Friday, March 18, 2011


It's hard to imagine how Japan will recover from its triple catastrophe, or what the global fallout -- radioactive, political, economic -- will be. But there is one group of people who have already recovered -- the nuclear power zealots, captained by President HopeandChange.

"This isn't Japan," they astutely observe. "We don't have tsunamis, and let's not talk about earthquakes which haven't happened yet so let's not consider them. And our nuclear plants are better designed than those dumb Russian ones, more modern, chock full of new safety devices."

Obama is still pushing nuclear energy as "clean", now with a little less emphasis on "and safe", but always asserting "clean".

The hard sell is on. Fukushima? Move on, move on, nothing to see here.

Move on? OK, then, let's move on. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

I've always felt the emphasis on accident potential should be a lower priority for anti-nuke activists. Possible accidents are far too dismissable to the optimistic American mind.

I've thought, rather, that we should emphasize the problems with normal, daily operations, with not a tsunami in sight. The fact is, Mr. President and others, nuclear energy is not clean. It is filthy. And lethal. Even without an accident.

"Nuclear energy" is not just the power plant, of whatever "safe" design. "Nuclear energy" is bigger than that. It begins with uranium mining, and ends with decommissioning -- or doesn't end at all when we look at the need to safely store high-level radioactive waste for thousands and tens of thousands of years.

Let's take in the big picture of  this energy touted as "safe".

Before we even get to the plant, there are the multiple dangers of mining and milling for workers, and for the environment, as the waste from mining operations and rainwater runoff contaminates ground and surface water with heavy metals and traces of radioactive uranium. Further uranium enrichment and fabrication of fuel rods add to the health and environmental burdens,

Then the dangerous materials have to be transported over long distances by large, protected vehicles, to fuel the individual plants. And of course the plants have to be built at great financial and environmental expense, and seated at huge water sources for cooling.

At the river or shore, heavy metals and salts build up, and the water temperature is raised as it cools the pile, threatening the local ecology and wildlife, and contaminating local land with toxic by-products, possibly forever.  This, under normal operation. Nuclear power -- clean?

Then there are the 2,000 metric tons of high level waste produced by, say, our 103 US plants.  At present, we store that waste on site, no adequate underground storage having been found. Beyond the spent fuel, there is all the equipment in the plant which gradually becomes contaminated with radiation, and is itself radioactive waste, which will need to be buried.

Let's think more carefully about what it means to successfully store and manage radioactive waste.  Some radioactive isotopes decay quickly, in a few hours. Others, like U235, strontium 90 and cesium 137 have half-lives tens of years, meaning, say, 120 years until they are essentially "harmless". Maybe.

But the half-life of plutonium (created in reactors, and the "payoff" in "breeding fuel") is 24,300 years. Whatever plutonium is created under "normal" circumstances must be kept out of the environment for half a million years. No tsunamis. No earthquakes. Just normal.


Let's not do the half-million year dance. Too silly.  Let's say only as long ago as from the birth of Jesus.

So the Romans, in a great scientific breakthrough right after the aqueducts, have discovered how to make inexhaustible energy from certain rocks in the ground. But people die when they get too close, so Roman ingenuity and lead is applied to the now-hot rocks, and they are contained.

The containment must be continuously tended to by the various barbaric tribes that follow the fall, by the churchmen of the middle ages and the warring lords of the Renaissance, by the monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the various revolutionaries of the 19th, during two world wars and several others in the twentieth century, and continue now in the current age of  vying international corporations and "terrorism".

That's only 2000 years, give or take -- one tenth the half-life of plutonium, and one 200th of the time needed for it to become "safe".

So much for clean storage under normal operating conditions.

And then there is the embarrassing subject of decommissioning.  Assuming the power companies -- or more likely the taxpayers -- can afford it (they probably can't), they will find that decommissioning a nuclear power plant doesn't just mean turning out the lights and walking away.

Reactors cannot do their thing forever. The intensity of continuous bombardment by high-energy sub-atomic particles weakens, strains, and fatigues the building materials, which must eventually give out. The radioactive walls of a decommissioned reactor must be cut up under water by remote control.  This is not cheap. Or clean. Or safe. Just "mothball" it in cement till it cools down? the concrete would be long turned to dust before the nickle-63 or carbon-14 decay to safe levels. Different isotopes require different burial strategies. Safe decommissioning methods have yet to be found.

The rug is on fire in Japan. But the ongoing all the above is has been swept under it by the "clean" nuclear crowd.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


One point of light in this ghastly week of darkness has been the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois. Perhaps it's some kind of karmic balance to the election of Rahm Emannuel as mayor. Or payback for nurturing Obama, the current Grand Poobah of Extinction.

On March 9, Rod Blagojevich's successor, Gov. Pat Quinn, signed into law an abolition bill passed by state House and Senate, and Illinois joined Vermont and fourteen other states in abrogating capital punishment as a sentence for state-committed crimes.

Disaster Humanitarianism

Some of the legislators' reasons quoted by the Death Penalty Information Service were a bit lacking in moral depth:

"We have spent over $100 million of taxpayer money defending and prosecuting death row cases. The death penalty does not make our society safer, I believe. It has been an ineffective and expensive use of our scarce resources."

“I was on both sides of this issue. But then you think of the potential cost savings of this bill, and the state needs all of the savings we can get.”

This is a bit like being against racial prejudice because black people, see, aren't actually black -- they're more brown.

But, hey, if disaster capitalism or questionable reasoning must reign, let them reign here, too, to better effect.

Caveat Humanor

But Land of Lincolners, beware -- Vermont's experience bears watching:

No one had been executed in state for 33 years, and in 1987 our state legislature, too, abolished a Vermont death penalty. But fourteen years later, this was too much for the Bush administration. His Justice Department, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, decided to do something about Vermont's raging liberalism.

A murder committed in 2000, admitted to by a remorseful  20-year old, had been plea-bargained for life without the possibility of parole. But because the victim was abducted in Vermont and the perpetrators, drunkenly fleeing, transported the victim over the border to New York State, Ashcroft demanded that his prosecutors change their agreement and go for death for the interstate crime. And on a kind of reverse-Bastille Day, 14 July 2005, a jury of twelve Vermonters delivered Vermont's first death sentence in 50 years -- another notch in Bush/Cheney's belt. And following the sentencing, there began a push to bring capital punishment back.

Now Bush/Ashcroft have become Obama/Holder, and a similar drama is unfolding.  In a perfectly awful sex-murder of a 12-year old, with murderer, victim and crime entirely in-state, the new feds have once again moved in to claim jurisdiction, and thus demand another death penalty from death penalty-free Vermont.

What is their reasoning? That the internet was used in the developing story, and the internet is interstate, ergo it’s a federal offense, ergo, let's go for death. Obama's motivation? Who knows. But you have to be tough on crime to get elected in 2012. 

Our Public Defender is fighting such legal travesty, but the big boys have more money. Disaster humanitarianism goes only so far.

And Our Reasoning?

The internet makes all crime these days federal crimes. Questionable reasoning. The death penalty should be abolished because it saves money to do so. Questionable reasoning, though true.

Not to be simplistic, but it seems to me that capital punishment should be abolished for moral reasons, not economic or technical ones. Call it Thou Shalt not Kill. Call it Do Unto Others. Call it Two Wrongs Don't. Call it what you want, but the state of We the People is not granted the right to kill its citizens. This is not a moonbeam hippy idea. Most comparable advanced-economy states agree.

In the midst of the 2006 cry to bring the death penalty back to Vermont, I thought I'd explore the motivations behind an extreme example in our own western culture, and researched and published a novel called The Good Doctor Guillotin. I found much involved in the French Revolution still relevant to our attitudes and times.

Here is the short first chapter as a teaser. I invite you to explore this subject with me.


When asked in the 1960s about the historical effect of the French Revolution, Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai replied, “Too soon to tell.”

I. Prelude


Five paths converging at a place, and that place is the scaffold. Five roads to this engorging center, and five ways of the five men upon them.

For the Pythagoreans, five was the number of man—with his five fingers, five toes, and five senses, the creature who could be placed inside a pentagram,

with its center at his groin.

While his groin may have been near the center of the scaffold on April 25, 1792, the center of attention was his neck—the neck of Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, age thirty-six, profession “brigand,” the first of many to mate with the new machine.

Five were the number of the wounds of Christ, a truth held dear by another at the scaffold, the curé Pierre-René Grenier, spiritual adviser and companion of Pelletier’s last days.

There, too, was the builder of the machine, the “painless device”—which for a while would be known as the “louison” after Antoine Louis, the doctor who had perfected its design—one Tobias Schmidt, a German piano-maker living and working in Paris.

The machine’s attendant was also there, of course: Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of Paris, who nine months later would strap a king onto the plank, hold his fallen head up by the hair, and show it to the crowd. Nine pregnant months into the birth of a new world, and the death of an old one.

A fifth person was there, too, completing the pentagram, its head, perhaps, but cut off from the event, mind tortured and heart afraid—Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, professor at the Faculté de Medicine, Parisian delegate to the National Assembly, a man charged with helping to write a constitution for an unimagined world.

He was secretary to that Assembly, the good Doctor Guillotin, that singular man, a respectable clinician much in demand, a man doomed by laughing fate to immortal scorn. He wanted an egalitarian justice system, a more humane method of execution. In return he was haunted by repulsion and sniggering, by dirty pointing fingers and hands going chop-chop at the neck. His name became attached to a monster daughter, fathered by his Enlightenment hope for improving the lot of humankind. And contempt has followed him to the present day. On April 25, 1792, he could not bring himself to witness the event: He turned his back to the scaffold.

In a funeral oration for Guillotin on March, 23, 1814, a Dr. Bourru remarked, “It is difficult to benefit mankind without some unpleasantness resulting for oneself.”

Alas, too true.

Five paths to that scaffold, a pentagram of powerlessness and power. For the Freemasons, of which Guillotin was one, the pentagram inscribed in the pentagon symbolized the hermetic mystery of Solomon’s Seal, the Quintessence, a fifth essence beyond fire, water, earth, and air, the burning star of the Spirit. Walking the halls of our own pentagon, we find still the same array: would-be altruists, victims dreaming of victims, builders of efficient machines, those who use them, and those who bless them.

Friday, March 4, 2011


The warships gather, as do the rationales. The table is groaning with options. A word rarely mentioned is oil.

The Wall St Journal has called for the U.S. and Europe to "help Libyans overthrow the Gadhafi regime." (Insufficiently compliant.) Obama and Hilary have expressed "outrage" in their zeal to save innocent lives.

The Senate, condemning Gadhafi's "violence against civilians" (as opposed to our own, or Israel's), with unanimous consent quickly passed a resolution which "calls on the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over the territory of Libya."

Some pols have not been as politic. Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, for instance, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee has noted that a no-fly zone could deter Kadafi from striking rebels with his chemical weapons and offers the U.S. a way "to project power without getting engaged on the ground."

I seem to remember something about a western Coalition of the Willing liberating the people of Iraq from Saddam, and the tribes of Afghanistan from warlords and  the Taliban.

In short, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don't need a fisherman to smell something fishy. The details are changing hour by hour; the exact storyline is hard to predict. But that the babe of freedom is life-threatened by its bath of oil, power struggles, and violence -- that we know. Some things are transparent.

The Bread & Puppet Theater has a devastating little play called "The King Story." Peter Schumann's narrator speaks as follows:

Once there was a Good King.  And the King had a Priest, and the King had a Red Man, and the King had a Blue Man and his Son, and the King had  Good People.

One day, a Great Warrior came into the King's country and offered his services to the King.  But the King refused to accept his services and he sent him away.

Then a terrible Dragon appeared in the King's country, and the People were afraid, and the King was afraid.  And he called for the Great Warrior.  But the Priest implored the King not to ask the Great Warrior for help, and the Blue Man and his Son implored the King not to ask the Great Warrior for help.
But the King was afraid and the People were afraid.  And the King called for the Great Warrior, and the Great Warrior fought the Dragon.  And the Great Warrior killed the Dragon.

And then the Great Warrior killed the King, and then the Great Warrior killed the Priest, and then the Great Warrior killed the Red Man, and then the Great Warrior killed the Blue Man and his Son, and then the Great Warrior killed the People.

And then the Great Warrior was alone.
And Death came.

And Death killed him.

"And Death killed him."  I'll tell you how. 

A smiling skull walks quietly out from behind a curtain, dressed in tux and white gloves, blowing softly on a bosun's whistle.  The Great Warrior's head is huge, metallic silver, topped with lethal spikes.  In each gigantic fist he holds an enormous sword which strikes mechanically, with deadly force. 

A smallish Death stands face to face with Immensity.

The Great Warrior raises his right sword, and brings it fiercely down.  But Death catches the sword, and slowly twists it, breaking the puppet arm. Inside, the puppeteer releases the handle, and the sword hand drops limply, flapping from its sleeve.  It is an astounding moment when the integrity of the puppet is broken.  For all the horror of the character, how pathetic to see the sword just dangle.

The same move is repeated with the left hand, and now, both swords swing helplessly from the Great Warrior's outstretched arms.  Then, in a move of high gymnastic, the puppeteer inside slowly arcs his body backward, so that the spikes of the Great Warrior's head touch the ground behind him.  He whips forward, and brings the spikes crashing down on Death. 

But his head is caught and twisted, his neck snaps, and his head dangles down, knocking against limp swords. 

Death walks around behind the Great Warrior, and pushes his carcass down to the ground, a mere blue mass now, with arms and head akimbo.  He blows his whistle softly, and walks off stage.


This, Bread & Puppet's vision of Hope and Change.