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Archive for April 16th, 2018

Why nuclear power is in general not a good idea: Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown.

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Ralph Vartabedian reports in the LA Times:

As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.

The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 workers.

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control. The mess has dealt the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons environmental management program yet another setback, following more than a decade of engineering miscalculations across the nation.

Energy Department officials said in a statement that workers received only a tiny fraction of the plutonium exposure that is allowed by regulations, and there should be no threat to their health. They declined requests for interviews.

If the current investigations substantiate that statement, it would be fortuitous.

“They are not in control,” John Martell, the Washington Department of Health official who oversees radioactive air emissions, said about the Energy Department and its contractors. “We want them to stop before they do become a public health threat.”

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, asserts that the demolition project used too many unskilled workers, attempted to do the work too fast and failed to adopt known safety measures that would have helped contain the contamination.

“They took shortcuts and stupid risks,” Carpenter said. “They gambled and lost.”

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989. It was the notorious site where Harold McCluskey, later known as the Atomic Man, survived a 1976 explosion in which he was exposed to 500 times the occupational limit for radioactivity.

The exposures from the plutonium releases last year were minuscule by comparison, estimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime.

Union officials say they can accept the health risk of working next to contaminated equipment, but not an “uptake” of plutonium when eating lunch or driving home in a car after protective gear is off.

“It is very upsetting because they don’t [care],” said one exposed worker who would speak only on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. He said he was not given a kit to test for plutonium exposure until he asked for one in early December.

“They have no clue how I was exposed,” he said. “I look at it down the road and am mentally worried about it. It is emitting energy into my bones. Plus it is a poison. My wife is worried. My kids listen to the news and know what happened. I have to put it off in front of them as no big deal.”

The price tag for cleaning up nuclear waste at Hanford site just went up another $4.5 billion »

In their statement, Energy Department officials said they are “concerned about any health consequences, long-term or short-term, that any of the workers on site face at any time. We are addressing workers’ concerns by being as open and transparent with our workers as possible about what we are doing to stabilize the situation.”

Another longtime employee at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, or PFP, who met with a Times reporter, said the operation was out of control even before the demolition began. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said.

“Nobody wanted to work at PFP,” he said. “People who had been working at Hanford for 30 years were getting out, saying this is insane.”

And as the project fell behind schedule, many of the workers were compelled to put in as much as 90 hours a week, he said.

“Everything we were told to do at work began to deviate from the plan,” he said.

Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford. When one worker demanded that his contaminated car be purchased because vent ducts were potentially still contaminated, Energy Department contractors nixed it and offered him a coupon for a free detailing from a car wash, according to collective bargaining grievance records cited by union officials. The account was confirmed by two other employees.

An even more serious concern was the potential for the workers to have contaminated their homes after leaving work. The Energy Department dispatched teams to take samples in eight private homes and found no contamination, a Hanford site spokesman said in a statement.

The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department’s enforcement office in late March.

A spokesman for the company declined to comment and referred questions to the Energy Department’s Hanford site office. In March, the company released a preliminary analysis of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a “fixative” that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.

The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.

In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off. . .

Continue reading.

It just gets worse and worse.

Am I imagining it, or is the world in general becoming less and less competent (and honest)?

Thank God we have Rick Perry to deal with this.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 7:58 pm

White House Chief of Staff Contradicts White House Claim on VA Shakeup

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Isaac Arnsdorf reports in ProPublica:

White House chief of staff John Kelly contradicted the White House’s claims about David Shulkin’s departure as secretary of veterans affairs, a discrepancy that could lead to legal challenges of decisions made by Shulkin’s interim successor.

In a private meeting last week with major veterans groups, Kelly repeatedly said that the decision to remove Shulkin was President Donald Trump’s, according to several people who were present or briefed on the meeting. The White House has insisted that Shulkin resigned, disputing his assertion, in media appearances, that he was fired. (Whether voluntarily or not, his tenure as VA secretary ended on March 29.)

“Kelly said the president felt he needed to make a change with Secretary Shulkin and went ahead and made it to get the VA back on track,” said Dan Caldwell, the director of influential conservative group Concerned Veterans for America (also known as CVA), who attended the meeting.

A White House spokesman stood by the claim that Shulkin resigned.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, the president can appoint an interim successor to succeed a cabinet secretary who dies, resigns or can’t perform his or her duties. But it doesn’t say what happens if the secretary is fired. It’s unsettled legal territory, but some scholars say it could open the door to challenging decisions made by the person Trump appointed as acting VA secretary, Robert Wilkie (an official in the Department of Defense). The argument would be that Wilkie lacked proper authority to make the decisions in question, the scholars say.

Opposition to Wilkie surfaced rapidly. Amvets, one of the largest veterans advocacy groups, called on Trump to remove Wilkie and instead elevate the VA’s deputy secretary, Tom Bowman. “This is what common sense, veterans and the law all require, and it needs to happen now,” Amvets national commander Marion Polk wrote in a letter to Trump on April 3. Bowman, a former senior Senate staffer, is popular with traditional veterans groups and on Capitol Hill. But, like Shulkin, he clashed with White House aides over legislation that would increase the use of private health care in the VA system.

Amvets and other major veterans groups recently had an introductory breakfast meeting with Wilkie. Amvets and other organizations were miffed that Caldwell from CVA was not only invited but given a prime seat. CVA, which is funded by the Koch brothers, has not attended such sessions in the past.

CVA and many veterans organizations are on different sides of the privatization debate. CVA advocates for a larger role for the private sector in veterans’ care. For their part, traditional veterans groups support a central role for the VA because the government-run health system remains popular with their members despite recent scandals. “I hope his legacy won’t be that he was the first to bring the Koch brothers into the VA,” Amvets executive director Joe Chenelly said of Wilkie.

Caldwell criticized veterans leaders for focusing on seating arrangements instead of policy. “The fact that there are people complaining about that shows you how misplaced their priorities are,” he said. “If there are leaders of veterans organizations who believe that placement at a table is going to determine priorities, then their competence to run those organizations should be questioned.”

Wilkie has already worried some veterans advocates. His first official public statement marked the anniversary of a massive scandal at the Phoenix VA four years ago. In the statement, he called on Congress to pass legislation that would increase the use of private care, which has been stalemated for months. In a rare alignment, veterans groups including Amvets and CVA endorsed a compromise that would have been attached to last month’s spending package, but House Democrats blocked it. At the recent meeting with Wilkie, the veterans groups generally agreed to proceed with that compromise.

But some were also unnerved by the presence of a colonel in uniform as an adviser to Wilkie. One participant described it as “DoD is running VA.” That idea is more sensitive than it might sound because the White House has floated the notion of merging the VA with the Pentagon’s health insurance system, known as Tricare. Some veterans groups warn that would increase privatization and out-of-pocket costs.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said there  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 5:00 pm

The mainstream media seem to be doing a pretty good job

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Read this list of Pulitizer Prize winners and the reasons they won.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 2:20 pm

Posted in Media

Interesting: White House Admits James Comey Swung the Election to Trump

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We all knew it, but I’m surprised the White House would admit it. Jonathan Chait writes in New York:

The Trump administration has been throwing every possible charge it can think of at James Comey, in order to scuff up the image of the fired FBI director. This morning, Kellyanne Conway made an accusation that she and her boss might not have thought through: “This guy swung an election,” Conway told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. “He thought the wrong person would win.” That is probably true, but also probably not something Conway should admit.

Remember, the administration’s original justification for firing Comey was that he treated Hillary Clinton unfairly. Trump immediately blew up that line by confessing to Lester Holt that he fired Comey in order to stop the Russia investigation. But the administration’s messaging has returned to the original line anyway, acting as if Trump’s admission-against-interest never occurred. The official Republican site attacking Comey has heavily emphasized Democratic complaints that he publicly announced Hillary Clinton was under investigation in the campaign’s waning days.

The key to this message, though, is to ignore the context of the complaints. Trump wants people to hear that everybody is mad at Comey, but not what they are mad about — his decision to publicize the investigation into one candidate but not the other. That was Conway’s mistake.

In her eagerness to press the attack against Comey, she took the additional step of spelling out the consequences of his action. Not only did he treat Clinton unfairly, but his action was likely decisive in a razor-tight election. Comey believed Clinton had a safe lead and he could protect himself, and her, against postelection complaints that the FBI had protected her without risking her defeat. As Conway said, he actually swung the election to Trump.

And there is no way to read Conway’s comment other than as admitting Comey made the difference. You can’t “swing” an election to the candidate who lost. You can only swing it to the candidate who won.

Update: Conway now says she was being sarcastic. “I rolled my eyes and said ‘Really, this guy swung an election?’ It was sarcastic,” she tells the Daily Beast.

In the comments surrounding her “sarcastic comment, Conway made a series of non-sarcastic remarks supporting the charge that Comey swung the election. She cited a letter calling for Comey to resign over his treatment of Clinton, his confession of leaking details of a meeting with Trump, then mentioned that he swung the election – “This guy swung an election,” without saying “Really.” Immediately after, she noted that Comey “thought the wrong person would win,” which is also supporting evidence for the charge that Comey mistakenly swung the election to Trump because he believed Clinton had it in the bag.

Of course,  . . .

Continue reading.

I notice the Trump White House relies heavily on the “just joking” defense when trying to disavow statements—perfectly clear statements—made by Trump, Sanders, Conway, and other swamp denizens, generally ignoring the fact that the “jokes” are humorless and spoken absolutely seriously.

What a contemptible group of people.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 1:52 pm

Sexual Harassment Is Rampant in Congress. 1,308 Former Staff Members Are Demanding Change.

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Megan Jula writes in Mother Jones:

More than 1,300 former congressional staff wrote to Senate leaders Thursday urging them to pass legislation addressing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

“Many current and former staff have spoken publicly about their own experiences, often describing a climate of fear, a burdensome and confusing reporting process, and a system designed to protect congressional offices at the expense of victims,” the letter says. It was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Rules Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Ranking Member Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

In the wake of the #MeToo movement last year, a group of former congressional staff created Congress Too, an organization that attempts to combat sexual harassment in the congressional workplace. They orchestrated both this letter and a similar onethey sent to House leadership in November advocating for increased transparency, and calling existing policies inadequate.

“A cascade of troubling news stories has only reinforced the urgent need for reform,” the letter to the Senate says, referring to a November CNN story documenting the sexual harassment stories of more than 50 staffers.

The sexual harassment problem in Congress is not a novel concern. For decades, women who worked on Capitol Hill—from interns to staff members—have described inappropriate behavior by elected officials who faced few consequences for their actions. But the momentum of the #MeToo movement pushed the issue into the public eye last year. Since then, at least six members of Congress have been accused of sexually harassing staff, including Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), a member of the committee tasked with investigating accusations of harassment against members of Congress. (Earlier this year, he announced that he would not run for reelection.) Last year four female senators shared their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault while working on the Hill.

The “burdensome and confusing” process for addressing sexual harassment in Congress that the letter describes goes something like this. Staff who have been harassed have 180 days to file a complaint with the little-known Office of Compliance. They must then undergo up to a month of legal counseling and then a mandatory “mediation” involving a taxpayer-funded lawyer representing the congressional office’s interest. If no settlement is reached, the victim must wait through a month-long “cooling-off” period before filing a lawsuit or requesting a hearing. Should a settlement be reached, it usually includes a nondisclosure agreement—and the member of Congress uses taxpayer dollars to pay the victim. Since 1997, the US Treasury has shelled out more than $17 million for Capitol Hill workplace violations in the form of awards and settlements.

In February, the House passed a major bipartisan reform bill overhauling this process, prohibiting the accused from using taxpayer dollars to settle sexual harassment suits and giving victims more rights and resources. However, Senate action is necessary to make changes to the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, which outlines the complaint process and the sources of settlement money. The Senate has been accused of being hesitant to respond after failing to include reforms to the 23-year-old act in a March omnibus spending bill.

Last month, in a separate letter to McConnell and Schumer, all 22 female senatorsexpressed their disappointment that the Senate has not enacted “meaningful reform.” . . .

Continue reading.

At the link is the full text of the letter.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 12:43 pm

Stephanie Mencimer: “Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer?”

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Stephanie Mencimer writes in Mother Jones:

I thought I’d done everything right: breastfeeding my children, a careful diet, plenty of exercise. I wasn’t overweight and didn’t have a family history. I bought BPA-free bottles for my filtered water. But on a visit to the radiology department last spring, a pair of red brackets highlighted something worrisome on the ultrasound monitor.

Invasive lobular carcinoma—a malignant breast tumor. This spidery little beast measuring nearly three centimeters meant I had stage 2 cancer.

At 47, I was a decade and a half younger than the median age for breast cancer diagnosis in the United States. Was this just bad luck? Maybe, but the journalist in me was still curious to know: Why me? So I dug into the literature on risk factors to see where I might have fit in. It’s an impossible question to answer definitively for an individual, like trying to prove that a single weather event was caused by climate change. As one doctor told me, “You know who’s at risk for getting breast cancer? People with breasts!”

Still, most of the broad indicators didn’t seem to apply to me. The biggest one is age: The median diagnosis in the United States is at 62, and the highest breast cancer rates are in women older than 70. Another is taking hormone replacement therapy after menopause, but I’m premenopausal and haven’t taken it. Obesity raises risk, but I’ve never been overweight.

Then I saw one that gave me pause: alcohol consumption. I’m not a heavy drinker, but like most women I know, I have consumed a lot of alcohol in my lifetime.

While doctors have frequently admonished me for putting cream in my coffee lest it clog my arteries—a correlation that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked—not once has any doctor suggested I might face a higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking. I’d filled out dozens of medical forms over the years asking how much I drank every week, but no one ever followed up other than to say with nodding approval, “So you drink socially.”

I quickly discovered that way back in 1988, the World Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s been proved to cause cancer. There is no known safe dosage in humans, according to the WHO. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, but it kills more women from breast cancer than from any other. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent.

The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol, regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage Bordeaux, is carcinogenic. More than 100 studies over several decades have reaffirmed the link with consistent results. The National Cancer Institute says alcohol raises breast cancer risk even at low levels.

I’m a pretty voracious reader of health news, and all of this came as a shock. I’d been told red wine was supposed to defend against heart disease, not give you cancer. And working at Mother Jones, I thought I’d written or read articles on everything that could maybe possibly cause cancer: sugar, plastic, milk, pesticides, shampoo, the wrong sunscreen, tap water…You name it, we’ve reported on the odds that it might give you cancer. As I schlepped back and forth to the hospital for surgery and radiation treatments, I started to wonder how I could know about the risk associated with all these other things but not alcohol. It turns out there was a good reason for my ignorance.

I was born and raised in Utah, and after my cancer diagnosis, I wondered what would have happened if I’d stayed put. My home state has one of the lowest rates of breast cancer in the country. Observant Mormon women don’t drink, and like other populations that abstain, they have significantly lower rates of breast cancer than drinkers. In Utah, Mormon women’s breast cancer rates are more than 24 percent lower than the national average. (Mormon men have lower rates of colon cancer, which alcohol can also cause.)

Researchers suspect the low overall rate of breast cancer in Utah has to do with the LDS church’s strict control over state alcohol policy. Gentiles, as we non-Mormons are called, grouse mightily over the watery 3.2 percent beer sold in Utah supermarkets, the high price of vodka sold exclusively in state-run liquor stores, and the infamous “Zion Curtain,” a barrier that restaurants were until recently required to install to shield kids from seeing drinks poured. Yet all those restrictions on booze seem to make people in Utah healthier, Mormon or not, especially when it comes to breast cancer.

Epidemiologists first recognized the connection between cancer and alcohol consumption in the 1970s. Scientists have since found biological explanations for why alcohol is carcinogenic, particularly in breast tissue.

When you take a drink, enzymes in your mouth convert even small amounts of alcohol into high levels of acetaldehyde, a carcinogen. People who consume more than three drinks a day are two to three times likelier to contract oral cavity cancer than those who don’t. Alcohol also damages the cells in the mouth, priming the pump for other carcinogens: Studies have found that drinking and smoking together pose a much higher risk of throat, mouth, and esophageal cancer than either does on its own.

Alcohol continues its trail of cellular damage as enzymes from the esophagus to the colon convert it into acetaldehyde. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 12:38 pm

An all-RazoRock shave

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Very fine shave today. Zi’ Peppino is a favorite for lather and fragrance, and this 24mm synthetic did a fine job: I shook it well to avoid the excess-water problem, and it went very well.

The Stealth is for me a terrific slant, and it easily wiped away the Monday-morning two-day stubble, with a splash of Zi’ Peppino After Shaving Splash finishing the ritual with a lingering pleasant fragrance.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2018 at 11:08 am

Posted in Shaving

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