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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 April 2012

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Charles Taylor Found Guilty of War Crimes -- Emira Woods Available for Comment

April 26, 2012 ·

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been found guilty of 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity this morning by an international court at The Hague. Emira Woods, an Institute for Policy Studies expert originally from Liberia, is available for interviews on the case.

"The long-awaited verdict of the Special Court brings some measure of justice to a region ripped apart by brutality, greed, and proxy geopolitical actors" Woods said.

Taylor was accused of 11 charges, ranging from murder, rape, and sexual violence to the recruitment and use of child soldiers in a long and bloodied war in Liberia’s neighbor Sierra Leone. Taylor was charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a court established before the International Criminal Court was formed.

“Taylor’s case is associated with many firsts," Woods said. "He is the first head of state to have escaped from a U.S. medium-security prison. He is the first head of state to publically refuse to sign an imbalanced rubber concession agreement with Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He was the first sitting head of state to be brought on charges for international crimes against humanity. And now, he is the first head of state since World War II to have been convicted of war crimes by an international criminal court."
 
Taylor was key leader in a machinery of repression that killed 50,000 Sierra Leoneans and amputated the limbs of tens of thousands more, mostly civilians.

Reporters/journalists seeking to contact Ms. Emira Woods for interview, please contact IPS Media Manager Lacy MacAuley at (202) 445-4692 or lacy@ips-dc.org.

The Lineup: Week of April 23-29, 2012

April 23, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Jamin Raskin explains why Romney's choice of Robert Bork as a top advisor is troubling and Martha Burk weighs in on what's at stake for women this election year. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. The War on Mommies / Martha Burk
    We trot out flowers and overdone pancakes every Mother's Day, but the truth is we don't value our mothers enough.
  2. Romney's Borking Strategy / Jamin Raskin
    Romney's choice of a Reagan administration relic for judicial guidance offers a scary glimpse of his plans for America.
  3. An Exit Strategy for Afghanistan / Jim Cason
    The United States can't abandon the country, but our troops must leave.
  4. Immigration is a Human Rights Issue / Carlin Christy
    Millions of lives have been disrupted and torn apart by harsh immigration enforcement practices.
  5. The Freedom to Fear / Donald Kaul
    The only change the Supreme Court's majority believes in is change that takes us back to the 18th century.
  6. Two Heads Aren't Always Better than One / Jim Hightower
    An alarming percentage of the fish found in creeks contaminated by J.R. Simplot's phosphate mining operations in Idaho are grossly deformed.
  7. This Economy Stinks Worse than You Think / William A. Collins
    Too many top economic commentators are drawn from a pool of talking heads and economists who treat the welfare of corporations as a top priority.
  8. Gender Gap / Khalil Bendib

Gender Gap, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Why Fukushima Is a Greater Disaster than Chernobyl and a Warning Sign for the U.S.

April 20, 2012 ·

In the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster, the news media is just beginning to grasp that the dangers to Japan and the rest of the world posed by the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site are far from over.   After repeated warnings by former senior Japanese officials, nuclear experts, and now a U.S. Senator, it is sinking in that the irradiated nuclear fuel stored in spent fuel pools amidst the reactor ruins may have far greater potential offsite consequences  than the molten cores.

After visiting the site recently, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to Japan's ambassador to the U.S. stating that, "loss of containment in any of these pools could result in an even greater release than the initial accident."

This is why:

  • Each pool contains irradiated fuel from several years of operation, making for an extremely large radioactive inventory without a strong containment structure that encloses the  reactor cores;
  • Several  pools are now completely open to the atmosphere because the reactor buildings were  demolished by explosions; they are about 100 feet above ground and could possibly topple or collapse from structural damage coupled with another powerful earthquake; 
  • The loss of water exposing the spent fuel will result in overheating can cause melting and ignite its zirconium metal cladding – resulting in a fire that could deposit large amounts of radioactive materials over hundreds of miles.

Irradiated nuclear fuel, also called "spent fuel," is extraordinarily radioactive.  In a matter of seconds, an unprotected human one foot away from a single freshly removed spent fuel assembly would receive a lethal dose of radiation within seconds. As one of the most dangerous materials in the world, spent reactor fuel poses significant long-term risks, requiring isolation in a geological disposal site that can protect the human environment for tens of thousands of years.

Fukushima's devastation two weeks after the tsunami.It's almost 26 years since the Chernobyl reactor exploded and caught fire releasing enormous amounts of radioactive debris. The Chernobyl accident revealed the folly of not having an extra barrier of thick concrete and steel surrounding the reactor core that is required for modern plants in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. The Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident revealed the folly of storing huge amounts of highly radioactive spent fuel in vulnerable pools, high above the ground.

What both accidents have in common is widespread environmental contamination from cesium-137.  With a half-life of 30, years, Cs-137 gives off penetrating radiation, as it decays.  Once in the environment, it mimics potassium as it accumulates in biota and the human food chain for many decades.  When it enters the human body, about 75 percent lodges in muscle tissue, with perhaps the most important muscle being the heart.  Studies of chronic exposure  to Cs-137 among  the people living near Chernobyl show an alarming rate of heart problems, particularly among children. 

As more information is made available, we now know that the Fukushima Dai-Ichi site is storing 10,833 spent fuel assemblies (SNF) containing roughly 327 million curies of long-lived radioactivity About 132 million curies is cesium-137 or nearly  85 times the amount estimated to have been released at Chernobyl.

The overall problem we face is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Dai-Ichi site is in vulnerable pools in a high risk/consequence earthquake zone. The urgency of the situation is underscored by the ongoing seismic activity around NE Japan in which 13 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 - 5.7 have occurred off the NE coast of Honshu in the last 4 days between 4/14 and 4/17.  This has been the norm since the first quake and tsunami hit the site on March 11th of last year. Larger quakes are expected closer to the power plant.

Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) revealed plans to remove 2,274 spent fuel assemblies from the damaged reactors that will probably take at least a decade to accomplish. The first priority will be removal of the contents in Pool No. 4. This pool is structurally damaged and contains about 10 times more cesium-137 than released at Chernobyl. Removal of SNF from the No. 4 reactor is optimistically expected to begin at the end of 2013. A significant amount of construction to remove, debris and reinforce the structurally-damaged reactor buildings, especially the fuel- handling areas, will be required.

Also, it is not safe to keep 1,882 spent fuel assemblies containing ~57 million curies of long-lived radioactivity, including nearly 15 times more cs-137 than released at Chernobyl  in the elevated pools at reactors 5, 6, and 7, which did not experience melt-downs and explosions.

The main reason why there is so much spent fuel at the Da-Ichi site, is that it was supposed to be sent to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which has experienced 18 lengthy delays throughout its construction history.  Plutonium and uranium was to be extracted from the spent fuel there, with the plutonium to be used as fuel at the Monju fast reactor.

After several decades and billions of dollars, the United States effectively abandoned the "closed" nuclear fuel cycle 30 years ago for cost and nuclear non-proliferation reasons. Over the past 60 years, the history of fast reactors using plutonium is littered with failures the most recent being the Monju project in Japan. Monju was cancelled in November of last year, dealing a fatal blow to the dream of a "closed" nuclear fuel cycle in Japan.
 
The stark reality, if TEPCO's plan is realized, is that nearly all of the spent fuel at the Da-Ichi containing some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain indefinitely in vulnerable pools. TEPCO wants to store the spent fuel from the damaged reactors in the common pool, and only to resort to dry, cask storage when the common pool's capacity is exceeded. At this time, the common pool is at 80 percent storage capacity and will require removal of  SNF to make room. TEPCO's plan is to minimize dry cask storage as much as possible and to rely indefinitely on vulnerable pool storage.  Senator Wyden finds that TEPCO's plan for remediation carries extraordinary and continuing risk. He sensibly recommends that retrieval of spent fuel in existing on-site spent fuel pools to safer storage in dry casks should be a priority.

Given these circumstances, a key goal for the stabilization of the Fukushima-Daichi site is to place all of its spent reactor fuel into dry, hardened storage casks. This will require about 244 additional casks at a cost of about $1 mllion per cask. To accomplish this goal, an international effort is required – something that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has called for. As we have learned, despite the enormous destruction from the earthquake and tsunami at the Dai-Ich Site, the nine dry casks and their contents were unscathed.  This is an important lesson we should not ignore.
PHOTO: Human Rights Activism in Bahrain

April 19, 2012 ·

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters.

The 'Buffet' Rule': Winning the Debate but Losing the Vote

April 17, 2012 ·

The U.S. News and World Report's Debate Club focused on the so-called 'Buffet Rule' this week. The measure, which would apply a minimum tax of 30 percent to individuals making more than a million dollars a year, failed to clear the Senate cloture vote yesterday after a party-line vote. Prior to the Senate vote, the Debate Club laid out the main arguments for and against the measure. Collins' response, which highlighted the loan burden caused by the Bush tax cuts, has received the most positive votes up to this point. Here's his response

Congress should pass the "Buffett rule" to restore fairness to the federal income tax system and raise urgently needed revenue. But lawmakers should go further to rebalance the tax code and eliminate many provisions that benefit only the wealthiest 1 percent and a couple of thousand transnational corporations.

It is a national disgrace that millionaires pay effective income tax rates substantially lower than middle class taxpayers do.

As super-investor Warren Buffett has pointed out, his effective tax rate has been declining for years. In 2010, Buffett disclosed he paid 17.4 percent of his income in federal taxes, while most of his office colleagues paid 33 to 41 percent of their incomes.

This is largely the result of the way our tax code privileges income from wealth and investments over income from work and wages. In 1986, income from wages and capital gains were both taxed at the same rate of 28 percent. Today, we tax higher incomes from wage earnings at 35 percent and income from capital gains and dividends at 15 percent, creating huge distortions.

The wider public widely supports increasing taxes on millionaires because they recognize the U.S. has developed a "two-tier" tax system. We have one set of rules for the vast majority of people and another set of advantaged rules for the super-wealthy. They understand how tax rules have been tilted in favor of the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else.

Instituting the Buffett rule will be a step in the right direction but inadequate to reverse several decades of regressive tax policies and meet our revenue needs.

Since 2001, we have borrowed over $1 trillion to pay for the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. We should reverse the Bush tax cuts and institute several additional revenue provisions. A financial speculation tax—a modest penny tax on every four dollars of financial transactions—would generate over $100 billion a year and dampen the kind of speculative trading activity that crashed the economy in 2008. Closing offshore tax havens that enable transnational corporations to game their taxes down to zero would also generate over $100 billion.

The Buffett rule moves us to greater fairness and trust in the tax system and ensures the rest of our nation's taxpayer that we are not chumps for paying our fair share on April 17.

For the rest of the responses, visit the U.S. News Debate Club.


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