Daily Archive: 12/05/2011

Dec 05 2011

Fukushima Update

8% of Japan Contaminated

Post-Fukushima Radiation Mapped

Cesium in soil a problem for agriculture

By Prachi Patel, IEEE Spectrum

December 2011

Three recently published academic studies show that while direct radiation exposure of Fukushima residents isn’t as high as was initially feared, soils across northeastern Japan are contaminated and could affect public health for decades through the produce farmed there. The research, combined with a map of soil radiation-which was based on measurements made during helicopter flights and released by Japan’s science ministry-shows substantial soil contamination in the prefectures of Fukushima and its neighbors: Miyagi and Iwate to the north, Ibaraki and Chiba to the south, and Tochigi and Gunma to the southwest.



The government’s radiation map shows high levels of radioactive cesium in Fukushima and surrounding prefectures. Some spots have levels between 100 000 and 600 000 becquerels per square meter (148 000 was the standard used for mandatory resettlement after the Chernobyl disaster). That the cesium is mostly in chloride form makes matters worse, Moulder says: “It’s water soluble, easily taken up by the body, and very well distributed in the body-all the things you don’t want.” The contamination could also irradiate anyone who walks on the ground, he adds.

According to the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, the science ministry says that about 8 percent of the country’s land has been contaminated with levels higher than 10 000 Bq/m2, a threshold that Japan’s science ministry defines as affected by a nuclear accident. The newspaper also reports that the government has confirmed radioactive materials from the meltdown in all prefectures, including Okinawa, which is 1700 kilometers from the power plant.



“There’s really no good way to clean up cesium-137 from a large area,” Moulder says. “To decontaminate a playground, you can scoop up the soil and lay down new asphalt, but you can’t scoop up a whole rice field. You’ll then have to dispose all that radioactive waste. These areas could become inhabitable but still couldn’t be used for agriculture.”

Cesium-137 is responsible for radiation in the Chernobyl dead zone.  It has a half life of 30 years.

Ocean contamination

Fukushima nuclear fallout spread through oceans, researchers say

MOST of the radioactive fallout from the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant dropped into the ocean and began circling the planet, Japanese researchers say.

AFP

November 17, 2011 8:02PM

Up to 80 per cent of the caesium released by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the March 11 disaster landed in the Pacific and made its way into other oceans around the world, scientists at the Meteorological Research Institute said.



Researchers said the radioactive materials, including caesium-137, an isotope with a half-life of more than 30 years, were widely dispersed when they entered the oceans and each particle would measure less than one micrometre – one seventh the size of a human red blood cell.



Using computer simulations, they calculated the material was first blown northeast over eastern Russia and Alaska, before falling into the Pacific and reaching the western coast of mainland US around March 17, Takahashi said.

The materials were believed to have completed their first around-the-globe trip by March 24, he said, adding that the results would be presented to an academic meeting in Nagoya, central Japan.

Fukushima disaster’s marine fallout

Nuclear contamination poses long-term threat to ocean ecosystem and to Japan’s fishing industry.

Steve Chao, Al Jazeera

30 Nov 2011 12:11

During the peak of Ukraine’s Chernobyl cataclysm of 1986, the Black Sea was registering 1,000 becquerels per cubic metre of water; this appears miniscule in comparison to nuclear levels at Fukushima’s peak recorded at 100,000 becquerels.

And it hasn’t stopped yet.

More Radioactive Water Leaks at Japanese Plant

By HIROKO TABUCHI and MARTIN FACKLER, The New York Times

Published: December 4, 201

(U)tility workers found that radioactive water was pooling in a catchment next to a purification device; the system was switched off, and the leak appeared to stop. But the company said it later discovered that leaked water was escaping, possibly through cracks in the catchment’s concrete wall, and was reaching an external gutter.

In all, as much as 220 tons of water may now have leaked from the facility, according to a report in the newspaper Asahi Shimbun that cited Tepco officials.

The company said that the water had about one million times as much radioactive strontium as the maximum safe level set by the government, but appeared to have already been cleaned of radioactive cesium before leaking out. Both elements are readily absorbed by living tissue and can greatly increase the risk of developing cancer.

Total Meltdown

All N-fuel may have fallen to outer vessel / TEPCO: Up to 68 tons likely melted in No. 1 reactor, eroding concrete of containment unit

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Dec. 2, 2011

In the No. 1 reactor, TEPCO believes, almost all of the about 68 tons of fuel melted. This has not only seriously damaged the bottom of the steel pressure vessel enough to create holes, but the fuel has also fallen to the concrete bottom of the containment vessel, eroding it by up to 65 centimeters.

Only 37 centimeters of concrete remains between the fuel and the vessel’s outermost steel wall in the most damaged area, TEPCO said.

That’s 25.6 and 14.6 inches for the metrically impaired.

Dec 05 2011

Pepper Spray Saves Santa!

Did Black Friday save the season? Beware the retail hype.

By Barry Ritholtz, The Washington Post

Saturday, December 3, 10:20 PM

We begin with a quick review of the retail sector in 2011: Sales improved versus 2010 by 3 to 4 percent. We use year-over-year comparisons because of the highly seasonal nature of retail sales. In 2010, sales were fairly soft, in part because much of the nation experienced severe weather. In the business, we call those “easy comps” – a low comparable data point that should be easy to beat.

Based on the first 10 months of the year, holiday shopping in 2011 should see similar improvements. Consistent with the year-over-year retail numbers, expect sales gains of 3 to 4 percent. Even so, these numbers come with caveats.

Prices in some products have risen – in some cases, substantially. The three most noteworthy are gasoline (up 15 percent), food (5 percent) and cotton (a whopping 230 percent).

The price pressures on these – all consumer staples – are reflected in the total retail sales data. When we look at total sales, we get a sense of how much the nation is spending – but, because of inflation, not how many goods people bought. Based on that data, we can conclude that a decent amount of the total dollar gains in retail sales are not improvements, but rather price inflation.



The reports released with Black Friday and the holiday weekend are from trade groups representing retailers. (They do not hide this.) Each year, they make wildly optimistic projections, which are repeated in the media like clockwork. By the time the actual data come in, the projections have been forgotten. By then, we learn that early reports were pure hokum, put out by trade groups to create a “positive shopping environment.”



“Traffic and spending were up both online and in stores, reaching historic highs. According to the survey, a record 226 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites over Black Friday weekend, up from 212 million last year. Digging deep into their holiday budgets, the average holiday shopper spent $398.62 this weekend, up from $365.34 last year. Total spending reached an estimated $52.4 billion.”

That would suggest that retail sales climbed 16 percent. They did not. Surveys where people forecast their future spending are pretty much worthless. They are far too unreliable to base sales forecasts upon.



How far off have these surveys been in the past? Enormously. In 2005, based on a survey on Black Friday and Saturday, the NRF forecast a 22 percent increase in holiday shopping gains for the Thanksgiving weekend. The results? Up just 1 percent.

The same foolishness resurfaced again in 2006, with an 18.9 percent sales increase forecast. Of course, the reality was nowhere near that, with sales gains below 5 percent. Incidentally, it is not just Shopmas: The back-to-school-season was another opportunity to repeat the error. And in 2007, just as the recession was getting underway, they forecast a 4 percent gain in sales. What happened? Sales at U.S. retailers “unexpectedly” dropped 0.4 percent in December 2007, the weakest holiday season since 2002. In 2008, given the broad scale of the economic collapse, what’s perhaps most surprising was the expectations for a 2.2 percent sales gain (sales fell 6 percent). In 2010, Black Friday weekend sales rise were estimated at 9.2 percent, and overall sales were forecast to rise in November and December 2010 by 11 percent. (They rose 5.5 percent.)



So when those breathless retail sales surveys were released (this year), we had no idea as to whether, and by exactly how much, sales might climb. The most that could be accurately said was that more people appeared to be in stores on Black Friday 2011 than in 2010. Indeed, that can be explained in part by the unseasonably warm weather around the country; as well as the extended store hours (including midnight Thanksgiving Day).

Dec 05 2011

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Paul Krugman: Send in the Clueless

There are two crucial things you need to understand about the current state of American politics. First, given the still dire economic situation, 2012 should be a year of Republican triumph. Second, the G.O.P. may nonetheless snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – because Herman Cain was not an accident.

Think about what it takes to be a viable Republican candidate today. You have to denounce Big Government and high taxes without alienating the older voters who were the key to G.O.P. victories last year – and who, even as they declare their hatred of government, will balk at any hint of cuts to Social Security and Medicare (death panels!).

And you also have to denounce President Obama, who enacted a Republican-designed health reform and killed Osama bin Laden, as a radical socialist who is undermining American security.

So what kind of politician can meet these basic G.O.P. requirements? There are only two ways to make the cut: to be totally cynical or to be totally clueless.

Ray McGovern: Are Americans in Line for Gitmo?

Though the 9/11 attacks occurred more than a decade ago, Congress continues to exploit them to pass evermore draconian laws on “terrorism,” with the Senate now empowering the military to arrest people on U.S. soil and hold them without trial, a serious threat to American liberties

Ambiguous but alarming new wording, which is tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and was just passed by the Senate, is reminiscent of the “extraordinary measures” introduced by the Nazis after they took power in 1933.

And the relative lack of reaction so far calls to mind the oddly calm indifference with which most Germans watched the erosion of the rights that had been guaranteed by their own Constitution. As one German writer observed, “With sheepish submissiveness we watched it unfold, as if from a box at the theater.”

The writer was Sebastian Haffner (real name Raimond Pretzel), a young German lawyer worried at what he saw in 1933 in Berlin, but helpless to stop it since, as he put it, the German people “collectively and limply collapsed, yielded and capitulated.”

“The result of this millionfold nervous breakdown,” wrote Haffner at the time, “is the unified nation, ready for anything, that is today the nightmare of the rest of the world.” Not a happy analogy.

The Senate bill, in effect, revokes an 1878 law known as the Posse Comitatus Act, which banned the Army from domestic law enforcement after the military had been used and often abused in that role during Reconstruction. Ever since then, that law has been taken very seriously – until now. Military officers have had their careers brought to an abrupt halt by involving federal military assets in purely civilian criminal matters.

Jack Resnick: Bring Health Care Home

Patients who are treated at home by a doctor and nursing staff who know them intimately and can be available 24/7 are happier and healthier. This kind of care decreases the infections, mistakes and delirium, which, especially among the elderly, are the attendants of hospital care. And it is far more efficient. According to a 2002 study, for the patients treated by the Veterans Affairs’ Home Based Primary Care program, the number of days spent in hospitals and nursing homes was cut by 62 percent and 88 percent, respectively, and total health care costs dropped 24 percent. [..]

The fact that this care is possible at home means that the role of hospitals must change. Acutely ill patients who need operating rooms or intensive care will still be brought to hospitals. But they should be quickly discharged to the care of the doctors and nurses who know them best.

For too long the institutions that make up our health care system – hospitals, insurers and drug companies – have told us that “more is better”: more medicines, more specialists, more tests. To rein in spending and deliver better care, we must recognize that the primary mission of many an institution is its own survival and growth. We can’t rely on institutions to shrink themselves. We need to give that job to patients and their doctors, and move health care into the home, where it is safer and more effective.

John Bonifaz: Restore Democracy to the People with 28th Amendment

America is at a crossroads. Shall we be governed by people or by corporations?

If you thought we had already answered that question more than two centuries ago, you’re right. The framers of our Constitution were clear that we were to be a government of, for and by the people. They recognized that corporations were not people and that the Constitution did not guarantee corporations rights intended for people.

Yet, five justices of the current U.S. Supreme Court think otherwise. In their January 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, they ruled that corporations have the same free-speech rights as people and can spend unlimited amounts of their corporate money in our elections. No matter that corporations are artificial entities created through state corporate charter laws. No matter that corporations do not breathe, do not think and do not have consciences. No matter that corporations have advantages you and I do not: limited liability, perpetual life and the ability to aggregate and distribute wealth. According to these five justices, corporations are people.

New York Times Editorial: Pain in the Public Sector

Buried in the relatively positive numbers contained in the November jobs report was some very bad news for those who work in the public sector. There were 20,000 government workers laid off last month, by far the largest drop for any sector of the economy, mostly from states, counties and cities.

That continues a troubling trend that’s been building for years, one that has had a particularly harsh effect on black workers. While the private sector has been adding jobs since the end of 2009, more than half a million government positions have been lost since the recession.

In most cases, states and cities had to lay off workers because of declining tax revenues, or reduced federal aid because of Washington’s inexplicable decision to focus more on the deficit in the near term than on jobs.

John Nichols: A Republican Chooses Not to be Ridiculous: Ron Paul Trumps Trump

Ron Paul is far from perfect. But the Texas congressman and maverick GOP presidential contender brings to the 2012 race a record far more worthy of commendation than those of his competitors for the Republican nomination. [..]

Confronted with the prospect of a participating in a debate hosted by the second most absurd figure in American public life, Donald Trump, Paul simply said “no.”

The campaign of the candidate who, in the new Des Moines Register survey is running second in the field of GOP presidential contenders with less than a month to go before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, issued a delightfully snarky statement [..]

Ron Paul may not win the presidency, but he is winning the debate about the debate with Donald Trump.

But even if Trump will not have a serious presidential contender on his debate panel, he will not be alone.

The second most absurd figure in American public life will reportedly be joined December 27 by the most absurd figure in American public life: Newt Gingrich.

Ari Melber: Donald Trump’s Debate Power: It’s About Race

Yes, Donald Trump is back. His elevation as a moderator of a pivotal debate in Iowa on December 27 – the Republican candidates’ final joint appearance before voting begins – provides a sad but fitting coda to this unhinged primary season.

When the news broke over the weekend, the media largely reacted with lighthearted derision. The Times led the Trump news by announcing, “it’s officially a reality television Republican primary now,” while several commentators said the debate is basically an SNL skit that writes itself.  I’m all for mocking The Donald, but these waves of satire do risk obscuring the dark side of this news.

Let’s be clear.  In Republican politics this year, Donald Trump’s signature issue, and narrow-but-intense constituency, was built on a race-baiting effort to dislodge the President’s long-form birth certificate from the Hawaii Department of Health.*  

Dec 05 2011

On This Day In History December 5

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

December 5 is the 339th day of the year (340th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 26 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1933, The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and bringing an end to the era of national prohibition of alcohol in America. At 5:32 p.m. EST, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, achieving the requisite three-fourths majority of states’ approval. Pennsylvania and Ohio had ratified it earlier in the day.

The movement for the prohibition of alcohol began in the early 19th century, when Americans concerned about the adverse effects of drinking began forming temperance societies. By the late 19th century, these groups had become a powerful political force, campaigning on the state level and calling for national liquor abstinence. Several states outlawed the manufacture or sale of alcohol within their own borders. In December 1917, the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes,” was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. On January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment achieved the necessary three-fourths majority of state ratification. Prohibition essentially began in June of that year, but the amendment did not officially take effect until January 29, 1920.

The proponents of Prohibition had believed that banning alcoholic beverages would reduce or even eliminate many social problems, particularly drunkenness, crime, mental illness, and poverty, and would eventually lead to reductions in taxes. However, during Prohibition, people continued to produce and drink alcohol, and bootlegging helped foster a massive industry completely under the control of organized crime. Prohibitionists argued that Prohibition would be more effective if enforcement were increased. However, increased efforts to enforce Prohibition simply resulted in the government spending more money, rather than less. Journalist H.L. Mencken asserted in 1925 that respect for law diminished rather than increased during Prohibition, and drunkenness, crime, insanity, and resentment towards the federal government had all increased.

During this period, support for Prohibition diminished among voters and politicians. John D. Rockefeller Jr., a lifelong nondrinker who had contributed much money to the Prohibitionist Anti-Saloon League, eventually announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems he believed Prohibition had caused. Influential leaders, such as the du Pont brothers, led the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, whose name clearly asserted its intentions.

Women as a bloc of voters and activists became pivotal in the effort to repeal, as many concluded that the effects of Prohibition were morally corrupting families, women, and children. (By then, women had become even more politically powerful due to ratification of the Constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.) Activist Pauline Sabin argued that repeal would protect families from the corruption, violent crime, and underground drinking that resulted from Prohibition. In 1929 Sabin founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), which came to be partly composed of and supported by former Prohibitionists; its membership was estimated at 1.5 million by 1931.

The number of repeal organizations and demand for repeal both increased. In 1932, the Democratic Party’s platform included a plank for the repeal of Prohibition, and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt ran for President of the United States promising repeal of federal laws of Prohibition.

Dec 05 2011

Partial Defaults…

and why they might be the best alternative.

I found this a thought provoking piece.

David Apgar: Could Germany Be Right about the Euro?

Naked Capitalism

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What if there are good reasons for the preternatural calm of German Chancellor Merkel’s inner circle as the English-language media (based, after all, in the investor capitals of London and New York) light their collective hair on fire about the euro’s imminent immolation? Surprisingly, you can make a decent argument that the euro zone is at no risk of breakup – unless someone secretly switches its purpose from facilitating European trade to providing investors an implicit guarantee against losses.



Suppose, however, the feasibility of Mediterranean austerity – austerity at a scale big enough to impress the bond markets – is not what Merkel’s team is counting on. Suppose instead the Germans are really counting on the feasibility of a series of orderly partial defaults.



The big unasked question is not whether austerity might be tolerable but whether defaults would be as intolerable as the bond media insist. Here’s why Merkel’s team could have quietly concluded that the costs of a series of partial defaults are unavoidable even without any defaults, that some of those supposed costs may in fact be disguised benefits, and that the alternatives to selective debt relief are probably unsustainable.

As far as costs go, massive European bank restructuring comes to mind, especially following a cool €300 billion or so of losses on government bond holdings. It’s hard to say anything nice about bank restructuring, but at least we know how to do it. We know, for example, how to split good banks from bad banks. (Hint: rank balance sheet assets by quality and liabilities by seniority and draw a line across the balance sheet after the last asset of reasonably determinate value.) That’s handy when you need banks with systems in place ready to restart lending. And we know these transactions work when free from political interference as they were in Sweden in 1992. We also have institutions like the ECB ready to fix broken banks – unlike broken governments.

Less widely discussed, massive European bank restructuring may be unavoidable even if Europe somehow enlisted enough ECB printing presses, enough future earnings of all those carefree northern European taxpayers, and enough future benefits of all those docile southerners to plaster a smile on the face of every bond portfolio manager at BNP Paribas and Commerzbank. The scale of the bailout needed to avoid further investor losses as of today – much less tomorrow or next week – would entail cross-border consolidation or de facto nationalization of a significant portion of the euro banking sector.



The alternatives to partial defaults by countries that can’t afford to pay rising interest rates, furthermore, may be unsustainable. The most popular alternative has the ECB stepping in to buy bonds every time investors try to cut their exposure. At first blush, it looks clean – no forced austerity, no messy investor losses and bank restructurings, no burden on taxpayers in creditor countries like Germany. The only problem is that it would be inflationary.

And that inflation turns out to be quite a problem. With such ECB generosity on offer – and with euro zone inflation looming – why would any bond trader with a pulse stop after dumping her Greek, Portuguese, Irish, Italian, and Spanish exposure? Why not get rid of the French and German paper in the vaults, as well? Get rid of it all. Well, maybe not the Estonian bonds. But the ECB would be buried.



Ironically, the ECB purchaser-of-last-resort and eurobond alternatives probably would break up the euro zone. The inflationary strains of the former, and the accountability problems of the latter, would never survive the next referendum in a euro zone state. The purpose of the euro is to facilitate trade and commerce – not facilitate government borrowing.

This, then, is the impasse euro zone bond investors have reached. To avoid losses, they clamor for alternatives that could disrupt the currency itself – one of the few things that might actually make them worse off in real terms than they are right now.

Frankly there is no reason to believe that the Euro crisis is causing anything but kneejerk neoliberal responses from elites who are bound by faith alone to policies and doctrines that are factually proven failures.

Still, it does make you think.