Archive for the ‘Nuclear Power’ Category

Making Honeywell Feel the Heat

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

How would you describe the situation of a corporation involved in union-busting, mishandling of radioactive waste, production of nuclear weapons and the effort to lower corporate tax rates while cutting Social Security and Medicare? If you are Barron’s, you’d say the firm is “in its sweetest spot in more than a decade.”

That’s the way the investment weekly describes Honeywell International in a recent article that gushes over the company’s financial results and predicts that its stock is “poised for liftoff.” Honeywell, a $33 billion transnational, is viewed differently in Metropolis, Illinois, where some 230 members of the United Steelworkers union have been locked out of their jobs for more than nine months.

Apologists for the attacks on public employees often try to disavow anti-union motivations by saying they have no problem with collective bargaining in the private sector. Honeywell is a glaring reminder that challenges to worker rights can be found among employers of all types these days.

The dispute in Metropolis—which calls itself the hometown of the fictional character Superman—brings together a variety of current hot-button issues, including unions, nuclear power, environmental protection, healthcare coverage and pensions. Honeywell’s plant is the sole facility in the country that converts uranium ore into the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the production of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This is a risky process that involves highly toxic materials.

These dangers were highlighted in December 2003, when an accidental release of toxic gas forced the evacuation of nearby residents and the shutdown of the plant for four months. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued two violations relating to the way the company handled the incident.

Given such hazards, the members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 have long focused on safety issues, both for themselves and for the surrounding community. The union has been particularly concerned about the high rate of cancer among the workforce and thus has sought to negotiate good health coverage for active workers and retirees. During contract renegotiations last year, Honeywell sought to eliminate retiree health benefits, reduce pensions for new hires, cap severance pay and contract out maintenance. When the union balked but declined to strike, the company abruptly locked out the workers in June. And in a move made all the more reckless by the dangerous nature of the work, the company brought in poorly trained replacements to keep the plant operating.

In September, a loud explosion was heard at the plant but there were no reports of toxic releases. A Steelworkers report notes that the company was cited by the NRC for improperly coaching replacement working during on-site job evaluations by federal inspectors. Honeywell’s safety image was further tarnished just a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA announced that the company had paid a criminal fine of $11.8 million to resolve a charge of illegally storing hazardous and radioactive materials in Metropolis.

The $11 million is the latest addition to the more than $650 million in fines and damages Honeywell has paid since 1995 in connection with 32 instances of misconduct collected by the Project On Government Oversight in its Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (the company ranks 17th in amount paid out).

Honeywell’s record of corporate irresponsibility goes back even farther. From the late 1960s through the late 1980s, the old Honeywell (prior to its 1999 takeover by AlliedSignal, which adopted the name) was targeted by antiwar activists because of its production of cluster bombs and land mines that were widely used in Vietnam and later because it was unwilling to take responsibility for clearing munitions that remained after the war was over.

Despite this checkered history, Honeywell has remained a large federal contractor. It is involved, for example, in both the clean-up of the Cold War-era Savannah River nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina and the construction of a new nuclear arms production facility in Kansas City.

And if all the above is not enough controversy, Honeywell CEO David Cote was named by President Obama (before the lockout) to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which issued a report in December that, among other things, proposed cuts in corporate tax rates. Cote issued a personal statement complaining that the report did not take a harder line on Medicare and Medicaid, and he recently called for cuts in Social Security. He also just told Bloomberg Television that he would love to see corporate income taxes entirely eliminated.

For many people, the Honeywell name is still associated with thermostats. But today, it is a poster child for much that is wrong with corporate America—mistreatment of workers, environmental recklessness, military profiteering, and unwillingness to pay a fair share of taxes. It should be made to feel more of the heat itself.

Nuclear Deception

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

After hearing the term “meltdown” used so often as a metaphor for the financial crisis, it is shocking to confront the prospect of a literal meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. There is something the two situations have in common: corporate misconduct.

The company that operates the heavily damaged reactors, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is one of the most unethical large corporations that I have ever examined. It has an astounding history of deceptions and cover-ups made all the more egregious by the grave risks inherent in the business of generating nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes.

TEPCO’s transgressions first came to light in 2002, after Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency belatedly began to investigate whistleblower allegations that the company had regularly falsified repair reports and inspection data concerning its nukes. The agency found evidence that the company had engaged in the deception for some 15 years, in some cases concealing the existence of cracks in the steel plates surrounding reactor cores as well as other defects.

The uproar over the revelations forced TEPCO’s president and chairman to resign. This was not just a matter of higher-ups taking responsibility for the misdeeds of underlings. There were reports that the top executives were aware of what was going on. The scope of the subterfuge also continued to grow, prompting some observers to liken the situation to the big U.S. corporate scandals involving companies such as Enron and WorldCom. TEPCO, which was forced to shut down its reactors for extended periods, later admitted that the data falsifications went back as far as the late 1970s.

In 2007 the company admitted that it had concealed incidents involving the emergency shutdowns of its Fukushima reactors—those involved in the current crisis—back in the mid-1980s. A few months after the admission, TEPCO had to apologize for delays and errors in announcing the extent of the damage at its nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki following an earthquake in the northwestern part of the country. When the whole story became known, local officials ordered TEPCO to shut down the plant.

The incident also prompted criticism of TEPCO for building the plant on top of an active seismic fault. It was unclear whether the company had been unaware of the fault or had ignored its presence; in either case, TEPCO looked highly irresponsible. It was later reported that the company had understated the intensity of the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki plant remained offline for more than two years.

TEPCO’s dishonesty is not limited to its nuclear operations. In 2007 it was one of ten utility companies cited by the Japanese government for falsifying data on the large quantities amounts of river water they used for power generation. TEPCO was found to have submitted bogus information on one of its hydroelectric plants for 13 years.

The mendacity of TEPCO is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese. In May 2010 the company announced it would purchase a 10 percent interest in the South Texas nuclear project, one of a slew of proposed new nukes that hope to receive a share of the billions of dollars in federal assistance promised by the Obama Administration to encourage a nuclear renaissance in the United States, where a new nuclear plant hasn’t opened in decades.

Japan’s disaster is already casting a very dark cloud over the prospects for that renaissance.  Debate over new U.S. nukes should not be limited to the technical safety issues. The example of TEPCO raises the question of whether a corporation can be trusted with a technology that has the potential to do such massive harm.

Attacking the Wrong Earmarks

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Congress is once again talking tough about budget earmarks. House Democratic leaders announced that they are banning earmarks designed to benefit for-profit entities, while House Republicans upped the ante by calling for the abolition of the practice across the board.

Even if this latest in a long line of anti-earmark initiatives takes hold, it will have limited impact on the channeling of taxpayer dollars to favored interests. The earmark database compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicates that in the current fiscal year they amount to only $16 billion. And many of the 11,860 individual items cannot be linked to a specific recipient, making targeted bans meaningless.

Even the largest items linked to individual corporations—such as $19.5 million to Boeing for “Maui Space Surveillance System Operations and Research” in Hawaii; $12 million to BAE Systems for “Mk 45 Mod 5 Gun Depot Overhauls” in Kentucky; and $9.6 million to Northrop Grumman for “B-2 Advanced Tactical Data Link” in California—are drops in the bucket of $1 trillion in overall federal discretionary spending and a military budget of $530 billion.

It’s amusing to watch the posturing about these small amounts at a time when Congress may be about to endorse what can be seen as perhaps the largest earmark ever: the healthcare subsidies that will pass from lower-income Americans to private insurers in a public-option-less system. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that premium and cost-sharing subsidies under the current (pre-reconciliation) Senate version of the bill would cost $337 billion over the next decade. The TARP bailout was bigger, but in that case the taxpayers are recouping much of the outlay.

Healthcare is not the only example of how reform gets built on corporate handouts. The climate bill that passed the House last June (and got stalled in the Senate) would have essentially given away many of the emission allowances for the cap and trade system rather than requiring corporate polluters to pay in full for their greenhouse gas output.

Corporate subsidies are also at the heart of the job-creation initiatives making their way through Congress. Most Democrats have embraced the Republican notion that the best way to increase employment is to decrease business taxes. The same goes for federal efforts to promote renewable energy. At the center of the green jobs initiatives in the Recovery Act were corporate tax breaks such as the $2.3 billion Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit, which the Obama Administration would like to expand by $5 billion. The Administration also wants to give $8 billion in loan guarantees to the Southern Company to build a nuke in Georgia.

In addition to the direct contracts and tax breaks, corporate America is also in effect being subsidized by the unwillingness of much of Congress to tighten regulation of business, even in cases of reckless behavior. The delay and dilution that have characterized financial reform are worth billions to the banks. The moves to exempt sectors such as payday lenders from federal oversight is an enormous boon to those businesses.

Healthcare reform, climate-crisis mitigation, job creation, renewable energy development and financial reform are all laudable goals, but it is frustrating that they are all being pursued in ways that often reward the same large corporations that created many of the problems these initiatives are meant to address. And it is mind-boggling that the critics of this business-friendly agenda repeatedly denounce it as socialistic.

Democrats should spend less time posturing on earmarks and more time trying to figure out how they can fix what’s wrong with the country without giving away the store to big business.

No Love for Nukes

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

An op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal is headlined “Let’s Have Some Love for Nuclear Power.” A few environmentalists such as James Lovelock have adopted the same stance. John McCain has proposed a major expansion of nuclear power capacity, and Barack Obama has indicated he is also willing to consider the idea. Yet proponents of a nuclear renaissance may want to pay more attention to what has been going on in Vermont before they travel too far on the industry’s bandwagon.

The Green Mountain State is experiencing an uproar over a proposal by Entergy Corp. to extend the operating license of its Vermont Yankee nuke. The generating plant began operation in November 1972 and thus will be 40 years old when the current license expires in 2012. Entergy wants permission to keep the plant going for another 20 years.

This does not sit well with many Vermonters, who are concerned that VY, as the state’s newspapers refer to it, is already showing signs of deterioration. This week a federal panel is hearing testimony in a challenge to the license extension filed by an anti-nuke group called the New England Coalition. The challenge, which is being supported by the State of Vermont, centers on technical issues such as Entergy’s assumptions about metal fatigue.

Although the current hearing will not address them, VY has been plagued by a series of other operating problems, including an incident last year (photo) in which part of a cooling tower collapsed and caused a leak of thousands of gallons of water, though Entergy said that no radioactivity was released. The company put the blame on rotting timbers that had not been inspected properly. Earlier this month, a new cooling tower leak forced Entergy to reduce VY’s output to less than 50 percent of capacity. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein told a Senate committee recently that Entergy has failed to keep up with industry knowledge on cooling tower failures.

Entergy has also been getting grief from state lawmakers, who are in a powerful position based on the fact that Vermont, unlike other states, gives its legislators veto power over nuke license extensions. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill tightening Entergy’s obligations to a fund that would pay for the eventual decommissioning of the nuke. This was prompted by concerns that a plan by Entergy to place ownership of VY in the hands of a new entity would make the fund less secure and increase the chances that the state would end up paying much of the shutdown costs, projected to be at least $800 million. Gov. Jim Douglas has voiced concerns about VY’s license extension, but he vetoed the decommissioning-fund bill. An angry Vermonter showed his displeasure with the veto by throwing a cream pie in the governor’s face at a Fourth of July parade.

Vermont may have its unique practices when it comes to nukes, but the contentious situation there is a taste of what can be expected if the nuclear industry – and particularly a company such as Entergy – continues trying to build new plants or extend the life of existing ones into old age.