Nuclear Plant Was Behind On Safety Inspections

03/21/2011 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Welcome to "The Watchdog," which will keep a close eye on regulatory agencies and how their actions impact the lives of everyday Americans. Though the rules and regulations they write -- from determining how much arsenic is allowable in your drinking water to whether your favorite TV show can drop the F-bomb in primetime -- affect all of us, their deliberations and the way that lobbyists influence their decisions receives very little coverage. To make sense of these debates, follow the implementation of health care reform and financial reform and decipher the minutia of the Federal Register, "The Watchdog" is on the case. If you have any tips or suggestions, send them to marcus@huffingtonpost.com.

03/21/2011 1:17 PM EDT

Tokyo Electric Was Behind On Safety Inspections

At the time of the earthquake, the Fukushima reactor was storing almost six years of highly radioactive uranium fuel rods -- far more than the plant was intended to keep -- and it was behind on its safety inspection schedule, with 33 pieces on the six reactors at the complex having missed scheduled checkups.

Reuters reports:

When the massive tsunami smacked into Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power plant was stacked high with more uranium than it was originally designed to hold and had repeatedly missed mandatory safety checks over the past decade.

The Fukushima plant that has spun into partial meltdown and spewed out plumes of radiation had become a growing depot for spent fuel in a way the American engineers who designed the reactors 50 years earlier had never envisioned, according to company documents and outside experts...

The cascade of safety-related failures at the Fukushima plant is already strengthening the hand of reformers who argue that Japan's nuclear power industry will have to see sweeping changes from the top.

"I've long thought that the whole system is crap," said Taro Kono, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and a longtime critic of nuclear power who sees the need for a government-directed reorganization of Tokyo Electric.

03/21/2011 12:33 PM EDT

The Return Of 'Death Panels'

Former health insurance executive Wendell Potter responds to concerns expressed by congressional Republicans about how a controversial provision (the so-called "death panels") that was cut from last year’s health reform bill briefly wound up in a government “rule” on physician reimbursement.

Over at the Center for Public Integrity's excellent site, Potter notes:

"Yes, death panels do exist. They exist inside the big health insurance corporations that every day make decisions on whether or not people enrolled in their health benefit plans will get the care their doctors believe might save their lives. I know this firsthand from nearly two decades inside the insurance industry.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Hilda and Grigor Sarkisyan, who very possibly would be helping their daughter, Nataline, plan her 21st birthday about now had a corporate medical director not refused to pay for a liver transplant Nataline’s doctors believed would save her life.

Nataline was diagnosed with leukemia at 14. Initial treatments were successful and the disease went into remission. It came back a couple of years later, though, and the sort of treatments she’d had previously were not working. She had to have a bone marrow transplant, which weakened her liver. In mid-December 2007, her doctors at UCLA Medical Center said she needed a liver transplant. They asked for prior approval from her insurer, CIGNA, to pay for it. Nataline’s doctors said they believed she had at least a 65 percent chance of living five years or longer if she had the procedure.

A CIGNA medical director 2,500 miles away in Pittsburgh disagreed. To the astonishment of Nataline’s doctors, he ruled the transplant “experimental.” Insurers almost never pay for procedures they consider experimental, so this corporate medical director’s decision meant that the Sarkisyans would have to pay for the transplant and all related care out of their own pockets. Not being wealthy enough to do that, Nataline’s parents launched a campaign to rally public support and media interest in the case. It worked. CIGNA eventually agreed to cover the transplant. Unfortunately, so much time had passed since the original request had been made that Nataline’s other organs began to shut down. She died a few hours after the family got the news that CIGNA had changed its mind.

As chief spokesman for CIGNA at the time, I was on the receiving end of hundreds of calls and emails from reporters and also from regular folks who were outraged that CIGNA had initially refused to pay for Nataline’s transplant. The Sarkisyan family sued CIGNA, but the case was thrown out because of a Supreme Court precedent that shielded employer-paid plans from damages resulting from their decisions."

03/21/2011 12:08 PM EDT

The Wake-Up Call: Nuke Whistleblower Slams Industry Over Safety Record

- A nuclear industry whistleblower who helped design protective containment vessels for reactors has attacked the Japanese government, its nuclear industry and regulators over their safety record.

- The new Coalition for Sensible Safeguards launches its website today. From its call to action: "We call on President Obama and Congress to advance regulatory protections, preserve existing safeguards, and provide adequate funding for their effective implementation and enforcement."

- Volokh on the saga of mercury regulation since the Clinton administration: "Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new regulations governing emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plants. This rule has been a long time coming."

- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will soon decide whether the vast market in foreign-exchange swaps -- a type of financial instrument that businesses often use to guard against fluctuations in foreign-exchange rates -- should be subject to tighter regulation.

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