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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Idiocy and Hubris of Engineers 

Will GE Get Whacked for the Catastrophic Failure of its Nuke Plants in Fukushima?

by Dave Lindorff
March 14, 2011
[emphasis added]

GE, the company that boasts that it “brings good things to life,” was the designer of the nuclear plants that are blowing up like hot popcorn kernels at the Fukushima Dai-ichi generating plant north of Tokyo that was hit by the double-whammy of an 9.1 earthquake and a huge tsunami.

The company may escape tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in liability from this continuing disaster, which could still result in a catastrophic total meltdown of one or more of the reactors (as of this writing three of the reactors are reported to have suffered explosions and partial meltdowns, and all could potentially become more serious total meltdowns with a rupture of the reactor container), thanks to Japanese law, which makes the operator--in this case Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) liable. But if it were found that it was design flaws by GE that caused the problem, presumably TEPCO or the Japanese government could pursue GE for damages.

In fact, the design of these facilities--a design which, it should be noted, was also used in 23 nuclear plants operating in the US in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont--appear to have included serious flaws, from a safety perspective.

The drawings of the plants in question, called Mark I Reactors, provide no way for venting hydrogen gas from the containment buildings, despite the fact that one of the first things that happens in the event of a cooling failure is the massive production of hydrogen gas by the exposed fuel rods in the core. This is why three of the nuclear generator buildings at Fukushima Dai-ichi have exploded with tremendous force blasting off the roof and walls of the structures, and damaging control equipment needed to control the reactors.

One would have thought that design engineers at GE would have thought about that fact, and provided venting systems for any hydrogen gas being vented in an emergency into the building. But no. They didn’t.

There is a worse problem though. 

Probably in an effort to keep the problem of nuclear waste hidden from the public, these plants feature huge pools of water up in the higher level of the containment building above the reactors, which hold the spent fuel rods from the reactor. These rods are still “hot” but besides the uranium fuel pellets, they also contain the highly radioactive and potentially biologically active decay products of the fission process--particularly radioactive Cesium 137, Iodine 131 and Strontium 90. (Some of GE's plants in the US feature this same design. The two GE Peach Bottom reactors near me, for example, each have two spent fuel tanks sitting above their reactors.)

As Robert Alvarez, a former nuclear energy adviser to President Bill Clinton, has written, if these waste containers, euphemistically called “ponds,” were to be damaged in an explosion and lose their cooling and radiation-shielding water, they could burst into flame from the resulting burning of the highly flammable zirconium cladding of the fuel rods, blasting perhaps three to nine times as much of these materials into the air as was released by the Chernobyl reactor disaster. (And that’s if just one reactor blows!)

Each pool, Alvarez says, generally contains five to ten times as much nuclear material as the reactors themselves. Alvarez cites a 1997 Nuclear Regulatory Commission study that predicted that a waste pool fire could render a 188-square-mile area “uninhabitable” and do $59 billion worth of damage (but that was 13 years ago).

Another nuclear scientist agrees with Alvarez, quoted in an article in the Christian Science Monitor:

"There should be much more attention paid to the spent-fuel pools," says Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the anti-nuclear power Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "If there's a complete loss of containment [and thus the water inside], it can catch fire. There's a huge amount of radioactivity inside – far more than is inside the reactors. The damaged reactors are less likely to spread the same vast amounts of radiation that Chernobyl did, but a spent-fuel pool fire could very well produce damage similar to or even greater than Chernobyl."

But it gets worse. According to news reports, the Reactor 3 unit was using fueled MOX fuel rods-- a mix of which includes, in addition to uranium, a significant amount of plutonium--a far more dangerous element both chemically as a toxin, and in terms of its radioactivity.

You have to ask, what kind of numbskull would put a waste “pond” for spent fuel right above the reactor of a nuclear plant, thus insuring that in the event of a meltdown, not only would the core of the reactor blow up into the environment, but also all of the spent fuel from prior years?

All that "Six Sigma" quality culture stuff tauted at GE and they came up with this?

I don’t know. I heard about those waste “pools” in the past, and always assumed they were somewhere on the plant grounds away from the reactor itself, but now it turns out they put the damned things right in the line of fire of any meltdown. Boy, that’s just brilliant!

It’s as if you put the oil tank or propane tank for your furnace right above the burner in your basement, so that if there was some problem with the furnace it would ignite the tank, or as if you put the gas tank of your car right above the engine, so that if you had an engine fire, it would explode the gas tank!

This may explain why people in India are reportedly rethinking GE’s bid for a big piece of the country’s proposed market for $150 billion in new nuclear power plants in that country, and why it may not be so easy for GE and other nuclear plant builders to escape liability for their products in the future.

Back in November, President Obama was in India pushing that country’s government to pass legislation exempting GE from liability for nuclear “accidents.” That idea is probably not going to go very far now.

Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman and CEO of GE and a big friend of Obama’s (he was named to an unpaid post as “jobs czar” by the president earlier this year, despite the company’s long record of exporting US jobs to places like China and India), says it’s “too soon” to assess the impact on the company’s nuclear business prospects of the nuclear “accidents” in northern Japan.

He’s certainly right about that (though investors aren’t waiting: the stock was down 3.5% today alone by noon, following the second hydrogen gas explosion). At this point only two of the buildings housing the six troubled reactors has blown up, and TEPCO has only lost control of the cooling systems in three of the six, and also, so far, only three have suffered partial meltdowns. Things could get a lot worse if one or more goes into full meltdown, or if one or more of those waste “ponds” blows up.

GE may end up having to change its motto to: “GE brings death to things.”


Psychedelic icon Owsley Stanley dies in Australia

March 13, 2011

LOS ANGELES – Owsley “Bear” Stanley, a 1960s counterculture figure who flooded the flower power scene with LSD and was an early benefactor of the Grateful Dead, died in a car crash in his adopted home country of Australia on Sunday, his family said. He was believed to be 76.

The renegade grandson of a former governor of Kentucky, Stanley helped lay the foundation for the psychedelic era by producing more than a million doses of LSD at his labs in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

“He made acid so pure and wonderful that people like Jimi Hendrix wrote hit songs about it and others named their band in its honor,” former rock ‘n’ roll tour manager Sam Cutler wrote in his 2008 memoirs “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze” was reputedly inspired by a batch of Stanley’s product, though the guitarist denied any drug link. The ear-splitting blues-psychedelic combo Blue Cheer took its named from another batch.

Stanley briefly managed the Grateful Dead, and oversaw every aspect of their live sound at a time when little thought was given to amplification in public venues. His tape recordings of Dead concerts were turned into live albums.

The Dead wrote about him in their song “Alice D. Millionaire” after a 1967 arrest prompted a newspaper to describe Stanley as an “LSD millionaire.” Steely Dan’s 1976 single “Kid Charlemagne” was loosely inspired by Stanley’s exploits.

According to a 2007 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanley started cooking LSD after discovering the recipe in a chemistry journal at the University of California, Berkeley.

The police raided his first lab in 1966, but Stanley successfully sued for the return of his equipment. After a marijuana bust in 1970, he went to prison for two years.

“I wound up doing time for something I should have been rewarded for,” he told the Chronicle’s Joel Selvin. “What I did was a community service, the way I look at it. I was punished for political reasons. Absolutely meaningless. Was I a criminal? No. I was a good member of society. Only my society and the one making the laws are different.”

He emigrated to the tropical Australian state of Queensland in the early 1980s, apparently fearful of a new ice age, and sold enamel sculptures on the Internet. He lost one of his vocal cords to cancer.

Stanley was born Augustus Owsley Stanley III in Kentucky, a state governed by his namesake grandfather from 1915 to 1919. He served in the U.S. Air Force for 18 months, studied ballet in Los Angeles, and then enrolled at UC Berkeley. In addition to being an LSD advocate, he adhered to an all-meat diet.

A statement released by Cutler on behalf of Stanley’s family said the car crash occurred near his home in far north Queensland. He is survived by his wife Sheila, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

© Thomson Reuters 2011


Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Limbaugh’s parent company still using actors to fake radio call-ins, exec tells Raw Story

The company responsible for syndicating big conservative radio names like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity has been using paid actors to call in to their radio shows.

By David Edwards
Raw Story
March 7th, 2011

According to a recent report in Tablet Magazine, Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, hired actors to call in as guests.

A website for the Premiere On Call service was taken offline before the report was published, but a cached version of the website is still available.

However, when Raw Story contacted Premiere's entertainment division, one individual who spoke off the record claimed that the service was still being offered.

"Premiere On Call is our new custom caller service," the website said. "We supply voice talent to take/make your on-air calls, improvise your scenes or deliver your scripts. Using our simple online booking tool, specify the kind of voice you need, and we’ll get your the right person fast. Unless you request it, you won’t hear that same voice again for at least two months, ensuring the authenticity of your programming for avid listeners."

An audition request form asked actors to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to divulge details of their work.

"By requesting an audition you are also agreeing to keep the details of the audition and the type of work that you may perform confidential. This applies to information acquired while working for Premiere or any of its affiliates," the agreement said. "Disclosure to any third party, sharing project information or publicizing what you do (including via social media) may be considered grounds for dismissal or further action."

The audition form indicated that Premiere was looking for distinct voice types that included gruff, light, clean, crisp, high, deep and textured voices.

On actor told Tablet that for his audition, he called in to a fake radio show claiming he had been to a bachelor party that was ruined by a girlfriend that tagged along.

"Thank you for auditioning for Premiere On Call," a follow-up e-mail told him. "Your audition was great! We'd like to invite you to join our official roster of 'ready-to-work' actors."

The pay rate was $40/hour with at least one hour a day guaranteed.

The job was explained to him this way: "If he passed the audition, he would be invited periodically to call in to various talk shows and recite various scenarios that made for interesting radio. He would never be identified as an actor, and his scenarios would never be identified as fabricated -- which they always were."

Premiere Radio Networks spokesperson Rachel Nelson defended the service by saying that the radio shows that use the service were responsible for how it was used.

"Premiere provides a wide variety of audio services for radio stations across the country, one of which is connecting local stations in major markets with great voice talent to supplement their programming needs," Nelson told Tablet in an e-mail. "Voice actors know this service as Premiere On Call. Premiere, like many other content providers, facilitates casting -- while character and script development, and how the talent's contribution is integrated into programs, are handled by the varied stations."

While it's unclear which syndicated shows used the service, Op Ed News' Gustav Wynn speculated that Sean Hannity would be a prime candidate.

"Hannity's record of being caught manipulating public opinion, deceptively editing video, suppressing opposing views, and lopsided call ratios through the decades speaks for itself," Wynn wrote.

A call to Rush Limbaugh's spokesman was not returned at the time of publication.


Saturday, March 05, 2011

Soldier in WikiLeaks Case Jailed Naked, Lawyer Says

By Charlie Savage
The New York Times
March 3, 2011

WASHINGTON — A lawyer for Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Army intelligence analyst accused of leaking secret government files to WikiLeaks, has complained that his client was stripped and left naked in his cell for seven hours on Wednesday.

The conditions of Private Manning’s confinement at the Marine brig in Quantico, Va., have drawn criticism in recent months from supporters and his lawyer, David E. Coombs.

The soldier’s clothing was returned to him Thursday morning, after he was required to stand naked outside his cell during an inspection, Mr. Coombs said in a posting on his Web site.

“This type of degrading treatment is inexcusable and without justification,” Mr. Coombs wrote. “It is an embarrassment to our military justice system and should not be tolerated. Pfc. Manning has been told that the same thing will happen to him again tonight. No other detainee at the brig is forced to endure this type of isolation and humiliation.”

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said a brig duty supervisor had ordered Private Manning’s clothing taken from him. He said that the step was “not punitive” and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more.

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it,” Lieutenant Villiard said. “I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

Private Manning is being held as a maximum security detainee under a special set of restrictions intended to prevent self-injury, even though supporters say there is no evidence that he is suicidal.

During an appearance on MSNBC earlier on Thursday, Geoffrey Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, attributed the general conditions of Private Manning’s confinement to “the seriousness of the charges he’s facing, the potential length of sentence, the national security implications” and to protect him from potential harm.

Also, earlier on Thursday, one of Private Manning’s friends, David House, said in a conference call with reporters that he had visited the soldier the previous weekend and that his mental condition was severely deteriorating as a result of being confined to his cell 23 hours a day, with one hour to exercise in an empty room, and largely isolated from human contact.

But Mr. House said that Private Manning did not seem suicidal and contended that he was being pressured to cooperate.

Investigators have been seeking evidence that could implicate Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, as a conspirator in the leaking of the military and diplomatic documents and videos.

Mr. House spoke on the conference call with Daniel Ellsberg, who compared the leaking of documents to WikiLeaks to his own leaking of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. On Wednesday, the Army announced 22 additional charges against Private Manning, including “aiding the enemy.”

The charge sheet did not explain who “the enemy” was, leading some to speculate that it was a reference to WikiLeaks. On Thursday, however, the military said that it instead referred to any hostile forces that could benefit from learning about classified military tactics and procedures.


Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Dems push for Congressional investigation of HBGary Federal

By Nate Anderson
Ars Technica
March 1, 2011

Embattled HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr quit his job yesterday as the prospect of a Congressional investigation loomed. A dozen Democrats in Congress asked various Republican committee chairs to launch probes of HBGary Federal's idea for a "reconnaissance cell" targeting pro-union organizers.

HBGary Federal was hacked last month by Anonymous after Aaron Barr believed he had unmasked much of the group's leadership—and Barr's entire cache of corporate e-mails was made public. Those messages revealed that Barr had joined up with two other security firms, Palantir and Berico, to pitch the powerhouse DC law firm of Hunton & Williams on an idea to go after union-backed websites who opposed the US Chamber of Commerce. The scheme, if adopted, would have cost the Chamber up to $2 million a month.

The three companies called themselves Team Themis, and instead of providing simple "business intelligence," they had a few other ideas:

  • Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if US Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence proving that such transactions never occurred. Also, create a fake insider persona and generate communications with [union-backed Change to Win]. Afterward, release the actual documents at a specified time and explain the activity as a CtW contrived operation.
  • If needed, create two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second. Such work is complicated, but a well-thought out approach will give way to a variety of strategies that can sufficiently aid the formation of vetting questions US Chamber Watch will likely ask.
  • Create a humor piece about the leaders of CtW.
 Now, some members of Congress want an investigation. "The [Team Themis] techniques may have been developed at US government expense to target terrorists and other security threats," said a letter signed by the representatives.

"The e-mails indicate that these defense contractors planned to mine social network sites for information on Chamber critics; planned to plant 'false documents' and 'fake insider personas' that would be used to discredit the groups; and discussed the use of malicious and intrusive software ('malware') to steal private information from the groups and disrupt their internal electronic communications."

Did anything illegal happen? 

The letter suggests that forgery, wire fraud, and computer fraud might have taken place and that Congress should investigate the ways that private contractors turn their military contracting experience on private targets.

Going after the lawyers

Hunton & Williams, the middleman law firm in all this (and the middleman between a major US bank and Team Themis' similar plan to take down WikiLeaks), has steadfastly refused to comment on the whole story. But it too may find itself in trouble after a professional conduct complaint (PDF) was lodged against it last week in Washington, DC.

The complaint was filed by Stop the Chamber and Velvet Revolution, two of the groups targeted for the potential Chamber of Commerce campaign. It accuses the three Hunton & Williams lawyers named in the HBGary Federal e-mails of "an extended pattern of unethical behavior that included likely criminal conduct."
Specifically, they solicited, conspired with and counseled three of its investigative private security firms to engage in domestic spying, fraud, forgery, extortion, cyber stalking, defamation, harassment, destruction of property, spear phishing, destruction of property, identity theft, computer scraping, cyber attacks, interference with business, civil rights violations, harassment, and theft.

Most of this alleged bad behavior was done, of course, by Team Themis and not by Hunton & Williams. Still, they reviewed (and appear to have had no problems with) the material. As the complaint puts it, "none of the H&W lawyers ever expressed any reservation or doubt about the unethical conduct proposed and committed by their investigators. In fact, they actively solicited and approved everything that was proposed and presented."

The complaint asks the DC Board of Professional Responsibility to strip all three Hunton & Williams lawyers of their licenses.