Weekly Pulse: Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Deepens

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

A second reactor unit at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan may have ruptured, authorities announced on Wednesday. This is on top of their earlier revelation that the containment vessel of a separate reactor unit had cracked.

As of Tuesday, four nuclear reactors in Japan seem to be in partial meltdown in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami, according to Christian Parenti of the Nation:

One of them, reactor No. 2, seems to have ruptured. The situation is spinning out of control as radiation levels spike. The US Navy has pulled back its aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, after seventeen of its crew were exposed to radiation while flying sixty miles off the Japanese coast.

But despite three major explosions—at reactor No. 1, then No. 3, then No. 2—the Fukushima containment vessels seem to be holding. (Chernobyl lacked that precaution, having only a flimsy cement containment shell that collapsed, allowing the massive release of radioactive material.)

So, the good news is that only one out of four of the reactors is teetering on the brink of a full meltdown, and engineers might still be able to stave off disaster. The bad news, Parenti explains, is that spent fuel rods on the reactor sites could pose grave health hazards even if the threat of meltdown is averted. Even so-called “spent” rods remain highly radioactive.

The big question is whether the facilities that house this waste survived the earthquake, the tsunami, and any subsequent massive explosions at the nearby reactor. Given the magnitude of the destruction, and the relatively flimsy facilities used to house the spent rods, it seems unlikely that all the containment pools emerged unscathed. Parenti explains:

Unlike the reactors, spent fuel pools are not—repeat not—housed in any sort of hardened or sealed containment structures. Rather, the fuel rods are packed tightly together in pools of water that are often several stories above ground.

A pond at the Fukushima Daiichi plant is overheating, but radiation levels were so high that the Japanese military has postponed a helicopter mission to douse the pond with water.

Journalist and environmental activist Harvey Wasserman tells the Real News Network that the housing the spent rods (a.k.a. nuclear waste) is a chronic problem for the global nuclear industry.

Wasserman told GRITtv that the west coast of the United States has reactors that could suffer a similar fate in the event of a sufficiently large earthquake.

“If I were in Japan, I would at least get the children away from the reactor, because their bodies are growing faster and their cells are more susceptible to radiation damage. I would go out to 50 kilometers and at least get the children away from those reactors,” nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen told DemocracyNow! on Tuesday. At the time he said this, 70,000 residents had already been forced to evacuate their homes, and another 140,000 were ordered to stay indoors.

Mainstreaming anti-contraception

Kirsten Powers, Fox News’ resident self-proclaimed liberal, took to the pages of the Daily Beast recently to make the bizarre case that Planned Parenthood should be de-funded because the 100-year-old organization doesn’t really prevent the half-million abortions that it claims to prevent by supplying millions of clients with reliable birth control. (Powers was forced to concede that a gross statistical error rendered her entire piece invalid.) At RH Reality Check, Amanda Marcotte describes how Powers attempted to repackage fringe anti-contraception arguments for a mainstream audience. At TAPPED, I explain why Planned Parenthood’s abortion-prevention claim is rock solid.

Diet quackery

Unscrupulous doctors are cashing in on the latest diet fad: hormone injections derived from the urine of pregnant women, Kristina Chew notes for Care2.com. Patients pay $1,000 for consultations, a supply human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), and a 500-calorie-a-day diet plan. There is no evidence that hCG increases weight loss more than a starvation diet alone. But paying $1,000 to inject yourself in the butt every day does evidently work up a hell of a placebo effect.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



Weekly Pulse: The Republicans’ War On Women

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The entire federal government might shut down over birth control. Yes, birth control. This special edition of the Pulse is about the ongoing war against women being waged in Congress and in state legislatures nationwide.

Cutting birth control

Last Friday, the House voted to amend the continuing resolution to fund the federal government to defund the $317 million Title X Family Planning Program, a major beneficiary of which is Planned Parenthood. None of this money funds abortions. Instead, it goes to birth control, cancer screenings, and other reproductive health services for 5 million low-income Americans.

This kind of preventive care is highly cost-effective. Every federal family planning dollar saves an estimated $4 tax dollars on unintended pregnancy costs alone. Saving money by de-funding contraception is like “saving money” by not paying your rent. It’s not savings if you end up staying in a hotel that costs even more.

As Nick Baumann reports for Mother Jones, Senate Democrats are confident that they can defeat the measure. However, if that happens and the House Republicans won’t pass an acceptable alternative, the federal government will run out of money and shut down until the impasse is resolved.

Julianne Hing, blogging at TAPPED, wrote of last Friday’s House vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood:

I find it difficult to summon the energy to be angered or even shocked by the news anymore. I wouldn’t describe my reaction on Friday as either of those two. It felt like something much deeper — like an attack on women and women’s access to health care. I took it personally.

The vote was just the latest assault on women’s health care by House Republicans. H.R. 3 initially proposed to redefine rape as “forcible rape.” That provision was withdrawn amid public outcry, but the bill would still effectively eliminate private health insurance coverage for abortion. H.R. 358 would give hospitals a loophole to not refer women for abortion, even if their lives are in danger.

The miscarriage mafia

Georgia state Rep. Bobbie Franklin (R) has introduced a bill that would investigate unsupervised miscarriages as potential murders, Robin Marty reports for Care2.

Here’s the relevant text of the bill, H.B.1:

When a spontaneous fetal death required to be reported by this Code section occurs without medical attendance at or immediately after the delivery or when inquiry is required by Article 2 of Chapter 16 of Title 45, the ‘Georgia Death Investigation Act,’ the proper investigating official shall investigate the cause of fetal death and shall prepare and file the report within 30 days[.]

The bill opens with the familiar anti-choice tactic of defining a fetus as a person and declaring abortion to be murder. Even fervent anti-choicers may regard this as something of an overreach on Franklin’s part. Historically, anti-choicers have sought to pass discrete “personhood amendments” while maintaining the polite fiction that these laws have nothing to do with restricting abortion. Franklin is not a fan of the incremental approach. He is seeking to redefine a fetus as a person and abortion as murder in a single piece of legislation.

As Marty notes, one third of all pregnancies end in miscarriages. In early miscarriages, the woman may never even know she was pregnant. So, Franklin essentially wants to criminalize unauthorized vaginal bleeding in Georgia. Setting aside the basic human rights of women, as Franklin is only too happy to do, his miscarriage bill is about as practical as his bid to make Georgians pay their state taxes in gold and silver coins.

State legislatures all over the country are weighing ever more draconian restrictions on abortion. Republican lawmakers in Ohio have proposed legislation to ban abortion of any fetus with a heartbeat, Daniel Tencer of Raw Story reports. South Dakota Republicans were forced to back off a proposed law that appeared to legalize the murder of abortion providers.

Scott Walker’s anti-abortion crusade

You probably know Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as the Tea Party favorite who wants to take collective bargaining rights away from the state’s public employees. You may not know that Walker is also a longtime anti-abortion crusader. Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports that Walker, a former president of his college’s chapter of Students for Life, has a long history of campaigning against abortion, contraception, and sex ed. As a gubernatorial candidate, Walker won the endorsement of the hardline Pro-Life Wisconsin, which even opposes abortion to save the life of the woman.

As I reported in RH Reality Check, Walker’s anti-union “budget repair” bill also contains an all-out attack on a popular and successful Medicaid program to provide birth control to Wisconsinites whose incomes would qualify them for Medicaid if they became pregnant. The program saves Wisconsin an estimated $45 million a year in maternal and infant health costs alone and brings in 9 federal dollars for every on dollar spent by the state.

The Republicans swept to power with promises of limited government and fiscal conservatism. Now that they’re in office, their true agenda appears to be restricting women’s freedom at taxpayers’ expense.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



Weekly Pulse: Rotten Eggs, Drowsy Doctors, and Expensive Insurance

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Tainted egg shell game

The Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club is pushing state regulators to investigate two factory farms and a feed mill linked to this summer’s massive recall of salmonella-tainted eggs, Lynda Waddington reports in the Iowa Independent. The Sierra Club sent a strongly-worded letter to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller urging him to investigate Wright County Egg, Hillandale Farms and the Quality Egg LLC feed mill. All three firms were linked to the salmonella outbreak that sickened an estimated 1200 people; and all three firms are linked to agro-baron Austin “Jack” DeCoster.

Tom Philpott of Grist calls DeCoster a “habitual” environmental offender and “one of the most reviled names in industrial agriculture.” In 1996, the Department of Labor fined DeCoster Eggs $3.6 million for what the then-Secretary of Labor described as “running an agricultural sweatshop” and “treating its employees like animals.” Over the years, DeCoster enterprises racked up additional fines in other states. A previous Attorney General of Iowa dubbed DeCoster a habitual offender for water pollution. In 2002, five female employees at the DeCoster’s Wright County egg operation alleged that their supervisors had raped them and threatened to kill them if they reported the crime. The company paid $1.5 million to settle the lawsuit.

Drowsy doctors

A coalition of public health activists is pushing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to regulate the work hours of doctors in training. New proposed guidelines would limit the shifts of first-year residents to 16 hours, but more senior trainees could be forced to work shifts up to 28 hours. The group, which includes the Committee of Interns and Residents/SEIU Healthcare, the American Medical Student Association, and Public Citizen, says that’s not good enough to protect doctors or the public. As I explain in Working In These Times, research shows that sleep deprivation is a major preventable cause of medical errors, which is why the coalition wants to see shifts for all residents capped at 16 hours.

Insurance premiums soar

A new report from the Kaiser Foundation Family shows that health insurance premiums continued to climb with employers shifting an ever-greater share of the burden onto employees. A family health insurance policy costs about $14,000 a year, with employees shouldering 30% of that cost. Michelle Chen reports in ColorLines that families that manage to hang onto their health insurance can’t expect relief through health care reform any time soon. The major reforms don’t go into effect until 2014 and the biggest early beneficiaries will be those who are currently uninsured rather than those who are already paying through the nose for lousy coverage. The ultimate goal of comprehensive health care reform is to reshape the health care and health insurance systems to bring costs down across the board, but that’s small consolation to workers who are struggling to stay on top of their premiums right now.



Weekly Pulse: Oh, That Filibuster-Proof Majority

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

This week's biggest health care story shouldn't even be making headlines: Democratic leaders in the Senate are finally pressuring the entire caucus to help bring a health care bill to the floor by sticking with the party on procedural motions. Astute readers will ask: "But aren't Senators supposed to stick with their party on procedural motions?" Yes, of course they are.

Health care reform is the Democrats' biggest political battle in two generations and the crown jewel of the president's domestic agenda. It's hardly unreasonable to demand that Senate Democrats side with their party to defeat a filibuster.

Democrats knew Republicans would filibuster a health care bill no matter what. So the central political question was how to thwart them. The options were: Pick off enough Republican votes to defeat a filibuster, pass the bill with a simple majority through budget reconciliation, or demand that all 60 Democratic senators vote as a bloc to defeat a filibuster. (These senators could still vote against the bill, if they so chose, but without a filibuster the bill would pass by majority vote.) The first strategy failed spectacularly, and the second was controversial and difficult to execute. The last option is the simplest and most obvious. It's scandalous that it took Senate leadership all summer to lay down the law.

At TAPPED, Mori Dinauer argues that"'moderates' who are holding out are uninterested in how their intransigence looks to the rest of the Democratic party, but knowing the pressure's on makes it all the more likely reform passes a floor vote." They don't care how it looks, but they certainly care if the party leadership is prepared to cut off their fund raising dollars to make a point.

A bill is beginning to seem like a fait accompli to some Democrats, but the opponents of health reform aren't giving up without a fight, reports Christina Bellantoni in Talking Points Memo. The GOP-allied Tea Party Express is undertaking a massive fund raising drive for "The Countdown to Judgment Day," which is one year to the day before the 2010 elections. The Tea Party Express is a major force behind the disruptive town hall health care protests.

In Salon, Mike Madden argues that the prospects for passing a bill with a public option are looking up as Democrats begin the horsetrading that will combine the various health bills passed by Congress into a single piece of legislation:

Congressional aides and outside activists say the White House is still pushing for the public option in private talks. A growing number of Democrats in the Senate say they think the bill will include some form of public option, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and health committee chairman Tom Harkin. "President Obama has said all along that the public health insurance option is his first choice" for making health insurance affordable, said Jacki Schechner, a spokeswoman for Health Care for America Now, a union-backed coalition that supports reform. "We want to make sure he gets his first choice."

Switzerland and the Netherlands are frequently cited as examples of countries that contain costs and cover everyone without a public option. However, as The Nation's Eyal Press explains, these countries have only managed to do so by eliminating for-profit health insurance, which in the American context, would be a far more radial solution than a public option.

In Mother Jones, James Ridgeway takes the New York Times to task for a story about the conflicts within the AARP over health reform. Members in their fifties have a different perspective on private vs. public health insurance than those over 65 who already qualify for Medicare. As Ridgeway explains, it's the status quo that's pitting Americans of different ages against each other. If Medicare covered everyone, age would cease to be a third rail in future health policy discussions.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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Daily Pulse: [Audio Interview] Meet America's Biggest Anti-Health Reform Crusader

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

It was a roller coaster week for proponents of the public option. While the Senate Finance Committee rejected two proposed public option amendments,  four of the five health bills produced by congressional committees include a public option.  The next stage is to put those bills together in a process called conference, that results in a final piece of legislation that the House and the Senate will vote on. In this video clip, Marcy Wheeler tells VideoNation that progressives can continue the fight for a public option by emulating a tried and true Blue Dog strategy: Focus on building a bloc of votes, not on flipping the opposition.

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