2011 - %3, March

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 29, 2011

Tue Mar. 29, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Young Afghan children of the Nawbot village look at a U.S. Army Soldier as he conducts a routine patrol of their village. Photo via US Army.

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Avoiding the Conservative Rabbit Hole

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 10:31 PM EDT

Mike Konczal says that by now he understands pretty much all of the pro and con arguments related to the financial reform bill:

But at this point I simply no longer understand the hysterical, off-reality, arguments conservatives, especially the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, are making about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Again, if they wanted to argue the meta-level, bring it on. If they think the problem is, a la Phil Gramm, predatory borrowers, say it. If they are freaked out about cost of capital going higher, make that case. I’ve written that the previous attempts to make that case are quite amateur, but I’d love to hear new ones. Anything, really, and I’ll give it a fair listen.

Don't hold your breath, Mike. The CFPB is opposed by banks because it will probably make them slightly less profitable, and conservatives, in turn, oppose it because banks oppose it. Looking any further is just a fool's errand.

The Radioactive Ocean

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 8:15 PM EDT

The "Baker" explosion at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.The "Baker" explosion at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

 
The compass of news the past few days has swung to a new North—to the rising measurements of radioactivity in the waters off Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant.
 
The transmission of radionuclides through the physical and biological webs of ocean and atmosphere is dynamic and far-reaching, since the contamination is carried by waves and winds and life itself. You can see an illustration of how this works at my blog Deep Blue Home.
 
Radioactive pollution in the ocean is nothing new. We've been loosing the stuff offshore since 1944. Here's how.
 

1) Nuclear weapons tests:

  • For example, at Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated 23 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests, including the first hydrogen bomb, which exploded far more violently than predicted and contaminated a swath of ocean 100 miles/160 kilometers away from the epicenter. The fallout affected inhabited islands, fishing boats and fishers at sea, and, obviously, a lot of marine life. The map below shows where contaminated fish were caught, or where the sea was found to be excessively radioactive, after the 1955 hydrogen bomb test at Bikini=X marks. B=original "danger zone" announced by the US government. W="danger zone" extended later. NE, EC, and SE are equatorial currents. Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons.

 
  • France exploded 193 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and in the waters of French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. The tests began after the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawing detonations in the air. I wrote about this in my book THE FRAGILE EDGE:
The [first] bomb was exploded aboard a barge in the [Moruroa's] lagoon, sucking water into the air and raining dead fish, corals, cephalopods, crustaceans, mollusks, and all the once living components of the reef onto Moruroa’s motu [islands], where their radioactive forms decayed for weeks. Confounded by this result, the French hastily arranged to explode their second bomb seventeen days later from an air plane 45,000 feet above the featureless South Pacific, some 60 miles south of Moruroa. Without people or equipment to witness, record, or analyze this distant blast, virtually no data was collected, making its detonation more an act of pique than science. Two days later, as described by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
An untriggered bomb on the ground [at Moruroa] was exposed to a “security test.” While it did not explode, the bomb’s case cracked and its plutonium contents spilled over the reef. The contaminated area was "sealed" by covering it with a layer of asphalt.
 
 Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit for both: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit for both: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
2) Sinking of nuclear-powered submarines:

 

  • So far, eight nuclear-powered submarines have sunk or been scuttled: two American, four Soviet; two Russian.
  • Four in the North Atlantic, three in the Barents Sea, one in the Kara Sea north of Siberia.
  • Another accident in 1968 in the North Pacific 1,796 miles / 2,890 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Oahu led to the sinking of a diesel-electric Soviet sub sank carrying nuclear ballistic missiles.

 

Salvaged wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, via Wikimedia Commons.Salvaged wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, via Wikimedia Commons

 
3) Spacecraft and satellite failures, including:
 
  • The launch failure in 1964 of an American navigation satellite with an onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)—an electrical generator fueled by radioactive decay. This fell into the ocean near Madagascar and deposited a quantity of plutonium-238 equal to half the amount of plutonium-238 naturally present in the entire World Ocean.

  • The failed Apollo 13 mission (1970) jettisoned its Lunar Module Aquarius with the intention that it would crash into the sea and plummet into the Pacific's Tonga Trench—one of the the deepest places on our planet—since it was still carrying its RTG with plutonium dioxide fuel. So far no plutonium-238 has been recorded in nearby atmospheric and seawater sampling, suggesting the cask is currently intact on the seabed. 
  • At least four other RTG-powered spacecraft have fallen to Earth, including one into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel off California in 1968. 
  • Between 1973 and 1993, at least five Soviet/Russian RORSAT satellites failed to eject their nuclear reactor cores prior to falling back to Earth. One fell into the Pacific north of Japan (1973), another over Canada's Northwest Territories (1978), another in the South Atlantic (1983). The successfully ejected cores are in still orbit, destined to plummet back to Earth someday.
 
 
The Apollo 13 Lunar Module, Aquarius, just after jettisoning on 17 April 1970. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.The Apollo 13 Lunar Module, Aquarius, just after jettisoning on 17 April 1970. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons. 
 
4) Discharges from nuclear reprocessing and power plants:
 
  • Britain's Sellafield (aka Windscale) is a nuclear storage site, an erstwhile nuclear weapons production plant, nuclear reprocessing center, and nuclear power plant, currently in the process of decommissioning. Due to accidents, chronic emissions, and overflows at Sellafield, the nearby Irish Sea is deemed the most radioactive sea on Earth.
  • The Hanford Site in Washington—home to the world's first plutonium production reactor—purposely released radionuclides down the Columbia River from the 1940s to the 1970s. The contamination travelled hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean. Today the radionuclides are used as markers by oceanographers tracking sediment movements on the continental shelf.
 
Salmon spawning in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, at the site of 30 years of radioactive releases. Credit: US Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.Salmon spawning in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, at the site of 30 years of radioactive releases. Credit: US Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
5) Ocean dumps:
 
  • Dump sites for radioactive waste were created in the northeast Atlantic (1 site), off Europe (3), off the US eastern seaboard (1), and off the US Pacific coast (1).
  • Between 1946 and 1970, the US dumped ~107,000 drums of radioactive wastes at its two sites, including some 47,800 in the ocean west of San Francisco, supposedly at three designated sites. However drums actually litter an area of at least 1,400 square kilometers/540 square miles, known as the Farallon Island Radioactive Waste Dump, which now falls almost entirely within the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The exact location of most drums is unknown. At least some are corroding.

 

A drum of radioactive waste dumped off San Francisco. Credit: USGS.A drum of radioactive waste dumped off San Francisco. Credit: USGS.

 
A 1996 paper in Health Physics described some of the radionuclides found in the tissues of deep-sea bottom-feeding fishes—Dover sole, sablefish, and thornyheads—plus intertidal mussels in the waters around the Farallon Islands:
 
Concentrations of both [plutonium-238] and [Americium-241] in fish tissues were notably higher than those reported in literature from any other sites world-wide, including potentially contaminated sites. These results show approximately 10 times higher concentrations of [plutonium-238+240] and approximately 40-50 times higher concentrations of [plutonium-238] than those values reported for identical fish species from 1977 collections at the [Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Dump Site].
 
Of course the fallen satellites, the sunken submarines, the leftovers from nuclear bomb tests, and the dumped drums of waste are all subject to saltwater corrosion and the same destructive tectonic forces that triggered the March 11th Sendai earthquake and tsunami.
 
In an upcoming post, I'll take a look at what might lie ahead for Japan's troubled waters and beyond.
 
Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

 

Small But Mighty

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Sometimes the smallest of things can have the greatest of impacts. We've all woken up to find we've no milk in the fridge and got to wondering how we ever did without it! Well, as strange as it may sound the Pacific herring is a little like that.

Commonly referred to as "the silver of the sea," these oily little fish have proved to be the most commercially important part of the fishing industry. Being a staple part of the human diet since at least 3000 B.C. Although, it's not just humans who have developed a taste for these delicate bait bits. With a list of predators as long as your arm, it’s not surprising that they have developed a way of breeding which ensures their survival.

Ecological biomass is a term used to describe how living biological organisms group together to defend their species against the many predators they face, there is after all power in numbers! This isn't an uncommon technique, and we see similarities in the breeding habits of many animals, particularly those who live in herds. What is truly spectacular however is how a species can be pushed to its absolute limits, and come back again in full force! Although clearly hardy, herring remain a sensitive species being affected by overfishing in general, overfishing of its young as well as environmental events. Thankfully, scientists and fishermen are making efforts to rebuild and protect stocks, assuring that humans and animals can enjoy this vitamin rich fish for years to come! These silver fellows don't just rely on us for help though. They have an incredibly effective camouflage that uses embedded crystals within their bodies to create a glistening effect, keeping them concealed in the surrounding water. However some predators have worked out a very clever way of overcoming this feature, as you can see in this video below.

Three against one seems hardly fair, but then again that's the circle of life. In a few weeks time, the adult herring will have reached their shallower waters and will begin to breed. In just two weeks the eggs produced, that have been sheltering near rocks or on seaweed, will flood the coastlines in numbers over 800 billion! Not only will this ensure that the next generation will be stronger than ever before, but also that resident predators will get the much-needed meal and by the time this arrives there's quite a queue for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll probably find sea lions, seabirds, dolphins, sharks, porpoises, seals, whales, tuna, halibut and cod to name a few on an almost endless list.

The White House on Libya: It's Complicated

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 3:23 PM EDT

In characterizing President Barack Obama's message on Libya hours before his scheduled speech on the matter, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, essentially said this: it's complicated.

During a White House press gaggle—an off-camera briefing—conducted by Carney and deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough on Monday, reporters repeatedly pressed the Obama aides to describe what Obama would say in his speech. Both men demurred, noting they were not there to preview his remarks. It seemed reasonable for White House officials to tell the reporters that the upcoming speech would speak for itself. Still, White House reporters yearned for a hand-out of some sort.

Meanwhile, they also pushed McDonough and Carney to answer the unanswerable—that is, what's the endgame in Libya? That's probably, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, a known unknown, at this point. Obama has agreed to a limited military action, designed and initiated to prevent a result (Muammar Qaddafi making good on his vow to turn Benghazi into a slaughtering field), rather than to produce a specific outcome (say, a Qaddafi-less Libya). And this has yielded a media narrative: the public is confused about the warfare in Libya.

With that in mind, I asked Carney the following question:

Critics on the left or right and voices in the media have talked about there being some confusion in the public over the President’s aims and the goals and intentions of this mission. Do you believe that from the very start the White House has communicated effectively with the public about what the President is thinking regards to the Libyan action?

Carney, with a straight face, said, "Absolutely, yes." The reporters laughed. He was joking, in a way. He then proceeded toward a more serious reply:.

Seriously, I think—I want to get at this question, because somebody over the weekend on one of these shows suggested that—or claimed outright that the White House had suggested that some of the questions raised by members of Congress were illegitimate. No one in the White House ever said that. I certainly never said that from this podium.

Questions are legitimate. They deserve to be answered. We have endeavored to answer them from the President, to the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, Deputy National Security Advisor, and the Press Secretary and others. So they’re all—they are legitimate questions. And it is understandable that there is complexity here that needs to be explained and we have tried to explain, which is that there is the military mission, the goals of which are quite clearly laid out in the resolution authorizing the use of force in all necessary measures.

And then there are the over—and there are the other baskets, the other tools. I think Secretary Gates said it well that we have more than just hammers in our toolbox here, and the things that we are doing unilaterally as the United States, but also in concert with our international allies, to put pressure on Qaddafi and isolate Qaddafi, that is also very much an important aspect of our policy.

And I think that where you see the question of confusion come up is this idea that because we have stated, the President has stated, that we do not believe Qaddafi is a legitimate leader and that he should leave power, and yet we are not authorizing our military—or the U.N. Security Council resolution is not authorized to take out or remove or effect regime change in Libya, that there is somehow confusion in that.

There is a military mission designed to protect civilians, to enforce a no-fly zone. And there is a policy of this administration that we are pursuing through other measures that seeks to isolate and pressure Qaddafi to the point where he leaves power.

In other words, there has been some confusion—due to the complexity of the issue. Carney might have a point. The mission is not a simple one, as in, do everything possible to get Qaddafi. The mission is to do what is possible, in conjunction with NATO allies and a few Arab partners, to block Qaddafi from butchering Libyans opposed to his rule—hoping (or intending) to create a set of circumstances that just might lead to the dictator's downfall. Tripoli or Bust this ain't. This is a military action of nuance.

I followed up Carney's reply:

Mitt Romney has attacked the President for being nuanced... Do you think that having a policy that has these different levels is just hard to explain in a hyper-media environment?

Carney answered, "we’ve tried to explain it and I think—when it’s explained well and clearly, that it is understandable.  And the President has done that on a number of occasions, and again the American people will hear him speak to it tonight."

With critics on the right and left assailing Obama and the media echoing trumped-up accusations of confusion, Obama might need more than a single speech to ensure his policy is understandable throughout the land.

Taking Aim at the Poor

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 3:22 PM EDT

This is an oddly fascinating quote from a GOP staffer:

Republicans are poised to reject a White House offer, TPM has learned, that would cut over $30 billion in current spending because of disagreements over whether the package should include cuts to mandatory spending programs. Democrats are pushing for such cuts, which include the big entitlement programs, though the specific cuts they're proposing remain unclear. In an ironic twist, Republicans oppose those cuts and want to limit the negotiations to non-defense discretionary spending, a smaller subset of the federal budget.

....Asked about the offer the White House has floated, a top Republican aide says, "This debate has always been about discretionary spending — not autopilot 'mandatory' spending or tax hikes."

This isn't a big surprise or anything, but I've never seen it put quite so baldly. This guy is literally saying that Republicans don't want to cut spending, they only want to cut nondefense discretionary spending. That's it. This, of course, is the one part of the budget that's (a) too small to really matter much, and (b) includes social welfare spending for poor people. Again, no big surprise, but at least it clears up what Republicans really care about cutting. And it's not the deficit.

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Cash for Clunkers: Nuclear Edition

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 2:25 PM EDT

Correction: Yikes. As some commenters noted, I blundered by attributing the energy losses shown in the chart below entirely to electricity lost during transmission. That was careless, and I've corrected it below. In fact, a lot of the losses are due to heat lost in the generation process. Transmission losses, as the fine print indeed noted, were estimated at 6.5 percent. On the other hand, that's still an enormous amount of lost power. In retrospect, I guess I'd have to agree with the commenter who says we need a mixture of distributed and centralized power to meet our needs. But I still contend that utilities have actively resisted distributed power generation, and that's counterproductive. What's more, companies need to do more to reduce heat losses. Here's a great piece from the Atlantic on that very topic.  

In response to Japan's nuclear crisis, the US green-building group, Architecture 2030, sent out a couple of emails last week fact-checking media assertions that nuclear power accounts for roughly 20 percent of US energy consumption. In fact, the group points out, nuke plants provide about 21 percent of US electricity consumption, but less than 9 percent of overall US energy consumption.

It's a wonky distinction, but the accompanying chart shows something more striking, in case you didn't know it: The way we make and deliver electricity is incredibly inefficient. "Electricity consumption," in utility jargon, is the sum of the power we actually use plus the power lost as heat during generation and transmission of electricity through cables to our homes and businesses. If you were to completely ignore this massive waste, nuclear accounts for just 3 percent of actual energy use, and 17 percent of actual electricity use.

The chart above suggests that just 26 percent of nuclear-generated electricity makes it to customers, versus 32 percent for all generation sources combined. And that's before factoring in the staggering capital costs (requiring tens of billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees), the very scary problem of what to do with spent fuel rods (which has also sucked up billions of tax dollars), and the fact that the US government has had to insure the nuclear industry against disasters because no private company will assume that risk.

In essence, this chart is a reminder that we would benefit from a big increase in distributed power generation—a fancy way of talking about electricity produced at small facilities closer to where it's used, rooftop solar being the ultimate example. Trouble is, the private utilities that own the reactors and coal plants and gas turbines (as well as many transmission lines) have fought tooth and nail to shut smaller companies and residential power generators out of the grid. After all, they wouldn't want their Edsels to lose value.

Money Talks -- And Talks, and Talks, and Talks....

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 12:54 PM EDT

Several years ago Arizona passed a clean elections law that provides state subsidies for candidates who follow certain rules. One provision of the law states that if a subsidized candidate is running against a self-funded candidate, and the self-funded candidate spends more than the subsidized candidate, then the subsidies increase. This is meant to prevent zillionaires from massively outspending everyone else, and needless to say, zillionaires and their allies don't like this much. Over at SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston summarizes the zillionaire side of the argument like this:

The only ways a self-financed candidate could prevent the state from helping to put out the message of the subsidized candidate — a “windfall” — would be to reduce the volume of his or her own speech, or at least to rearrange the timing of the speech, with negative effect. Either of those restraints, the petitions argued, would impose the campaigning burden that the Supreme Court had found unconstitutional in the Davis case.

The Davis case is Davis v. Federal Election Commission, in which Samuel Alito ruled against the "Millionaire's Amendment" of the 2002 campaign finance law. That amendment created different rules for candidates who abided by spending limits vs. those who didn't, and Alito ruled that Congress had no right to do that. Paul Waldman disagrees:

What is the "right" at issue here? It's not the right to free speech, since the self-financed candidate still can speak as much as he likes. It's the "right" to have the loudest voice if you have the most money, to drown out every other voice.

Which isn't a right at all. It's a privilege: the privilege of those with money to bend the political system to their will, to have the biggest megaphone, to make sure that their money gives them the ability to put a thumb on the electoral scale.

So how is the Court going to rule? If the Roberts Court has a guiding principle, it's that those with power should prevail. But as in all cases like this, the decision will likely come down to one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy. No one doubts that John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas will rule in favor of the candidates who want to gut the public-financing system so that those with the most money will always have the advantage. The four liberals on the Court will probably disagree. And Kennedy will decide, most likely in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Arizona law is now before the Supreme Court (in McComish v. Bennett), which heard oral arguments today. My guess is that Paul is right: the court will strike down the Arizona law, and this in turn will be the death knell for campaign finance reform. The Arizona law, and others like it, were very carefully crafted to remain within constitutional limits, and if a key provision is struck down it's difficult to envision any kind of effective limits on campaign financing that the court would uphold. It's taken them several decades, but combined with last year's ruling in Citizens United the zillionaires are on the brink of an almost complete victory. Not only does money talk, but soon it won't have to worry about anyone talking back either.

Did the GOP Ever Shift its Focus Away From Social Issues?

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

The normally excellent Jeff Zeleny takes a close look at the 2012 Iowa caucuses and discovers that conservatives care about social issues:

The ailing economy and the Tea Party's demand for smaller government have dominated Republican politics for two years, but a resurgent social conservative movement is shaping the first stage of the presidential nominating contest...

Has the ailing economy and demand for smaller government really "dominated Republican politics for two years"?

Let's recap: The debate against health-care reform featured not only the false claim that the new law would budget taxpayer funding to pay for abortions—one member of Congress even called another member of Congress a "babykiller" on the House floor—but also the false claim that the new law would target senior citizens and people with disabilities for death. Then, the entire month of August, 2010, was spent debating the small government issue of whether a religious group should build a house of worship in Lower Manhattan.

Glenn Beck's case against Barack Obama—which provided the fuel for FOX's amped-up full-team-coverage of 9/12 and tea party rallies over the last two years—has its foundation in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, rooted in divine principles, and that any effort to alter the Founders' immaculate construction more or less conflicts with the will of God. It's a popular idea, endorsed by grassroots activists and elected officials alike.

Meanwhile, the first order of business for members of the landslide GOP class of 2011 has been to introduce a set of anti-choice legislation at the state and federal level that would redefine rape; defund Planned Parenthood; force women to listen to ultrasounds prior to getting an abortion; omit exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother; and provide funding for organizations that tell women (falsely) that getting an abortion can lead to breast cancer or suicide. You know, small government stuff.

The dominant theme in Republican politics for the last two years hasn't been jobs and small government; it's been opposition to Barack Obama, period. The grassroots conservative critique of the Obama administration stems from a set of social and economic values that are deeply intertwined. The notion that religious conservatives are suddenly resurgent rests on the flawed assumption that they ever really went away.

Our War in Libya

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 11:51 AM EDT

From the New York Times:

As rebel forces backed by allied warplanes pushed toward one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s most crucial bastions of support, the American military warned on Monday that the insurgents’ rapid advances could quickly be reversed without continued coalition air support.

“The regime still vastly overmatches opposition forces militarily,” Gen. Carter F. Ham, the ranking American in the coalition operation, warned in an email message on Monday. “The regime possesses the capability to roll them back very quickly. Coalition air power is the major reason that has not happened.”

In case it wasn't already clear, the Western coalition is now providing close air support to one side in a civil war. I'm OK with that — though I'd be more OK if I knew more about the rebels we were supporting — but this is a very far cry from merely enforcing a no-fly zone. We're fighting a war in Libya, and anyone who tries to pretend otherwise is just trying to distract you from the truth.