideals of solidarity and government of the people are very present in today’s world.

In the Institute's Unconventional Wisdom newsletter, we asked readers to send us their suggestions as to what they would call the current period of democratic demonstrations by young people and workers across North Africa, the Middle East, and in far-away but not unrelated Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks to those who sent your comments like Maynard Riley (“Middle Class Insurrection”) and Benedetta Camarota (“Jasmine Revolutions”). On the ground in Egypt, what began as the January 25 Revolution is also being called the 18-Day Revolution or Egypt's Youth Revolution. In Tunisia, they are calling it the Sidi Bouzid Revolt, after the city where protests began.

We discussed a number of suggestions and puns from IPS staff. Among them were Pharaoh-less / Fearless Uprising, The Great Neocon Refudiation, and the The time of Democracy -- Whatever It Means!

Some of my favorites were Democracy 2.0 and The Great Uprising. Truly, the impact of social media tools has made a difference and allowed grassroots organizers to maximize the support of massive protesters. Another one I liked was Democracy Spring. Millions of people are springing into democratic action, refusing to be subjects to the cynical rule of tyrants and choosing to believe that a better world is possible.

Still, we don’t know where this moment is going. The movements for democracy aren't over, and with the situation escalating in Libya, the geopolitical implications for the region and the world are barely beginning to become clear. But we know one thing; we're living through times of change across the world. Regardless of all the monikers we can come up with, the resounding voice of democracy is a refreshing one in our work to continue working for peace, justice, and the environment. 

Unconventional Wisdom, the Institute for Policy Studies newsletter, is delivered by email every two weeks. It includes highlights of our work, commentary, and media appearances. Sign up to get this great service.

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