Meltdowns and Misinformation

What do we actually know about Japan's nuclear crisis?

To state the obvious, the nuclear crisis in Japan is bad and will get worse. Despite the heroic efforts of the remaining workers at the nuclear complex, it seems likely that two reactor cores will melt down and two spent fuel ponds will ignite, spewing radioactivity into the ground, air, and water. But beyond concern for the workers and those in the surrounding region, the international public has reacted to the unfolding disaster with understandable -- but nonetheless irrational -- fear for their own safety. Potassium iodide pills have been flying off the shelves in California over fears that the radiation will cross the Pacific. Hoax text messages have spread fears of contamination across Asia from the Philippines to India. In China, stores are selling out of iodized salt, as people frantically hoard it in the mistaken belief that it will counteract radiation.

It might be tempting to blame hysterical media coverage for this reaction, but in this case, most coverage I've seen has actually been fairly sober and cautious. The bigger problem has been the overly optimistic scenarios and conflicting information released by Japanese authorities. The public, not only in Japan but worldwide, simply no longer believes those in authority who tell them they are not in danger. This will make it difficult to manage the public response to the crisis going forward and may pose a grave risk for the future of the nuclear industry.

As of day eight of the crisis, here is a brief roundup of what we actually know about the situation unfolding in Fukushima.

A small group of workers, at one point as few as 50, are racing to do what 800 workers failed to do: cool the nuclear fuel inside three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The latest available data shows that water levels inside reactors 1, 2, and 3 have fallen to cover only about half then length the fuel rods, allowing them to overheat and begin to crack. Reactor 4 does not have fuel in its core.

These three reactors contain about 200 metric tons of lightly enriched uranium; reactor 3 also contains plutonium fuel. The cores are beginning to melt. In a full meltdown, this molten fuel could drip down, burning through the steel reactor vessel and possibly breaching the concrete containment vessel -- the last line of defense before a large radioactive release. Based on radiation detection by monitors deployed by the Comprehensive-Test-Ban-Treaty Organization, it does not appear that this has yet occurred. Detection of large amounts of zirconium and barium inside the reactors would signal that a large meltdown had taken place.

Photos of the plant show that a series of hydrogen gas explosions has blown off the sides and roofs and compromised the integrity of several structures. The containment walls at reactors 2 and 3 were damaged and may have been breached. Primary and backup cooling systems are not working at reactors 1, 2, and 3. Radioactive steam appears to be leaking from these buildings. These reactor buildings also store spent fuel rods in large pools -- containing several times as much radioactive material as the reactors themselves. Two of these pools have been damaged, and the vital water that was cooling the spent fuel has drained. Without water, these fuel rods will begin to overheat, and the rods' coverings could catch fire. There are 1,760 metric tons of spent fuel in these ponds (with an additional 1,000 tons in the nearby reactor 5 and 6 complex).

The ponds contain many billions of curies of radiation that could easily exceed those associated with the reactor cores by a factor of five to 10. They have no containment structures, and radioactive smoke from these fires would spew directly into the atmosphere. Efforts by Japanese military and police to refill the ponds with water dropped from helicopters or by water cannons appear to have failed.

The biggest worry is that a spent fuel fire could contaminate the immediate area so badly that reactor workers would no longer be able to keep working to cool the overheating reactors. Then two scenarios will unfold, both far worse than authorities imagined just seven days ago.

The best worst-case scenario is that only two spent fuel ponds -- at reactors 3 and 4 -- catch fire and that the meltdowns at reactors 1, 2, and 3 are largely contained by the concrete walls surrounding the reactors. Toxic smoke would still spread massive amounts of radioactive contamination over the surrounding environment.

The worst worst-case scenario is that all three reactors with fuel in their core and all four fuel pools overheat and two or more reactors breach the concrete containment structures, burning through into the broader environment.

In either case, severe amounts of radioactive contamination will spread over tens, hundreds, or even thousands of square miles. In either case, radioactive contamination will spread over land and water, posing serious health hazards to life within 50 miles of the complex.

In an effort, perhaps, to keep the public calm, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which owns the reactors, and the Japanese government which regulates them have limited the information released and constantly portrayed the situation as under control. The facts have spoken otherwise. The widening gap has now triggered a collapse of confidence on the part of the Japanese public and, it appears, the U.S. government. Brookings Institution scholar Daniel Kaufmann notes that TEPCO "infuriated Japan's prime minister, who learned of the first plant explosion at reactor 1 on Saturday from watching TV." In the early days of the crisis, TEPCO officials denied that water levels had fallen in reactors and fuel storage pools, but hours later announced extraordinary measures to pump new water in.

On March 16, Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), went out of his way to rebut Japanese claims that a fuel pool at the Fukushima site still had water in it. "There is no water in the spent fuel pool, and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high," he said, citing U.S. intelligence over Japanese statements. The conflicting information has hurt authorities' credibility in Japan and also contributed to an atmosphere in which the public is simply unsure what to believe. As one resident fleeing the reactors said, "We have small children, and we don't want to take any chances about them getting radiation sickness. We cannot trust this government. Can you?" And Americans have hardly been immune to this skepticism.

Traveling to California this week, I met a number of reasonable people who were in a veritable panic about radioactive clouds washing across the United States. Some Americans have reacted to this tragedy by hoarding potassium iodide pills (which can help block the body's absorption of radioactive iodine). The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a plea for restraint, saying "The people of Japan should be given priority access to potassium iodide pills."

Newspaper headlines like the Los Angeles Times' "Small amounts of radiation headed for California, but no health risk seen," didn't help. Despite caveats in the stories, readers -- and I mean very smart, highly educated readers -- think that they are in danger from radioactive clouds. They simply do not believe the claims that there is no risk.

Just this morning, March 18, after I explained in detail over breakfast to a friend why any radiation from Japan would be greatly diluted by the time it traveled 5,000 miles across the Pacific, my friend -- a successful businesswomen and breast cancer survivor -- told me, "I don't have a margin of error here. I do not want to be part of anyone's science experiment. I don't want to be a nuclear lab rat." She has turned strongly anti-nuclear power overnight.

The electronic and print coverage of the crisis has actually been impressively balanced and sober. I have seen firsthand the extraordinary editorial efforts of a major network to make sure that its reporters were getting it right, neither buying the spin nor hyping the threat.

This fear, then, springs from a deeper source than the media. From the beginning, nuclear weapons and reactors have both fascinated and terrified us. Their power filled us with awe; their risks scared us to death. In the 1950s there were brisk sales of backyard fallout shelters and films featuring giant mutant ants rising from the Nevada atomic test site. Radiation is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the bombs and reactors. For the workers battling in the dark hulks of the Fukushima reactors, radiation is the horror film monster: invisible, untouchable, and deadly. The American public may be thousands of miles away, but the fear is the same.

The only antidote to this panic is accurate, complete information. We have gotten neither from TEPCO. The Japanese government must distance itself from the now discredited power company and speak directly and regularly to the Japanese public. Officials should release all the latest information on the crisis, including radiation and water levels, worker casualties, and progress on containing the fires or -- and this is key -- the lack of progress. They must be as frank about the failures as they have tried to be reassuring about the successes. If not, more citizens will come to the same conclusion as Tokyo resident Masako Kitajima, who told Reuters, "This government is useless."

U.S. officials must speak just as clearly in the days ahead to calm American fears. President Barack Obama made a good start on March 17. He assured the public -- twice -- that "We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or U.S. territories in the Pacific." He also promised that the NRC will do "a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan." The first statement will have to be repeated many times more by officials over the next few days, the latter followed by real action over the next few months.

If the U.S. nuclear industry has any chance of surviving the Fukushima disaster, there must be frank talk about safety and risks. Bland statements about how safe U.S. reactors are will simply trigger the same mistrust in Americans that false assurances did among the Japanese. There will need to be a thorough, independent reassessment of the safety of all U.S. reactors, existing and planned, if the American public is to be convinced to keep them in their backyards.

For our part, policy and security experts must make sure that we don't overplay the dangers or understate the risks. I have made my own mistakes in the past few days of media commentary. I have said that the radiation could contaminate hundreds or thousands of square kilometers (which is true) and render them uninhabitable basically forever (which is not true). Some contaminated areas could be reoccupied in months, others in decades, and others in centuries. Accuracy is as important for analysts as it is for governments.

At moments as serious as the nuclear crisis in Japan, we all -- experts, journalists, officials, and corporate executives -- have a duty to fully inform the public. And to trust them with the simple truth.



Libya Is Too Big to Fail

International intervention is the right move -- and not just for humanitarian reasons.

Despite what you may be hearing from critics of March 17's U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from harm, Libya is not peripheral to the world system. It is at its very core. Libya possesses 1,800 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. The country produces 2 percent of the world's oil, with 85 percent of exports going to Europe. Libyan nationals have been prominent jihadists in Iraq. Since the beginning of the Great Recession and the slump in global demand in 2008, Libya has allocated $200 billion toward new infrastructure spending.

And yet Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, curiously described U.S. interests in Libya as "less than vital" in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. He cautioned that even the modest step of participating in a multilateral no-fly zone would be incommensurate with America's limited strategic interests. Harvard University professor Stephen Walt made a similar point. "For starters," Walt argued, "let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle."

But a brief review of Libya's history demonstrates that Britain, France, Italy, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States have long had a great deal at stake in Libya, even before oil was discovered in 1959. Today, it is a paramount American interest that Libya not return to being a rogue state or descend into civil war. If Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi reasserts control over the east or even if he fails and the country is cleaved in two, U.S. interests in the region would suffer a major setback.

What makes Libya so important? Any real estate agent could tell you: location, location, location. Control of the country has always been a remarkably effective way to project power into Egypt, the Mediterranean, and beyond. Similarly, denying a hostile power (be it the Soviet Union, Muammar al-Qaddafi, or terrorists) the ability to destabilize surrounding countries from Libyan territory has been a consistent thread in U.S. policy since the end of World War II.

Seventy years ago, the Axis powers used Libya to launch daring tank offensives aimed at the Suez Canal. With the British victory at El Alamein in late 1942 and the ensuing conquest of northern Libya, British strategic planners decided that Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) was the only part of conquered Italian colonial territory that was essential for Britain's strategic position in the Middle East. In 1945, the Soviet Union's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, pushed for a Soviet trusteeship over Tripolitania (northwest Libya).

The Soviet bid backfired. It forced American statesmen to put aside their distaste for extending the British Empire as they realized that denying the Soviets a naval base on the Mediterranean was a core U.S. interest. France and Italy, as pretenders to world-power status and interested parties in North Africa, also wanted to have their spheres of influence in Libya. Because the "Libya question" was so rancorously contested by all parties, it was deemed unsolvable by traditional great-power diplomacy. In 1948, it was passed onto the nascent United Nations.

By the late 1940s, U.S. President Harry Truman and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin concluded that Libyan airfields were essential for Cold War defense. After Libyan independence in 1951, U.S. and British payments for basing rights formed the single-largest element of Libyan GDP until oil exports began in 1961. Even with the decline in importance of the fighter-bomber as a nuclear delivery vehicle, and thus the need for the bases, Libya's strategic importance did not wane. Accordingly, U.S. and British diplomats attempted to court Colonel Qaddafi's favor when he came to power in 1969. They acquiesced to his demand to abandon their air bases, supposing that eager compliance would encourage Libya's new leadership from drifting into the anti-Western camp. They were wrong.

As Libya intensified its support for militant revolutionary causes -- ranging from the Irish Republican Army to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to various unsavory terrorist groups -- throughout the 1970s, Western policymakers avoided reprisals against Libyan interests. Amazingly, from 1972 to 1977, U.S. imports of Libyan oil increased tenfold, and U.S. exports to Libya trebled. Qaddafi gratefully used the influx of dollars to undermine American interests in Africa and the Middle East.

The 1970s U.S. policy of bartering with a sworn enemy was abandoned under President Ronald Reagan. Convinced that Libya's anti-Western orientation and geostrategic position made regime change a core U.S. interest, Reagan famously declared Qaddafi to be the "mad dog of the Middle East." However, unilateral U.S. sanctions in 1982 and then airstrikes in 1986 -- as a response to the Berlin disco bombing -- failed to produce the desired results. By the 1990s, it was clear that the United States could not unseat Qaddafi by itself. Libya's threat to a stable post-Cold War world order was deemed significant enough that U.S. policymakers devised a way to enlist Europe in shutting Libya out of the international system. On flimsy evidence, Libya was found guilty of the devastating 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Europe was finally on board for comprehensive U.N. sanctions of Libya, which endured from 1992 to 1999.

In 1999, feeling the pinch caused by his decaying oil infrastructure and declining revenues, Qaddafi turned over the two suspected Lockerbie bombers for trial in the Netherlands (only one, Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi, was later convicted). This action caused U.N. sanctions to be suspended. As more countries began trading with Libya, the U.S. policy dating back to Reagan of actively containing Qaddafi and hoping for his ouster was no longer feasible.

In the new millennium, U.S. and British negotiators intensified their covert dealings with Libyan diplomats, and in 2003, Qaddafi made his first payment of compensation to the Lockerbie victims' families. At the same time, the colonel declared his desire to voluntarily give up his weapons of mass destruction program. The rogue was seemingly rehabilitated and multilateral action vindicated. Libya was tentatively permitted to rejoin the world community.

From 2004 to 2010, U.S. diplomats and businessman embarked on the long and hard road of normalization. Erratic Libyan behavior and electorally motivated grandstanding by U.S. congressmen -- generally on third-tier issues like Qaddafi's desire to pitch a tent in Central Park or Megrahi's release from a Scottish prison for health reasons -- frequently derailed progress.

In 2008, I changed my career as an academic of Syria to become instead a professional engaged in the American and European efforts to bring Qaddafi in from the cold and forward the agenda of pro-market economic reform and Western investment in Libya. My logic then was the same as it is now: Libya is too important in the world system to have Western strategic priorities in Libya unfulfilled and U.S. businesses shut out. This logic is grounded in history and is also best for the aspirations of the Libyan people. Over the last six decades, successive U.S. and British administrations have consistently concluded that the "Libya question" merited great economic and diplomatic sacrifices. It still does.

Today we face a familiar dilemma. Libya sits atop the strategic intersection of the Mediterranean, African, and Arab worlds, and its ability and track record in destabilizing those three areas is well documented. It is laudable that the international community has combined humanitarian and geostrategic rationales to unite under a banner of multilateral airborne intervention. This intervention must balance two equally important aims: to unseat Qaddafi and to ensure that the Libyan people have agency over their lives and political system. Hopefully, the West will play a supportive, yet decisive role in the ongoing conflict. Were Qaddafi to remain in power returning to his rogue-state glory days, it is unlikely that renewed U.N. sanctions could ever weaken his grip on power. The world needs Libya, but Qaddafi has become an expert at thumbing his nose at world opinion.

Much as we might pretend otherwise, oil is unquestionably part of the equation here. In the words of Armand Hammer, the late founder of Occidental Petroleum, Libya's oil is "the world's only irreplaceable oil." What makes Libyan oil irreplaceable is its proximity to Europe, the ease of its extraction, and the sweetness of its crude. Because many refineries in Italy and elsewhere are built to deal with sweet Libyan crude, they cannot easily process the heavier Saudi crude that would inevitably replace a Libyan production shortfall.

Since détente with Libya began in 2003, Western companies in the form of Repsol, Wintershall, Total, Eni, OMV, Shell, the Oasis Group, Chevron, Marathon, ExxonMobil, and BP have either rushed into Libya or intensified their existing operations. Those with political connections to the Libyan regime that predate sanctions have tended to fare better than others. All have an enormous stake in not losing their vast investments and being replaced by the Chinese, Indians, and Russians, were Libya to become a pariah state. Most crucially, though Europe would be hit hardest if Libyan production were to vastly diminish due to ongoing unrest or stagnate due to a lack of future investment, low production totals would have sustained negative effects on both the fragile world economy and the Libyan people.

For European countries, illegal immigration is another major concern. Starting in the 1990s, in an attempt to combat his international isolation, Qaddafi allowed all Africans visa-free access to Libya. After the Libyan populace rioted against the newcomers and no jobs were created for them, many attempted illegal crossings to Europe. The 2008 Italian-Libyan "Friendship Treaty" largely closed the spigot of illegal migration to a trickle. Any intensification of the human calamity, especially if combined with the closing of the Tunisian border, could open it to a flood. In the past, Qaddafi has frequently increased the flow of migrants when seeking to gain political concessions from Italy. Were Libya to become a failed/pariah state, there is no doubt that Qaddafi or those who would come after him could use the same tactic to pressure Europe.

Relative to the amount of oil wealth it possesses, Libya is a terribly underdeveloped country -- the unhappy legacy of Qaddafi's economic experiments of the 1980s and the U.N. sanctions in the 1990s. Despite having the highest per capita income in Africa, Libyan education levels and living conditions outside its big cities are on par with those of some of its sub-Saharan African neighbors. Only in the last 10 years has the Qaddafi family finally committed itself to real infrastructure development. In the last two years -- global recession notwithstanding -- the Libyan government spent $60 billion, with $160 billion more promised over the next five years. With global aggregate demand (especially in the construction sector) far below 2007 levels, Libya's increase in post-2007 demand promised much-needed relief for U.S. and British firms, especially in the construction management and architectural-design sectors. If Libya becomes a failed state, Western firms will likely be excluded from future infrastructure projects. In that scenario, only countries like China and Turkey-- with their greater tolerance for corruption and human rights abuses -- will benefit from Libya's billions.

Terrorism is a real concern. Although Qaddafi's rhetoric that the rebels consist of "jihadists on drugs" is funny enough to be a big hit on YouTube, Cyrenaica has long been a productive recruiting ground for global jihadi causes. If the West abandons the Cyrenaican rebels, it will not be a surprise to see more Cyrenaican fighters returning to Iraq by 2012. In fact, Libyans formed the third-largest fighting contingent in Iraq until U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with Qaddafi began to stem the flow in 2006. Similarly, during his détente with the West from 2003 until 2010, Qaddafi proved himself a reliable ally against the trans-Saharan networks of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Were the retro-rogue Qaddafi to remain in power post-2011 or should Libya become a failed state where nonstate actors could find easy cash and safe havens, the grave consequences would resonate from North Africa to the African Sahel region and the larger Islamic world.

The United States and especially Europe cannot afford a protracted Libyan civil war, a Libya ruled by a spurned Qaddafi, or a return to the 1990s situation in which multilateral sanctions largely removed Libya from the world economy, making it a breeding ground for dysfunctional governance and Islamic extremism. Libya is simply too big to be allowed to fail.