It Takes a Village

There’s a good story in today’s New York Times about the cozy relationship between nuclear regulators and utility companies in Japan, with details about the way that a whistleblower who revealed issues at Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 was punished for what turned out to be true revelations.

In Japan, the web of connections between the nuclear industry and government officials is now popularly referred to as the “nuclear power village.” The expression connotes the nontransparent, collusive interests that underlie the establishment’s push to increase nuclear power despite the discovery of active fault lines under plants, new projections about the size of tsunamis and a long history of cover-ups of safety problems.

One of the key differences between Japan’s regulator and our NRC is that Japan relies on industry experts to write nuclear regulation, in part because industry has stifled independent nuclear research at universities:

Unable to conduct research, skeptics, especially a group of six at Kyoto University, languished for decades as assistant professors.

One, Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear reactor expert who has held a position equivalent to assistant professor for 37 years at Kyoto University, said he applied unsuccessfully for research funds when he was younger.

“They’re not handed out to outsiders like me,” he said.

Japan, like the US, still has plants on fault lines without enough portable generators.

Meanwhile, back at Fukushima, TEPCO is still revising (upward) the amount of fuel damage to its reactors, and it is undertaking the risky operation of filling unit 1’s containment with water. Japan’s health ministry released results of new radiation studies showing that some areas as far away as 24 km will expose residents to almost five times the allowed yearly dose for a nuclear plant worker.

Fukushima, Pennsylvania

ProPublica reports that Pennsylvania is limiting the ability of inspectors to cite operators of hydrofracking operations:

The memos require that each of the hundreds of enforcement actions taken routinely against oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania each month now be approved by the department’s executive deputy secretary, John Hines. The memos are raising concerns that the state’s environmental inspectors can no longer act independently and that regulations could be overridden by the political whims of the state’s new governor, Tom Corbett.

“What this apparently is saying is that before any final action, the inspector must get approval by two political appointees: the secretary and the deputy secretary,” said John Hanger, who headed the DEP until January under former Gov. Ed Rendell and worked to strengthen the state’s oil and gas regulations. “It’s an extraordinary directive. It represents a break from how business has been done in the department within the Marcellus Shale and within the oil and gas program for probably 20 years.

ProPublica also reports that there are 120,000 deteriorating gas wells across the country, some of which are leaking gas into homes and causing explosions. Some of those wells are close to 100 years old.

As Fukushima dumps radioactive water into the sea, and it’s revealed that the Japanese government didn’t release projections that showed high levels of radiation far from the plant, it’s worth remembering that it isn’t just nuclear energy that leaves a toxic legacy, and that the Republican decision to leave frackers to their own devices will probably be causing problems long after the last victim of thyroid cancer is buried in Japan.

These Are The People In Your Neighborhood

Went to an after-work rally in Toledo last night to oppose the anti-union bill that is moving through the Ohio legislature. There was a steady cold rain and the turnout was still quite good. The gathering was near the intersection of two busy roads, and we got lots and lots of support from rush hour drivers, blowing their horns and waving.

Having attended many lefty-liberal-political rallies over the years, I have to say the composition of this crowd was really interesting. I cannot recall standing next to a group of off-duty policeman holding signs while the hippie at the podium plays the harmonica before. Former Fox News personality turned very unpopular governor John Kasich has certainly brought people together.

The other thing that occurred to me, standing there listening to the fireman with the bullhorn, was that a lot of the workers attending the rally appeared in the coloring book I got in kindergarten. “Your Community”, I think it was called. I don’t know if you got one of those at public school, but I think you know what I mean. There’s the brick schoolhouse, the teacher, the school bus driver and the crossing guard in the foreground, with the police officer waving the fireman in the fire truck through the 4-way stop in the background. That’s what came to my mind.

This is what comes to radical Republican and morality expert Rick Santorum’s mind when he views the same crowd, apparently:

“Just call them what they are. Public schools? That’s a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools”.

Just insane, that these people and places are now portrayed as sinister and scary. I don’t care how many times paid conservative mouthpieces repeat this utter nonsense, when you’re standing next to these completely ordinary but all-of-a-sudden reviled public workers, the carefully orchestrated national campaign against public workers seems bizarre.

Anyway, here’s a coupla links if you’re in Ohio and want to see for yourself. I’ll be at one of the Saturday morning rallies.

Here We Are, Again

This came up during the debate on climate change legislation, and I haven’t seen it addressed. That I haven’t seen it addressed doesn’t mean much: I don’t follow environmental issues. I do know how debates degenerate, however, and how nuance gets lost, and I sometimes pal around with environmentalists.

Ten moderate Senate Democrats from states dependent on coal and manufacturing sent a letter to President Obama on Thursday saying they would not support any climate change bill that did not protect American industries from competition from countries that did not impose similar restraints on climate-altering gases.

The letter warned that strong actions to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases would add to the cost of goods like steel, cement, paper and aluminum. Unless other countries adopt similar emission limits, the senators warned, jobs will migrate overseas and foreign manufacturers will have a decided cost advantage.
The 10 senators were Evan Bayh of Indiana; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Robert C. Byrd and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia; Bob Casey and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; Al Franken of Minnesota; and Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

As I understand it, the midwestern liberals, Levin, Stabenow, Brown, Franken and Feingold had three concerns: manufacturing, agriculture and home heating costs.

Climate change legislation, of course, failed, so now the focus shifts to the E.P.A.:

But there is a Plan B. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases like CO2 could be considered pollutants and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. Although that authority went unused in the waning days of former President George W. Bush’s Administration, the Obama EPA has spent much of the past year preparing the groundwork for regulation. In the absence of a climate bill, the EPA has the power — and is legally mandated by the Supreme Court — to step in and address carbon emissions.

And….. Senator Brown has the same problem he had in 2009:

The coal industry and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, don’t agree on much. But both are trying in their own ways to stop President Barack Obama’s administration from imposing rules this year on new or upgraded power plants and large factories that use coal because, both say, the rules would hurt Ohio manufacturers and consumers.

The political context cannot be ignored, say players in this debate, because Brown would be hammered with TV and radio commercials if he favored environmental rules that critics say will drive up energy prices and lead to job losses. But they also say they believe Brown’s interest in stalling immediate regulation is based on a genuine concern for manufacturers and jobs in a state that relies heavily on coal for its electricity.

Sherrod Brown (who is my Senator) is a liberal populist. He was a liberal populist in the House before it was fashionable, and he’s a liberal populist in the Senate. He has a consistent liberal voting record, and has probably earned the benefit of the doubt. I think he has a valid argument. Before we set this up as Sherrod Brown and the polluters versus the EPA and the Clean Air Act, can we discuss the concerns of Brown, Franken, Stabenow, etc. within the context of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases?

Republicans and conservatives have decided not to engage at all in any practical or serious way on this issue, as on all other issues, so just put them in the “no solutions” column. Fine. What about Democrats and liberals? Do we have a real problem here?

A Real Predicament

In local news:

West Virginia is at least $1 million short of the funds its regulators need to oversee drilling in the booming Marcellus shale natural gas field, the state’s environmental chief told lawmakers Tuesday.

Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman asked the House Finance Committee to consider the hefty permit fee hikes his department seeks this session.

Outlining the budget his office has requested for the upcoming fiscal year, Huffman explained that Marcellus drillers now pay the same $650 as their shallow-well counterparts. But the cost of regulating each type of well differ considerably, Huffman said.

Tapping the vast, mile-deep shale field requires an unconventional horizontal drilling method. To extract gas, operators must fracture the rock with a high-pressure, high-volume mix of water, chemicals and sand.

Huffman said DEP’s Oil and Gas office issued permits for 1,500 wells last year. While down from the 3,200 permits granted in 2007 and 2008, the number of horizontal wells increased during that time, he said.

“Our revenues dropped by over $1 million. We’re actually in an underfunded, understaffed situation as it exists today,” he told the committee. “We’re in a predicament, to say the least, in the Office of Oil and Gas.”

DEP has proposed increasing the fee to $10,000, in legislation introduced Monday. Huffman said the resulting revenues would fund the additional inspectors needed, while also covering costs of other regulatory provisions in that bill.

But industry groups have objected to the fee hike, and to other rules sought in the pending bill. Delegate Larry Border, R-Wood, asked why Huffman did not propose the fee increase in a separate bill.

These guys are going to make billions of dollars, and no doubt leave an environmental disaster in their wake, but god forbid they pony up a pittance in tax dollars to make sure they aren’t poisoning the watershed or blowing up neighborhoods. The invisible hand wouldn’t have it any other way- they like the regulators underfunded and understaffed. It’s much better that way, because then when shit blows up they can say “HOOCOODANODE!” and blame the regulators.

The move the Corporation is correct- the corporate citizen is a sociopath. If you keep reading the piece beyond what I linked, you will note that there is also work in progress to force homeowners who do not want drilling on their property to give up the rights to the gas underneath them, so the drillers can drink their milkshake from a neighbor’s yard. Ain’t the free market grand?