Rachel's Democracy & Health News #856
Thursday, May 25, 2006
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News ...............[This story printer-friendly]
May 25, 2006
TIME TO DUST OFF THAT OLD 'NO NUKES!' BUTTON
[Rachel's introduction: The "powers that be" have begun a new campaign to convince you that we must build hundreds of new nuclear power plants to avert global warming. Campaign partners include the Cheney/Bush administration, the nuclear power corporations, and the New York Times.]
By Peter Montague
It's time to dust off your "No Nukes!" button -- or grab that old one out of your Mom's top bureau drawer. You may need it soon.
The "powers that be" have begun a new campaign to convince us that we must have dozens or hundreds -- worldwide, thousands -- of new nuclear power plants to avert the threat of global warming.
Three groups have teamed up for the campaign: the Cheney-Bush administration, the nuclear power corporations, and most recently the New York Times. The campaign has two official mascots -- Christine Todd Whitman, the failed former head of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Patrick Moore, the widely-mistrusted former head of Greenpeace International.
Each of the three campaign partners has a different agenda, but they all want you to believe that building hundreds or thousands of new nuclear power plants is the best way to meet the world's need for electricity -- that nuclear power is safer, cleaner and cheaper than all the many alternatives.
Electricity can be generated by many kinds of machines. Commercial- scale electric plants exist now based on wind turbines, photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight directly into electricity, geothermal plants that draw their heat from the deep earth (one to two miles below ground), turbines powered by natural gas, coal-fired dinosaurs, and nuclear power plants. There are other ways to make electricity but these are the main ones in commercial use today.
Nuclear power plants are by far the most complicated way to make electricity. Nuclear power starts by mining radioactive uranium out of the ground, then "enriching" it in a centrifuge that can make nuclear fuel but can also make fuel for an A-bomb. (Iran's current plan to operate its own centrifuges is what all the wrangling is about with Tehran.) The enriched uranium is then stuffed into a nuclear power plant where it undergoes a controlled fission reaction, splitting atoms to release tremendous quantities of heat, which is used to boil water to turn a turbine to make electricity.
In contrast, a wind turbine uses the wind to turn a turbine to make electricity.
But of course the electricity from a wind turbine must be stored in some form to provide power when the wind is not blowing. Nuclear plants produce electricity more-or-less steadily unless there is mishap such as a leak or spill or other glitch. Hydrogen is the leading candidate for energy storage.
So now let's listen to the New York Times editorial staff as it tries to convince us (May 13, 2006) that nuclear power is the best way for the nation and the world to meet its electricity needs:
New York Times: "Not so many years ago, nuclear energy was a hobgoblin to environmentalists, who feared the potential for catastrophic accidents and long-term radiation contamination. But this is a new era, dominated by fears of tight energy supplies and global warming. Suddenly nuclear power is looking better."
Rachel's: Yes, big accidents and routine radioactive releases are two valid concerns about nuclear power, but the biggest concern by far has always been the unbreakable link between nuclear power plants and A- bombs. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all built A-bomb arsenals by first building nuclear power plants, so this is not merely a theoretical concern. As we speak, Iran is shuffling down this well- trodden path.
New York Times: "More important, nuclear energy can replace fossil- fuel power plants for generating electricity, reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute heavily to global warming. That could be important in large developing economies like China's and India's, which would otherwise rely heavily on burning large quantities of dirty coal and oil."
Rachel's: Yes -- even after taking into consideration the large quantities of fossil fuels required for mining, processing, and enriching fuel, and in plant construction, operation, waste disposal and plant decommissioning, nuclear power could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by some amount while generating electricity. The question is, are there better ways to achieve the same result? But the Times fails to address this question.
New York Times: "As nuclear expertise and technologies spread around the world, so does the risk that they might be used to make bombs. Unfortunately, the Bush administration erred badly when it signed a nuclear pact with India that would undercut the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. That misguided deal needs to be repudiated by the Senate. We can only hope that it does not undercut a more promising administration plan to keep the most dangerous fuel- making technologies out of circulation by supplying developing nations with uranium and taking the spent fuel rods back."
Rachel's: In that paragraph, the Times' first sentence should be rewritten as follows: "As nuclear expertise and technologies spread around the world, so does the near-certainty that they will be used to make bombs." Since this has already happened several times, we know it can (will) happen again. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear bombs simply cannot be broken.
The rest of the Time's paragraph makes it seem as though President Bush is to blame for this problem, and that if he would just uphold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, no one would be able to make bombs from the ingredients in a nuclear power plant. Tell it to India. Tell it to Pakistan. Tell it to Israel. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was in full force when these nations joined the "nuclear club" of A-bomb-wielding nations. Nuclear power is simply an unmanageable technology. If you have a nuclear power plant and you are committed to making an A-bomb, you can almost certainly do it, sooner or later.
New York Times: "There remains the unsolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste generated by nuclear plants. Many people are unwilling to see a resurgence in nuclear power without some assurance that the spent fuel can be handled safely. The Energy Department's repeated setbacks in efforts to open an underground waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada do not inspire confidence, but there is no reason why the spent fuel rods can't be stored safely at surface sites for the next 50 to 100 years."
Rachel's: Perhaps the radioactive waste problem can be resolved in 50 to 100 years. But what if it cannot? Some of the smartest scientists in the world, with essentially unlimited budgets, have been working on this problem for more than 50 years. They have devised the highest of high-tech solutions, all of which have turned out to be dead ends. Fifty years of study and experiment have yielded no useful solutions. Meanwhile, we keep making this stuff with a hazardous lifetime that far exceeds the time that humans have walked the earth. Perhaps it would be prudent to assume that this problem cannot be solved, and that further deployment of nuclear power should be delayed until solutions have been demonstrated.
New York Times: "More problematic is the administration's long-term solution for waste disposal. It wants to recycle the spent fuel in a new generation of advanced reactors that would use technologies that don't yet exist, following a timetable that many experts think unrealistic. Its current approach is apt to be costly and would leave dangerous plutonium more accessible to terrorists."
Rachel's: Our point exactly. The nation's best scientists have failed, and now political appointees in the Cheney/Bush administration have elbowed the scientists aside and decided to impose their own "solution." These are the same people who have demonstrated failure in essentially every major decision during the past six years. Now they want to "recycle" nuclear waste into new, untried, and clearly risk- prone and terrorist-prone "solutions" that this nation considered and rejected for compelling reasons 25 years ago.
New York Times: "Nuclear power has a good safety record in this country, and its costs, despite the high initial expense of building the plants, are looking more reasonable now that fossil fuel prices are soaring. How much impact it could really have in slowing carbon emissions has yet to be spelled out, but there is no doubt that nuclear power could serve as a useful bridge to even greener sources of energy."
Rachel's: Huh? We're not sure how much nukes can reduce global warming, but we should spend billions more taxpayer dollars to subsidize nukes? This is no basis for national policy. Between 1948 and 1998, civilian nuclear power received at least $77 billion dollars of federal subsidies (in constant 2005 dollars).[NRDC, pg. 5] The insurance industry still won't touch nuclear power with a ten-foot pole so Congress has to limit the industry's liability by law -- a huge subsidy to the nuclear power corporations. Wall Street won't touch it either without huge additional federal guarantees and subsidies. This is a technology that falls on its face unless Uncle Sam provides a permanent crutch.
We should ask ourselves, Why aren't we willing to spend $77 billion to subsidize energy-saving measures, and the development of existing minimally-polluting technologies like wind turbines with hydrogen storage, and hydrogen fuel cells to make electricity and power vehicles? Even Ford and General Motors -- not the brightest bulbs on the corporate landscape -- say they will offer us hydrogen fuel- cell vehicles in the next few years. These technologies exist now.
Solar technologies such as wind power have an even better safety record than nuclear and they too are looking more affordable as the cost of oil rises.
The time is now for all of us to get behind wind and solar power as solutions to our energy challenges. Together they constitute a highly- desirable and entirely-achievable precautionary energy program. Today the environmental-health-and-justice movement is bogged down bickering over individual projects like Cape Wind on Nantucket Sound. Every day we wait to align solidly behind wind and solar improves the odds that the nuclear cowboys will have their way with us,
A study published in Science magazine (June 24, 2005) concluded that hydrogen-fuel-cell-automobiles would be cheaper to run than today's gasoline-powered vehicles. Conservation is the cheapest and least polluting option of all, and it is available in abundance right now. Conservation, wind, photovoltaics, hydrogen storage (and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles), plus a modicum of ethanol and methanol can provide a far safer and cleaner bridge to even greener sources of energy. It's time to take a principled stand for conservation, wind and other solar options. They are good for the planet, good for people, and good for local control, good for "local living economies," and good for self-determination.
These alternative sources of energy don't fit the divergent agendas of any of the three pro-nuke campaigners. Of all these alternative energy options, only nuclear power offers to create an endless series of international crises (think Iran, think North Korea) requiring macho threats of military showdown at the OK corral. Only nuclear power requires multi-billion-dollar centralized machines that can be controlled by a tiny handful of investors -- thus empowering Wall Street elites instead of empowering farmers who would be only too happy to put wind turbines in their corn fields. (A farmer in Colorado is likely to receive $3000 to $5000 per year for hosting a single wind turbine on a quarter-acre of land, instead of producing 40 bushels of corn worth $120 or beef worth perhaps $15 on that same land. Lester Brown, pg. 191.)
Of all the available alternatives, only nuclear power relies on machines that require armed guards, anti-terrorist exercises and simulations, evacuation drills and other paramilitary apparatus. Only nukes with their threat of rogue weapons can provide endless excuses to spy on other nations and search through the phone records from every citizen. Only nuclear power with its unbreakable link to A- bombs "requires" the President to declare habeas corpus null and void, and to declare that he and Mr. Rumsfeld will torture anyone they choose to torture any time it suits them, thus commencing the Great Unraveling of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was imposed upon Real Americans by that class traitor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his commie-loving wife back in 1948.
In sum, none of the available alternative energy sources can match nuclear power's ability to thwart the nation's inherent democratic tendencies and stop the nation's slide toward local control, small- scale enterprise, self-reliance, and a populist political reawakening. Without nuclear power and petroleum to anchor their centralized authority and provide excuses for their military adventures, the "powers that be" will soon seem very much like the little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. And that would never do. It simply would never do.
And so I say to you, dust off your protest banners and buttons. That time may be coming around again when we must hit the streets. No blood for oil! Climate justice! No nukes!
From: New Scientist ......................................[This story printer-friendly]
April 26, 2006
IS IT ALL OVER FOR NUCLEAR POWER?
[Rachel's introduction: Wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy are sprouting all over the world. Local, small-scale energy projects now produce more power than the nuclear industry, globally. As Lester Brown pointed out in March, the U.S. could meet all of its electricity needs from wind alone. Next-generation nuclear plants face MANY challenges. This article explains why nuclear power is doomed (though that won't stop pro-nuke campaigners from trying).]
By Michael Brooks
Adam Twine doesn't look like the kind of person the nuclear industry should be scared of. An organic farmer, Twine is skinny, with big round glasses and unruly hair that makes his head look like it's fraying at the edges. How could he possibly be a threat to a multibillion-dollar industry?
Maybe he wouldn't be if he were operating alone, but Twine is far from alone and has serious money behind him. He has just managed to persuade 2127 people to send him a total of more than u4 million that he will use to set up a co-operative wind farm on land he owns in the south of England. In fact, the idea of owning a share in the Westmill wind farm in Oxfordshire has proved so popular that the project is having to return some of the cash: it only needed u3.7 million [$6.9 million dollars]. The plan now is to give priority in ownership to people living within 80 kilometres of the site, and asking others to accept a smaller stake in the co-op.
Though the wind farm is small -- five turbines in a vast, bleak field, amounting to 6.5 megawatts of electricity [500 megawatts would power a small city of say 125,000 homes] -- it represents another nail in the coffin of nuclear power, one of many being hammered in all over the world. If the nuclear industry wanted to convince governments to start building another generation of nuclear reactors as soon as possible, it needed to bury the likes of Twine before their schemes took off. Now it may be too late.
According to projections by the International Energy Agency and a handful of energy industry experts, 2005 was the first year nuclear power's electricity output dropped behind that of small-scale plants producing low or no carbon dioxide emissions -- and that's not counting large hydroelectric projects on the low-carbon side of the balance sheet.
Though small, such projects are already flourishing. Much of the world's small-scale generation involves combined heat and power "co- generation" projects, whose carbon dioxide emissions are 30 to 80 per cent less than that of large-scale gas-fired plants. On average they are at least 50 per cent less. The worldwide uptake of this technology is being accompanied by fast growth in the use of renewables such as solar and wind. The Danish company Bonus, from which the Westmill co- operative wants to buy its wind turbines, now has a backlog of orders from wind farms in Texas, Florida, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Greece. In 2005 the company, bought by Siemens, almost doubled its wind turbine sales, and its fabrication capacity for 2006 is fully booked.
This burgeoning "micropower" movement is a significant step towards reducing carbon emissions (New Scientist, 21 January, p 36). It is also a knock for a nuclear industry that has been struggling to get back on its feet in the western world. Until last year, near-zero emissions of greenhouse gases were nuclear power's trump card, its big advantage over other sources of electricity and the one thing that might make western governments invest in a nuclear renaissance: nuclear is clean and produces a lot of power, so we need it. That argument now has a hole punched through it, and it boils down to economics.
Until recently, it seemed the wide-scale construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants was inevitable. China is investing in nuclear, after all, as are Japan, Russia and India, so why not the west? Though Germany, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland have forsworn investment in new nuclear plants, other western nations, notably the UK, France and the US, are taking the idea seriously. In August 2005, the US government handed out a range of nuclear subsidies and incentives worth nearly $20 billion. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair has commissioned an energy review with what is widely believed to have a pro-nuclear agenda, marking a move away from the position three years ago when his government said there was no case for nuclear new build. France, which already gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, has its eye on starting construction of at least one more plant within the next decade.
In the UK and the US, the case for a nuclear renaissance is on the table mainly because the reactors now generating electricity are coming to the end of their lives. The cry is going up that this will lead to an energy gap: in a few years there won't be enough electricity to go round, and the lights will go out. That's a simplistic analysis, of course. "The idea of a 'gap' is artificial and fails to acknowledge the dynamics of the market system," says Jim Watson, an energy analyst in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, UK. The energy markets in these countries will tend to ensure that there will always be electricity to buy and sell, Watson points out. The cost may go up and the sources may change, but the market will quickly adjust by using more electricity derived from coal and gas, for instance.
Without nuclear, though, won't we be producing ever more carbon emissions? Not necessarily. Nuclear never was part of the short-term solution to climate change, and the rapid growth in small-scale energy production means nuclear may not be needed as part of the long-term solution either.
Of the electricity added to the worldwide supply in 2004, micropower technologies generated almost three times as much as nuclear. Spain and Germany's ventures into wind power alone added as much power capacity in 2004 as the world's nuclear industry will add from 2000 to 2010. Industry projections indicate that by 2010, renewable and low- carbon sources will offer 177 times as much added capacity as nuclear.
This is not going to be enough to power the world; large-scale fossil- fuel generators will still be needed in this timescale. But the overarching global trend is clear. Few new nuclear stations will be operating before 2020, and by the time these plants are even half- built, there will be enough low or no-carbon electricity available from non-nuclear sources to give investors in nuclear plants second thoughts.
The 'negawatt' effect
If they ever invest at all, that is. In January, the financial analyst Standard & Poors issued a report saying that even the new incentives for the US nuclear industry will not be enough to persuade investors to climb aboard; from a business perspective, nuclear remains the highest-risk form of power generation. That's because the subsidies don't deal with the capital, operating and decommissioning risks that most concern the capital markets, says Amory Lovins, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based energy analysis firm. "The effect of even such huge subsidies will be the same as defibrillating a corpse," he says. "It will jump, but it will not revive."
What's more, a report issued in February by the California-based Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), whose members include private and public organisations concerned with power generation and distribution, says that implementing energy efficiency measures together with technologies that can respond to changes in demand offers a cost-effective alternative to adding new generating capacity.
Contrary to what is often said, we are getting better at controlling our hunger for electricity. If you want proof, just ask the US firms who built gas-fuelled power plants capable of generating 200 gigawatts of electricity, and then found that the anticipated demand they were catering for never materialised. The investors lost $100 billion. According to Lovins, worldwide electrical savings, or "negawatts", now match or exceed global additions of low or no-carbon micropower. So far, the EPRI says, we have only scratched the surface of possible efficiency increases; it is estimated that the US could save three- quarters of the electricity it now uses.
Some states are making progress towards this goal. In California, energy use per capita has been flat for 30 years, and the state has issued plans to halve its rate of growth of electricity consumption by 2013. Vermont has done even better, with efficiency measures that have already cut per capita energy use.
It is economics that is driving these changes. Producing and delivering electricity costs money, so not wasting it makes good sense. Businesses, of course, respond well to market forces and are implementing changes well ahead of domestic users. DuPont's 600- hectare Chambers Works in New Jersey has reduced by one-third its energy use per kilogram of chemical produced. Western Digital's disc drive factory in Malaysia cut energy use by 44 per cent and recouped the cost of implementing the efficiency measures in just one year. By last year, Toyota US had reduced its energy consumption per unit of production by 15 per cent from 2000 levels. All these measures add up to less need for new electricity generating plants.
Nuclear power is also being squeezed on the cost of the electricity it produces. According to a report last year by the New Economics Foundation, a London-based think tank, a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a nuclear generator will cost as much as 8.3 pence once realistic construction and running costs are factored in, compared with about 3 pence claimed by the nuclear industry -- and that's without including the cost of managing pollution, insuring the power stations or protecting them from terrorists. This compares with about 3.4 pence for gas, 5 pence for coal and up to 7.2 pence for wind power, according to a report in 2004 by the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering.
The same report told the government that it has to ensure the "long- term stability of electricity prices" if it wants people to invest in nuclear power. Around the same time, Oxera, a firm of energy consultants based in Oxford, UK, reported that a new-build nuclear programme in the UK would require an injection of billion[s] in government grants to make the idea appeal to private investors.
The action needed to meet either of these requirements is unlikely to be allowed within the European Union. Andris Piebalgs, the EU's commissioner for energy, wants different forms of energy production to compete with each other on a level playing field, and has declared that state funds must not be used to subsidise the building of new nuclear plants. British Nuclear Fuels and the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority have already been subject to an 18-month inquiry over potential infractions of fair competition -- though even Gordon MacKerron, head of the UK's Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and no fan of the nuclear lobby, has called the alleged infractions "marginal". Finnish line
More serious are allegations against the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) at Olkiluoto, Finland, the only nuclear power station presently under construction in Europe. A relatively new design of pressurised water reactor, the EPR is being built jointly by the French nuclear company Areva and the German company Siemens, and is being financed at extremely low rates of interest by French and German state-owned organisations. The scheme is being investigated by the European Commission, following a complaint by the European Renewable Energies Federation that the financing breaches the commission's rules.
If the complaint is upheld, it will be a serious blow to the nuclear industry, which likes to point to Olkiluoto as evidence of the viability of new nuclear stations. That argument, however, is questionable whatever the outcome of the complaint. The company the plant is being built for, called TVO, is not a conventional electricity utility, but a company owned by large Finnish industrial concerns that supplies electricity to its owners on a not-for-profit basis.
"The plant will have a guaranteed market and will not therefore have to compete in the Nordic electricity market," says Steve Thomas, an expert in nuclear economics at the University of Greenwich in London. What's more, he says, suspicions have been raised that the Areva- Siemens consortium is so anxious to showcase its technology that it has "offered a price that might not be sustainable" just to get the plant built.
If that is their aim, they may succeed. When the Olkiluoto project is completed -- it is scheduled for 2009 -- it will become apparent whether the EPR design works and how long it takes to build. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already investigating whether the EPR is a good model for replacing US nuclear plants.
There are a couple of problems looming, though. First, the US is experiencing some new public health and safety concerns: in March, the state of Illinois filed a lawsuit against Exelon, which operates the Braidwood nuclear power station, seeking damages over tritium leaks from the plant. The regulatory commission has formed a task force to investigate radioactive spills that have occurred at plants across the US in the past decade. Any new technology will need to be proved safe and reliable.
The second problem was highlighted at a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last month, when Peter Lyons, head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pointed out that few science and engineering students are coming through to replace reactor workers who are now retiring. As a result there will soon not be enough people to build and operate new reactors. The next decade will be crucial, Lyons said. If the US does not start investing in nuclear energy over that period, it will have neither the skilled workers nor the industrial infrastructure for nuclear power to be a viable option.
It is not just for the US that this is a problem. Last October, UK- based energy consultant Ian Fells told an energy conference in Rimini, Italy, that there are only six engineering consortia in the world capable of building a nuclear power station. None of them is British. "We do not have the skills to build nuclear power stations in the UK anymore," Fells told the conference. "The teams of engineers that built Sizewell B in 1995 are all retired or dead." Even the limited construction now taking place across the world is stretching the industry's capacity, and a construction queue is developing that could kill nuclear plans for the UK, Fells says. Bridging the gap
Despite these obstacles, Fells remains a supporter of nuclear new- build as the best way to secure energy supplies and protect the environment. "My feeling is that it is inevitable that we add a new, nuclear electricity supply component to our energy mix," he says. He envisages a future in which 30 per cent of the UK's energy comes from new nuclear plants. Just maintaining the nuclear status quo in the UK, however, would require eight to 10 new plants, which he says might not be up and running for 25 years.
That time lag could prove fatal for the nuclear industry. As existing plants go into decline and are shut down, something else has to replace their generating capacity. Adam Twine and his ilk, with their reduced or no-carbon technologies, are already taking up this slack and pulling themselves into an ever stronger position.
Renewables alone won't bridge the gap, even with increased energy efficiency. Fossil-fuel generators will also be needed, in both small- scale projects and large plants, perhaps with carbon sequestration (New Scientist, 3 September 2005, p 30). And here is the problem for nuclear: any investment in new nuclear power could damage the chances of making other climate-friendly technologies work. After all, finances are not unlimited, and you can only spend the money once.
How can anyone justify spending it on something that is not proven to be economical, not going to deliver for two decades -- and then will only provide a limited solution? In the UK, nuclear power supplies only 8 per cent of energy used, Watson points out. "Why prejudice programmes and policies to tackle 92 per cent of emissions by spending lots of political and financial capital on 8 per cent?" he says.
In the end, contrary to everything touted by the industry, nuclear investment may not help reduce carbon emissions at all -- it might even increase them over the next two decades. If nuclear supporters are truly concerned about climate change and an energy gap, they ought to be encouraging the take-up of renewable and low-carbon technologies - the very technologies that threaten to drive their industry to extinction.
Nuclear power continues to prompt concerns based on safety issues, regulatory problems and the danger that it encourages proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons. Now it also faces a bigger hurdle: there are better economic options that are no less climate-friendly. The slow, steady success of idealists like Twine is showing the world that it no longer needs nuclear power.
How many countries want their energy sources to rest in the hands of foreign governments? Such concerns were at their height during the cold war, but they have not gone away completely. Are they a valid reason for shifting towards new nuclear power plants for generating electricity?
It's certainly true that much of the fuel for Europe's gas-fired plants comes from politically unreliable states such as Russia. That can lead to problems. In January, the supply to many European countries was interrupted by a dispute between Russia and Ukraine.
In the US, gas sources are more diverse and less vulnerable, according to a 2004 report from the University of Chicago on the economics of nuclear power. The researchers studied the prices of natural gas in 34 countries from 1994 to 2002 to see how closely they were linked. They found that the US buys from at least three major world markets in natural gas, and that the groups' prices are not strongly linked. That means, the report concluded, that no one will be able to hold the US to ransom over gas supplies. So for the US, at least, security of fuel supply is not a good argument for increasing the nuclear share of its electricity market.
The point is reinforced when uranium sources are taken into account. The expected expansion of China's nuclear programme could absorb all the uranium supplied by Australia, which alone accounts for some 40 per cent of the world's uranium reserves.
From: Washington Post ....................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 22, 2006
IN THE NORTHWEST, NUCLEAR POWER TAKES A HIT
[Rachel's introduction: Contrary to the talking heads of the nuclear power industry, nuclear power isn't clean, safe or cheap, compared to the alternatives. Just ask Washington state residents now saying goodbye to one huge loser of a power plant that has haunted them for thirty years.]
By Blaine Harden
KALAMA, Wash., May 21 -- It was ironic -- for an explosion.
Just as nuclear power begins to emerge as a possible savior from global warming -- the co-founder of Greenpeace said last month it might avert catastrophic climate change, a New York Times editorial said last week that it deserves a "fresh look" -- the cooling tower from what had once been the nation's largest nuclear plant is blown to smithereens.
The explosion occurred near here on Sunday morning. After a carefully controlled kaboom, the 499-foot cooling tower of the Trojan Nuclear Plant tilted gently to the east and melted in a cloud of whitish-gray dust that drifted upstream with the wind along the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
For most of the past three decades, the concrete cooling tower -- a spookily gigantic industrial apparition visible for miles above the evergreens along Interstate 5, the busiest highway in the Pacific Northwest -- has loomed in the region's imagination as a symbol of all that was sneaky, leaky and insanely expensive about nuclear power.
The softening of political opposition to the nuclear industry that seems to be occurring elsewhere in the United States, with tentative plans by utilities in the Midwest and Southeast to build new plants, is not yet changing hearts and minds in Oregon or Washington.
For that, the Trojan plant, which began making electricity in 1976 and was shut down in 1993, has much to answer for. Besides chronic technical, safety and reliability problems, it cost local utility customers more than $400 million to build and is costing them $409 million to decommission.
The Trojan plant came online in an era when Northwest politicians and corporate leaders were besotted by the promise of clean nuclear power. In a spectacularly ill-conceived scheme, work began on five other nuclear power plants as part of a consortium of utilities called the Washington Public Power Supply System, which quickly became infamous as Whoops.
Whoops indeed. Construction of the five plants -- only one of which ever produced electricity, none of which was then needed -- led to what, at the time, was the country's largest municipal bond default. Consumers across the Northwest are still paying for Whoops in their monthly electricity bills -- a catastrophe that in one five-year stretch pushed up electricity rates by about 600 percent. Washington and Oregon have since passed laws that restrict the construction of nuclear power plants.
If all that were not enough, the Trojan plant was also widely reported and popularly believed to have been the real-world inspiration for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, the laughably mismanaged, wildly dangerous workplace of television's Homer Simpson. Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," grew up in nearby Portland, Ore., during troubled times at Trojan.
That rumor, though, turns out not to be true. "There is no connection between the Trojan Power Plant and the one in 'The Simpsons," " according to Groening's handlers.
In any case, it took just a few seconds for the towering symbol of bad nuclear times gone by to disappear in dust. The "Trojan Implosion," as it was billed, was the handiwork of Controlled Demolition Inc., a Baltimore company that blows up lots of large concrete things, most notably sports stadiums such as the Kingdome in Seattle and Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.
Mark Loizeaux, who owns the demolition company and joined reporters to watch the blast from the Washington side of the Columbia, cheerily rated the tower's implosion as "a textbook job." He noted that a rather large bit of concrete from the tower was still standing -- about 45-feet high in one spot -- but said that he had expected as much. A 20,000-pound wrecking ball, he said, would soon clean up the mess.
About a minute after the tower fell in on itself, Loizeaux barked into a radio, telling police that they could unblock traffic on I-5 and the Coast Guard that it could unblock shipping on the Columbia.
The plant owner, Portland General Electric, was also pleased. Tower demolition was a major step in the utility's long, costly and embarrassing effort to extricate itself from a plant whose problems ranged from chronic steam leaks to an exceedingly unfortunate location -- on a major earthquake fault, sitting on the southern bank of the West's largest river and just upwind from Portland, the second-largest city in the Northwest.
With ratepayers footing the bill, PGE has been taking Trojan apart for more than a decade. The plant's nuclear reactor and nearly all of its radioactive machinery have been barged upstream on the Columbia for burial at the federal Hanford nuclear reservation. Highly radioactive fuel rods remain in storage at the site, waiting for the federal government to decide where they can be safely buried.
Scott Simms, a PGE spokesman who watched the implosion, was eager on Sunday to talk about how his company has shifted its focus to wind power and high-efficiency, gas-driven turbines.
Asked about the irony of knocking down a nuclear plant when other utilities are planning similar plants, Simms noted that Trojan was "outmoded compared to anything that might be built today." He did not mention irony.
Copyright 2006 The Washington Post Company
From: Seattle Post-Intelligencer ..........................[This story printer-friendly]
May 23, 2006
COALITION RELEASES REPORT ON TOXINS IN PEOPLE, CALLS FOR REFORM
[Rachel's introduction: The latest study of industrial poisons in humans has revealed that people in Washington State all carry a "body burden" of toxicants, with effects that are unknown but surely not good. Studies confirm that in the U.S., babies are all born carrying a body burden of toxicants, which they pick up in the womb. What's wrong with this picture?]
By Rachel La Corte, Associated Press Writer
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A coalition of environmental and advocacy groups tested 10 Washington residents from around the state and found each of them had dozens of potentially harmful chemicals in their bodies, ranging from pesticides to flame retardants.
Coalition officials who released the report in Seattle on Tuesday acknowledged it wasn't a scientific representation of the state, but said they wanted to put a face on the issue.
The Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition collected hair, urine and blood samples last fall from the participants, who were specifically chosen for the tests. Most of the participants are involved with organizations that are members of or have worked with the coalition.
The coalition said it chose the people to represent both genders, different races, professions and people who live in different parts of the state, as well as people who were local leaders.
Laboratories in Victoria, British Columbia, Seattle, and Los Angeles tested the samples for 86 chemicals. Each participant, including state Sens. Bill Finkbeiner and Lisa Brown, both from opposite sides of the state, tested positive for at least 26 of the various chemicals, and as many as 39.
An extensive study on exposure to environmental chemicals by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year stressed that the presence of an environmental chemical in blood or urine "does not mean that the chemical causes disease." But state coalition members said they wanted people to be aware of potential risks.
"It's very likely each of us is walking around with a cocktail of chemicals in our bodies," said Erika Schreder, staff scientist for the Washington Toxics Coalition and the lead scientist on the report. "The chemicals that we found in our test participants are chemicals that are linked to very serious health problems. That's a concern."
But Dr. Elaine Faustman, a toxicologist and professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, said it's important to keep in mind the levels of chemicals in each person, not just that they are detected.
She noted that there are persistent chemicals in almost everyone.
"For us, the dose makes the poison," she said.
However, Faustman said that while the sample size was very small, the report was a good tool to see specific data for the Pacific Northwest.
Among the chemicals found were phthalates, a manmade ingredient of many plastics, cosmetics and other consumer products.
Other chemicals included fire-retardant PBDEs, and PFCs, which are found in the plastic coating Teflon.
Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, had 30 chemicals detected and a mercury level above the EPA "safe" level. Of the group tested, he had the highest levels of the Teflon chemicals and the pesticide carbaryl.
"I never gave too much thought or made too many lifestyle choices based on these issues prior to having this profile. It sure made me think a whole lot more," said Finkbeiner, who added that he has since stopped using Teflon pans, plans to buy more organic foods, and will pull weeds in his yard instead of spraying them with pesticides.
Schreder said the report should serve as a wake-up call to the state's lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire.
"What we're really lacking is a comprehensive approach to ensure these harmful toxins are not in our products," she said.
A spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents about 130 major chemical companies, said the small sample of the report doesn't warrant "the far-reaching conclusions or recommendations that are made."
Sarah Brozena said scientists have long known that humans can absorb chemicals from the environment.
"We are finding them now because there are much better analytical techniques that can measure them at these very trace (part per billion or part per trillion) levels," she said in an e-mailed statement. "Further, detection of chemicals in our bodies -- by itself -- is not an indication of risk to health and shouldn't be cause for alarm."
Earlier this year, the state Department of Health and the Department of Ecology asked the Legislature to ban all trade in PBDEs, arguing that the fireproofing chemicals are being found in Columbia River fish, seal blubber, grizzly bears and women's breast milk.
A bill died in the Legislature this year, though supporters said they will try again next year.
Schreder said that, in addition to the passage of the PBDE ban, the coalition wants the state to require companies that do business with Washington state to provide complete information on what types of chemicals are used. The coalition also wants to see an immediate plan to phase out certain products and manufacturing chemicals, and to help companies make the switch with either incentives or technical assistance.
Gregoire's office did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment on the report.
Brown, D-Spokane, said the report got her attention, and she's certain it will open a dialogue in the next legislative session.
"We pretty much take for granted that Washington state is a beautiful place to live and work," said Brown, who tested positive for 37 chemicals, including high levels of mercury. "We want it to be a truly healthy place to live."
On the Net:
Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition: http://pollutioninpeople.org
Washington Toxics Coalition: http://www.watoxics.org
CDC National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals: http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/
From: Alternet ............................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 23, 2006
A GENERATION OF DEBTORS GROW UP OWING
[Rachel's introduction: Young Americans are shouldering far more debt than ever before. College grads used to look forward to decent-paying jobs, home ownership and a lifetime of relative financial security. Not any more... As corporate profits and CEO pay skyrocket, middle America is falling behind. How will this race to the bottom end? How will the "powers that be" retain legitimacy in the eyes of youth?]
By Mischa Gaus, In These Times
The children of baby boomers are the new debtor class. Buckling under a heavy weight of debt, new workers step into an economy of low-wage and contingent work, a combination that makes the basics of adulthood increasingly unattainable.
"We grew up in the Reagan era where everything was fake, voodoo economics, and we're not seeing the connections," says Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to be Young. "I don't think we can continue treating people as disposable, not providing them with health care or the means to save."
Educational debt is the most visible -- but not the only -- barrier to the well-being of the "millennial generation," roughly defined as Americans born after 1978. Every gate on the way to middle-class life is now tougher to unlock. Mortgages, health insurance expenses, car maintenance, child care and tax loads for two-income families have all ballooned.
The accumulating stress on this generation is spilling over -- not yet into the street, as it did in France in late March, but into some emerging forms of collective action.
Owing 'til you're old and gray
The familiar combination of summer work, a part-time job during the school year and a little help from home doesn't begin to cover today's college costs. To afford one year at a public university, about $11,000, students earning minimum wage would have to work full-time year-round.
"Students are in a pretty deep financial hole," says Luke Swarthout, higher education associate for the State PIRGs, which advocate on a variety of consumer, environmental and good-government issues. The Federal Reserve says graduates now shoulder three times more debt than a decade ago, after adjusting for inflation. Undergraduates now average almost $20,000 in debt, with a quarter taking on more than $25,000, according to Robert Shireman, director of the Project on Student Debt, a Berkeley-based think tank.
"They end up still paying off their loans about the time when they're figuring out how to help with their own children's education," Shireman says. Some never emerge from their chasm of liabilities. The Supreme Court recently decided that retirees' Social Security checks can be garnished for old student debts, and changes to bankruptcy law last year make it nearly impossible to discharge educational loans.
For students who approach their working lives seeking returns beyond pure remuneration, rising debt loads postpone basic decisions. Pam Morus, 29, spends about 10 percent of her income every month keeping up with $35,000 in student loans. A music therapist in Chicago, she received no grants during her five-year program at Eastern Michigan University. She'd like to purchase a home and start a family soon, but unless she finds a partner who brings in significantly more income, it is impossible. "I barely make enough money to pay my rent," she says.
Even with a scholarship to American University's law school, Julia Graff, 28, started her career as a staff attorney at the Delaware ACLU last year facing $80,000 in debt. She anticipates paying lenders until she retires. Graff knew her ambition to pursue a nonprofit career meant she would forgo luxuries. But her debt-to-income ratio means trips to university dental clinics and taking on odd jobs like tutoring and translating Spanish.
"I live paycheck to paycheck," Graff says. "Eventually I'm not going to want to live like I did when I was 18."
And when lives don't match up with debt schedules, the strain can be severe. After finishing community college, Mandy Minor, 30, bounced around the University of South Florida before settling on business administration. She graduated five years ago, picking up $60,000 in consumer and student debt along with her diploma.
Minor owns a small writing and design firm with her husband, and had a daughter five months ago. She pays $400 a month just to maintain her debt load, and has given up on buying a house. She worries how to provide health insurance once her daughter no longer qualifies for Florida's state-provided care.
"It bothers me on a fundamental level that we even have to worry a little about how our daughter will receive medical care," she says. "It sickens me, and I know I'm not alone."
Minor says some of her credit-card bills predate her college years. "I think sending high school students offers of credit should be illegal," she says. Taken together, such individual struggles illuminate the consequences of punitive political decisions. After all, student debt is intimately linked to government actions, like Congress' decision to boost interest rates to 6.8 percent for undergraduate Stafford loans, both new and old.
Ensuring economic security is not solely an issue of self-interest for young people. Because higher education remains the most important factor for predicting economic success -- and thus an opportunity to bridge inequality -- it is a social justice concern as well.
Last year, Yale students held a sit-in to demand financial aid reform. Within a week, they won a pledge from the university that families making less than $45,000 would no longer pay tuition. Yale was just catching up: The Ivies have embarked on a game of financial-aid chicken, fighting to see who can boost higher the amount families can earn before footing college costs. Currently, that figure stands at $50,000 at the University of Pennsylvania and $60,000 at Harvard.
Struggling for a living wage
Once they've graduated, however, what really staggers young people is a one-two punch: saddled with loans, students have a hard time finding a stable job that will actually support them. Steady productivity gains have been swallowed by capital, stagnating wages for young people. A Federal Reserve survey says the median net worth of households under 35 rose just 1.3 percent in the last decade after inflation.
"Management has pulled a fast one," says Kamenetz. "They've gotten people to accept intangible benefits instead of old, actual benefits. We've all sort of followed this idea that we're all free agents." Flexibility and contingent labor have replaced the certainty of bargaining agreements and pensions. And contrary to media narratives about consumers run amok, foolish spending is not the root of most families' financial problems, writes Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren in her book, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. Credit card bills are higher now, but consumer spending between this generation and the last balances out -- for instance, as more is spent on airline tickets, less is spent on tobacco.
So where do young people turn to confront their economic plight? They are channeling some energy into workplace organizing. Retail workers at Borders and Starbucks have employed minority unionism, which initially doesn't seek contracts or bargaining units but builds a base of power through action by less than half the workers. Workers across the country trade information about corporate policies online, coordinating efforts between stores and sniping at overpaid executives.
The underlying model is nothing new: Unions like United Farm Workers have used it for decades. But it could fit young people in hard-to- organize retail work, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University.
"Young people don't feel as vulnerable as older workers because they're not going to be in this job forever," she says. "They are more willing to take risks."
Minority unionism could challenge giant chain stores, she says, if unions commit to long campaigns and follow a social-unionism approach that brings the community behind the drive. The storybook example is the L.A. Justice for Janitors Campaign, which in the early '90s saw the flowering of a community-union partnership that placed moral concerns alongside economic ones. However, these are difficult, expensive campaigns in high-turnover jobs exceed the reach of any sympathetic union local. Critics see minority unionism as a half- cocked attempt to engage young workers.
"We had industrial unions when we had industrial manufacturing. Now we have a new way of working that is much more short-term and mobile," says Sara Horowitz, president of Working Today, a New York-based advocacy group that provides insurance and other benefits for contingent -- and often young -- laborers. "Unions have evolved since the days of Moses and Exodus, and there's no reason to think they're not going to evolve again."
Working Today counts 16,000 contingent workers in its ranks. Although its benefits are limited to workers in New York, it lobbies nationally to fill gaps like health care and retirement savings for the 30 percent of the workforce it estimates work independently.
Millennials are also warming to another old tactic for addressing their grievances. They are increasingly appearing at the polls, with half of voters under 30 turning out in 2004, their largest showing in 14 years. Sustaining this interest, though, would require reversing a long-standing trend: Youth voting rates have been declining since 1972.
The emerging generation's beliefs could offer an opportunity for reshaping the political discourse. Recent studies by the liberal New Politics Institute and a University of Maryland public policy center suggest millennials are more likely to identify as progressive than any other age group.
But unless they find political avenues to channel their discontent, they may soon find themselves screaming in the streets like their French counterparts. "They have different lives than their parents did, a different set of economic opportunities," Horowitz says. "It's time for them to talk about what they need."
Mischa Gaus is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
Copyright 2006 Independent Media Institute.
From: Alternet ...........................................[This story printer-friendly]
May 23, 2006
END THE HOSTILE TAKEOVER
[Rachel's introduction: "So what I'm really trying to do is to open up the possibility to folks that all of this stuff -- the entire system -- is not just a creation of nature. It didn't just happen. On all of these issues, we are experiencing a very deliberately constructed system. It's constructed by humans; it's not something that God just created. And once we realize that, then we realize that we can actually change it."]
By Joshua Holland, AlterNet
In his new book, Hostile Takeover, David Sirota unleashes a stinging 300-page indictment of a system corrupted almost beyond recognition. We have a government in which the greater good is subsumed by corporate interests day in and day out, and where political discourse itself is framed by those very interests; we end up discussing everything but the reasons why average Americans are worse off than they were 30 years ago.
The indictment has a number of counts -- the corporatocracy has gamed the tax codes, assaulted our right to a day in court, kept us from discussing single-payer health care and launched a relentless assault on Americans' right to organize. Sirota shows how the economy that most of us experience has been bled dry by "Big Money" interests while working people have faced a death by a thousand cuts, great and small.
Hostile Takeover is a gut-punch for anyone who still believes in the American Dream. But while Sirota gives us an unmerciful look into how the system is gamed, he doesn't leave readers feeling hopeless. Under a veneer of world-weary cynicism, Sirota's an optimist. Central to the work is his belief that if people are given a greater understanding of how the cards have been stacked against them, they can and will defeat the hostile takeover in its tracks.
I spoke with Sirota last week by phone as he was killing some time in Chicago between stops on his book tour.
Joshua Holland: You pinpoint the beginning of the Hostile Takeover in the early 1970s -- as many others have. Most people agree the proximate causes were the building of conservative infrastructure, the conservative media, etc. But I want to ask you about the bigger picture, looking beyond the proximate causes. I mean, was there a shift in our political culture then, or in our corporate culture?
David Sirota: I think what you're asking is -- and I get this question a lot -- money has always played a role in politics, what's different about how it plays out now?
JH: Yeah, you're better at this question thing than I am.
DS: I've been doing a lot of interviews. My take is that conservatives got smarter in the ways you described, but I think one of the ways that corporate America got smarter was that they began to understand that there was value to them in infiltrating the Democratic Party. They realized that owning the Republican Party was not enough, and that grabbing a chunk of the Democratic Party -- even a small chunk -- would allow the system as a whole to radically shift to the right far more quickly than if they just pursued a binary strategy with one party. We used to have one big business party and now we have one and a third -- or one and a quarter -- and that quarter is really integral to what's allowed the hostile takeover to move towards completion -- or at least to intensify.
JH: So you don't see both parties as being hopelessly sold out. What's your view of the likelihood of retaking that quarter -- of retaking the Democratic Party?
DS: I'm very optimistic about that.
JH: You are.
DS: Yes, I am. I've been asked why I stick it out with the Democratic Party. Well, I think my book lays out examples of why. I think there are really some reasons to be encouraged. There are some people in a bad system who are fighting back, I think there's infrastructure being built to better support people who are willing to stand up for ordinary citizens and I think people are starting to realize that there is political -- electoral -- value in a politics based on fighting back against the hostile takeover. I've written about that before, about how Democrats in red states are winning by being far more populist.
JH: Can this happen before we get public financing of campaigns? Because in your book, you do what a lot of policy people do: You lay out a lot of smart alternatives -- a lot of commonsense policy fixes. But elsewhere you talk about how we don't have an honest policy debate -- that those debates are being smothered in huge "piles of steaming bullshit," in large part because of where the money comes from. Given that, is public financing a precondition for getting anything done?
DS: I wouldn't call it a precondition, because I think a lot of the reforms I lay out are possible within a broken system. But, I do think that you can't really hope in the long-term sense to successfully beat back the hostile takeover unless you have public financing of elections. So there are a number of battles we can win, right now, without systemic change, but we can't win the overall war -- over the long-term -- without systemic changes like public campaign financing.
JH: Let me ask you about populism more broadly. I caught you last week in D.C. speaking with Thomas Frank.
JH: And his thesis is that economic populism trumps those -- sort of made-up -- wedge issues, the social issues. And you hear a lot of people saying that maybe we should abandon some of those issues in order to get those economic issues to the fore. I have very mixed feelings about that. What's your take? Would you de-emphasize some of the social issues, and, if so, which ones?
DS: Well I don't agree with the premise. I think people are voting on the social issues because they see no clear contrast or choice -- or authenticity -- on economic issues. In other words, the supremacy of social issues in American politics today is a sign of desperation by the public. The public has made a rational choice, seeing that neither party is really serious, yet about standing up for their economic interests. You see it in the polls -- people tell pollsters that both parties are corrupt, that neither party is standing up for them, etc. -- so I don't think that the paradigm is that social issues are more important to people than economic issues. I think they only look more important in a system in which fundamental economic issues aren't even discussed.
JH: That's backed up by the fact that white evangelicals who were also union members actually went for Kerry in the last election.
DS: That's exactly right.
JH: A related point. Ruy Teixera -- someone I don't see eye-to-eye with on a lot of issues -- pointed at a whole series of polls that showed that Americans, by and large, are already aware that they're being gamed by the system -- that they're being screwed over by big- moneyed interests. So the question is, what's the value in telling people something they already know?
DS: Well, I think he contradicts himself by saying that people already know the system's stacked against them, and then later he cites polls showing that people -- this is just one example -- that people see America as the most socially mobile society in the world, with the whole rags to riches story, etc. So he says people believe in that mobility, even though the undisputed fact -- as documented by not-so- liberal sources like the Wall Street Journal -- is that social mobility in the United States is at a historic low. Social mobility today is far below even Europe, even far below Scandinavia -- where they basically have democratic socialism, which we're led to believe has no social mobility.
So the first thing I would argue is that people don't know. And I'm not saying that people are stupid but -- as I document in the book -- there's a whole propaganda system in place to make sure that they don't know. And to make sure that people have false impressions about the economic system they live in.
The second piece is that it's far more rational to look at the situation and say -- if there's already a broad swath of people who think that our government is corrupt, that big business has too much control of the system and that corporations are running roughshod over the country -- it's a far more logical conclusion that the reason those people are not voting more for the Democratic Party is that the Democratic Party hasn't served as a vehicle for those feelings. So he's going out of his way to create a narrative instead of going straight from point A to point B.
The simple conclusion is that if people already believe this, and they're not supporting the Democrats, then the Democrats aren't doing a good job in showing why they're the party to address these problems. It's a far more circuitous route to say, "Well, people already believe the system's being gamed, so there's no reason to tell them the truth about it because they're not supporting the party for other reasons." I just think that doesn't make any sense. Usually, the simplest explanation is best.
JH: His big problem is that he used all this data based on how people view themselves, so people say, "Yes, I'm doing great." But we have this massive economic propaganda that raises expectations so high -- and you hear all the time is that the economy is going gangbusters, and you're standing still, so you end up thinking it must be something you're doing wrong. Then a pollster calls up and says, essentially, "Are you a loser?" Of course you're going to say "no."
DS: That's exactly right. That's a huge piece of the puzzle here. I touch on it in my book, but I think it's a huge issue that you could write a whole other book about: the propaganda of telling people what they believe. In other words, the messages in our media aren't just lies about individual issues, but they're also lies about what we, the public, are supposed to think. That goes into the whole question of what's centrist. What it means to be centrist -- as defined by the political system -- is far to the right of what's centrist or mainstream in public opinion polls on issues. When the political establishment says that everyone thinks the economy is doing great -- "Look at the stats, the economy is doing well" -- what it does is it creates this dissonance, where people look at their own situation and say, "I'm different, so I must be a freak, and I better just keep quiet and fall into line."
JH: I wonder how much it feeds into our high rates of depression and all that, when you get all this economic triumphalism ...
DS: Or look at how that plays out in personal debt. We're being told that everyone's doing great, and we live in a culture where materialism equals status, and more and more people are going into debt to keep up. I think it's the sickest form of propaganda when the political establishment purports to tell the public what they believe, when in fact there's no data to show that the public really believes it.
JH: Let me switch gears here for a moment and ask you what you mean when you write that people who are interested in change should become a big fish in a little pond?
DS: There's a lot of media pressure to focus our political activism only on the White House -- and to a lesser extent Congress -- and if and when people get engaged on that level, people don't really have a sense they're having a real impact because it can feel so massive. And we need to get out of that cycle. If we get engaged at the state and local levels, we can have a lot more impact. On many of these issues, at the state or local levels, they affect our daily lives in the same ways -- if not more -- than on the national scene. I mean if you want to talk about taxes, state taxes impact our lives as much as federal taxes. But people can see far more impact when they get involved at that level.
And it's also a long-term strategy. If you change things farther down the political food chain, over the course of time that change works its way up. In the long run, if you get good people in your state legislature or your city council, they will become the next members of Congress and the future presidents.
JH: Now, you made an important point about how the big-business right's greatest success has been convincing people that they're powerless to effect change. Are you at all concerned that a book like this is going to make people throw their hands in the air and think, "It's so hopelessly corrupt; why should I even bother?"
DS: I'm not, because I think that right now people are looking for a vehicle for their righteous outrage. And we suffer in this country from there only being a right-wing cultural vehicle for that outrage rather than a mainstream populist vehicle. I'm not one of those people who are afraid of being called angry -- you know the Republicans talk about the "angry left" and that's a complete joke. Just flip on talk radio, and you'll see real anger. I think the vast majority of the population is angry, and I'm not afraid of that anger. I think people should be angry, and I think people are looking for a political avenue to express that anger.
My writing isn't like a negative campaign ad -- a negative campaign ad is designed to suppress turnout by saying, "Look, the other guy's a dirtbag." What I'm trying to say is: Look at how corrupt this system is to its bone. And look at how we're being lied to, and all the solutions that I lay out are relatively straightforward. And the way we get there is for us to start thinking about systemic change and not just the day-to-day political bickering you see on Hardball or Meet the Press. In many ways, all of that is part of the corrupt system.
So what I'm really trying to do is to open up the possibility to folks that all of this stuff -- the entire system -- is not just a creation of nature. It didn't just happen. On all of these issues, we are experiencing a very deliberately constructed system. It's constructed by humans; it's not something that God just created. And once we realize that, then we realize that we can actually change it.
A great example -- which I talk about a lot -- is these free-trade deals, which are like a religion. They're not free -- they're extremely protectionist. This free-trade crap is viewed like a religion, like it's just the natural way of things. But they're written by corporations very deliberately and in great detail in order to do certain things and not others -- namely, protect corporate profits, while leaving workers and the environment totally unprotected. Once we step back and say, "Wait a minute, that's not the natural order of things," then you can change it.
So my optimistic hope is that when people realize that this corrupt system is not divine and is changeable, then people will react.
Read an excerpt from David Sirota's book "Hostile Takeover".
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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