Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2011  



Blips #107
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"Life is made up of the most differing, unforeseen, contradictory, ill-assorted things; it is brutal, arbitrary, disconnected, full of inexplicable, illogical and contradictory disasters which can only be classified under the heading of 'Other news in brief'."
Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), Pierre et Jean, 1888


(Swans - March 28, 2011)   WORLD ELECTRICITY GENERATION, according to the International Energy Outlook 2010 (IEO2010) from the US Energy Information Administration, will increase "by 87 percent from 2007 to 2035." According to the World Energy Outlook 2009 from the International Energy Agency, about "22 percent of the world's population did not have access to electricity in 2008 -- a total of about 1.5 billion people." The IEO2010 projects that "non-OECD countries [will] account for 61 percent of world electricity use in 2035." Question: How will the world generate this electricity? (I have no answer.)

THE DRAMATIC EVENTS that shook Japan -- earthquake, tsunami, partial nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, and extremely cold weather -- revived the visceral fears humans experience when confronted with a catastrophe beyond our control. Think of 9/11 or Katrina, for example. But a nuclear power plant accident easily tops the chart of all the horrors that the daily news serves us in abundance. The specter of The China Syndrome resurfaces. The 1957 Windscale meltdown, the 1979 near disaster of Three Mile Island and the 1986 real one in Chernobyl become constant reminders of the imminent mushroom clouds ready to overwhelm vast swaths of the world with their deadly radioactive load. When we think of Chernobyl or Fukushima we, apparently unconsciously, imagine Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Somehow, this visceral fear reminds me of the famous line delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

NOW, I AM NO SCIENTIST and nuclear energy is far beyond my ken. I'd rather let Paddy Apling, a retired scientist and regular contributor to Louis Proyect's Marxmail List, provide a more nuanced and knowledgeable view of the production of electricity based on nuclear energy, as he graciously does in this issue of Swans. His views have the merit of presenting the real issues surrounding the production of electricity through civilian nuclear power. While I'm much more skeptical than he is regarding the disposal of nuclear waste, which led me to advocate once upon a time (Blips #61, November 19, 2007), in the context of the Iranian nuclear humbug, moving from uranium to thorium to feed nuclear reactors, the initial question remains: How will the world produce so much additional electricity?

RELIABLE RENEWABLE ENERGY, at the stage of current knowledge, is nothing more than pie in the sky. Petroleum is no longer used much for the generation of electricity. So, we are left with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power and each of them is harmful to humans and the ecological system. Perhaps our societies have long accepted the costs associated with our insatiable thirst for energy: Mountaintop mining, miners' recurring fatalities, water pollution (cf. fracking and Josh Fox's 2010 award-winning documentary Gasland), a nuclear meltdown here and there. Paddy Apling is correct to point out that nuclear energy has been quite reliable, but when the proverbial dung hits the fan, as it always does, the perils are immense. It will take years to learn the consequences of the Fukushima disaster on the health of humans and the environment. Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor (1982-1998) and strong proponent of nuclear power, wrote in a column published in Bild on March 25, 2011 (part of which was translated in Der Spiegel) that: "The lesson from Japan cannot be for us to take the proverbial leap backwards. For the time being, the lesson from Japan has to be that we accept that what has happened in Japan is terrifying, but -- to put it bluntly -- is also part of life." He added: We have "to take precautionary measures and minimize risks."

BUT FOR HUGH GUSTERSON, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University and expert on nuclear culture, "the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise. This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents." ("The lessons of Fukushima," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 16, 2011.) To get an idea of the price to pay, readers should take a detour and visit the decommissioned plant in Hanford, Washington, "one of the most contaminated places on earth, and still decades from being cleaned up." (Marc Pitzke, "America's Atomic Time Bomb: Hanford Nuclear Waste Still Poses Serious Risks," Der Spiegel, March 24, 2011.)

ONE LAST TIDBIT on this topic. We are led to believe that not only is nuclear-generated electricity clean but that it is also cheap. Not so fast says the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in a February 2011 report, "Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies." According to UCS, "Government subsidies to the nuclear power industry over the past fifty years have been so large in proportion to the value of the energy produced that in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away. [...] Nuclear subsidies effectively separate risk from reward, shifting the burden of possible losses onto the public and encouraging speculative investment. By masking the true cost of nuclear power, subsidies also allow the industry to exaggerate its economic competitiveness."

PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE, ANYONE? Seems to me that the lesson from Fukushima ought to be: We better learn how to conserve in a hurry! Told ya I didn't have an answer to the question.


ON THE LIBYAN FRONT, the humanitarian brigades and liberal-minded interventionists are back in the saddle and hard at work to save civilian lives. Of course, it's not about regime change, swear to god -- even though Obama and Sarkoléon (as Le Canard enchaîné calls the French president) assert that Gaddafi has to go. "The mission is working," Obama perorates. We are killing people to save lives. Implacable logic. Where next? Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Tibet...? What about Gaza?

IN HIS LAST COLUMN for The New York Times ("Losing Our Way," March 26, 2011) Bob Herbert begins thusly: "So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home." Herbert concludes: "New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed." Gleaned in various publications: 1) "School districts in California have issued nearly 19,000 layoff notices so far to teachers amid uncertainty over the state budget." 2) In New York City, "the Bloomberg administration plans 4,666 layoffs." 3) "Nationwide, estimates of teacher layoffs range from 100,000 to 300,000, with some experts pegging the most likely number nearer the high end."

SAY HELLO TO the United States of Austerity. I think that the U.S. and Britain have launched close to 200 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles against Libyan targets to date. In the Wikipedia entry on Tomahawk, this instrument of love had a unit cost of approximately $569,000 (Fiscal Year 1999). Using the Consumer Price Index, the unit cost would then be about $755,851 for 2011. But hold on, we are not talking about Walmart, here. The US military uses a slightly modified CPI. According to the FY 2012 Pentagon budget spending request, the armed forces are seeking $312.1 million for 196 missiles. The Pentagon states that the unit cost is $1.45 million, though according to my calculator it's closer to $1.59 million, but, eh, I'm not an accountant (or a defense contractor...). So, replacing these 200 missiles should come to a modest $290 or $318 million (take your pick). And that's just for the missiles alone. Now, the average high school teacher salary is $43,493 a year. Time to grab your calculator... And to show you where the US societal and cultural priorities lie, suffice to indicate that the average prison guard salary is $44,000 and the average defense contractor salary is $64,000 -- and according to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (Secrecy News, March 16, 2011), "the total U.S. intelligence budget [rose] from $63.5 billion in FY2007 up to last year's total of $80.1 billion." (National Intelligence Program: $53.1 billion and Military Intelligence Program: $27 billion.)

YOU SEE, in these United States of Austerity Congress is putting social services like Head Start, food stamps, public radio and the like on the chopping block. They even want to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Program Fund. (According to Rodney Benson, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, "The United States' per capita public investment [in public radio and television] (including federal, state and local taxes) of $4 compares with a range of $30 to $130 in the 14 democratic nations" that were examined for the study, "Public Media and Political Independence.")

IN CONCLUDING A PIECE PUBLISHED on February 25, 2003, in The International Herald Tribune ("Gaining an Empire, Losing Democracy?"), the late Norman Mailer wrote:

The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in Americans' lives. It will be an ever greater and greater overlay on the American system. And before it is all over, democracy, noble and delicate as it is, may give way. My long experience with human nature -- I'm 80 years old now -- suggests that it is possible that fascism, not democracy, is the natural state.

Indeed, democracy is the special condition -- a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.

FOR HIS PART, Bob Herbert appended a short note to his final NYT column: "This is my last column for The New York Times after an exhilarating, nearly 18-year run. I'm off to write a book and expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society. . ." Evidently the so-called liberal paper of record is not the proper venue for such noble aims.

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Published March 28, 2011