2011 - %3, June

So Where is Japan's Radiation Going?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 4:26 PM PDT

Japan's nuclear agency reported to the IAEA today that the nuclear fuel in three reactors at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant likely melted through the inner containment vessels and not just their cores in the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard reported earlier today, Japan also more than doubled the estimate of the amount of radioactive materials released from Fukushima—from 370,000 to 770,000 terabecquerels.

Which makes the work of a research cruise just now underway to measure radioactivity in the ocean off Japan even more important.

This 15-day cruise is led by chief scientist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and members of his lab, Café Thorium. They're joined by researchers and technicians from around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R/V Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa. Credit: NOAA.

 

The science crew of 17 is sailing aboard the research vessel Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa—the Hawaiian name means Heavenly Searcher of the Sea—a vessel of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory. You can check out some of their onboard toolkit here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan's damaged nuclear power plants in relation to the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Maximilian Dörrbecker / Chumwa via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The failures of engineering at Fukushima, combined with Japan's spectacular disaster unpreparedeness, resulted in the largest ever accidental release of radiation to the environment. Much of that contamination washed into the Pacific. Additional airborne radioactivity likely further contaminated the ocean.

The team's mission statement:

The need to understand the amount, type, and fate of radioactive materials released prompted a group of scientists from the U.S., Japan, and Europe to organize the first multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research cruise in the northwestern Pacific since the events of March and April. [We'll] spend two weeks... examining many of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the ocean that either determine the fate of radioactivity in the water or that are potentially affected by radiation in the marine environment.

They'll be sampling well out into the mighty Kuroshio Current, a rich highway for the marine life of the North Pacific. The isotopes/elements they're looking for are: iodine-131, cesium-137, plutonium, strontium, and tritium. For a map of their sampling stations, see my blog Deep Blue Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Krill. Credit:Øystein Paulsen via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Science Insider reports that marine biologist Nicholas Fisher from the State University of New York at Stony Brook is leading the effort to study how radioactivity wends its way through the marine foodweb:

Because 3 months have passed and most isotopes, particularly the short-lived iodine-131 with an 8-day half-life, have decayed considerably, he doesn't expect to see any toxicity. However, there will still be detectable levels in organisms such as brown seaweed, which can store iodine at 10,000 times the concentration in the water. Such a measure might help researchers understand how the isotopes move through the food chain, even up to seafood-eating humans.

Meanwhile Geoff Brumfiel & David Cyranoski at Nature News provide a great roundup of the ongoing challenges at Fukushima, including the ongoing grave reservations held by some researchers about the methods used.

[S]ome experts in Japan have expressed reservations about the decontamination process. Radioactive water will continue to flow from the cores into basements and trenches, and damage to the site means there will probably be further leaks. Ming Zhang, who studies environmental pollution risks at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, fears that contaminated water will end up in the ocean.

From the sounds of things, the Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa has just made it to the first sampling stations. You can read bloglike updates from the cruise here.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

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Tim Pawlenty and That Old-Time Supply Side Black Magic

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 3:38 PM PDT

Tim Pawlenty today:

I promised to level with the American people. To look them in the eye. And tell them the truth.

OK, Tim. Hit me with it. I'm ready to be leveled with and told hard truths that I might not like:

I propose just two rates, 10% and 25%.....A one-third cut in the bottom rate....And a 28% cut in the top rate to spur investment and job creation. In addition, we should eliminate all together the capital gains tax, interest income tax, dividends tax and the death tax.

....Once we unleash the creative energy of America’s businesses, families and individuals as we did in the eighties and nineties, a booming job market will reduce demand for government assistance. And rising incomes will increase federal revenues....5% economic growth over 10 years would generate 3.8 trillion dollars in new tax revenues.

So that's Tim Pawlenty's hard truth? That if I suck it up and accept lower taxes, federal revenues will magically go up and our deficit problem will already be half solved without anyone having to do anything? That's some tough talkin', governor. You'll probably take a real hit in the polls for this kind of truthtelling.

It's hard to know what to say about this. The pander quotient in Pawlenty's speech is just off the charts. It's less a speech than a series of Reagan-era applause lines bulked up on steroids and then stitched together for public consumption. Reduce taxes on the rich (plus a little bit on the middle class so it's not too obvious what's going on). Cut corporate taxes. Pass a balanced budget amendment. Raise the Social Security retirement age. Eliminate the post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, and Fannie and Freddie. Apply "Lean Six Sigma" to generate 20% spending reductions.1 Slash regulations that cost us $1.75 trillion per year. Repeal Dodd-Frank. Repeal healthcare reform. Gut the EPA. Keep the dollar strong. No more "printing money."

I dunno. It feels like Pawlenty is auditioning for the lead role in a campaign remake of "Heart of Darkness" or something. A couple of miscellaneous comments, though. First, after a few years of skirting dangerously close to reality, I guess it's once again official Republican dogma that tax cuts pay for themselves and then some. Glad to see they can still kick it old school. Second, it looks like the battle of the GOP "adults" — Romney and Pawlenty — is taking shape. Romney lately seems to be hedging a bit toward non-insanity, hoping that there's still a majority in the Republican Party that isn't quite willing to sail completely over the Palin/Beck/Limbaugh cliff into fairyland. Pawlenty, conversely, is going all in. If you believe in faith, freedom, and that old-time supply-side black magic, he's your man.

Which will Republican voters choose? I don't know, but the battle lines seem fairly well drawn now.

1No, I have no idea what this bit of corporate consultant babble means either, and I refuse to Google it to find out.

How Did We Manage to Kill Ilyas Kashmiri?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 12:30 PM PDT

A friend emails to alert me to the following interesting timeline:

May 27: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Islamabad with a list of five top militant leaders that Washington would like to see dead. One of them is Ilyas Kashmiri, a terrorist leader who is close to al-Qaeda and suspected of playing a role in both the Mumbai massacre of 2008 and several attacks within Pakistan, including last month's attack on a naval base in Karachi.

May 29: Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, disappears. Shahzad, who has been critical of Pakistan's ISI and has exposed its cooperation with al-Qaeda elements, is known to have had contacts with Kashmiri and other jihadists.

May 31: Shahzad is found in a canal 80 miles outside of Islamabad, tortured and beaten. His cell phone is wiped clean from the previous 18 days.

June 3: Kashmiri is reportedly killed in a U.S. drone attack.

My friend asks: did the ISI simply kill a journalist who embarrassed the government and the military? Or did they torture his contacts out of him, as they've done to journalists before, on our behalf?

There are other alternatives, of course, including the possibility that the ISI had nothing to do with either Shahzad's death or the drone attack on Kashmiri. They just aren't very plausible. There's probably a pretty good story here for an enterprising reporter who's not afraid of ISI reprisals.

Greetings From Ohio

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

This is going to be a little bit different than my last assignment, which looked like this:

Photo: Joey Shemuel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My new one looks like this:

That's my room for the next month. I'm in Gahanna, Ohio, which, the welcome sign at the edge of this Columbus suburb notes, was one of the Top 100 Places to Live according to Money magazine in 2007. Ohio's new Republican governor, John Kasich (currently a contender for the most unpopular governor in the country) is gearing up to make some big changes around here. This month state legislators will come to an agreement on Kaisch's great big budget cuts, mostly to local governments. He is also proposing to dismantle unions' bargaining abilities, the cause of much protesting. He also wants to divert profits from state alcohol sales to a "jobs creating" semi-venture-capital fund he heads.

For the next four weeks, I'll be covering these developments, while spending some quality time with people who work for the state, college students, university administrators who are about to see their budgets slashed, and local politicians (if they'll talk to me).

But first, meet the folks who have agreed to take me on as a boarder/annoying journalistic presence. Erin Rodriguez was Erin Goodrich when I knew her at my undergrad alma mater Ohio State. She turns 31 next week, and teaches at a public middle school in a rural town outside Columbus. Her husband Anthony is a public information specialist at the Ohio Consumers' Counsel (OCC), an agency that advocates for customers in complaints, regulatory hearings, and court cases involving utility companies. They recently bought a three-bedroom house. (Katie, the subject of the American Girl stenciling in my bedroom, belonged to the previous owners.)

Running the house is Jocelyn, a supercute (even if you're not really into babies) and delightfully unfussy 10-month-old. These are the house rules I was given when I arrived yesterday:

1. Don't hurt the baby.

2. The baby is the boss.

2a. "Don't worry if you swear around the baby, but don't just be screaming random expletives. And don't swear at the baby."

Rounding out the family are a big gray cat named Princess Vespa, and a black one that the four-year-old Erin adopted it from had christened Barack Obama. Barack Obama will not stop rubbing up against me even though I'm violently allergic to cats.

Last night, Erin and I drove around my new digs, which she describes as "pretty typical suburbia." Gahanna is a solidly middle-class suburb. Lots of green lawns and trees, lots of shopping centers. It's not like some of the more bourgeois suburbs around here, Erin explained, "as evidenced by the lack of a Whole Foods"—which I'd inquired about. (Though I'm originally from Ohio, this and a question about the availability of composting prompted a lot of mocking about how I now live in California.)

We pulled back into the driveway at the same time as Anthony. He'd had a long day; that evening there had been a public meeting about the local electric company's planned rate hike. Things are busy at the office, too. In addition to the usual business, he has to move his desk; the office is being consolidated to one floor from two. Kasich's original budget draft called for a 51 percent cut to the OCC. The state Senate has proposed softening it to fortysomething percent, but a ton of layoffs are still on the table. "We're in that mode," Anthony says of himself and his coworkers, "where we're like, What the hell are we going to do?"

With his job up in the air, Anthony's been doing as much freelance consulting as possible. When we all got home at 8:30, he got back on his laptop to get some work done. As much as he could, anyway. Erin and I failed to sufficiently preoccupy the baby, who kept pointing at and asking for her dad. He took a break, to pick her up, singing us a soothing little song while he paced the family room carpet with Jocelyn in his arms.

Japan's Ongoing Nuclear Crisis

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 12:18 PM PDT

The Japanese nuclear agency has doubled its previous estimate of the amount of radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Even with the increased estimate, the amount of radiation released since the disaster began on March 11 is only about 15 percent of the radiation leaked at Chernobyl, but the plant is still leaking, and officials said the damage from meltdowns at three different reactors is more extensive than they had previously reported.

In a 750-page report to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japanese officials acknowledged that they were "unprepared" to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. The report also includes a number of notable admissions. From the BBC:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says more evacuations are being considered. Monitoring shows the lie of the land and wind patterns may be causing a build-up of radiation in other areas.

And from Bloomberg:

Many workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were without personal dosimeters to measure radiation exposure for weeks after the March 11 earthquake because the tsunami soaked their devices in seawater, making them unusable.

So while the nuclear crisis may have faded from headlines in the US, the latest news is a reminder that residents and officials in the country will be dealing with this for some time. The disaster has also caused political stirrings in the country. Last week, after an unsuccessful "no confidence" vote in the lower house of the parliament, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he may resign over the Fukushima situation once they reach "a certain stage in tackling the disaster and I've fulfilled my role."

Scott Walker Ditches Symbolic Painting of Homeless, Low-Income Kids

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 10:36 AM PDT

Even Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's home redecorating plans have caused an uproar. In his first six months in office, Walker sparked a national controversy by trying to curb collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, not to mention slash education funding and social and health services for his state's citizens. Now, Walker has made headlines again after he removed a painting depicting three Wisconsin children—one had been homeless, one came from low-income family, and a third who had lost family members in a drunk-driving accident. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the painting was one of numerous pieces of art commissioned by the fund that operates the governor's mansion—works that were intended to remind the governor of the constituents he or she represents.

Here's the Journal Sentinel on the painting by artist David Lenz:

In an interview, Lenz said he carefully selected the three children portrayed in "Wishes in the Wind." The African-American girl, featured in a Journal Sentinel column on homelessness, spent three months at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission with her mother. The Hispanic girl is a member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. And the boy's father and brother were killed by a drunken driver in 2009.

"The homeless, central city children and victims of drunk drivers normally do not have a voice in politics," Lenz explained in an email. "This painting was an opportunity for future governors to look these three children in the eye, and I hope, contemplate how their public policies might affect them and other children like them."

He added: "I guess that was a conversation Governor Walker did not want to have."

A Walker spokesman insisted that the replacement of Lenz's work with a Civil War-themed painting depicting a bald eagle was not a criticism of the painting. The spokesman said the Lenz painting was likely going on loan to the Milwaukee Public Library.

By ditching Lenz's painting, Walker has taken a page from Maine's Republican Governor Paul LePage. This spring, LePage demanded that a union-friendly mural inside the state's Department of Labor be removed because it wasn't pro-business enough for his liking. The decision outraged Democrats, labor unions, artists, and many more, and the US Labor Department told LePage to either put the federally-funded mural back in its place or return the work to the federal government. Currently the mural remains in limbo; three lawyers have filed a restraining order demanding LePage reverse his original order.

A trustee for the library connected Walker's anti-union bill with the painting brouhaha. "This is indicative of [Walker's] tone-deafness," the trustee, John Gurda, said. "My point of view is this is not the Walkers' house, this is Wisconsin's house. This was commissioned by an organization that was there long before Scott Walker came in and will be there long after he is gone."

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Does Barbie Hate Orangutans?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 10:35 AM PDT
Greenpeace says Ken doesn't date girls who live in packaging from the rainforest.

A few weeks ago, Mattel announced that Barbie wants a green dream house. Perhaps it's because she's spent so much time in environmentally deplorable digs.

According to a Greenpeace investigation, Barbie dolls are among the many toys on the market whose packaging contains fibers that originated in the ecologically fragile (and mightily abused) Indonesian rainforest, which is home to a vast array of creatures including tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. Greenpeace sent samples of Barbie packaging to IPS Testing, a paper analysis lab, which confirmed that the sample contained fibers of mixed tropical hardwood. According to Greenpeace, this particular wood blend is a telltale sign that the paper originated in Indonesia, since that's the only place that produces it in large volumes. Greenpeace also dug up several certificates (PDF) that show that Mattel has purchased paper from a middleman for Asia Pulp & Paper, a gargantuan paper supply company whose many misdeeds in Indonesia have prompted American retail chains (including Staples, Office Depot, and Target) to quit buying from APP for good. I wrote about APP's weird ties with the tea party here.

Although Mattel hasn't yet responded to Greenpeace's accusations, there's been some back and forth between the two groups. In March, Greenpeace wrote to Mattel, asking the company about its paper sourcing policies. Two months later, Mattel responded:

We specify that our catalogs are printed on paper containing at least 10 percent post‐consumer waste, and we encourage consumers to share and recycle them. For other printed materials, we generally work with paper suppliers and the printers that can make recommendations on latest FSC‐approved paper stocks that meet the needs of our specific project. In addition, we have reduced our use of paper through socializing conservation measures with our employees and reducing the size and number of corporate reports we print by moving to digital solutions.

So yeah, the elephant in the living room is, uh, the packaging.

More bad news: Even if you've banished Barbie from your house, it's likely at least a few of your toys are made by companies on Greenpeace's list of rainforest-unfriendly manufacturers: Some Disney, Hasbro, and LEGO packages were all found to contain Indonesian fibers. LEGOs! And here I thought they could do no wrong!

 

Chart of the Day: Being Rich in America

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 10:05 AM PDT

Via Felix Salmon, here's a fun new tool to play around with: the World Top Incomes Database. For example, here's a chart showing how the top 1% are doing in America vs. six other rich economies from around the world. Pretty good job, rich Americans!

You can create your own charts too. Just click here and then click on "Graphics." It's fun for the whole family — assuming your family is really wealthy, anyway. For the rest of us, at least it's free.

Amnesty International Calls for End to Solitary Confinement of Angola 3

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 9:58 AM PDT

Amnesty International has issued a press release, action alert, and detailed report on the case of the Angola 3, which has been extensively documented in Mother Jones (here, here, and here). The press release, issued yesterday, concerns the two members of the Angola 3 who remain in prison and have now entered their 40th year in solitary confinement.

The US state of Louisiana must immediately remove two inmates from the solitary confinement they were placed in almost 40 years ago, Amnesty International said today.

Albert Woodfox, 64, and Herman Wallace, 69, were placed in "Closed Cell Restriction (CCR)" in Louisiana State Penitentiary - known as Angola Prison - since they were convicted of the murder of a prison guard in 1972. Apart from very brief periods, they have been held in isolation ever since.

"The treatment to which Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace have been subjected for the past four decades is cruel and inhumane and a violation of the US's obligations under international law," said Guadalupe Marengo, Americas Deputy Director at Amnesty International.

The action alert urges readers to sign a petition to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The twelve-page report describes the apparent miscarriages of justice involved in Woodfox and Wallace's original murder conviction. It then asks, "Why are they still in isolation?" and goes on to explain:

Assisted Suicide, Round 2

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 9:36 AM PDT

One more go-around on assisted suicide. Ezra Klein writes that he was unpersuaded by Ross Douthat's column on Monday condemning the practice:

But for all that some of the arguments for physician-assisted suicide are convincing, this article by Ezekiel Emanuel continues to give me pause. Emanuel shows that unbearable physical agony is almost never the reason patients give for seeking euthanasia.... Depression and other forms of mental distress — which are, of course, a sort of pain — are by far the more common motivator.

Emanuel also worries that the option of euthanasia will lead to worse care for the dying, and perhaps even subtle coercion on the part of loved ones and medical professionals who can no longer bear to see a patient suffer, or, more worryingly, can no longer afford to treat their suffering....That may seem alarmist now, but give euthanasia 15 or 20 years to become commonplace, and abuse, or at least overuse, is much easier to imagine.

I want to make a couple of points, one practical and one a little more philosophical. Emanuel's piece is 14 years old and I don't know if he's changed his views in the meantime, but on its merits I didn't find it nearly as persuasive as Ezra did. On a practical level, Emanuel argues that the experience of the Netherlands, which effectively decriminalized assisted suicide in the early 80s, demonstrates that not every physician follows the rigorous rules that have been set up to insure that assisted suicide is available only to those who genuinely want it and are of sound mind. But in fact, the numbers he cites are fairly small and not especially troubling. Only about 1% of Dutch deaths are assisted, hardly a tidal wave; most violations of the law are minor; and there's very little evidence that there's any serious level of abuse going on. It's trivially true that no human set of rules will ever be perfect, or perfectly followed, but falling short of perfection is a poor argument against how the Netherlands handles assisted suicide. In fact, the evidence suggests that they've done quite a good job of policing themselves on this front. If you don't want to die, nobody in the Netherlands is prodding you to do it anyway.

On a more philosophical level, the bigger issue here is the existence of a slippery slope: once assisted suicide becomes widely accepted, doctors and loved ones might start coercing dying patients into accepting it. It would be foolish to pretend that this an entirely ridiculous concern, but there's a good general rule to follow when you think about slippery slope arguments: does the slippery slope work with or against human nature? The former are far more dangerous than the latter.

For an example of the former, think about the torture of terrorist detainees. If we allow it in a few cases, is that likely to lead to a slippery slope in which we torture more and more prisoners? I think that's a real concern: millennia of human history demonstrate that jailers routinely torture their prisoners unless there are extremely strong, bright line rules against it. It is, unfortunately, pretty universal behavior If you break the taboo against it, you unleash that dark part of human nature, and once unleashed there's a very stong likelihood that it will feed on itself and get continually worse. That's why keeping this hard-won taboo in place is so worthwhile.

But what about assisted suicide? If it's legalized and becomes accepted, will it lead to doctors and family members trying to get rid of old and dying patients? In some cases, yes: the world is full of bad people, after all. But how likely is this to become a widespread problem? Not very, I think, because it flies against everything we know about human nature. Hollywood potboilers notwithstanding, family members don't generally want to kill off fellow family members, and that goes double for actively killing off parents. There are always going to be a small number of cases where this happens, but with even minimal safeguards in place it's simply not likely to ever become a major problem.

So the arguments against assisted suicide still seem weak to me. What's more, as with all proposed policy changes, you need to ask the question: compared to what? Will there be abuses of assisted suicide? Of course. This is the real world we're dealing with. But our current system of caring for the elderly already features massive, gruesome, systemic abuses. These abuses aren't hypothetical, they're real. The chances that a properly constructed assisted suicide regime would produce worse results strikes me as slight.