Some politicians are so determined to serve their corporate patrons that even disasters like Fukushima can't lessen their anti-government zeal. The expression for that kind of determination is "Come hell or high water." Now, thanks to deregulation and government downsizing, we've seen both.
As tragedy unfolds in Fukushima, an ideological struggle's being waged here at home. A CBS News headline reads "Nuclear Safety Expert: It Could Happen Here." The Nation's Christian Parenti offers a piece called "Nuclear Hubris: Could Japan's Disaster Happen Here? Experts are being quoted on both sides of the debate. The Brattleboro Reformer's "Could It Happen Here?" piece reflects a special anxiety, since the Vermont Yankee reactor down the road in Vernon is a General Electric Mark I like the reactors at Fukushima. Other "can it happen here?" stories have appeared in Pennsylvania, Grand Rapids, Detroit, South Carolina, San Francisco, Michigan, New Hampshire, and undoubtedly elsewhere around the country.
The question urgently needs to be asked. There are at least 23 similar reactors in the United States, and some them are forty years old. And "can it happen here?" stories are appearing in other parts of the world, too, like Canada, Great Britain, India, Russia, Australia, and Armenia.
But in another sense, "Can it happen here?" is the wrong question, because the truth is that it's already happened - and it will continue to happen as long as private corporations are allowed to decide whether our risk of disaster outweighs their need to show strong quarterly earnings. We've seen the damage that can be caused by excessive deregulation and government cost-cutting. Yet despite this latest tragedy, the political voices of corporate America are once again waging their perennial war against sanity and common sense.
If the Devil had lobbyists we'd be in Armageddon now - and he'd be winning.
Enter Sen. Mitch McConnell, right on cue. Here's what the Republican Majority Leader said on Fox News Sunday as the flames of Fukushima unleashed hell on the Japanese countryside: ""This discussion reminds me, somewhat, of the conversations that were going on after the BP oil spill last year. I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy."
Right. And right after a drunk driving accident isn't a good time to administer a Breathalyzer test.
The anti-regulation forces seem to have stopped trying to make rational arguments for their position, probably because those arguments don't stand up to scrutiny. Instead they've been reduced to making the case for amnesia. Sen. McConnell's defenders may claim that he's only suggesting we wait until emotions have died down, but he and his allies really want to wait until the terrible details have faded from our memories.
It was Republican Rep. Joe Barton, after all, who apologized to Tony Hayward of BP because the oil company was asked to set up a claim fund to compensate the victims of its spill. Barton had received $1.5 million in campaign funds from the oil industry by then (he's probably received more since then). That gaffe (revealing your true feelings can be a gaffe in Washington) cost Barton his chairmanship of the House Energy Committee, although the GOP mollified him by naming him "chair emeritus."
The chairmanship went instead to Rep. Fred Upton, who could have been Barton's clone after a White House panel made an urgent, common-sense call for more oil drilling regulation. The expert group had concluded that "none of the major aspects of offshore drilling safety -- not the regulatory oversight, not the industry safety standards, not the spill response practices -- kept pace with the push into deepwater," and that "our nation was entirely unprepared for an inevitable disaster."
What was Upton's response? " "Neither this nor any investigation should be used as political justification for a pre-determined agenda to limit affordable energy options for America." Translation: No facts, please. We have oil lobbyists to serve.
The Mighty Atom
According to an independent report, "The Obama administration may soon guarantee as much as $18.5 billion in loans to build new nuclear reactors to generate electricity, and Congress is considering whether to add billions more to support an expansion of nuclear power. These actions come after an extensive decade-long campaign in which companies and unions related to the industry have spent more than $600 million on lobbying and nearly $63 million on campaign contributions."
While the nuclear industry lavishes money on both parties, it celebrated the Republicans' Congressional victory with special pleasure. As a nuclear lobbying group put it in a story about nuke company NRG: "Nuclear Power Benefits From Republican Wins, NRG Says."
The American nuclear power has long been green with envy (or should that be blue, like Cherenkov radiation?) as it gazed longingly at countries that didn't regulate nuclear reactors as carefully as the United States - countries like ... well, like Japan.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency has faced accusations of lax oversight for a long time. Anderson Cooper grilled a Japanese official this evening over the government's apparent willingness to accept the Tokyo Power Company's assertions about the state of the reactors at face value, without confirming them independently. This apparent gullibility came after what the Wall Street Journal described as "a string of nuclear safety records cover-ups ... including ... the company's doctoring of safety records concerning reactor shrouds, a part of the reactors themselves, in the 1980s through the early 1990s."
The Japanese official sounded a lot like own government representatives did when they echoed BP's claims about the state of the oil spill and rescue efforts without insisting on verifying them independently. Apparently we've exported more than just our nuclear reactors to Japan. Their government's imported American-style corporate cronyism, too.
Despite the near-inevitability of disasters, business leaders - and the politicians that serve them - insist on behaving as if they'll never happen. Case in point: The House Republican budget includes cuts to funds for "Flood Control and Coastal Emergencies." As we wrote when it was first released, the National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration (NOAA) estimates that damage from coastal floods and storms costs an average $11.4 billion per year, nearly four hundred times as much as the cuts would save. NOAA also reports that there's a roughly 1-in-20 chance of a fifty billion dollar event occurring in any given year.
They're cutting thirty million dollars intended to reduce costs that would be many times that magnitude - and would save lives - when the next severe tropical storm comes, as it inevitably will.
The bottom line? They blew it with Katrina, and now they're planning to blow the next Katrina too. The NOAA statistics tell the story. (They want to cut funding for NOAA, too.)
Invaders From Outer Space
It gets worse.
Republicans under Bush even resisted a Congressional request to find ways of protecting the planet from asteroids. That led to this sentence from a New York Times editorial:
NASA officials say the space agency is capable of finding almost every asteroid that might pose a devastating threat to Earth, but because it lacks the money to do it, the job will not get done.
That's not what a guy wants to read while he's having his morning coffee.
As former astronaut Russell "Rusty" Schweickart explained in another Times editorial:
In 1998, Congress gave NASA's Spaceguard Survey program a mandate of "discovering, tracking, cataloging and characterizing" 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than one kilometer (3,200 feet) wide by 2008 ... But instead of coming up with a plan and budget to get the job done, the report bluntly stated that "due to current budget constraints, NASA cannot initiate a new program at this time."
That's right. When Congress asked the Bush Administration to tell it how much it would need to find Earth-endangering asteroids, the answer was "we don't want to spend the time or money." That's a direct reflection of the right-wing, all-government-is-bad ideology. If conservatives couldn't even motivate themselves to defend our planet - our "home world," as they might say on Star Trek - how can they be expected to protect us from earthbound catastrophes?
What was the name of that movie where Bruce Willis saves the planet from an asteroid? Oh, yeah. Armageddon.
Think the Fukushima disaster is something that's happening thousands of miles away?
When people in this country die because the Food and Drug Administration didn't provide adequate oversight,that's Fukushima too.
When under-regulated bankers put millions of people out of work, that's Fukushima.
When drowning Americans die in Louisiana because the government wasn't there to help them, that's Fukushima.
Disasters will always happen. We can't make ourselves completely safe from accidents. We have lives to lead. But whenever people suffer needlessly because ideologues won't let the government do its job, there's no distance between us and the people in Japan today.
The Real Fukushima
The fact that we're using Fukushima as a metaphor doesn't lessen the horror of what people are experiencing in the real Fukushima, and all through Japan. One day, a little more than twenty years ago, a friend and I drove up the eastern coast of Japan's main island from Tokyo. We didn't get as far as Fukushima Prefecture. It was August, and it so hot that steam seemed to rise up from the farms and fields. The water seemed inviting and the people were warm and friendly. What's happening there today is heartbreaking, and we should keep the people there in our minds and hearts.
That's all the more reason to rededicate ourselves to an important idea: Government exists to protect us when other institutions cannot. Businesses exist to make a profit, and their prosperity benefits everyone if it's properly managed. But the profit motive needs to be balanced by human (and humane) considerations if we're to be a livable society - or at the very least a survivable one.
Regulations are our way of ensuring that the drive for profits never again leads to needless tragedies: Not in Fukushima. Not in the Gulf of Mexico. Not in New Orleans. And not in your home town, or mine, or anyone else's.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates
UPDATE - This piece has been amended as follows: A quote from NRG Energy's CEO about "tree huggers" has been removed. Someone from NRG contacted me to say I had misinterpreted the line. I went back and checked, and he was right.