Saturday, September 03, 2005

Here in southern VT, we're having a Louisiana-related problem that has become even more disturbing (to say the least) in the wake of Katrina.

I'll post details and links later this week, but in a nutshell, the Louisiana-based firm Entergy has purchased the Yankee Nuclear power plant. Yankee was among the first nuclear power plants constructed in the US (the second to go on-line, I believe) and it has lived out its life per its original plans: it should be offline now, its useful life over (there's still the waste to deal with, but hey, there's still no profit in that).

But Entergy, part of the current corporate energy culture intent on maximizing profits, has not only determined it's wise to prolong Yankee's life -- they're intent on increasing its output beyond its capacity, upping production far beyond the parameters the plant was constructed for in its prime.

They've also managed to lay considerable groundwork for on-site "dry cask" storage of the waste the plant creates, among other dubious management decisions that endanger the lives of all in the region. (I won't get into the missing rod that couldn't be found in its own storage tank for months, or other issues).

This is chilling stuff -- especially since Yankee is about 13 miles as the crow flies from my home, and given my own experiences with Three Mile Island while living in New Jersey in my post-Kubert School years (sharing a house with Rick Veitch, John Totleben, Tom Yeates and Sue Balinski, we were listening to the PA radio stations we could pick up and charting our escape route out of Dover, NJ to VT; as the threat mounted, we almost fled, and at one point I made the call to my parents -- who didn't know anything about the events at the plant, and thought we were crazy). The hideous irony of the principle of and term "dry cask" storage in the context of all I've learned in the past two years about the devastating floods and storms that ravaged this region in 1927, 1936, and 1938 (before hurricanes were given names) is sobering. There's already mounting concerns about covert low-level radiation releases from Yankee, and the long-term effects on those in its vicinity, but "dry cask storage" seems a particularly perverse concept after having seen extant 16mm film footage and studied photos of the Connecticut River (Yankee is poised on the edge of its Vermont-side banks in Vernon) engorged and raging. Yankee and those "dry casks" would be ripping down-river to our neighbors to the south, Massachusetts and Connecticut, creating untold (and long-lasting -- as in eons) negative effects.

And that's the best-case scenario: having seen wind-dispersion maps of possible spread of radiation should Yankee Nuclear suffer a non-storm related accident, much of the Green Mountain State would be rendered uninhabitable for centuries, if not thousands, of years.

And yet, Entergy blithely proceeds with their plans, and have made considerable headway, with the ongoing indulgence of those institutions supposedly dedicated to "the public health and safety."

Amid all this activity, two simulated emergency evacuations were mounted over the past two years -- and both were disastrous failures. The first suffered most infamously at the high school, where all the buses were loaded with students and then stood unmoving for an inordinate period of time, until being erroneously misrouted. Communications broke down almost instantly, sans any real emergency. Clearly, none of the so-called authorities or best-laid plans were functional on the most rudimentary levels.

The response: a repeat simulated evacuation, so "simulated" that it didn't involve anyone doing anything, really -- no students evacuated, no buses filled, no real-world activity. That, too, failed.

Hahahah! No matter. No problem. Pay that no mind. Never mind that in the case of a real emergency, our children would have been trapped less than five miles from Ground Zero. That the main evacuation routes, including interstate 91, would have also been irrevocably choked by vehicles, including parents bound for the pre-determined rendevous points the buses never would have arrived at (if the parents had a clue where that might be, given the simultaneous failure of outmoded broadcast communications and the fact that on the best of days cell phones don't function in much of the village, particularly the area around the school and adjacent routes). Never mind that, or the thousands of other dire effects rippling from the fatally flawed, demonstratably failed planned response from civil and corporate authorities.

Entergy proceeds, and our state and local government indulges them, with minor obstacles and no real opposition. Corporate culture must be appeased, the beast fed.

As we continue to see in our food chain and pharmaceutical industries (to name the two most apparent), the institutions supposedly designed, funded and sustained to protect the public good are in the pockets of those very industries they are supposed to monitor, and that corruptive erosion process has been embraced and lovingly nurtured by the present Administration. There is no regard for the public good in the current US government. Surely, the maladroit and sluggish leadership and response to Katrina demonstrates that once and for all, for all (the world) to see.

It's excrutiating to hear our leaders talk of rebuilding New Orleans. This past February, my parents drove my wife Marj and I through the devastation from last summer's hurricanes in the Port Charlotte, Florida area: blocks and blocks of homes still gutted and abandoned. It was still an apocalyptic scene, punctuated by "Looters Will Be Shot" and the names of the insurance companies that failed the owners spray-painted on their ruined husks. Homes and businesses were still partially-covered by massive blue tarps blowing in the wind that Haliburton lashed and screwed to the structures (at a reported $5000 per structure), not a stitch of renovation or restoration done seven months after the hurricane had struck.

Privatized, for-profit corporate culture doesn't know how to respond to such events: wars (Haliburton's and other contracted firms' mishandling of providing essential services to the military in Iraq has been abundantly documented over the past four years), natural disasters, etc. require government intervention and support infrastructures.

There's no profit to be made from people who have been left destitute and homeless; they are no longer viable consumers. Vulnerable. Abandoned. Left behind.

Our government is now so entrenched in the corporate culture and the lie of "free market" that it is incapable of reacting in any manner other than that of a corporation.

Relevant to the VT Yankee situation I have mentioned, consider the failed evacuation and response to a simulated nuclear emergency in the timely context of this article from 2004, published in the National Geographic magazine, that most radical of leftist zines (the full article is
  • here).

  • Excerpting the article by Joel K. Bourne, Jr:

    ...It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. ...Those inside ...watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

    But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

    The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

    Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

    When did this calamity happen? It hasn't -- yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

    "The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours—coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast.... "I don't think people realize how precarious we are ...Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it's going to make things much worse."

    The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. "It's not if it will happen," says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. "It's when."

    (Thanks to Rick Veitch for sending me this link and material.)

    Though I have family and friends who were in Katrina's path and range (none, thankfully, at its center), it doesn't take any stretch of the imagination to picture something similar happening even here, way up north (or Way Down East) in New England. It did happen in '27, '36, and '38; as they are in Lousiana and Mississipi and Arkansas and Texas and Florida and everywhere in the Gulf, individuals responded with compassion and care, opening their doors and homes to those in need, communities mobilized to provide aid and assistance as soon as possible. In an area where geological time can be seen to move if one is paying attention (the Old Man of the Mountain taking his terminal slide), the coming of similar storms is an inevitability; as Penland put it, a "when," not an "if."

    When I see/hear/read of the Katrina survivors, I see/hear/read my children, my family, my friends, myself -- as should we all.

    But I'm not seeing/hearing/reading that from our leaders, save those living the reality in the Gulf Region. The appeals of outraged Gulf region mayors, governors, church leaders, who justifiably feel (have been) abandoned.

    You can debate all you want about what did or didn't happen on 9/11, what the present President and Administration did or didn't know, did or didn't respond to, were or weren't culpable for.

    Katrina was a known quantity before she had a name; the potential for disaster was known; and nothing, but nothing, was done.

    (One can only shudder at the realization that our crippled, depleted public health care system is now facing its greatest challenge, and those in power have only further depleted its ability to respond since 9/11. Look closely at the plight of those two New Orleans hospitals, an ongoing ordeal in which doctors are feeding one anoher with IVs to survive -- know that one of them is a mere half-mile from National Guard and other rescue operations outposts, and shudder.)

    This is as massive a failure of government and betrayal of its stewardship and responsibilities as one can imagine. It is clear, blatant and horrific evidence of the complete bankruptcy of the political philosophies that have labored for so long and with such unapologetic vigor and zeal to dismantle the very government policies, institutions, and infrastructures prior generations constructed in the wake of similar catastrophic events.

    While President Bush struts and puffs and promises and pontificates and mouths inanities (once again, on vacation as disaster struck) and Condy Rice shops for shoes in NYC, we needn't evoke Nero fiddling as Rome burned -- we're there.


    As I mentioned two days ago, cartoonist Al Nickerson has initiated a discussion on the Creator Bill of Rights, hosting a website dedicated to the ongoing exchange of letters. While discussion has spread to other venues (including the Pulse and comicon boards), it seemed vital to stick with Al as the central venue for this debate, if only for the sake of coherent and civil virtual-conversation. The link is a permanent fixture of this blog, at right, and I urge anyone interested (particularly those of you making livings, or aspiring to/working at making your livings, from writing and/or drawing) to check it out. Though comics industry pundits (such as they are) seem to consider the Bill a curio, at best, its importance and ongoing relevance seems self-evident to me -- I won't belabor the point here, suffice to say that issue, among many others, is wrestled with in the exchanges at Al's site, and it's recommended reading.

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