Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sacking the Quarterback to Take Possession of the Nuclear Football

“In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the
nuclear football is... the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state.”

There has been a sudden uptick in media chatter and Washington insider talk about the White House staff and various other high officials now speaking openly about their belief that President Trump is mentally incompetent and “unravelling” at an alarming pace. Are the rats about to jump ship? Will they sack the ball carrier, forcing a fumble to take the nuclear football with them? All is uncertain in America these days except for the certainty that the story will be told with football metaphors.
In the first place, there should have been mechanisms within the Republican Party and within the constitution to block such an ignorant and incompetent person from rising so high, but the urgent question for Washington elites now is what to do about the president’s access to the nuclear codes. There has even been speculation about the possibility of actually tackling the president to the floor if he ever “lunges” toward the button.
The blame for this sorry situation lies with all previous administrations. No previous president ever, as far as we know, made efforts to insert checks and balances in the command and control structure. Did any of them ever, at the very least, tell their staff to challenge them or tie them to the proverbial mast if he ever reached for the button? In the Soviet Union, the president, minister of defense and chief of the general staff had to consent to a nuclear launch, but Americans have never made any serious effort to fix the flaws in their own system, in spite of previous crises with it.
During the darkest days of the Nixon presidency, and even the brighter ones, the question about access to the launch codes was a recurring problem that troubled senior officials. In 1969, just after North Korea shot down an American EC-21, George Carver, a CIA specialist...

is reported to have said that Nixon became “incensed” when he found out... The president got on the phone with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ordered plans for a tactical nuclear strike and recommendations for targets.... Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor for Nixon at the time, also got on the phone to the Joint Chiefs and got them to agree to stand down on that order until Nixon woke up sober the next morning... Kissinger is reported to have told aides on multiple occasions that if the President had his way, there would have been a new nuclear war every week.[1]

The problem continued until the last days of Nixon’s time in office, as described by Politico in an article from August 2017:

Even though Nixon had more than two hours left in his tenure, the most critical tool of the modern presidency had already been taken away from him. He never noticed it, but the nuclear “football” didn’t travel with him as he boarded the helicopter, and later, Air Force One for his flight back to California... In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the nuclear football is in some ways the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state... Yet, on that August day, it had been quietly removed from Nixon’s hands—remaining behind at the White House with the incoming commander-in-chief, Gerald Ford.... Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon.[2]

The article goes on to describe the obvious problem with having the launch decision vested in one individual:

The “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War was predicated on the idea that the leaders of both superpowers were rational enough to avoid a war that would end with the destruction of both nations. The Madman Theory forced the world to consider a more frightening option: That the man in charge of the nukes might not be rational at all.

Some late efforts are now being made to revise the command structure, one that is a vestige of the Cold War when strategists thought they would have to get their missiles in the air within minutes in order to not have them destroyed by a massive surprise attack. This urgency is no longer a concern because both Russia and the US have the capacity to strike back after an initial nuclear onslaught. Two congressmen introduced legislation in January 2017 that would prohibit a president from launching a first nuclear strike without a congressional declaration of war. When they get done with these baby steps, perhaps they can move on to figuring out a way to make that football a dead ball by eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, then they can shrink the military budget, safely unwind the empire, and ensure that another incompetent and mentally unstable demagogue won't be able to buy his way to the presidency.
The table below is not meant to suggest that China has invented the perfect social and political order, but this comparison is notable in this time of political crisis in the United States. China doesn’t have anyone like Trump holding high office, or anywhere near it. The US is already governed by a rigged duopoly in which there is no effective democratic involvement of the people. If they are going to rule like mandarins, they might as well find a way to choose the best ones and govern well. Just sayin,’ as the saying goes on cable news...

-elite power, diffuse and invisible, operating behind a shadowy screen, in a network of think tanks, foundations, private planning commissions, exclusive corporate and financial clubs, secret intelligence forces, private secret armies
-a system of devolving, revolving, and unstable laws, executive orders
-an intricate system of corporate lobby-controlled elections
-highest position of political leadership vulnerable to being grabbed (“they let you do it!”) by an insurgent populist and unqualified billionaire
-visible, openly vested, leading people’s political party
-central planning
-a functioning economy with plans reviewed every five years, following consultation with people’s assemblies
-leaders chosen from the most competent who emerge through a meritocratic, competitive education system and work in public service

Comparison adapted from a facebook post by Luciana Bohne
Readers unfamiliar with football terms such as sack, quarterback, fumble, dead ball and tackle can consult the glossary of American football.


[2] Garrett M. Graff, “The Madman and the Bomb,” Politico, August 11, 2017, Describing these orders as "unprecedented" contradicts what is stated in the previous source: that Kissinger gave similar orders many times throughout the Nixon presidency.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Avoiding the Next Catastrophe

The recent season of powerful hurricanes striking the United States raised concerns once again about operating nuclear reactors in places that are likely to be struck by natural and human-caused disasters, or by deliberate sabotage.
These concerns have been thoroughly covered by Charles Perrow in his books Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies (1999) and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (2007). In these books he discussed all high-risk technologies and the dangers they pose due the inability of human institutions to defend them from profit-seeking, human error and human malice. In the latter book he singled out nuclear power plants as having more “lethal potential” than any other dangerous technology:

Nuclear power plants concentrate more lethal potential than anything else in our society. They are vulnerable to natural disasters. There have been emergency shut downs in the face of hurricanes, for example, though no storms or floods have as yet disabled a plant's external power supply and its backup power generators. Some plants sit on earthquake faults... they are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks and to organizational failures. Their electricity is considerably more expensive than alternative means of generation, and while they pollute far less (only in the short run; in the long run of thousands of years, their wastes pollute far more if they are not contained) and release no carbon dioxide, the current difference between oil and coal-fired plants and nuclear plants in this respect could be greatly reduced if currently available emission reductions were required of fossil fuel plants. And, of course, the federal government invests only a trifling amount in research on solar and wind power and energy conservation, while it continues to handsomely fund nuclear power research. This is an example of increasing our vulnerability to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters. By supporting pollution reduction from fossil fuel plants, alternative energy sources, and energy conservation, we could phase out our vulnerable nuclear plants in a decade or so.[1]

It is notable that Charles Perrow’s books were written before the triple meltdown and spent fuel pool fire at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and before the recent seasons of intense forest fires, floods and hurricanes that have struck close to nuclear reactors in various parts of the world.

After the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe the nuclear industry has tried hard to say the glass is half full, that lessons have been learned and now we know how to run nuclear power plants safely. However, other people, interested but disinterested[2] in the nuclear industry, draw different lessons and different conclusions. Lists like the one below have circulated on social media, but this version is one I have added to with a few extra points.

Lessons Learned from the Meltdown in Three Nuclear Reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi
  1. Don’t place nuclear reactors next to one another in multi-reactor complexes.
  2. Don’t leave spent nuclear fuel near reactors, especially if it is in pools of water and not in dry cask storage.
  3. You need at least two separate access routes.
  4. You need back-up control rooms in distant bunkers.
  5. You need more on-site and off-site back-up power.
  6. You need better evacuation plans for a larger area, but evacuation may not even be possible, and even if it is carried out, it will victimize the weakest people in society.
  7. Evacuation plans and drills may at best be a deceptive public relations stunt.
  8. The social bonds of the affected communities will be shattered forever.
  9. By the time you know that people in the area need potassium iodide pills, it will be too late. They will have already been exposed.
  10. You need sensors and cameras that work post-accident.
  11. You need staff willing to die for their families and communities.
  12. You need massive reserves to pay compensation, if you care about fair compensation for the people affected.
  13. You need an honest assessment of the costs and risks.
  14. You need to resolve the contradictions inherent in allowing a profit-seeking enterprise to operate nuclear reactors. Regulatory systems will tend toward being corrupted and complacent, aligned with the interests of the corporations.
  15. The cost of making nuclear energy safe make it more expensive than alternative forms of generating electricity.
It has become painfully obvious that many of these lessons have not been learned, even in Japan. For example, TEPCO is now seeking permission to restart its multi-reactor complex in Kashiwazaki, Niigata. The national regulator has given them approval, but the prefectural government has not. It remains to be seen whether a pliable governor can be installed in future prefectural elections.
Many people have learned lessons quite different from those of the nuclear industry. Those who assess this situation impartially realize the futility of trying to make nuclear energy safe. When an activity requires too many precautionary counter-measures, sensible people just give it up. To operate nuclear reactors, too many inspections, back-up procedures and counter-measures are needed. In fact, the back-up procedures require back-up procedures. We need a regulatory agency for the regulatory agency. Producing energy should be simple. Boil some water. Use the steam pressure to spin a turbine. Send the electricity down a wire.
Imagine if riding a bicycle were suddenly complicated by numerous weaknesses in the human and the machine that made cycling possible. The rider is prone to failure of his sensory organs, so he needs backup systems like cameras and motion sensors. The brake cables are prone to catastrophic failure, but replacing them constantly is too expensive. The frame becomes embrittled after several years of usage, but the frame is much more expensive than brake cables. The tires get punctured easily. Now imagine that every time a serious bicycle accident occurs, deadly particles spread over a wide area, requiring a temporary evacuation of all of it and permanent evacuation of a part of it. We could require all riders to buy insurance, and we could mandate frequent inspections of the machines and the riders’ physical and mental fitness, but sensible people would see that the cost of ensuring safety would quickly outweigh the benefits of cycling. And no matter how thorough our efforts, the risk of accident would never be totally eliminated. It is likely we would come to the sensible conclusion that cycling, despite its joys and conveniences, is too dangerous, and the effort to make it safe is exhausting and ultimately futile.


[1] Charles Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton University Press, 2007), 173.

[2] I use the word with the variant meaning defined thus by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: Free from selfish motive or interest, unbiased. The meaning is illustrated with a quote of G.M. Trevelyan: “Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of real civilization.”

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Road to Fukushima Dai-ichi Part 2: The Prolonged Death of the Victims of the Tokaimura Criticality Accident

Review of A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness, NHK-TV “Tokaimura Criticality Accident” Crew, Vertical Books, 2008

In Part 1 of these two posts about the Tokaimura criticality accident in 1999 (which should be read first to get the background for Part 2), I wrote that there were suspicions about the reasons for the prolonged treatment of the two terminally ill victims of the accident. Many people who watched the frequent news reports wondered if the treatment was carried out as an experiment or as a desperate attempt to delay the bad news that there had been fatalities from radiation poisoning in the Japanese nuclear complex. The NHK report provides no indication that such motives had anything to do with the treatment received by the two victims. Although one of the nurses interviewed said she had regrets and feelings of guilt, she was the only person in the book to raise the issue, and she did it in a rather indirect manner.

No, it's not a cover from 2011. TIME Magazine, October 11, 1999

The decision to undertake an all-out effort to save the patients, rather than give them palliative care, was made, as far as we can tell, by the leader of the medical team, Dr. Maekawa. A Slow Death centers on the story of only one of the patients, Mr. Ouchi. The reason is not explained, but we can assume it is because the family of Mr. Shinohara or the medical staff involved in his care declined to participate in the report.
Dr. Maekawa was an emergency medicine specialist and a professor at the University of Tokyo Department of Medicine. He had only recently become involved with nuclear energy, but he had been appointed chairman of the Nuclear Safety Research Association’s Radiation Emergency Treatment Task Force. Radiation emergency medicine was not his specialty, but he had become involved in it at the insistence of a Nuclear Safety Commission member.
He knew that previous victims of criticality accidents had died within a few days of exposure and could not be saved by any medical intervention, but he believed there was a chance that his patients could be saved with the latest drugs and treatments. If he had thought things through a little more carefully, he might have been able to admit to himself that even the best treatments available would not allow these men to ever leave the intensive care unit. The neutron beams had destroyed the chromosomes of cells throughout their bodies. If one or two vital functions could be restored, others could not. However, instead of deciding on palliative care, Dr. Maekawa decided that there was only one way to know for sure. He proceeded to do everything possible for the next eighty days until the truth became unavoidable even for him.
From this much we can conclude that yes, he was conducting an experiment, and it is one which he decided to carry out on his own with no ethics committee or public prosecutor to answer to. There was not even a second medical opinion to take into account. He went completely unchallenged by colleagues and staff throughout the eighty-three days. Mr. Ouchi’s family placed complete trust in him.
One striking element of the doctor’s thinking was that he resembled a military general stuck in the quagmire of an unwinnable war. By the time it was obvious that victory was not possible, he was too deep into the battle. He felt he had to go on. Otherwise, all the efforts until the present moment would have been wasted. Thus, instead of letting Mr. Ouchi pass away sometime in the middle of his ordeal, it lasted another forty days or so. It was the dilemma of sunk costs so similar to what is found in the nuclear industry itself. The Japanese nuclear establishment was desperate to carry on even after the Fukushima catastrophe had made it clear that Japan is one of the least suitable places to operate nuclear reactors. The nuclear establishment could not admit to itself that it was dealing with a terminal problem and inflicting unnecessary damage on the people it pretended to be saving with an energy policy that they believed was essential for Japan.
The essential question of Mr. Ouchi’s story is how people involved determined what he really wanted. The phrase “he did his best” (gambatta, in Japanese) is repeated ad nauseum by the witnesses interviewed for the book, as was the phrase “He really wanted to live.” However, the skeptical reader must ask what lies behind such subjective interpretations. There is little evidence in the book that he expressed a desire to live and carry on with the treatments, but there is evidence that he wanted them to stop. One of the most curious things about this story is the way the witnesses forgot the patient’s explicit request stop treatment then made up a narrative that rationalized the way he was actually treated.
In the final pages of the book, several of the people involved share their thoughts about the ordeal. The voices of key persons, such as Dr. Maekawa himself, are also conspicuously absent in this chapter.
Mr. Ouchi’s wife questioned the nation’s nuclear policy: “This might be pessimistic, but as long as we continue to use nuclear energy, a similar accident will likely occur. After all, it is handled by human beings, and I cannot shake my mistrust.” (p. 134) It is tellingly sad that she felt she had to preface her statement with an apology for seeming pessimistic, then could not explicitly state her opposition to the nation’s nuclear energy policy.
Several members of the nursing team also shared their thoughts about their experience caring for Mr. Ouchi. Ms. Nawa said, “Only those individuals themselves can know if they want to live, or if they no longer want to live in pain. That’s why you shouldn’t entrust your life to someone else. (p. 125)
Ms. Shibata stated, “Dying is just like living. That person should be able to decide how to face death... Caring for Mr. Ouchi made me realize this.” (p. 125-126)
Ms. Hosokawa was one of the people who, based on her own inferences, decided that Mr. Ouchi wanted to fight to live until the bitter end. She expressed mild doubts about whether he really wanted to live, but said, “... after meeting Mr. Ouchi, my perspective changed. Regardless of their situation, patients don’t want to die and be relieved of their suffering.” (p. 126)
Ms. Hanaguchi was the only person involved in the case to clearly express remorse and imply blame lies on herself and others, whom she didn’t name specifically. This is to be expected for someone in her position in Japanese culture. She could not explicitly blame the esteemed Tokyo University professor, Dr. Maekawa. However, he had unchallenged, sole authority over Mr. Ouchi’s care, so Ms. Hanaguchi’s words can be considered as directed squarely at him. To her credit, she shares the blame herself and avoids saying she was only following orders:

I still don’t understand the meaning of that treatment because I don’t know how Mr. Ouchi felt. Looking back now, I still wonder if anyone benefitted from all the effort we put into continuing the treatment. Were we just forcing Mr. Ouchi to suffer? We’ll never be able to ask his feelings, so I feel regret and guilt for what I did. I fear that Mr. Ouchi suffered, and that he would have preferred not to suffer so much. This makes me think terrible things because I wonder if I unknowingly helped to prolong Mr. Ouchi’s life for the benefit of people who didn’t understand his suffering whatsoever, and not for the benefit of Mr. Ouchi. I have to convince myself that Mr. Ouchi persevered for his family because he loved them so much. Otherwise, I won’t be able to forgive myself. If I consider myself one of the causes that forced Mr. Ouchi to live, I’ll feel guilty for the rest of my life. (p. 126)

For reasons that the authors do not explain, Dr. Maekawa was not interviewed. His thoughts about this issue are never revealed. In spite of Ms. Hanaguchi’s frank admission of feeling guilt, there is a contradiction in her statement that Mr. Ouchi’s feelings were not known. On the ninth day of his treatment during a painful procedure, seventy-four days before his death, the medical staff in his room heard him say clearly:

I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. Forget the treatment. I’m leaving. I’m not a guinea pig. (p.54)

These words, witnessed by several members of the staff, could have served as a clear expression of the patient’s will, made while Dr. Maekawa himself described him as lucid and of sound mind. After this, Mr. Ouchi spent most of his time sedated with propofol (the general anaesthetic that became famous in the death of Michael Jackson) and fentanyl, a powerful pain killer, so it is questionable that anyone could conclude that he "did his best" after that, or "really wanted to live." Such statements are pure conjecture.
Another serious ethical breach is evidenced by the fact that they isolated the patient from television and radio reports that were truthfully describing his exposure as a fatal dose. His exposure was far above those of other patients in criticality accidents that had proven fatal. This deception was a deliberate attempt to keep him from having the information he would need to give informed consent. This was done with the common excuse that it was meant to not stress his mind or body during his so-called “recovery.”
They persisted with the treatment while he uttered his protest and asked him to bear with it a little longer, but no one ever followed up on the wish he expressed. This was the time to ask him to elaborate on what he really wanted, and to have the serious talk with the family, but the medical team pushed on and ignored the episode. At this point in the story, an outside observer, especially a professional in the field of caring for the terminally ill, would want to scream out, “Where was the hospital’s ethics committee? Where was the external review, the counsellors, or even a second impartial medical opinion?” As for the patient’s family, they could have got more actively involved in questioning the doctor’s approach. The internet existed in 1999, although they might have had to understand English in order to read up on the outcomes of other criticality incidents.
In spite of a couple of positive developments from the medical treatment, all hope proved to be false, and there were undoubtedly many experts in this field of nuclear medicine who would have known that this patient’s vital organs were like eggs that can’t be un-fried. There was massive chromosomal damage to cells throughout the body. Even if his blood could have been made healthy again, muscles, skin, liver, intestines and kidneys were all damaged beyond repair. Some of the damage was from the treatment itself, but primarily it was due to neutron bombardment. Dr. Maekawa’s reasoning had been that new medical treatments might lead to an outcome that wasn’t possible in previous criticality accidents. If the patient could be kept alive until his blood and immune system were restored, then other problems could be repaired on that foundation. The esteemed professor went unchallenged in this view for the entire eighty-three days, even by the foreign specialists who visited briefly around day 10 and day 29.
These experts perhaps hesitate to criticize and speak frankly because they all belong to the same club. They empathize too strongly with a colleague in a horrible situation that they imagine they themselves could be in someday, so they defer and keep their thoughts to themselves. Nuclear engineers behaved the same way after Fukushima. They might have been privately angry at TEPCO and the Japanese government for doing so much damage to the nuclear industry’s reputation, but as long as they remained pro-nuclear, they closed ranks and expressed no criticism. It is perhaps only in those scenes in TV medical dramas where we can see two hot-headed, opionated doctors hollering and having it out in front of the nursing station. In real life, everyone keeps his head down even when they know a disaster is looming.
These top experts also seem to hold back their criticisms because they are accustomed to being called on by the powerful whenever there is an emergency. Dr. Peter Gale was one of the experts who came to Japan in the Tokaimura case, and he also came in March 2011 to advise the Japanese government. Once someone has been greeted warmly and respectfully in the halls of power, he tends to become allied with the powerful and unwilling to criticize them. They are now friends, after all. At Dr. Gale’s press conference at the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club in March 2011, journalists tried but could not draw from him any criticisms of the government response to the disaster. He maintained his stance as an impartial advisor, but in fact his willingness to always come as a first responder to nuclear emergencies (he played a role in Chernobyl also) amounts to his approval and enabling of the nuclear industry which he believes “can help, even save, mankind or lead to its destruction.” (back cover of the book)
Shogo Misawa, professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Tsukuba, performed the autopsy that was necessary for the criminal case against JCO, the deceased man’s employer. Professor Misawa was stunned to see the damage that radiation had done to throughout the body, especially to muscles cells, which he didn’t expect to be affected. He noted that only the heart muscle was not affected, and took the unusual step for a man of science of inferring special meaning and occult messages in this outcome. He said:

From the pitiful condition of Mr. Ouchi’s internal organs, I could see that Mr. Ouchi had lived with all his might. He really had done his best. And from his heart, the one internal organ that remained vividly intact, I think I heard Mr. Ouchi’s message that he wanted to continue living. It even occurred to me that Mr. Ouchi’s heart was unaltered by the radiation and continued functioning because of his determination to live. (p. 121)

If it seems odd that a forensic scientist would resort to such magical thinking, making this bizarre interpretation based on his idiosyncratic theory that the dead leave messages in their organs, we must remember that it served an important purpose in the sociological phenomenon that was taking place. This judgment by Dr. Misawa did much to absolve his colleague, Dr. Maekawa, of guilt, and it erased from collective memory the words of Mr. Ouchi on his ninth day of treatment that expressed his desire to be released. It’s unfortunate that the “NHK team” (no author is credited on the cover) let Dr. Misawa’s pathetic fantasy pass without harsh comment. And this is the greatest flaw in this otherwise valuable historical account of this tragedy. This book takes the traditional “objective” approach to reporting and makes only the most oblique criticism of Japan’s nuclear village and other possible targets, and in doing so it becomes a subjective endorsement of the status quo. It tells a horrifically sad and tragic tale, and asks the reader to reflect seriously on these events, but it pulls too many punches when the occasion calls for a knockout strike aimed at the nuclear village, the corporate malfeasance of JCO, and the serious breaches of medical practice and ethics. But what more could one expect from NHK, the staid and conservative national broadcaster? They are allowed to deal with sensitive topics, but they must handle them only in a sensitive manner. People are invited only to ponder and reflect on the “serious questions” raised by the events surrounding the Tokaimura accident.
Some might say my assessment of Dr. Maekawa is unfair. He dedicated his life to his patient during those eighty-three days, sleeping at the hospital and taking part in many of the unpleasant tasks he could have left to nurses. He was well-intentioned, wasn’t he? Of course he was, but if good intentions were an excuse, all crimes could be excused. Intentions are completely irrelevant in a court of law or for an inquiry into professional misconduct. People are responsible only for the knowable and predictable consequences of their actions, and by this criterion we can say that Dr. Maekawa should have been forced to at least defend himself in an investigation as to whether his treatment amounted to two months of unjustifiable torture. Why this never happened is a question that was never asked, let alone answered.