The U.S. Department of Energy’s FY 2011 Budget Request
By Robert Alvarez | Institute for Policy Studies | February 12, 2010
When President Obama rolled out his proposed budget to Congress for the coming year, he said it would build “on the largest investment in clean energy in history.” But Obama’s definition of “clean energy” includes a commitment to help companies garner billions of dollars in loans for nuclear reactor construction. And, unfortunately, nuclear energy isn’t safe or clean and it’s too costly for the nation.
The Energy Department faces a brave new world in which, for the first time, it’s being called on to employ millions of Americans to create a new energy future for the United States. But it doesn’t appear that the Obama administration will meet this challenge. Instead, more of the nation’s tapped-out treasure is going for costly nuclear power, and nuclear weapons we don’t need and could never use.
Despite Obama’s rhetoric about reshaping America’s energy future, he’s asking for a budget that would have the Energy Department continue to spend 10 times more on nuclear weapons than energy conservation. More than 65 percent of our energy budget covers military nuclear activities and the cleanup of weapons sites. Its single largest expenditure maintains some 9,200 intact nuclear warheads. Even though the department hasn’t built a new nuclear weapon for 20 years, its weapons complex is spending at rates comparable to that during the height of the nuclear arms race in the 1950s. Even with economic stimulus funding, the department’s actual energy functions comprise only 15 percent of its total budget and continue to take a backseat to propping up the nations’ large and antiquated nuclear weapons infrastructure. In fact, the Energy Department’s proposed budget for the 2011 fiscal year, minus stimulus money, looks a whole lot like it did in the Bush administration, and as it has during several presidents’ tenures.
Rick Sanchez Speculates About Non-Existent Iranian ‘Nuclear Missile’
By Jason Ditz | February 18, 2010
Fueled by an unfortunately worded letter by the IAEA about a “technical violation” allegedly made by Iran last week in its civilian nuclear program, CNN’s Rick Sanchez is now speculating about the possibility of Iran “building some kind of nuclear weapon,” even though one of his guests from MIT made it clear this threat was totally illusory.
The IAEA statement, related to Iran’s refusal to indefinitely delay alterations to its civilian enrichment program, included claims that Iran’s attitude “raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”
The letter seems to have been an effort to chastise Iran for a technical violation, but did not make any specific allegations that Iran was actually making such missiles, or even had the capability to do so. IAEA Chief Yukiya Amano, responsible for today’s letter, has previously confirmed that the IAEA has absolutely no evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
But “technical violations” aren’t a sensational story, and the IAEA letter’s wording gave enough wiggle room for the television media to leap on the story and spin it into an alarmist “breaking story” about a non-existent nuclear payload being mounted into a non-existent warhead. Even after a guest made it clear that Iran did not have any weapons-grade uranium, Sanchez speculated about what we, “as Americans” should expect the government to “do” about it.
Not that the CNN was alone in its alarmism, as George Jahn at the Associated Press was at it again, who ran an article called “UN nuke agency worried Iran may be working on arms,” even though the content of his own article made it clear this was at best a speculative claim.
A burning building that has absolutely nothing to do with Iran
In reality, the vast majority of Iran’s uranium is enriched to only 3.5 percent, with a much smaller amount, described as “modest” by the IAEA, enriched to 20 percent for a medical reactor. A nuclear weapon would require uranium enriched above 90 percent, and as the IAEA continues to closely monitor the enrichment process, it is clear that the nation is simply not making weapons grade uranium, nor could it without immediately alerting the international community. The technical violation, one must remember was related to the changeover of some centrifuges from 3.5 percent to 20 percent, totally unrelated to anything theoretically weapons-related.
Not that any of this was made clear in CNN’s coverage of the story. Rather Mr. Sanchez lept dexterously between speculating about Iran’s missiles and discussing the “anti-government terrorist” attack in Austin, Texas, complete with footage of a burning IRS building. Pictures of burning US government buildings and speculation about a rival’s non-existent nuclear weapons combined nicely to fuel panic, but they did nothing to clarify the actual meaning behind the IAEA’s Iran statement.
By Rami G. Khouri | February 17, 2010
American secretaries of state have been coming to the Middle East to create all sorts of complex alliances against Iran for most of my recent happy life, but every time this show passes through our region I learn again the meaning of the phrase “lack of credibility.” Hillary Clinton is the latest to undertake this mission, and like her predecessors her comments are often difficult to take seriously.
We are told that her trip to the region has two main aims: to strengthen Arab resolve to join the United States and others in imposing harsh new sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear development program; and to harness Arab support for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In both of these critical diplomatic initiatives the US has taken the lead and achieved zero results. Either the actors involved – Arabs, Israelis, Iranians – are all chronically, even chromosomally, dysfunctional (for which there is some evidence) or the US is particularly inept when assuming leadership.
The weakness in both cases, I suspect, has to do with the US trying to define diplomatic outcomes that suit its own strategic objectives and political biases (especially pro-Israel domestic sentiments). So Washington pushes, pulls, cajoles and threatens all the players with various diplomatic instruments, except the one that will work most efficiently in both the Iranian and Arab-Israeli cases: serious negotiations with the principal parties, based on applying the letter of the law, and responding equally to the rights, concerns and demands of all sides.
Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week were particularly revealing of why Washington continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” Clinton said.
Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The US has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, and has long supported states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This became even more obvious after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Washington intensified cooperation with Arab intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East are military and police states where men with guns rule, and where citizens are confined to shopping, buying cellular telephones, and watching soap operas on satellite television. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, as well as the entire Gulf region and other states are devoted first and foremost to maintaining domestic order and regime incumbency through efficient, multiple security agencies, for which they earn American friendship and cooperation. When citizens in these and other countries agitate for more democratic and human rights, the US is peculiarly inactive and quiet.
If Iran is indeed becoming a military dictatorship, this probably qualifies it for American hugs and aid rather than sanctions and threats. Clinton badly needs some more credible talking points than opposing military dictatorships. (Extra credit question for hard-core foreign policy analysts: Why is it that when Turkey slipped out of military rule into civilian democratic governance, it became more critical of the US and Israel?)
The second intriguing statement during Clinton’s Gulf visit was about Iran’s neighbors having three options for dealing with the “threat” from Iran: “They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is willing to help defend them. I think the third is by far the preferable option.”
This sounds reasonable, but it is not an accurate description of the actual options that the Arab Gulf states have. It is mostly a description of how American and Israeli strategic concerns and slightly hysterical biases are projected onto the Gulf states’ worldviews. These states in fact have a fourth option, which is to negotiate seriously a modus vivendi with Iran that removes the “threat” from their perceptions of Iran by affirming the core rights and strategic needs of both sides, thus removing mutual threat perceptions.
This is exactly the same option the US used when it negotiated détente and the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union (and whose results ultimately brought about the collapse of Communism). Why the US does not use the same sensible approach to the perceived threat from Iran is hard to explain. Perhaps two reasons explain it: Washington would have to deal with Iran (and other defiant Middle Easterners) through negotiations rather than haughty neo-colonialism; and, Israel would have to submit to nuclear inspections and end its aggressive behavior.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
By Philip Giraldi | February 18, 2010
The Annual Threat Assessment overview was released by the office of the Director of National Intelligence on February 2nd. A forty-seven page unclassified version includes a page and a half on Iran’s proliferation threat. It raises legitimate concerns about Iran’s doubling of its number of operating centrifuges (while conceding that as many as half might not be working) and regarding what it describes as the secret nuclear facility near Qom. Apart from that, it supports the conclusions of the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program and had not made the political decision to start it up again.
One would think it would be good news that the Iranian nuclear program has not really advanced since 2007, but something strange is happening. The Obama Administration has intensified pressure on Iran with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denouncing what she sees as the Iranian government’s increased militarization. The mainstream media, meanwhile, has not reported the conclusions of the Annual Threat Assessment while there has been instead considerable commentary about how Iran is moving closer to having a nuclear weapon together with calls for harsh sanctions. The Washington Times and Newsweek are also reporting that the US intelligence community will soon finish a second NIE on Iran that will revise the conclusions of the December 2007 document. If their information is correct, the forthcoming NIE will emphasize that Iran is moving towards the point where it will have all the technical requirements in place to put together a nuclear weapon if the country’s political leadership decides to proceed. This is a spin that is somewhat different than the Annual Threat Assessment, which is presumably written by the same analysts using the same information. Admittedly, as the political go-ahead might never be given, all the intelligence really suggests is that Iran could soon join a large number of other countries that have the technical capability to make a nuclear weapon. Of those countries there are some – mostly in Europe — that clearly have no interest in nuclear weapons development while others could move rapidly into a weapon program if their circumstances seem to demand it. Iran is far from unique. Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia all have the technological resources to develop nuclear weapons on an expedited basis if they found themselves threatened.
So the Annual Threat Assessment and the possibly forthcoming NIE would really only confirm the 2007 NIE’s judgment that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, does not appear to have an in-place weapons program, and is still several years away from having a nuclear device even if the political decision is made to proceed. If there is a new NIE it will not really change anything, but there is clearly a political agenda playing out that is driving the process. One might even suggest that the timing is somewhat reminiscent of the infamous 2002 “slam dunk” Iraq NIE that falsely made the case for war by hyping phony evidence of weapons of mass destruction. In this case, the conclusions are not as important as the report’s appearance at a crucial time when negotiations between Tehran and the West have broken down and Washington is pushing hard to pressure Iran. The surfacing of a new assessment that is already being spun to heighten the threat will inevitably increase concerns about a possible Iranian weapons program and provide ammunition to those who are seeking a more assertive US policy. By its very existence, the new NIE will also provide a measure of credibility for the Obama administration, which has relentlessly been making the case that Iran is intent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, a conclusion that is not supported by the available intelligence.
That the drive to punish Iran has been supported in Congress and the media is perhaps no coincidence, suggesting that the effort is being coordinated by those who want war. At the end of January, by an overwhelming voice vote, the US Senate joined the House of Representatives in passing a resolution demanding sanctions on Iran’s energy imports. A joint resolution that will go to President Obama is currently being crafted and is expected soon. The resolution could well give Obama the political cover he needs to advocate even more draconian measures against Iran and its rulers. From the Iranian viewpoint, it is pretty much a declaration of war.
Why is Iran the target of so much rage even though it has not threatened the United States or any vital American interest? Influence over Congress and the media from Israel and its friends is surely a large part of the answer. How else can one explain the different treatment afforded Iran and North Korea given Pyongyang’s open development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles? Unlike North Korea, Iran continues to be a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear sites are inspected by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran is a developing country with a small economy and tiny defense budget and it has not invaded a neighbor since the eighteenth century. It does not even have the resources to refine its own oil for home consumption and must import the gasoline it uses. If the proposed Congressional sanctions are fully implemented the country’s economy will grind to a halt, but the damage does not stop there. Iran deals with many European and Asian companies in its energy industry, all of which would be sanctioned by the US if they do not break off relations. They might not like that and might well take commensurate steps against the United States. Ultimately, the United States Navy might have to enforce the sanctions. What would happen when a Chinese or Russian ship is stopped on the high seas? Did the US Congress really think about what it was doing and what the consequences of sanctions might be?
And the irony is that the United States has a problem with Iran that has largely been manufactured in Washington and in Tel Aviv. Even though Tehran does not actually threaten the US, Washington has been supporting terrorists and separatists who have killed hundreds of people inside Iran. Israel, which has its own secret nuclear arsenal, claims to be threatened if Iran develops even the ability to concentrate its uranium referred to as “mastering the enrichment cycle,” a point of view that has also been adopted by Washington. The White House has made repeated threats that the military option for dealing with Tehran is “on the table” while Israel has been even more explicit in its threats to attack. Meanwhile, the US mainstream media is united in its desire to come to grips with the Mullahs.
It is no wonder that Iran feels threatened, because it is. To be sure, Iran is no role model for good governance but a desire to deal with the country fairly and realistically is not an endorsement of the regime in power. Iran is engaged diplomatically and through surrogates in the entire Persian Gulf region and central Asia, supporting its friends and seeking to undermine its enemies. But that does not make it different than any of its neighbors and the United States, all of which play the same game. The bottom line is that the US has been interfering in Iran since 1978 and even before if one goes back to the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq by the CIA in 1953. The interference has accomplished nothing and has only created a poisonous relationship that Barack Obama has done little to improve. Indeed, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s harsh rhetoric suggests that when it comes to Iran the Democrats are more hardline than George W. Bush.
Imagine for a moment what might happen if Washington were to adopt a serious foreign policy based on the US national interest. That would mean strict non-interventionism in troubled regions like the Middle East where the US has everything to lose and little to gain. It would be the real change promised by Obama if Washington were to admit that it is not threatened by Tehran and were to declare that it will not interfere in Iran’s politics. It could further announce that it no longer has a military option on the table, and that it will not permit Israeli overflight of Iraq to attack Iran. Iran’s leaders just might decide that they don’t really need their own “option on the table” which has been the threat that they might seek to develop a nuclear weapon. And an Iran that feels more secure might well be willing to take some risks itself to defuse tension with its neighbors and Washington. In 2003 Iran offered to negotiate all outstanding differences with the United States, an offer that was turned down by the Bush White House.
So the big question about Iran is not whether or not it has the knowledge and resources to build an atom bomb. It does or will soon. The real issue is whether the United States is actually threatened by that knowledge and what should be done in terms of positive policies to discourage an expanded nuclear program. The United States should first of all recognize that, as the world’s only superpower, it controls the playing field. It is up to Washington to take the first steps to defuse the crisis that is building by offering Tehran the security guarantees that might undercut the influence of those in its government who seek a nuclear weapon deterrent. Punishing Iran is no solution. It will not work, closes the door to diplomacy, and will only make the worst case scenario that much more likely. Opening the door to a rapprochement by eliminating the threatening language coming out of Washington and creating incentives for cooperation is a far better course of action.
Press TV – February 18, 2010
The level of a cancer-causing chemical found in tap water at a military base in North Carolina was intentionally not reported, an AP review finds.
An environmental contractor deliberately did not report the level of the dangerously high levels of benzene at Camp Lejeune for a federal health review.
Benzene has been traced to massive leaks from fuel tanks at the base, according to recently disclosed studies.
For years, Marines who served at Camp Lejeune on the North Carolina coast have blamed their families’ cancers and other ailments on tap water tainted by dry cleaning solvents, and many accuse the military of covering it up.
A July 1984 report said benzene was found 380 parts per billion in the water supply. In 1991 another contractor warned the Navy of the health hazards posed by such levels of benzene.
By 1992 a third contractor, the Michael Baker Corp., released a draft report on the feasibility of fixing the overall problem. The citing of the 1984 level of 380 parts per billion changed to 38 parts per billion.
One sample from a series of tests conducted from June 2007 to August 2009 registered 3,490 parts per billion, according to a report from a fourth contractor.
Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an enforcement officer for the Environmental Protection Agency before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney, reviewed the different reports and said it was difficult to conclude innocent mistakes were made in the Baker Corp. documents.
“It is weird that it went from 380 to 38 and then it disappeared entirely,” she said. “It does support the contention that they did do it deliberately.”
David Higie, a spokesman for Baker Corp., declined to discuss the company’s reports or why its employees might have revised the benzene levels. He has referred questions to the military.
By Harvey Wasserman | Online Journal | February 18, 2010
As Vermont seethes with radioactive contamination and the Democratic Party crumbles, Barack Obama has plunged into the atomic abyss.
In the face of fierce green opposition and withering scorn from both liberal and conservative budget hawks, Obama has done what George W. Bush could not — pledge billions of taxpayer dollars for a relapse of the 20th century’s most expensive technological failure.
Obama has announced some $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors planned for Georgia. Their Westinghouse AP-1000 designs have been rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as being unable to withstand natural cataclysms like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
The Vogtle site was to originally host four reactors at a total cost of $600 million; it wound up with two at $9 billion.
The Southern Company which wants to build these two new reactors has cut at least one deal with Japanese financiers set to cash in on American taxpayer largess. The interest rate on the federal guarantees remains bitterly contested. The funding is being debated between at least five government agencies, and may well be tested in the courts. It’s not clear whether union labor will be required and what impact that might have on construction costs.
The Congressional Budget Office and other analysts warn the likely failure rate for government-backed reactor construction loans could be in excess of 50 percent. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has admitted he was unaware of the CBO’s report when he signed on to the Georgia guarantees.
Over the past several years the estimated price tag for proposed new reactors has jumped from $2-3 billion each in some cases to more than $12 billion today. The chair of the NRC currently estimates it at $10 billion, well before a single construction license has been issued, which will take at least a year.
Energy experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere estimate that a dollar invested in increased efficiency could save as much as seven times as much energy than one invested in nuclear plants can produce, while producing 10 times as many permanent jobs.
Georgia has been targeted largely because its regulators have demanded ratepayers put up the cash for the reactors as they’re being built. Florida and Georgia are among a small handful of states taxing electric consumers for projects that cannot come on line for many years, and that may never deliver a single electron of electricity.
Two Florida Public Service commissioners, recently appointed by Republican Governor Charlie Crist (now a candidate for the US Senate), helped reject over a billion dollars in rate hikes demanded by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, both of which want to build double-reactors at ratepayer expense. The utilities now say they’ll postpone the projects proposed for Turkey Point and Levy County.
In 2005, the Bush administration set aside some $18.5 billion for reactor loan guarantees, but the Department of Energy has been unable to administer them. Obama wants an additional $36 billion to bring the fund up to $54.5 billion. Proposed projects in South Carolina, Maryland and Texas appear to be next in line.
But the NRC has raised serious questions about Toshiba-owned Westinghouse’s AP-1000 slated for Georgia’s Vogtle site, as well as for South Carolina and Turkey Point. The French-made EPR design proposed for Maryland has been challenged by regulators in Finland, France and Great Britain. In Texas, a $4 billion price jump has sparked a political upheaval in San Antonio and elsewhere, throwing the future of that project in doubt.
Taxpayers are also on the hook for potential future accidents from these new reactors. In 1957, the industry promised Congress and the country that nuclear technology would quickly advance to the point that private insurers would take on the liability for any future disaster, which could by all serious estimates run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Only $11 billion has been set aside to cover the cost of such a catastrophe. But now the industry says it will not build even this next generation of plants without taxpayers underwriting liability for future accidents. Thus the “temporary” program could ultimately stretch out to a full century or more.
In the interim, Obama has all but killed Nevada’s proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. He has appointed a commission of nuclear advocates to “investigate” the future of high-level reactor waste. But after 53 years, the industry is further from a solution than ever.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that at least 27 of America’s 104 licensed reactors are now leaking radioactive tritium. The worst case may be Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, near the state’s southeastern border with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. High levels of contamination have been found in test wells around the reactor, and experts believe the Connecticut River is at serious risk.
A furious statewide grassroots campaign aims to shut the plant, whose license expires in 2012. A binding agreement between Entergy and the state gives the legislature the power to deny an extension. US Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VY) has demanded the plant close. The legislature may vote on it in a matter of days.
Obama has now driven a deep wedge between himself and the core of the environmental movement, which remains fiercely anti-nuclear. While reactor advocates paint the technology green, the opposition has been joined by fiscal conservatives like the National Taxpayer Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Reactor backers hailing a “renaissance” in atomic energy studiously ignore France’s catastrophic Olkiluoto project, now $3 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. Parallel problems have crippled another project at Flamanville, France, and are virtually certain to surface in the US.
The reactor industry has spent untold millions lobbying for this first round of loan guarantees. There’s no doubt it will seek far more in the coming months. Having failed to secure private American financing, the question will be: In a tight economy, how much public money will Congress throw at this obsolete technology?
The potential flow of taxpayer guarantees to Georgia means nuclear opponents now have a tangible target. Also guaranteed is ferocious grassroots opposition to financing, licensing and construction of this and all other new reactor proposals, as well as to continued operation of leaky rust bucket reactors like Vermont Yankee.
The “atomic renaissance” is still a very long way from going tangibly critical.