In the news (July 29 – August 5 2013)

Welcome back to the AR’s weekly links. Today marks the 68th anniversary of the U.S. decision to drop the “Little Boy” nuclear bomb over Hiroshima killing 140,000 people. Our condolences are enduring.

Nuclear Safety & Security

Japan’s Fukushima disasters continue to drive nuclear safety coverage. We think it appropriate here to use the plural, “disasters,” when reviewing the devastation at Fukushima. Tepco’s workers have to fight separate and distinct dragons smouldering in containment chambers 1-3 alongside unit-4’s potentially more dangerous spent-fuel pond. The tragedy is still unfolding.

Reactor meltdowns were previously seen as discrete and terrible events. Fukushima has sharpened nuclear-safety views by showing a huge disaster that develops at a snail’s pace with continuing bad revelations nearly two-and-a-half years after the accident.

RT cited plant operator Tepco in reporting that “Fukushima radiation levels are as high as 2011” The Asahi Shimbun’s Miki Aoki meanwhile wrote that 9,640 workers at Fukushima have been exposed to 5 millisieverts or more of radiation and are therefore eligible for workers’ compensation if they develop leukemia. Andrew DeWit, a professor at Rikkyo University, writes in the Asia-Pacific Journal that “the best hope lies with nationalizing the nuclear assets and providing them with competent management, relieving the utilities of their burdens and the rest of us of some portion of risks.” The plant remains in a state of “emergency,” Reuters Antoni Slodkowski and Mari Salto wrote Aug. 5, following Tepco’s admission that Fukushima’s toxic waters had entered the ocean.

Nuclear safety fears ripple elsewhere in the region.South Koreans have been scandalized by revelations of bribery and fake test results, reported NYT’s Choe Sang-Hung. Taiwanese legislators came to blows over whether the island should start a fourth reactor in the wake of the Fukushima meltdowns, reports the South China Morning Post.

The Questions: Has the full impact of Fukushima yet been felt on the nuclear industry? Will the disaster aid the public in understanding nuclear time, in which material efficacy is measured by centuries, from human time, measured among decision makers in election cycles? Can Tepco devise a responsible way of releasing the built-up waste into the sea without facing dumping claims?

Nuclear Power

Regulatory fallout from Fukushima, along with the uptick in shale-gas extraction, are challenging nuclear power in the U.S. The Colombia Journalism Review’s John Mecklin reviews press coverage on Edison International’s decision to shut San Onofres and determines the closure “was at base economic; its majority owner decided that the probable costs and regulatory uncertainty were too great to risk going forward with the repair and replacement of the plant’s steam generators.” While the World Nuclear News reports there is a correlation between the reactors closure and higher California power prices, other nuclear projects are being dropped amidst low prices for natural gas, wrote the NYT’s Matthew Wald about Duke Energy’s choice to halt a reactor project in Florida.

Time’s Bryan Walsh reports that nuclear advocates are banking on next-generation reactor technologies to drive investments.

The Questions: Beyond Bill Gates, which private-sector actors are financing the next generation? How have the actuarial tables shifted following Fukushima to weigh sovereign risks from nuclear accidents? How might the shale-gas “boom” augur a period of nuclear-industry reflection and more accurate measure of atomic energy’s risk-weighted costs?

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Robert Einhorn in Foreign Policy and Yousaf Butt in The National Interest exchanged views over nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty interpretation in the context of Iranian negotiations.

Einhorn controversially writes that “Lawyers can debate whether a right to enrich is included in the treaty, but what is not debatable is that Iran has forfeited — at least temporarily — any right to enrichment (and reprocessing) until it can demonstrate convincingly that it is in compliance with its NPT obligations,” wrote Einhorn.

The former White House advisor’s piece begs the question: “If it is not debatable,” then why even bother to talk? Butt ripostes that “if U.S. policymakers are interested in making headway towards a negotiated solution with Iran, they must clarify their understanding of the NPT.”

Stay tuned…

Meanwhile in Jammu, Happymon Jacob writes in Greater Kashmir that India continues to strengthen its international standing outside the NPT: “India will eventually gain membership in these organisations (namely the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Australia Group, Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenaar Arrangement). What is significant here is not only India’s potential entry into these exclusive clubs, but doing so without giving up its nuclear weapons. None of these cartels admit into its membership those who have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).”

India’s non-proliferation record is reasonably clean, giving it some credibility to be an outside member of the club. Not so in neighboring Pakistan, where the nuclear black-market network established by AQ Khan is still being unraveled. Following U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, Pakistan’s Energy Minister, Khawaja Asif, said “the Secretary has indicated about the possibility of a civil nuclear deal between the two countries akin to the Indo-US Agreement 123,” The Nation reported.

The Wilson Center’s Dani Nedal has published a fascinating account of Brazil’s covert nuclear-fuel-cycle program in the 1970s: “As once-secret documents and oral history interviews with key former Brazilian scientists and officials show, Brazil sought to circumvent international legal and political obstacles by clandestinely purchasing crucial materials and know-how on the nuclear black market, and from countries such as China.” Read more here.

The Questions: How are the Arms Control Lawyers holding up against the Arms Control Wonkers? There’s been something of an insurrection among arms-control theologians. Why are NPT and IAEA-CSA literalists cast as apologists? What lessons might be gleaned from the Brazilian experience of the 1970s to the Iran challenges of today? How does recognition of India as a de facto nuclear-weapons state affect the NPT? What utility would the NPT continue to serve were Pakistan to receive the same dispensation as India?

Iran

Iran inaugurated new President Hassan Rohani on August 4. The country’s former top nuclear negotiator offered an olive branch to the west, wrote MSNBC’s Dafna Linzer, by appointing Javad Zarif foreign minister: “Perhaps no other Iranian has had the kind of access to the corridors of U.S. power as Zarif has had, from members of Congress to nuclear experts and policy makers. As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations in the early 2000s, Zarif was granted special waivers to travel to Washington for private meetings with some of the same people who have since become top Middle East diplomats in the Obama administration.” Reuters Marcus George and Paul Taylor reported the appointment of Zarif may be a bellwether for an attempted “Grand Bargain.”

The Bloomberg News editorial department welcomed Rohani’s inauguration by urging U.S. President Barack Obama, so long as negotiations continue, to veto additional Congressional sanctions, define security guarantees and desist from regime change.

Finally, Iran’s tit-for-tat with the International Atomic Energy Agency took a new turn in a July 10 Information Circular requested by Ambassador Aliasghar Soltanieh. The Islamic Republic threatened to sue IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano for damages caused by overstepping his mandate: “Defining unilateral obligations on a sovereign state is beyond the mandate of the Director General. As clearly described above, the DG has deviated from his mandate. Iran reserves its right to file claims against his acts on the damages arising,” INFCIRC/853 says. The document provides a spectacularly different view of the negotiations between Iran and the West than heretofore reported.

The Questions: Who is going to write the table-napkin history of Zarif’s time in NYC now that he’s Foreign Minister? His charm and sophistication precede him. How much is Director General Amano worth and will Iran really go for the throat? Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA allows it to request arbitration to settle disputes. Is Iran ready to push back on what it deems IAEA excess?

Errata

Press freedom continues to come under pressure in the U.S. and elsewhere, wrote NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan. A U.S. appeals court decision compelling fellow Times reporter James Risen to break confidentiality afforded his sources has already damaged the paper’s ability to report the news, she writes.

Over at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson probes the reasons why so-called “public secrets” cause so much discomfort to those in power: “In the final analysis, the reason there will be more Mannings and Snowdens is that so many American secrets are not strict military secrets but scandalous public secrets pertaining to ways the US national security state behaves that are at odds with national or international law, or in conflict with fundamental national values. Whether one condones what Snowden did or not, it is clear that he was motivated by a deep sense of indignation that his government was doing something profoundly wrong. “If you want a secret respected,” said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the country’s greatest commentators on secrecy, “see that it’s respectable in the first place.”

The Questions: Why is the fear of public embarrassment so deeply imbued in the quest to keep “public secrets?” How long can an economic culture built on taking risks be controlled by a system that needs total-information awareness to ensure security? At what point does the cost of total-information awareness begin to burden free-market innovation?

Tuesday bonus: Did you know that Lee Majors TV series “Six Million Dollar Man,” aired from 1973 to 1978, was called “The Nuclear Man” in its Spanish-language incarnation?

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