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- 03/05/14--18:45: _Center's report on ...
- 03/06/14--14:08: _White House seeks t...
- 03/06/14--12:48: _Outside groups dwar...
- 03/06/14--21:23: _Lawyer selected for...
- 03/07/14--03:00: _Education groups ba...
- 03/07/14--03:02: _Issue ad or politic...
- 03/07/14--17:36: _FEC wants millions ...
- 03/07/14--13:30: _CPAC activists urge...
- 03/10/14--11:35: _A world awash in a ...
- 03/10/14--13:41: _Exposing tragic myt...
- 03/11/14--06:48: _Japan could be buil...
- 03/11/14--03:00: _Japan agrees to ret...
- 03/11/14--03:00: _Debt collectors go ...
- 03/11/14--03:00: _Dental chain may be...
- 03/11/14--07:37: _Virginia's move tow...
- 03/11/14--14:45: _Congressional inves...
- 03/11/14--17:20: _Outside groups help...
- 03/12/14--03:00: _Plutonium fever blo...
- 03/12/14--15:03: _Documents reveal GO...
- 03/13/14--03:00: _United Nations repo...
- 03/05/14--18:45: Center's report on black lung wins prestigious Goldsmith Prize
- 03/06/14--12:48: Outside groups dwarf candidate spending in Florida special election
- 03/06/14--21:23: Lawyer selected for Czech ambassadorship also major Obama fundraiser
- 03/07/14--03:00: Education groups battle teachers unions in state races
- 03/07/14--03:02: Issue ad or political ad? You be the judge
- 03/07/14--17:36: FEC wants millions in new cash to fix security woes
- $1.51 million for “IT security enhancement.” The FEC acknowledges to Congress that it “has recently been subject to high-profile cyber security attacks” and “has become more visible to individuals and groups that pursue such attacks, fundamentally and irrevocably increasing the level of threat to the agency’s systems and data.” It continues: “Without an appropriation at the requested level, the agency will be required to delay or cancel these projects, placing the FEC’s systems and data at further risk.”
- $650,000 for “cyber security related hardware.” The FEC says it now has “limited” its ability to replace computers, servers and other hardware it deems necessary to ensure the security of its IT systems. “As the agency’s PCs become outdated and obsolete, they cease to support the security tools and services the agency has in place to monitor configuration changes, which can indicate a cybersecurity threat, and to protect against viruses and malware,” the agency writes.
- $522,000 for implementation of a “trusted Internet connection.” The funds will help the agency “manage the security requirements for networks and security operations centers” and comply with federal security regulations.
- $178,000 for “website incursion prevention and detection.” These funds, the FEC says, would “support the maintenance of a cybersecurity tool that detects and stops malicious activity on systems and equipment in real time and helps network administrators better understand cyber threats by producing complete forensic details of attempted attacks.”
- $130,000 for a staff member “dedicated to IT security.” A single information security officer is “no longer sufficient” because the “complexity and severity of the threats to the FEC’s website, network and systems have increased dramatically.”
- 03/07/14--13:30: CPAC activists urged to fight IRS
- 03/10/14--11:35: A world awash in a nuclear explosive?
- 03/10/14--13:41: Exposing tragic myths of the world's 'greatest' health care system
- 03/11/14--03:00: Japan agrees to return some plutonium
- 03/11/14--03:00: Debt collectors go after service members despite protections
- 03/11/14--03:00: Dental chain may be booted from Medicaid program
- 03/11/14--07:37: Virginia's move toward ethics reform leaves many unimpressed
- 03/11/14--14:45: Congressional investigations of FEC stalled
- 03/11/14--17:20: Outside groups help boost David Jolly to victory
- 03/12/14--03:00: Plutonium fever blossoms in Japan
- 03/12/14--15:03: Documents reveal GOP group's secret donors
- 03/13/14--03:00: United Nations report: 'Children on the Run' from violent homelands
A ground-breaking Center for Public Integrity investigation detailing controversial denials of black lung benefits to coal miners has been awarded the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
The announcement was made at a ceremony Wednesday night.
The winning series, “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” was a year-long investigation written by Center reporter Chris Hamby in partnership with the ABC News Brian Ross investigative unit. The series illuminated how doctors and lawyers working at the behest of the coal industry helped defeat benefit claims of coal miners who were sick and dying of black lung disease.
The Center reporting team explored previously classified legal filings and created a database of medical evidence revealing how lawyers withheld key evidence and how doctors at the John Hopkins Medical Institutions consistently denied the existence of advanced black lung on X-rays.
Following the online and network news reports, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program, U.S. senators began crafting reform legislation and members of Congress asked for a federal investigation. In addition, the Department of Labor recently announced a number of procedural changes in the federal benefits system that deals with black lung claims.
The award is given by the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The annual prize, widely considered one of the field’s most important, recognizes journalism “which promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy, or the practice of politics by disclosing excessive secrecy, impropriety and mismanagement, or instances of particularly commendable government performance.”
"I am extremely proud of the Center for Public Integrity's year long investigative project on behalf of thousands of coal miners with black lung who have been denied their rights to federal compensation," said Center Executive Director Bill Buzenberg.
In addition to Hamby and Ross, also named for the prize were Ronnie Greene, Jim Morris and Chris Zubak-Skees of the Center and Matthew Mosk and Rhonda Schwartz of ABC News.
Other finalists for this year’s Goldsmith Prize included a Center report detailing the widespread use of offshore tax havens by the rich and famous. “Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze,” was produced by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a project of the Center.
Based on more than 2.5 million leaked files, the 50-story investigation involved 112 journalists and 42 media partners in 58 nations.
Other finalists were Miami New Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wall Street Journal and a collaboration involving the University of California’s investigative reporting program, The Center for Investigative Reporting, FRONTLINE, Univision Documentaries and KQED.
Chipping away at an acute problem highlighted by the Center for Public Integrity in December, the White House is seeking an additional $2 million for the coming fiscal year to hire 10 employees in the Department of Labor’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ).
The final installment of the Center’s “Breathless and Burdened” series revealed that the number of Labor Department judges, who hear a wide range of workers’ compensation, immigration, wage and whistleblower cases, has fallen to 35 nationwide, from 41 in early 2013 and 53 a decade ago. The department’s caseload, meanwhile, is soaring, forcing some sick and injured workers to wait years for benefits.
President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget would add 10 people to the OALJ, though it’s unclear how many would be judges and how many would be support staff. The proposal comes on the heels of a Feb. 18 letter to the White House from six members of Congress, who complained of “untenable delays in adjudicating claims, such as claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act and alleged violations of employment law. These delays directly and severely impact the lives of workers throughout the country, placing an undue financial and emotional burden on the affected individuals and their families.”
The lawmakers said a total of 11,325 cases were pending in the OALJ in fiscal 2013 — nearly double the number from 10 years earlier. They cited an April 2013 memorandum, made public by the Center, from Chief Judge Stephen Purcell to then-Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris. Purcell wrote that “we are fast reaching a point where the productivity of this Office will sustain a significant downturn from which we will not likely recover for years to come.”
In a statement Thursday, Labor Department spokesman Jesse Lawder wrote that if the agency gets the requested budget increase, it will “use the resources in the most efficient manner to process cases and will make that decision once funding is provided by Congress. The Labor Department is committed to resolving compensation claims for workers and their families, and that includes alleviating the backlog of cases before administrative law judges.”
Paul Mapes, a retired judge in California, speculated by email that if 10 positions are added to the OALJ “it's more likely to be three or four more ALJs and six or seven more legal techs and law clerks. Also, this is just the Administration's request to Congress, and already some are saying the entire Obama Administration budget is ‘dead on arrival.’ Still, it's a step in the right direction.”
The campaign money machines of Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly have not just been matched by outside forces, they’ve been lapped.
Roughly $12.5 million has flooded the heated special election on central Florida's gulf coast, but less than one-third of that sum was controlled by the candidates’ own campaigns, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal records.
Outside political groups spending more money than candidates during an election used to be exceedingly rare. Now, it's increasingly common in the big-money era following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in January 2010.
And the national stakes aren't even that high: The outcome of Tuesday's special election has no direct bearing on which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives this year and the partisan prize for victory in Florida's 13th Congressional District amounts to not much more than bragging rights and a shot of momentum heading into November's general election.
“It’s an incredible amount of money for one district,” said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for public interest advocacy group Common Cause. “It drowns out the voices of ordinary people.”
Moreover, Boyle continued, the advertising deluge “causes cynicism and confusion” because the ads’ onscreen disclaimers often provide little information about the actual funders of the messages or their legislative agendas.
Indeed, much of the money being injected into the special election comes from politically active nonprofits that aren't required to publicly disclose their donors as candidates, party committees and super PACs must.
Jolly’s campaign alone has been aided by nonprofits such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Action Network and the YG Network. Together these nonprofits have spent about $1.9 million on ads, FEC records indicate, including $1.2 million from the Chamber.
While the deep-pocketed trade association does not disclose its funders — and has actively lobbied against stricter disclosure rules — numerous Fortune 500 companies, including Chevron, Dow Chemical and Merck, have voluntarily self-reported contributions to the Chamber, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.
Meanwhile, the American Action Network — which is led by former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman — has received financial support in recent years from other nonprofits such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics.
It has also previously been backed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and by Exelon, the Chicago-based company that operates the nation’s largest commercial nuclear fleet.
No donors to the YG Network — a nonprofit run by former aides of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. — are publicly known.
In all, outside groups supporting Jolly have spent more than $4.9 million on political ads. Roughly 84 percent of this spending has been critical of Sink.
The National Republican Congressional Committee accounted for about $2.2 million of this sum.
Another large spender has been the pro-Republican super PAC American Crossroads, which was co-founded by party strategists Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, spending about $470,000.
All the while, Democratic-aligned groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and several left-leaning super PACs, have pummeled Jolly. These organizations have spent about $3.7 million, of which about 95 percent went toward anti-Jolly ads.
The DCCC accounted for nearly 60 percent of that amount, while the House Majority PAC has spent about $956,000. One nonprofit — the National Jewish Democratic Council — has reported spending about $9,200 on Sink’s behalf in the race.
For her part, Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer, has raised about $2.7 million, according to FEC records, while Jolly, a former congressional aide-turned-lobbyist, has raised more than $1.2 million.
Florida's special election is the latest example of outside organizations' growing clout in congressional races.
During the 2010 election cycle, party committees, super PACs and nonprofits outgunned the candidates themselves in a dozen House races, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by the Center for Responsive Politics. The phenomenon was repeated two years later in more than two dozen House races.
The big-dollar Florida election is being conducted to replace Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died in October.
President Barack Obama bested Republican Mitt Romney in the district by one percentage point in 2012, according to the Cook Political Report, which ranks the contest as a toss-up.
President Barack Obama has nominated attorney Andrew Schapiro, one of his former Harvard Law School classmates and a prolific fundraiser for the president, to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.
The White House's announcement Thursday night follows repeated admonishments of Obama for nominating several people with Democratic fundraising pedigrees but little experience with, or knowledge of, the countries where they may soon represent U.S. interests.
Afterward, the Washington Postrebuked Obama for using the elite diplomatic jobs as "political plums." And the American Foreign Service Association, the main trade group and labor union for career foreign service officers, issued new guidance on the characteristics and skills a good ambassador should possess.
For generations, U.S. presidents have rewarded loyalists with posh diplomatic positions. But during his second term, Obama has elevated a greater portion of political allies for these jobs than his recent predecessors.
Schapiro ranks as the 25th campaign bundler Obama has nominated for an ambassadorship since January 2013, and as the 50th political appointee, according to research by the Center for Public Integrity.
During the same time, Obama has nominated 37 career diplomats for ambassador posts.
Collectively, these 25 men and women have raised at least $17.6 million for Obama's committees since 2007, although the actual total is probably much higher.
Campaigns are not legally required to disclose how much money their bundlers raise. Obama voluntarily did so during both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, but provided only broad ranges, the largest of which was "more than $500,000."
For his part, Schapiro, along with his wife, Tamar Newberger, has raised at least $700,000 for Obama over the years, including at least $500,000 during the 2012 campaign, records show. Internal campaign documents obtained by the New York Times put the figure more than $1.26 million since 2007.
Schapiro, a partner at the international law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan LLP, is also the son of a Czech Holocaust survivor. Early on in his career, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.
If Schapiro is confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the job, he will replace Norm Eisen, another Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's who previously served in the White House as the ethics czar.
Three weeks before Tennessee’s August 2012 primary election, state Rep. John DeBerry Jr.’s Memphis-area district was flooded with $52,000 worth of get-out-the-vote efforts supporting the then-nine-term incumbent. Six days later, another $52,000 in materials appeared.
By Election Day, the Tennessee affiliate of StudentsFirst, the education-focused organization behind the influx of support, had spent more than $109,000 backing DeBerry, a rare Democrat who supports voucher programs and charter schools. The state branch of the American Federation for Children, another education group, spent another $33,000.
DeBerry faced another Democrat, state Rep. Jeanne Richardson, whose district was eliminated through redistricting.
“I couldn’t counter it,” Richardson said of the funds StudentsFirst introduced late in the race. “I had to raise money by calling people. There wasn’t enough time left.”
StudentsFirst — created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee — is leading a new wave of “education reform” organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states.
These groups promote charter schools, voucher programs and weakening of employment safeguards like teacher tenure, all ideas bitterly opposed by unions.
StudentsFirst flooded at least $3 million in outside spending into state elections in 2012, putting the group roughly on par with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, across 38 states examined by the Center for Public Integrity and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
The Sacramento, Calif.-based group is far from the only education reform organization that has gained prominence in the aftermath of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that made it easier for corporations to fund political campaigns.
Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform . The organizations flooded states across the country with independent advertising and canvassing efforts in the run-up to the 2012 primary and general election.
They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so-called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)4 of the U.S. tax code.
Such groups are not required to reveal their donors.
Since 2012, the funding onslaught by these groups and their backers has shown no signs of slowing.
Spending has reached unheard of heights, even at the school board level.
The race for Los Angeles school board in May 2013 attracted nearly $4 million in spending on reform-minded candidates. Major supporters of the pro-reform committee include Bloomberg, StudentsFirst and Broad, a Los Angeles resident. The organization was countered by roughly $2 million from labor groups.
The American Federation for Children spent $110,000 in outside spending supporting three candidates for the Wisconsin State Assembly in the run-up to an election on Nov. 19, 2013.
Great Seattle Schools, an education reform-focused political action committee, spent just shy of $62,000 in outside spending in the months leading up to the city’s November 2013 school board election.
Democrats for Education Reform was among the committee’s backers, as were local wealthy figures like Chris Larson, a former Microsoft executive who owns a minor stake in the Seattle Mariners , and venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer.
At the helm of this movement, StudentsFirst has dominated campaigns for state legislators and ballot initiatives that often seem outside the group’s education-focused mission statement. As StudentsFirst faces off with labor groups and labor-backed candidates, the group’s considerable financial heft may be shaping more than education policy.
Battling the unions
Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of Washington’s public school system, established StudentsFirst not long after resigning her post in 2010. The new organization’s goal, she said, would be to provide some much-needed opposition to the teachers unions’ political power.
“The problem to date has been that you’ve had these incredibly powerful teachers unions that have lots of resources, and they use those resources to have influence on the political process,” Rhee said last year during an interview at the Commonwealth Club of California.
Rhee said StudentsFirst is the first education-oriented national interest group to seriously challenge the unions.
Since leaving Washington, Rhee has backed legislation curbing collective bargaining rights in several states. In the 18 states where the group is active, StudentsFirst has fought to eliminate “last in, first out” provisions in teachers’ contracts and to increase the role that quantitative evaluations play in teachers’ job security.
Accordingly, StudentsFirst tends to oppose candidates who align with unions.
Among these union-supported candidates in 2012 was Michigan state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, an incumbent who ran against fellow incumbent Rep. Maureen Stapleton in the Democratic primary as a result of statewide redistricting.
Though Stapleton was a former teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, Tlaib received the endorsements of the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Federation of Teachers. Stapleton, on the other hand, backed charter schools and linking teacher salaries to performance, both key components of StudentsFirst’s mission.
Between July 20 and the Aug. 7 primary, StudentsFirst poured $195,000 in outside spending supporting Stapleton. Meanwhile, the Michigan Federation of Teachers, the Michigan Education Association and several other labor groups contributed directly to Tlaib’s campaign.
“You almost never see a state house race in the city of Detroit go over $30,000, so when StudentsFirst put $190,000 into that, that was an extraordinary amount of money for a Democratic primary,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
A couple months earlier, voters in Whittier, Calif., saw a similar phenomenon. The teachers unions supported Democrat Rudy Bermudez to represent the overwhelmingly Democratic district in the state assembly. But StudentsFirst backed a different Democrat, Ian Calderon.
A then-26-year-old surfing champion who had never held public office, Calderon’s dad is former state Sen. Charles Calderon and his uncle is state Sen. Ron Calderon.
According to Al Jazeera America, Rhee’s representatives met in February 2012 with former Assemblyman-turned-lobbyist Thomas Calderon, brother of Ron and Charles, to gain support for a bill that would eliminate the last-in-first-out clause of California teachers’ contracts. The next day, Ron introduced the bill.
Rhee’s group then spent more than $378,000 backing Calderon in the 11 days before the primary election on June 5, most of which paid for broadcast advertising, campaign finance records show.
Calderon defeated Bermudez by 337 votes in the primary before handily defeating Republican Noel Jaimes in the general election.
A new player in the game
Historically teachers unions have been the major voices in education politics with little education-specific opposition.
“In the old days, it was all the service-provider organizations — so all the unions — or the consumers,” said Kenneth Wong , an expert in education policy and education reform at Brown University. “We are seeing the broadening in terms of the type of actors who get involved in campaign issues in education.”
Even parents, who in the past often took a backseat to the unions when it comes to politics, are becoming more engaged in campaigns surrounding education issues, he said. The result is a highly competitive, highly expensive environment in which the still-powerful teachers unions face coalitions of traditional conservative, anti-union players aligned with education reform activists.
Politics aren’t new to education. For example, the American Federation for Children has been around, though under a different name, and has been fighting the teachers’ unions for more than 15 years.
What’s new is the unprecedented level of education-focused political spending at state and local levels.
“They’re the recipients of money from Wall Street and Silicon Valley and some of the wealthiest people in America,” American Federation of Teachers spokesman Michael Powell said of StudentsFirst. “And they’ve raised it at a fairly high clip, and it makes them more competitive in these races around the country, there’s no doubt about it.”
Karen White, national political director for the National Education Association, traced the new dynamic to the aftermath of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that invited corporate spending into the political process.
White said, she sees no distinction between Rhee’s StudentsFirst and the other corporate-backed special interest groups the union has begun to face in recent years.
“We’re going to get outspent,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to fight back and be strategic with our spending, but we are never going to be able to compete with the folks who are trying to corporatize education … It’s clearly a national battle that they’ve taken on all across the country.”
Despite White’s concerns, the NEA’s outside spending in 2012 state races was at least $6.4 million, more than double the amount spent by StudentsFirst in the states examined by the Center for Public Integrity.
Any comparison between education reform groups and the NEA is “really a David and Goliath situation,” said Matt Frendewey, spokesman for the American Federation for Children.
“They are one of the largest unions in the country. Period,” he said. “They carry a tremendous amount of clout, especially in relation to how many members they have, and they have a tremendous influence.”
‘Education reform’ or just ‘reform’?
The unions demonstrated their strength in numerous races across the country.
Brian Johnson, who lost the 2012 primary race for a seat in the California Assembly, was the beneficiary of outside spending by StudentsFirst and other education reform advocates.
Before running for office, Johnson was the executive director of Los Angeles’ Larchmont Schools, a network of charter schools, and before that he was the executive director of Teach for America in Los Angeles. He now works for the Teach for America-affiliated Leadership for Educational Equity.
So it’s unsurprising that Johnson benefited from $1.5 million in outside spending by education reform advocates, including $419,000 from StudentsFirst. Most of Johnson’s support came from political action committees whose major donors included Broad, Hastings and Walmart founder Sam Walton’s granddaughter Carrie Walton Penner. Bloomberg, Hastings and the California Charter Schools Association — which received 52 percent of its funds from Hastings — also gave directly to Johnson’s campaign.
Meanwhile, the California Teachers Association, the California branch of the National Education Association, spent nearly $467,000 opposing Johnson, and the campaign of Adrin Nazarian, Johnson’s top opponent, was funded largely by labor groups.
In other races, the education connection was less apparent.
In Michigan, StudentsFirst spent nearly $187,000 in independent expenditures to back then-state Rep. Deb Shaughnessy in what was ultimately a losing bid for re-election.
StudentsFirst was just one of many groups supporting Shaughnessy’s bid for re-election. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Republican Party, the National Rifle Association, Business Leaders for Michigan and Right to Life Michigan all funded outside spending campaigns either supporting Shaughnessy or opposing her labor-backed opponent, Theresa Abed. More than half of the contributions to Shaughnessy’s campaign came from the House Republican Campaign Committee.
And neither Shaughnessy’s background, nor the issues at the forefront of her campaign emphasized education.
Lawmakers like Shaughnessy have become targets of education spending thanks to an ongoing national debate surrounding the new federally endorsed Common Core curriculum in public schools and the role charter schools should play in public education, Powell said. State legislators will have leading roles in deciding these issues.
Federal government gridlock in Washington also means political action committees and political nonprofits are increasingly turning to state lawmakers as the country’s primary policy makers.
“Nothing’s really happening in Washington,” Powell said, “so anything that’s happening is happening in the states.”
The influence web
StudentsFirst is made up of a coalition of nonprofit organizations and affiliated political action committees in a handful of states, a structure that’s common among political groups.
There’s StudentsFirst, the main “social welfare” nonprofit or 501(c)(4), and the Great New England Public Schools Alliance, another 501(c)(4) nonprofit that operates mostly in Connecticut. There’s also the StudentsFirst Institute, which is not allowed to participate in elections since it falls under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. Together these groups spend millions on lobbying, direct campaign contributions and outside spending.
Since 2011, the StudentsFirst Institute received $9 million in grants from the Walton Family Foundation, $7 million from billionaire philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, and $1 million from billionaire hedge fund manager Steven Cohen and his wife Alexandra.
The StudentsFirst Institute reported spending just shy of $1 million on lobbying between Aug. 1, 2011 and July 31, 2012, the most recent fiscal year whose tax reports are available. The group also gave $1 million in that period to the affiliated Great New England Public Schools Alliance, or GNEPSA.
GNEPSA, in turn, made just shy of $158,000 in independent expenditures in Connecticut legislative races in 2012 and received contributions from Bloomberg and venture capitalist Nick Beim, campaign finance records show.
StudentsFirst, the 501(c)(4), spent another $346,000 on lobbying during the 2012 fiscal year. State records suggest the group far exceeded this number in the following fiscal year, between Aug. 1, 2012 and July 31, 2013, though the group’s tax filing isn’t yet available for that time period.
Because StudentsFirst is not required to disclose its donors, it’s impossible to know where most of the group’s funds come from, a point that detractors use as a reason to question the group’s motives.
Those donors whose names appear on the occasional lobbying disclosure report or tax filing include high-profile figures in political, financial and technological industries.
For example, StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo indicated a 2012 Huffington Post story that named billionaire New Jersey hedge fund manager David Tepper, a major Mitt Romney supporter, among StudentsFirst’s funders. The article also named the Broad and Arnold families.
Castillo declined to further detail the group’s donors, citing organization policy.
Many other education reform groups are more open about who’s providing the means to their methods. As a result, they offer a small window into the rolls of donors injecting cash into the education reform movement as a whole.
An example of this is the Coalition for School Reform, which spent nearly $4 million on school board races in Los Angeles last year. The group received $1.4 million from Bloomberg, $500,000 from Broad and $250,000 from former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio, according to city campaign finance records.
Other donors included StudentsFirst, Hastings, the Arnold family, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, former New York School Chancellor Joel Klein and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The high-profile donors help give prominence to the groups and their causes, according to Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.
But above all, these donors have money to spare — a lot of money to spare.
“It’s clear that these groups are funded by people who seem to have an endless supply of corporate money,” said Tenoch Flores, spokesman for the California Democratic Party.
Why the groups and their donors have chosen to support charter schools and voucher programs is sometimes less clear.
The American Federation for Children chooses which races to back based on where the group feels it can help increase educational options available to parents, according to Frendewey.
StudentsFirst’s Castillo echoed these sentiments.
“Our organization supports candidates that will be important partners in our ongoing push to ensure that every student attends a great school and is taught by a great teacher, and that's the reason we're pleased to support local and state reform-minded candidates,” he said in a written statement.
Rhee’s group and many other education reform organizations believe that privatizing education will prove beneficial for the country’s students, explained Michael Apple, who specializes in education policy at the University of Wisconsin. The same is true of the groups’ donors.
“If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education,” he said. “Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.”
But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donors’ decisions to open their wallets, he said. He compared education to healthcare, “meaning the sources of profit are immense.”
The education reform agenda creates opportunities for companies that operate online learning programs and computerized testing, said White, of the NEA. The agenda also places a heavier emphasis on standardized testing, offering potential financial benefits to companies that offer those services.
In the past, K-12 education has been a “sluggish,” highly regulated market that investors were wary of jumping into, said Patricia Burch , an education professor at the University of Southern California. Not so anymore.
The technology schools use to administer tests and supplement coursework has emerged as a multibillion-dollar industry, according to Burch’s research, slated to be published in May in her new book, “Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education.”
In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology. By 2011, that number was estimated at $429 million, according to Burch.
Burch’s book points to recent transactions and mergers as signs of the potential windfalls this market can offer.
In 2011, textbook giant Pearson purchased SchoolNet, a tool that helps districts track students’ achievement on standardized tests, for $230 million. Providence Equity Partners bought online educational platform Blackboard Inc. for $1.6 billion. For the low price of $13 million, K12 Inc. acquired Kaplan Virtual Education, which offers computer-based learning for public and private schools in nine states.
In 2012, Apple also partnered with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to offer digital textbooks for the iPad.
“It’s in the early stages. We know that there’s potentially tons of revenue to be generated,” Burch said.
Campaign costs spiral
Though few elections occurred in 2013 around the country, the education reform movement continued to inject an historic volume of funds into local and state races.
The most expensive was the race for school board in Los Angeles that attracted more than $6 million in outside spending.
In the month leading up to the May mayoral and city council election in Jersey City, N.J., the Better Education for New Jersey Kids, Inc., PAC dumped more than $342,000 into advertising and mailers. The PAC is associated with the nonprofit Better Education for Kids, which is not required to disclose its donors but lists Tepper among its trustees.
A special legislative election in Wisconsin and a school board race in Seattle proved ripe battlegrounds for political spending arms races between education reformers and their opponents.
In Denver County, Colo., a committee whose largest donors were Bloomberg and the political arm of education reform nonprofit Education Reform Now spent $103,000 on a school board race.
In nearby Douglas County, Colo., the labor-backed Committee for Better Schools Now spent $935,000 on a school board race. That spending was countered by the Colorado chapter of Charles and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which claims to have spent $350,000 on campaign efforts . No public records exist of the group’s spending.
Each of these races suggests that education reform spending is going to continue on an upward trajectory, at least for the near future.
“Historically we haven’t seen that kind of spending on school board races here [in Los Angeles], but it’s likely to become a lot more commonplace in the future,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who is running for California secretary of state. “My guess is in five years, we’ll be looking back at the relatively restrained fundraising levels of 2013 with some nostalgia.”
The advertisement ran just less than a month before the race for school board in Douglas County, Colo.
“Liberals are fighting school choice in Douglas County,” the announcer intoned. “But four conservatives — Doug Benevento, Meghann Silverthorn, Jim Geddes and Judi Reynolds — have pledged to make sure Douglas County remains a national leader in school choice.”
The ad urged viewers to thank the four — two incumbents and two candidates who had never held office — for “standing up to the unions fighting for common-sense school reform.”
The ads were effective. Despite overwhelming opposition by the teachers union, all four candidates won.
The ad was part of a $350,000 outside spending campaign, running August through mid-November, by the Colorado chapter of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation to elect the conservative slate.
AFP paid for mailers, canvassing and cable television ads, according to AFP state director Dustin Zvonek.
But no public record of how the nonprofit organization spent its money exists with the Colorado Secretary of State, and Comcast doesn’t have a record of Americans for Prosperity’s advertising purchase in its political files.
Why? Because according to AFP, the ad wasn’t political.
“Americans for Prosperity is an issue client that we’re not required to keep anything in the file for” issue ads, said Ariana Dobson, who sells political ads for Comcast in the Denver-area.
According to Zvonek, the organization didn’t have to file records of its spending with the Colorado Secretary of State the way political action committees and other election-focused groups did because the campaign wasn’t focused on the November election, but rather on educating the public about reforms the existing school board already implemented.
“There was an effort primarily from the teachers union to kind of distort the facts,” Zvonek said.
The difference between an issue ad and a political ad may seem indecipherable to the average viewer, but when it comes to what a nonprofit can and can’t do with its money, state and federal laws make a critical distinction.
Colorado requires groups to report electioneering to the Secretary of State. State law defines electioneering as any message that “unambiguously” refers to a candidate and is broadcast 60 days or fewer before a general election.
The ad described above began running the week of Oct. 8, according to AFP’s website. Election Day was Nov. 5.
Colorado Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge declined to say whether the ads run by Americans for Prosperity would be considered electioneering without someone filing a complaint against the group.
But Joseph Birkenstock, former chief counsel of the Democratic National Committee, said the ad appeared to fit squarely within the state’s electioneering qualifications, which, he noted, are broader than the federal electioneering rules.
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization also prohibits the organization from engaging in partisan political activity. IRS rules allow 501(c)(3) nonprofits to participate in nonpartisan education efforts, like a voting guide or voter registration drive, but not activities that clearly favor one candidate over another.
The IRS takes a fairly strict view of what sort of activity is considered partisan where 501(c)(3)’s are concerned, according to Marcus Owens, a former IRS director of exempt organizations.
“It includes arguably anything that indicates a support or opposition to a candidate for elected office,” Owens said. “You don’t have to have the magic words of ‘vote for,’ or ‘vote against.’ You just have to express a preference for them.”
The IRS also takes into consideration factors like timing — whether the ad ran exclusively in the run-up to an election — and if the ads are consistent with others the organization runs year-round.
Based on these factors, Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County ads would be considered partisan and would violate the group’s tax-exempt status, Owens said.
“It’s advertising that appears only in the run-up to the election, it names individuals who are candidates and clearly will be identified as candidates by other media, and it expresses a preference for them. That’s campaign intervention.”
The Federal Election Commission is asking Congress for nearly $3 million to address what it says are serious security breaches and an obsolete IT system.
The investigation also detailed how the FEC is grappling with chronic staffing shortages that have hobbled its ability to execute some of its most basic functions, such as ensuring the accuracy and legality of campaign finance disclosures for political candidates and committees.
Among the FEC’s requests contained in a 41-page budget request it today submitted to Capitol Hill:
The FEC is also asking for $545,000 dedicated to filling “critical vacancies.”
The agency has reduced its workforce by 8 percent during the past four years, and during fiscal year 2013, left empty 19 of 24 vacant positions.
“These sustained reductions significantly impair the agency’s efforts to manage its human capital and to ensure that it can hire and retain top performers who deliver the FEC’s mission efficiently and effectively,” the FEC tells Congress.
At the moment, it has no general counsel, associate general counsel for litigation, associate general counsel for policy or chief financial officer. Its human resources division is operating with half a staff. Its audit division — critical to determining whether political committees are complying with laws — is down a manager and two staffers.
But it also notes that “unfilled staff vacancies at all levels across the agency have begun to affect negatively the FEC’s ability to provide public services” — particularly its division that reviews and analyses campaign finance reports. To date, about two million such reports have not been checked for errors, completeness and potential illegalities, the FEC notes.
The FEC also wants $100,000 to improve its web site to make it easier to navigate and search for custom information.
Overall, the FEC is asking for $67.5 million for fiscal year 2015 — the same amount the president proposed in his budget and a small increase from its current budget of $65.8 million. It also presumes that the U.S. Senate will begin filing its campaign finance reports electronically, which it estimates would save the agency about $430,000 annually.
FEC commissioners could not immediately be reached for comment.
Update, 8:29 p.m., March 7: FEC Chairman Lee Goodman (R) said in an email that "anybody who seriously supports the FEC's public disclosure mission must support funding for us to rebuild and fully staff our Reports Analysis Division ... The most important priorities reflected in this budget proposal for me are those related to public disclosure of the campaign finance data filed with the FEC." Goodman added he also believes improvements to the agency's technology are key.
FEC Vice Chairman Ann Ravel (D) said in an interview that the agency's budget request is "appropriate" given federal resources and addresses its most pressing IT and staffing needs.
"The agency could be doing more and doing better work with more funding than we're asking for," Ravel said. "But you don't want to overreach."
Even with a larger budget, the FEC says its fiscal situation is precarious.
“[D]ue to recent funding restrictions, the Commission has been limited to only the most critical of hires,” the FEC writes to Congress.
And anything less than $67.5 million “could jeopardize the FEC’s ability to carry out its mission and will expose the agency to audit risks and findings,” it writes.
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The only antagonist Conservative Political Action Conference headliners are battering more than President Barack Obama and his signature health care law is the Internal Revenue Service.
High-profile politicians from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Mike Huckabee, the former GOP governor of Arkansas, suggested the agency should be outright abolished.
And numerous top conservatives declared that the IRS’s new proposed regulations of politically active nonprofits should be quashed — and that agency officials who inappropriately scrutinized tea party nonprofits should be severely punished.
“The IRS is a criminal enterprise” and a “cancer” that has been “intimidating Americans who are conservative,” Huckabee said.
The agency “needs to be defanged,” argued Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, who added that “there needs to be people who go to jail.”
And former GOP U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell warned that “everyone in this room could be a target, unless we stop this now.”
The takeaway messages to activists: Remain vigilant and push back.
Two separate panels during the three-day confab, which ends Saturday, focused on the IRS’s mishandling of organizations’ tax-exempt applications.
There, conservative leaders called for action to rein in the agency: Hire private investigators. Interview former IRS officials. Provide rewards for whistleblowers.
“We are going to have to take matters into our own hands,” said attorney Cleta Mitchell, a panelist at both events who has represented conservative nonprofits.
Mitchell added that she believes the IRS division overseeing nonprofits is already sharing confidential donor information from tax returns with internal auditors.
She said she’s talked with a number of people who said they were never audited by the IRS until they donated to a conservative group in recent years.
“There has been a consistent and concerted effort to target conservative donors,” said Mitchell, blaming additional scrutiny on Democrats being “absolutely traumatized” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010 that in part allowed nonprofits to overtly advocate for or against candidates.
An IRS spokesman declined to comment to the Center for Public Integrity beyond saying that the agency spells out its criteria for conducting audits on its website.
Last month, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress that anyone currently dealing with the IRS “should “be comfortable” that they are “going to get treated fairly in the same way anybody else is no matter what their political affiliation, whatever their organization is, whoever they voted for.”
A 2013 report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said the IRS used "inappropriate criteria" when reviewing organizations seeking tax-exemption.
Numerous tea party-aligned nonprofits complained about long delays and intrusive questions about their internal workings during the application process.
Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, resigned in the wake of the scandal, and she has twice appeared before Congress, including once earlier this week, where she has invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testifying.
She has, however, given a full interview to Department of Justice investigators, the Wall Street Journalreported Thursday.
Last month, Obama told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly that the IRS’s actions included “some bone-headed decisions” but did not contain “even a smidgen of corruption.”
Such denials, however, have not alleviated conservatives’ concerns.
All individuals involved in the IRS scandal “need to be fired,” said panelist Hans von Spakovsky, an attorney who previously served in the Department of Justice and on the Federal Election Commission.
Without repercussions, von Spakovsky warned, “it’ll happen again.”
WASHINGTON — A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.
A Washington-based physicist and nuclear contrarian, Cochran helped kill a vast plutonium-based nuclear industrial complex back in the 1970s, and now he’s at it again — lecturing at symposia, standing up at official meetings, and confronting nuclear industry representatives with warnings about how commercializing plutonium will put the public at enormous risk.
Where the story ends isn’t clear. But the stakes are large.
The impetus for Cochran’s urgent new campaign — supported by a growing cadre of arms control and proliferation experts — is a seemingly puzzling decision by Japan to ready a new $22 billion plutonium production plant for operation as early as October.
The plant will provide fuel for scores of special reactors resembling those canceled in America a generation ago. Critics of the Japanese project worry that its completion in just a few months will create a crucial beachhead for longtime nuclear advocates who claim that plutonium, a sparkplug of nuclear weapons, can provide a promising civilian path to carbon-free energy.
According to its builders, the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility, which has been undergoing testing since 2006, will be capable of churning out 96 tons of plutonium metal in the next dozen years, an amount greater than all the stocks that remain in the United States as a legacy of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. Rokkasho would be the fifth-largest such facility in the world, but the only one in a country without nuclear weapons.
The metal is to be burned by Japanese utilities in dozens of fast breeder reactors, so named because they have the capability to both consume and produce plutonium. The ambition is to make Japan, a craggy, energy-starved island, nearly self-sufficient in generating electrical power.
But there is a hitch, Cochran and his allies say. A big one.
A lump of plutonium weighing 6.6 pounds — roughly the size of a grapefruit — is enough to make a nuclear weapon with an explosive power of 1 kiloton, or 1,000 tons, of TNT. If the Japanese plan goes forward, the island nation in theory would in a year have plutonium sufficient to build around 2,600 bombs, or enough to compose the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.
Japan has renounced any desire to make nuclear weapons, but Cochran and others worry that by creating a huge plutonium stockpile — and shuttling it all over the country — the utilities there will be creating a tempting, perhaps irresistible, target for nuclear terrorists.
And though Japan is perhaps closest to finishing such a massive plutonium factory, its ambitions are far from unique.
Iran is building a research reactor near the western city of Arak capable of producing enough spent fuel to make about 20 pounds of high-grade plutonium a year — the equivalent of nearly three bombs a year. Tehran says nothing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty prevents it from acquiring peaceful nuclear technology, but its plans have provoked widespread Western condemnation and are the focus of continuing international negotiations.
India recently completed a reprocessing plant capable of extracting new plutonium from about 100 tons of spent fuel yearly at Tarapur, north of Mumbai, in 2011. It joined three older plants that produced 3.8 to 4.6 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years.
Little is known about another plutonium plant under construction at Kalpakkam, south of Chennai on the Indian Ocean, but the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says it “will likely surpass” Tarapur “as India’s largest plutonium producer.”
China is considering building a new civilian plutonium plant about the size of Rokkashoat the site of two decommissioned military plutonium plants at the Jiuquan Complex in Gansu Province. Even so, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Feb. 21 that the government had “grave concerns over Japan’s storage of weapon’s grade plutonium, and lodged representations to the Japanese side recently.”
South Korea has expressed a similar interest in plutonium production, pointing explicitly to Japan as a precedent. And Japan itself has embarked on campaign — in India and elsewhere — to market its nuclear proficiency and technology.
“You’re talking about spreading this technology [and scientific expertise] all over the world in non-weapons states, and trying to safeguard it, ” says Cochran. “It’s a recipe for weapons capability.”
So far, Japan’s pursuit of its ambitious plutonium program — using nuclear fuel and technology provided partly by the United States — has mostly been greeted by public silence among government officials in allied capitals.
But there is little dispute the consequences could be far-reaching. Standing by while Japan opens the Rokkasho plutonium factory could “make it impossible” for the U.S. to resist pressure from other countries seeking bomb-fuel technology, said Thomas Moore, who served for ten years as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee expert on arms control.
Henry Sokolski, a former Defense Department official who now runs the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says that if Rokkasho opens, the United States will find it particularly hard to tell South Korea that it cannot make plutonium-based fuels — a goal that Seoul is strenuously lobbying for in Washington, as part of a bilateral nuclear trade agreement. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia, could also follow Japan’s example, Sokolski said. Others worry about Turkey, Vietnam or Egypt. The list goes on and on.
“It’s very hard,” says James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, “to divide the world into states we like and states we don’t like, and say to one group it can do whatever it wants and say to members of the other group that they have to restrain their behavior.”
Already, the world has accumulated approximately 490 metric tons of plutonium, enough for about 81,600 nuclear weapons similar to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, in the 73 years since specks of plutonium were first synthesized at the University of California, Berkeley.
Japan, still reeling from the nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima three years ago this week, is proceeding with the Rokkasho plant, its atomic energy officials say, because abandoning it would kill jobs, bankrupt utilities, and undermine plans to reopen up to 50 of the nuclear reactors forced to shutter by Fukushima. Without Rokkasho to process their waste, the reactor sites would soon be overflowing with spent fuel.
But there’s more to it than that. Japan — like the United States before 1976, England from 1959 to 1994, and France from 1967 to 2009 — has long dreamed that the radioactive wastes created by nuclear reactors could one day be routinely “recycled” or burned as fuel to make electricity instead of being buried underground.
After spending tens of billions of dollars and decades on breeder-related programs, Tom Cochran said, countries find it hard to pull the plug.
“You have an entrenched bureaucracy and an entrenched research and development community and commercial interests invested in breeder technology, and these guys don’t go away,” Cochran said. “They’re believers … and they’re not going to give up. The really true believers don’t give up.”
A big-box store for terrorists?
At 72, Tom Cochran’s shock of hair has mostly gone gray, but he still has an impish face, like an older, worldlier Huckleberry Finn; he’s now a consultant to his longtime employer, the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, but shows no sign of slowing down.
Richard Garwin, another famously impolitic physicist who played a key role in the building of the hydrogen bomb, describes him as “a sterling character” in “a fairly small community of people who have worked very hard to keep fissile materials from getting loose.”
When Cochran is told something he doesn’t believe, he breaks into a sideways kind of smile. When he hears something he disagrees with, he often launches into a concise and reasoned rebuttal in a gentle Tennessee drawl, but it can sometimes turn bruising. Colleagues call him a bold, original thinker whose debating talents far outstrip his diplomatic skills.
He “absolutely has no reticence, no reticence at all about anything he says,” says noted Princeton physicist — and Cochran ally — Frank Von Hippel. Cochran once admitted to Von Hippel in a moment of candor, Von Hippel said, that “I’ve discovered that I enjoy attacking my friends as much as my enemies.”
Cochran, a Navy veteran and Vanderbilt University-trained physicist, whose father sold General Electric generating equipment to utility companies after serving on the staff of Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II, became a thorn in the side of the U.S. nuclear industry in the early 1970s. That was when a Washington environmental research group, Resources for the Future, hired him to write a book on the consequences of expanding nuclear power.
He got sidetracked after stopping at the government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory during his honeymoon in 1971 to learn about the Nixon Administration’s Clinch River breeder reactor project. “If you were a nuclear engineer, and particularly in the very early period, you were excited,” he said. Atomic Energy Commission engineers figured they were “designing the Ferrari of the nuclear power industry,” capable of squeezing more energy from an atom than all its forebears.
“They just had this little problem,” Cochran said. “Plutonium.”
While researching his book, Cochran read Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards, a landmark study that still sits on a shelf of his compact, glass-walled office at NRDC’s Washington headquarters. Published in 1974, one year after Cochran moved to the NRDC, the book detailed the terrorist threat posed by the production and trade in plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. It was co-written by the physicist Theodore Taylor, a former Los Alamos nuclear weapons scientist who designed some of the most powerful and compact warheads in the nuclear arsenal, including one fitted to a Jeep-carried, tripod-mounted bazooka, called “the Davy Crockett.”
That same year, New Yorker writer John McPhee published a book about Taylor — The Curve of Binding Energy — in which the physicist detailed how shockingly easy it would be for terrorists to obtain the raw materials for a nuclear bomb.
So Cochran sought Taylor out, and the older physicist become something of a role model and mentor. Cochran’s own book, The Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor, published that same year, laid out the technical and financial case against plutonium, and argued that the Atomic Energy Commission had underestimated the long-term costs of developing, building and operating plutonium-fueled reactors.
It marked the beginning of an eight-year, unsuccessful NRDC campaign to deny a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, which was being built by a consortium of 753 utility companies and industrial giants like Westinghouse and General Electric. Cochran and other critics won only after the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island chilled the public’s interest in such projects and when federal budget officials determined the reactors’ high costs made them bad investments.
Over the course of the long struggle, Cochran frequently debated breeder advocates, among them Milton Shaw, a protégé of naval reactor guru Adm. Hyman Rickover who directed the AEC’s reactor research and development. In one meeting at Shaw’s office, Shaw pointed at a trunk and told Cochran, “See that box there? I’m going to bury you in that box.”
Shaw died in 2001, but Cochran has fought on for four decades, testifying before Congress, lecturing at universities, and appearing at debates nationwide. He often begins speeches by noting that it only takes a few pounds of plutonium to make a weapon; that the instructions for building a crude bomb are publicly available; and that the only thing standing between a determined terrorist and an improvised atomic explosive device is access to the bomb’s fuel.
Once a terror group acquires a modest amount of plutonium that could fit in an 8-ounce Coke can, Cochran said, it could easily move it across borders, despite hundreds of millions of dollars the United States has spent — or misspent — since 9/11 to build a global network of sensors and surveillance to detect it. The bomb itself, he says, could be built almost anywhere. And the most likely source of the critical ingredient, the plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, would be a large-scale production or storage facility — a facility like Rokkasho.
All but one of these big facilities are currently in states that already have nuclear weapons — states like Russia, France and the United Kingdom, which are accustomed to guarding nuclear explosive materials. Japan would be the only exception.
“Stealing a weapon is too hard,” Cochran said. “But there is no big risk in fuel assemblies, or in taking things from a bulk handling facility that can be used to make weapons.” In this view, Rokkasho is a kind of big-box store for would-be nuclear terrorists.
To be sure, some experts scoff at this scenario. “Reprocessing has been done safely and securely,” said Everett Redmond II, director of nonproliferation at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based trade group. “The French do it. The British did it. The Japanese I’m sure will do it.”
But Cochran believes massive facilities like Rokkasho are difficult to secure against malevolent insiders and armed attackers, no matter where they are located, how closely production is tracked or how many gates, guards and guns are deployed. The theft of small amounts of plutonium over months or years from any facility that processes thousands of tons of spent fuel annually is difficult to detect, he says. Stopping a stealth campaign by a high-ranking plant official to systematically siphon off materials could be impossible, he says.
Moreover, he contends, because of the sheer volume of international trade and shortcomings in sensor technology, nuclear explosives could not be readily detected in crossing international borders. So those stolen anywhere could theoretically wind up in a bomb in Detroit, Denver or New York.
Just a few pounds worth of plutonium?
There’s been a ghoulish debate between officials and independent scientists about how much plutonium is needed to fuel a clandestine bomb. But both agree it’s not much.
The U.S. bomb that destroyed half of Nagasaki in 1945 had 6.2 kilograms of plutonium in it, or 13.6 pounds. But experts say it was over-engineered — only one kilogram fissioned, they concluded later.
The International Atomic Energy Agency nonetheless decided years ago that eight kilograms of plutonium, or 17.6 pounds, are needed to make a bomb and so that’s the quantity its monitoring is geared to stop from getting loose.
Cochran and his NRDC colleague Christopher Paine challenged the IAEA standard in 1995 with a study concluding that only 3 kilograms — 6.6 pounds — would be needed to fashion a “very respectable” bomb with the explosive power of a kiloton, or 1,000 tons of TNT. But no matter who is right, Rokkasho’s annual plutonium production would be enough for 1,000 weapons or more.
To build an efficient plutonium bomb, the plutonium would have to be shaped into a sphere so it could be compressed with conventional explosives and rapidly reach critical mass, Cochran said. If the plutonium is crammed together too slowly, it becomes, according to an old weapons-designer joke, “fizzle” material instead of fissile material. It detonates prematurely, and only a tiny fraction is fissioned.
But a skilled, well-financed team could take a thermos-full, Cochran says, shape it into a hollow sphere about the size of a baseball or softball, pack it inside a sphere of explosives in a way that focuses the blast inward and turn it into a weapon that could produce a nuclear blast of one or two kilotons, equal to 1,000 or 2,000 tons of TNT.
“The technology needed to make a plutonium bomb is very old,” Cochran says. “This is not rocket science. So it’s within the capability of a team of people who had some sophistication.”
He paused. “This is why people worry about plutonium.”
A one-kiloton device exploded at ground level in a heavily populated area would be comparable in its effects to the Nagasaki bomb that exploded more than 1,500 feet in the sky, causing about 75,000 deaths and a similar number of injuries. A 2003 study by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn, a former White House adviser now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pegged the direct cost of damage from a 10-kiloton bomb at $1 trillion, along with incalculable political, economic, and social chaos.
The danger that plutonium harvested from the spent fuel of civilian reactors could be used to build nuclear weapons was dramatized in 1974. India used a reactor built by Canada under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program to produce plutonium that fueled the first nuclear explosive detonated by a country other than the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
The bomb was built from plutonium produced by India’s CIRUS — for “Canadian-Indian Reactor, U.S.” — at the Trombay nuclear complex north of the city now called Mumbai. CIRUS is a type of reactor that uses heavy water as a moderator and can run on natural rather than enriched uranium. The research reactor being built by Iran at Arak is also a heavy-water design.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter reacted by trying to discourage the development of civilian plutonium programs at home and abroad. Carter tried to stop Japan’s by withholding permission to use U.S.-supplied materials and technology for the effort. But Japan insisted on proceeding, and the White House settled for an agreement under which Japan would seek permission for each new batch it made.
Then, in 1982, President Reagan issued a secret National Security Decision Directive giving Japan “advance consent” to produce plutonium and trade it with European allies, as long as it met certain guidelines. And in 1987, Reagan went further, publicly granting Japan blanket approval essentially to make all the plutonium it wished, as part of a broader nuclear trade agreement. The groundwork for Rokkasho had thus been laid.
The Coke can experiment
In the abstract, there’s plenty of alarm in official circles. “Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city — be it New York or Moscow; Tokyo or Beijing; London or Paris — could kill hundreds of thousands of people,” President Barack Obama told the United Nations Security Council in September 2009. “And it would badly destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life.”
But Cochran has long criticized the effectiveness of one of Washington’s most costly and elaborate strategies to prevent such a catastrophe — a global effort to detect and capture illicit fissile materials at border crossings and major world ports.
Since 2003 the United States has spent more than $850 million on equipment and training for customs officials at 45 foreign ports so they can scan shipping containers to detect nuclear materials. It’s a daunting assignment. About 432 million shipping containers crisscrossed the oceans in 2009 alone. U.S. ports accept 15 million containers every year.
The initial goal of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration under the so-called Megaports program was to install equipment at more than 100 foreign ports by 2018 and train local officials to scan half of global traffic. But many countries with large stocks of nuclear explosive materials did not participate in the program, according to the NNSA, including France, India, Russia and Japan.
Some countries that installed the U.S. equipment — like Panama — later reported using it on a tiny fraction of their cargo. As of 2012, China had installed just a single monitor at one port, out of 12 Chinese ports given high priority rankings by Washington, according to a report that year by the Government Accountability Office.
The NNSA has never released data on what nuclear materials its foreign partners reported seizing, but intelligence officials have said the equipment has only flagged tons of mildly radioactive scrap metal, not the makings of potential bombs.
“The technologies used … may not be able to detect nuclear or other radiological material that has been shielded or masked, and terrorists could also bypass” it, the GAO report stated. It added that the Energy Department, which inherited some of the scanners as cast-offs from the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t adequately test them; instead, it changed the name of the hardware to “avoid the negative connotations associated with” its prior service.
At a Washington symposium last year meant to showcase some new technologies for portal monitoring, Cochran stood in the audience, cautioned the sponsor that they might want to turn off their video recorders, and then firmly tore apart the premise that such detection devices could play a useful role in protecting the country from nuclear terror.
“I wouldn’t put another penny” in such technologies, Cochran said, because “it won’t reduce the risk.” The billions already spent could better have been used for “intelligence, police work, locking up materials at the source,” or eliminating their production altogether. Millions of illegal immigrants “didn’t go through ports,” he said. And screening all rail cars and container ships would be impossibly costly.
Cochran says that border detection is a particularly futile exercise for enriched uranium. Radiation detectors would have to be placed on top of a container, he says, to register the kind of radiation given off by uranium. Plutonium is more difficult to shield, but it could still be done — perhaps by packing the plutonium in a light material, like a plastic containing many hydrogen atoms to absorb the neutrons that would set off a detector.
“The only way you can solve this problem is by securing the plutonium at the source,” or by not producing it in the first place, he said. “You can’t secure the border.”
Battered by persistently critical audits and by criticisms like Cochran’s, the Energy Department has slowly been shifting ground. In budget documents last year, DOE suspended installation of new scanning equipment at large container seaports pending a review on the cost and effectiveness of the program. The administration’s budget called for eliminating the $133 million program in fiscal 2014. Congress in January also capped spending on the Megaports program, providing enough funds to expand it only modestly.
While Cochran couches many of his arguments in the language of mathematics and physics, he has also sought to drive home his points with theatrics.
At the height of the 1970s battle over the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, he hit on an idea for demonstrating how easy it would be to smuggle the fuel needed for an atomic bomb past international borders.
So for $100, he purchased by mail from a Massachusetts lab supply company a 6.8 kilogram — 15 pound — cylinder of dense, heavy, depleted uranium, a mildly radioactive waste material from reactors that cannot be used to make a bomb. Fifteen pounds was the largest order allowed without a government license; the same quantity can still be purchased readily today. The cylinder had the same weight and a similar bulk as the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb.
Then, when he flew to lectures or meetings, Cochran wrapped the uranium in lead, stuck it in a length of yellow-painted pipe with a handle welded to it and carried it through airport security. After being stopped at an x-ray machine in one airport, he told the operator “it’s uranium, don’t worry about it. It’s okay.” She let him through and he carried it onto the plane.
On arrival at lecture halls, he would push his stand-in for plutonium into an empty Coke can he had sawn in half. During his talks, he would hold the can up so his audience could see it, and say the contents could incinerate a city. “A six-pack of these is a nuclear arsenal,” he would say.
During a 1995 Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing in the Capitol building about how easy it would be to smuggle plutonium out of Russia, Cochran produced his Coke can and waved a hand-held radiation detector over it to prove it was radioactive.
Six years later, after the 9/11 attacks, ABC News correspondent Brian Ross asked Cochran to borrow his Coke can, and wound up smuggling it from Vienna back to the United States, first by boarding a train through the Balkans and then by container ship out of Istanbul. The ship docked at a Staten Island facility where Customs officials said they had installed detectors capable of spotting radioactive materials.
“This is what they’re looking for or should be looking for and this is what they absolutely have to stop,” Cochran said on camera. But Customs inspectors never opened the ornamental Turkish chest the can was stored in, and it was later carried by truck to a warehouse at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, across from Manhattan.
U.S. Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told ABC that inspectors determined “that container did not pose a threat for having, let’s say, some sort of nuclear weapons grade material in it or a nuclear device.”
But Cochran said Customs could not have detected anything without opening the crate, and obviously missed it. “You can reliably detect most anything with sufficient money or time to do it, but you don’t have sufficient money or time to do it at a border,” he says. “So basically you can’t reliably detect it.”
After a second smuggling episode embarrassed the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, the department dispatched agents to the ABC News offices in Los Angeles, the home of a cameraman, and Cochran’s home in Alexandria, Va., where they blocked him from leaving to shop for groceries.
“Has any law been broken?” Cochran asked. An agent said she wanted to ask him some questions. Cochran said he would, but only in his office during the work week, and only with an NRDC lawyer present. The meeting never occurred and no charges were ever filed. But Homeland Security officials seized the depleted uranium.
Asked about the episode several months ago, Gillian M. Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, said she could not find any information about the investigation or the fate of the sample.
So ended the tale of the nuclear Coke can — at least for now. Cochran isn’t making any promises about the future. “I think it’s a more dangerous time [than] when Ted Taylor was making his case, and I began to make that case,” Cochran says. “It was difficult to point to active terrorist cells that were out there, poised to get this kind of material. And now we know they’re out there.”
Annoying? Perhaps. Persistent? For sure. But the way Cochran sees it, sometimes that’s what it takes.
If you want to see a media pundit rendered utterly speechless, reduced to babbling as he tries to justify his claim that Obamacare is leading the United States to third world status, you must watch Daily Show “correspondent” Aasif Mandvi’s Thursday night takedown of FOX Business commentator Todd Wilemon.
Unless you’ve been in a coma for the past five years, you undoubtedly have heard a steady steam of politicians who are not fans of President Obama or his health care law insist that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world, so why mess with it?
Mandvi’s segment began with clips of several members of Congress warning that the Affordable Care Act most certainly will bring an end to our global health care bragging rights.
It’s hard to imagine why Wilemon, who by day toils on Wall Street as managing director of the New York Stock Exchange, would agree to sit down with Mandvi with the cameras rolling. Maybe he thought that being on Fox for a dozen years was sufficient preparation for any kind of interview, even a fake one.
To prove the lie that the “best in the world” claim really is, Mandvi traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the University of Tennessee, my alma mater, and the headquarters of Remote Area Medical, an organization founded 30 years ago to fly American doctors to some of the poorest places on the planet.
Mandvi is shown in a helicopter with RAM founder Stan Brock early in the segment as they presumably are about to touch down in some distant, poverty-stricken village. It turns out, of course, that they’ve just been flying around East Tennessee.
When told by a RAM volunteer after they land that, “This is Knoxville, Tennessee, this is America,” Mandvi asks, in mock astonishment: “If this is America, what the hell is [RAM’s] Stan Brock doing here?”
The reason they’ve never left American soil, of course, is because millions of us have not been able to get the care we need because we can’t afford it. Millions of us can’t even afford health insurance. So Remote Area Medical’s help is needed not just in the Third World, but right here in the old USA as well.
Back in New York, Mandvi tells Wilemon that he has just returned from seeing hundreds of people waiting in long lines for hours to get care, to which Wilemon, assuming Mandvi has probably returned from Africa or some place like it, responds, “This is how bad it can get here.”
When Mandvi tells him that, “The place I’m talking about is Knoxville, Tennessee,” Wilemon has one of those moments you never, ever want to have on TV. He’s at a complete loss. Eventually he comes out with, “Yes, people do fall through the cracks.”
“Some pretty f**king big cracks,” Mandvi suggests.
Wilemon recovers enough to get out a couple of other familiar talking points.
“They’ve made that choice to go bare,” he said. That’s insurance industry talk for deciding not to buy coverage.
“People want a free lunch,” Wilemon goes on to say.
When Mandvi suggests that maybe many Americans are just too poor to get the care they need, Wilemon channels Marie Antoinette.
“I’ll be honest,” he says. “If you’re poor, stop being poor.”
Get a GED. And then get a job, he adds. This is what passes for probing commentary.
The segment was hilarious from start to finish. But as only satirical comedy can do, it laid bare, to use Wilemon’s word, the cognitive dissonance that afflicts so many of our politicians and pundits.
I used to hang out in Wilemon’s world, so I understand where he was coming from. When I was an insurance company executive, I spent quite a bit of time on Wall Street, including on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I made it a point of steering clear of places where Remote Area Medical now stages the vast majority of its medical “expeditions.” Toward the end of the Daily Show’s “report,” Brock told Mandvi that 90 percent of RAM’s work is actually now in the United States.
You can say, and even believe, that the U.S. has the best health care system in the world if, as I did for many years, you associate only with other folks who share the same world view as you do and if you watch, read and listen to the media that reinforce your preconceived notions.
Unlike Wilemon, though, I decided out of curiosity to go to a RAM expedition near where I grew up a few years ago. It was an experience that woke me up. If every politician and pundit would take the time to see what Brock and the hundreds of volunteers do in this country to help people who fall through the cracks, they could no longer believe the lies they tell themselves. Or the lies they tell the rest of us.
ROKKASHO, Japan — Sporting turquoise-striped walls and massive steel cooling towers, the new industrial complex rising from bluffs astride the Pacific Ocean here looks like it might produce consumer electronics or bath salts.
But in reality it is one of the world’s newest, largest, and most controversial production plants for a nuclear explosive.
The factory’s private owners said three months ago that after several decades of construction, it will be ready to open in October, as part of a government-supported effort to create special fuel for the country’s future nuclear power plants.
Japan’s leaders affirmed last month they intend to proceed with that effort, a decision that has stoked anxiety in East Asia and set off alarms among Western experts who worry about the spread of nuclear weapons technology — including some inside the Obama administration.
Once it is running, the plant will produce thousands of gallon-sized steel canisters containing a flour-like mixture of uranium and plutonium, enough in theory to provide the building blocks for a huge nuclear arsenal.
Publicly, the United States has said little about Japan’s plans to enlarge its already substantial hoard of plutonium. Washington formally granted Japan the unlimited right to use U.S. technology and nuclear feedstock for the plant during the Reagan administration. Now some of that materiel is to be returned, under a deal to be announced later this month at a U.S.-led international summit in the Netherlands promoting the security of nuclear materials that can be used as explosives.
It all sounds calm and cordial. But since Obama was first elected, Washington has been lobbying furiously behind the scenes, trying to persuade Japan that terrorists might regard Rokkasho’s new stockpile of plutonium as an irresistible target — and to convince Japanese officials they should better protect this dangerous raw material.
Specifically, U.S. officials have struggled, without success so far, to persuade Japan to create a more capable security force at the plant than the white-gloved, unarmed guards and small police unit stationed here now. They also have been trying to persuade the privacy-minded Japanese to undertake stringent background checks for the 2,400 workers employed here.
It’s been a hard sell for Washington, according to experts and officials in both countries familiar with the diplomatic dialogue. With U.S. prodding, Japan has gradually heightened security at Rokkasho and other nuclear sites, but officials in Washington say they remain worried that the improvements are too slow and incremental.
The dialogue highlights a vast gulf in the two countries’ security cultures. Japan has been far less ready than the United States to imagine and prepare for nuclear-related disasters; its federal agencies have deferred to state and utility officials on safety and security issues; and its political leaders have shown little interest in cooperating with U.S. and other Western experts to improve its standards.
Some Japanese officials have told their American counterparts that the homogenous, pacifist nature of their society makes nuclear conspiracies unlikely — a conclusion that U.S. officials and independent experts categorically reject. Other Japanese officials have insisted that in a nation where gun ownership is rare and privacy rights are zealously guarded, armed guards and background checks are unacceptable at even at the riskiest sites.
“It is a system that relies heavily on the expectation that everyone will do what they are expected to do,” said a senior Obama administration official, who asked not to be named while speaking about a sensitive diplomatic issue. As a result, “the stuff we would kind of expect to see” at a dangerous nuclear facility “is not there.”
A consortium of electric utilities, Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited, has spent 22 years building the plant, the cornerstone of a plan to build the world’s first energy system based on plutonium-powered, fast breeder reactors. (Breeder reactors — a technology considered and rejected in the United States more than 30 years ago — are so named because they can produce more plutonium than they consume.) Japanese consumers are paying the $22 billion bill for its construction through a surcharge on their electric bills.
When the Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center at Rokkasho is operating at full capacity, it’s supposed to produce eight metric tons of plutonium annually. That’s enough in theory for a country like Japan to make an estimated 2,600 nuclear weapons, each with the explosive force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
When the Rokkasho plant was conceived, Japan believed plutonium-burning reactors would make the island nation energy independent. The facility was embraced as a way to convert nuclear wastes into fuel on a crowded archipelago rocked by violent earthquakes, dotted with active volcanoes, and lashed by tsunamis and typhoons.
Critics of the plant point out, however, that Japan has no urgent need for a single kilogram of the plutonium the plant will produce.
Already, Japan has 9.3 metric tons of plutonium stored at Rokkasho and nine other sites in the island nation, along with around 35 tons of plutonium stored in France and the United Kingdom. Altogether, Japan has the fifth-largest plutonium stockpile of any nation, representing nine percent of the world’s stocks under civilian control.
Included in that figure is 331 kilograms — 730 pounds — of high-grade plutonium, the kind preferred by weapons designers, that Japan has agreed to send to the United States. It was sent there by the United States and Britain in the 1960s and 1970s to assist researchers.
Once Rokkasho opens, the size of this stockpile could easily double in five and a half years, because by the government’s own forecast Japan is at least 20 years from completing the first of the commercial reactors designed to burn the plutonium that Rokkasho will produce.
The Japanese government has a backup plan to burn a mixture of Rokkasho’s plutonium and uranium in a third of Japan’s 48 operable light-water power reactors. But after the tsunami-provoked nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011, all of those reactors have been closed. And if they are reopened, perhaps beginning later this year, the communities that host them may be wary of letting the reactors burn plutonium-laced fuel, Japanese political analysts say.
In its familiar dull-gray metallic form, a pound of dense plutonium takes up much less space than a pound of lead. A lump weighing a little more than six and a half pounds — enough to make a weapon — is the size of a grapefruit. The point, critics say, is that an eight-fluid-ounce thermos full of the metal in the wrong hands could produce a devastating terror attack.
Long resistance to U.S. pressure
After a U.S. embassy science officer witnessed a security drill in 2006 at the Mihama nuclear power plant along Japan’s northern shoreline, the officer sent a classified cable back to the State Department noting the typical police presence: “a lightly armored police vehicle with up to six police officers — some of them fast asleep.”
This sardonic observation, which appeared in a cable published in 2011 by Wikileaks, came after years of prodding by Washington for tougher security around Japan’s nuclear installations. The U.S. campaign was inspired partly by America’s discovery in 2002 that the 9/11 attackers had initially considered a plan to crash planes into U.S. nuclear power plants.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded by ordering U.S. plants to improve physical security, tighten access, improve guard training, and compose new emergency response plans. Security forces grew by 60 percent, to about 9,000 officers, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Washington also pressed others, including France, Britain, Russia, Japan and China, to take a similar get-tough approach.
But in Japan, at least, there was resistance.
Paul Dickman, a former Energy Department official and chief of staff to the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President George W. Bush, says that when he asked a Tokyo Electric Power Company official after 9/11 why the company hadn’t toughened security measures faster at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, the world’s largest nuclear power station, he was surprised by the reply.
“We are in the process of making those changes, but we don’t want to do them all at once because we don’t want people to think that we have been operating them unsafely in the past,” the official said, according to Dickman.
Kevin Maher, the chief science and technology officer at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo from 2001 to 2005, said that when he and White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend met there in 2005 with a senior official at Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, “We told him, ‘Your nuclear power plants are very good targets’ ” for terrorists and that security urgently needed to be tightened.
Maher cannot recall the official’s name but distinctly recalls the reply: The official said, “There is no threat from terrorists because guns are illegal in Japan.” Maher said Townsend turned to him and asked: “Is he joking?” The official’s view, he said, was widely shared inside the Japanese government.
“That’s what we were up against,” Maher said.
Townsend, in an interview, confirmed the account and said her impression was that “the Japanese thought of themselves as very much isolated from this particular threat, that it was an American concern that didn’t touch them.”
The Mihama drill, the first of its kind in Japan, included 2,000 participants, including local residents, industry officials, members of the Self-Defense Forces, and some police. But they followed a tightly-written script “with no surprises thrown in,” the U.S. science officer said, and the exercise lacked a simulated attack.
The motive for the drill, the diplomat wrote, was fear of a mortar attack against nuclear plants by North Korean saboteurs who could readily reach the Japanese coastline. But there was no “force-on-force” simulation like those routinely included in U.S. exercises. The diplomat concluded Mihama’s security system had shortcomings, noting that a local nuclear safety official admitted “that his office had no contact with the local police on plant security issues.”
Two years later, when U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Joseph Donovan expressed his own, broader concerns to two deputy safety directors at Japan’s Science and Technology Ministry, they responded that the contract guard forces at Japan’s nuclear facilities are “prevented by law from carrying weapons,” according to a confidential cable Donovan sent to Washington.
When he specifically challenged the absence of armed guards at a Japanese research center stocked with plutonium and weapons-grade uranium sent from the United States and Britain in the 1960s, the officials “responded that an assessment of local needs and resources had indicated that there was not a sufficient threat to justify armed police” there, according to the cable, also published by Wikileaks.
The deputies said further that background checks for plant workers were unconstitutional and that the government wanted “to avoid raising what is a deeply sensitive privacy issue for Japanese society.” But they also said some checks might be going on “unofficially.”
The situation has hardly improved since then, the senior Obama administration official said in a recent interview, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of such conversations. The devastating accident at Fukushima showed, he said, that police and lightly-armed Japanese Coast Guard forces play a secondary role in security and safety emergencies to private, unarmed security guards. The Japanese government, he said, is heavily dependent on what the utilities decide to do.
The official added that although Japan has recently staged counter-terror exercises at nuclear plants, including Rokkasho, and allowed some Americans to watch, “they remain very heavily scripted.” The aim is not to embarrass anyone. “There is great sensitivity to that,” the official said.
John Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2009, said Japan’s approach to nuclear security can be explained partly by its history. During the Second World War, the Imperial government’s huge domestic intelligence apparatus — including the notorious Military Police Corps — kept a close watch on all Japanese citizens.
“They didn’t want to return to the sort of police state they had during the war,” Schieffer said. Also, “the Japanese had a hard time in the beginning conceptualizing that somebody would want to do something in Japan that would result in a loss of life.”
Another former State Department official who served in Tokyo in the 2000s noted that “their view was that they had everything under control. They lived on an island. They had very few enemies. They were just looking at this from an entirely different perspective than us.”
A pacifist culture?
Since the 9/11 attack in the United States, every nuclear power station in the United States has been required to conduct mock “force-on-force” exercises involving a team of guards pitted against a team playing the role of terrorists. The attackers are assumed to be suicidal, highly trained, armed with explosives and automatic weapons and bent on causing the release of deadly fallout.
The Japanese conduct no such exercises, explaining that such an attack is improbable in their country.
Terrorists of course have used truck bombs to devastating effect in Grozny, Nairobi, Baghdad and Oklahoma City. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said 33 years ago that a large truck bomb directed against a nuclear reactor in an urban area could kill 130,000 people. The threat is one of just four specifically mentioned — along with boat bombs, insider thefts and cyber-attacks — by the NRC’s director of preparedness and response, in an Aug. 2013 posting about security issues raised by the Fukushima accident.
Assaults on nuclear facilities are rare, but not unknown. According to a 2013 report by Alan Kuperman, a proliferation expert at the University of Texas-Austin, intruders have attempted to gain access to or blow up reactors or other nuclear facilities in Russia, South Africa, Lithuania, South Korea and elsewhere.
Matt Bunn, a former White House official now at Harvard University, said it’s unrealistic to believe that a terror attack in Japan is improbable or unlikely to succeed.
In Sweden, another country that sees itself as relatively nonviolent, Bunn noted, a gang with Serbian connections in 2009 flew a stolen helicopter to raid a cash depot for restocking ATMs, blasting down doors with explosives to steal $5.3 million. “Just because you’re a very safe country doesn’t mean bad guys [connected to]…other countries won’t come and take your nuclear stuff,” Bunn said.
Japanese Red Army hijackers commandeered several Japanese airliners in the 1970s, and three of its members staged an attack at Tel Aviv’s Lod Airport that killed 26 people in 1972. Militant members of Chukaku-ha — which means “Middle Core Faction” — used a flame thrower to set fire to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Tokyo headquarters in 1984. They fired mortars at Tokyo’s Haneda airport a year later and launched home-made missiles against the Imperial Palace and U.S. Embassy during a meeting of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations in 1997.
The gnomic guru of Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, former street-corner preacher Shoko Asahara, was obsessed with acquiring an atomic weapon, and his followers traveled to Russia to buy them and recruit former Soviet weapons scientists. Investigators have reported that the group was prepared to pay as much as $15 million for a warhead. In 1993, the group bought a half-a-million-acre sheep ranch in Australia, where 25 of Asahara’s followers tried to mine uranium to fuel a bomb.
When those schemes failed, Asahara turned to home-brewed biological and chemical weapons, ultimately ordering a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 13 people and injured 6,000 others. He is currently in prison awaiting execution.
Even after the arrest of its leadership, remnants of Aum studied Japan’s nuclear industry. Tokyo police in March 2000 said Aum-affiliated hackers had obtained schedules of nuclear fuel deliveries, studied the cooling system at Japan’s plutonium-fueled Monju prototype fast breeder reactor, and built dossiers on 75 Japanese researchers doing nuclear-related work.
A July 2011 report by Richard Danzig, former Navy secretary and a current member of President Obama’s four-member Intelligence Advisory Board, found that “police pursuit of Aum was remarkably lax.” The cult was shielded from close scrutiny by Japanese privacy and religious-freedom protections, as well as a conviction by authorities that it was a collection of harmless cranks.
Terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was captured in May 2003, told interrogators that he had tried to recruit hijackers to seize an airliner at Tokyo’s Narita airport and crash it into the U.S. Embassy in the center of the crowded city. Because of restrictions on sharing classified information with Japan, Schieffer said, he wasn’t able to tell Japanese officials that Tokyo had been a target of Al Qaeda for years, until Mohammed’s confession became public in March 2007.
“It upset the Japanese greatly when they found out about it,” he said.
For years, however, Japan resisted taking steps that would have made it possible to share classified information with the United States about nuclear threats, partly out of concern that doing so might weaken public support for nuclear power, according to another U.S. diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
Yasuyoshi Komizo, a nonproliferation official in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 the government worried that “if, for example, the information sharing concerned potential insider threats, that could be interpreted as suggesting that some segment of the Japanese population was a problem,” the cable quoted him as saying.
A law giving the government sweeping powers to classify information was passed at the insistence of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December last year. But it hasn’t quelled U.S. concerns.
For a decade the United States has urged Japan “in a friendly way, in a nonthreatening way, to elevate their understanding of the threat,” said the senior Obama administration official. “Do they have the weapons and defensive systems that we have at nuclear facilities? Almost certainly not,” the official said. Instead, Japan has treated the security of their nuclear facilities — all of them civilian — as more of a law-enforcement task than a quasi-military mission.
“History so far hasn’t proven them wrong,” the official said. “But you have to ask, what level of risk are you willing to accept?” The closer Rokkasho is opening, the more urgent the question becomes.
A prime tourist destination
Roughly 100,000 Japanese a year come to the olive-green, futuristic visitors center on a hillside overlooking the country’s new plutonium production plant, just one part of a massive nuclear tourist trade nurtured by the government and industry to assure Japanese the technology is safe. There, visitors gaze down from a second-floor window at a vast fairy-tale city, a nuclear Oz rising from the Pacific headlands, with towers that resemble minarets and 20 or so turquoise-striped, steel-sided structures that look like children’s building blocks.
The plant, spread over a square mile of scraped earth at the edge of the ocean, is entered at a gate guarded by an elderly man with a blue uniform and gloves, who bows as he accepts passports from visitors. Stark and surprisingly barren during a twisting van ride late last year along its broad asphalt roads, the facility is surrounded by a maze of fences and multiple layers of electronic security, including what its officials said were up to three rings of intrusion detectors. A small contingent of armed police is stationed in an office within the outer gates of the huge complex, but none are within the plutonium processing facility.
At the entrance to each building where radioactive materials are kept, unarmed guards issue badges and direct visitors through radiation sensors. If the guards and the police are outmanned or outgunned, plant officials said, they can summon other forces from elsewhere, officials said. But the first line of defense is the unarmed security force.
Nuclear engineer Tomonori Iwamoto, who worked as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq and serves as director of Rokkasho’s Nuclear Security and Safeguards Division, said while escorting two reporters around the facility that the most sensitive structures have thickly-reinforced concrete roofs to protect them against an attack from the sky. A nearby United States Air Force base, at Misawa, has a Patriot anti-missile battery, he noted.
But the perimeter control system hasn’t always worked as designed. A Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. internal report details an Aug. 7, 2009, incident in which security guards allowed a group of construction workers to enter a storage facility for lethally radioactive, high-level wastes, without proper authorization. There were two prosaic problems, according to the report, which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. One was “a lot of debating and chatter” at the guard’s desk as the workers waited to enter; another was a failure of the plant’s computer system for checking IDs that day.
Plant critics have noted that a similar perimeter security system did not work at the Fukushima complex in March 2011, when a political activist crashed a truck fitted with a loudspeaker through a gate and stopped within 100 feet of one of the shuttered reactors there. He wasn’t arrested until the next day. Police did the only thing they could do under Japanese law: They charged him with trespass, a lesser allegation than Americans could make in a similar circumstance.
At Rokkasho, parts of the plant are already highly radioactive and formally off-limits due to its production of 4.3 tons of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel in test runs that began in 2006. Iwamoto led visitors through a five-inch thick, remotely controlled steel door to an observation area above the control room where, during operations, about 80 employees work. The observation deck and control room are separated by bulletproof glass.
When production is in full swing, ships carry huge cylinder-shaped, radiation-shielded shipping containers or “casks” to Rokkasho’s seaport. From there, special squat blue trucks trundle the casks — each carrying 13-foot high bundles of fuel rods composed of irradiated uranium pellets — up to the plant along a two-mile, restricted road. The casks are unloaded automatically in a warehouse-sized storage facility and lifted into 39-foot-deep cooling ponds. Remotely operated machines open them underwater.
The spent fuel is kept immersed until it is processed, to blunt its intense radiation, which for the first 100 years can kill outright about half of adults foolish enough to loiter nearby for more than three or four hours. A robotic crane removes the bundles from the pool and feeds them into a huge wedge-shaped device that slides back and forth like a deli slicer, carving thin layers off the ends.
The metal chips are funneled into a vat of nitric acid where the chips are dissolved into a lethal broth containing about 96 percent uranium and one percent plutonium, plus dozens of other highly radioactive elements.
Pumps push the heavy liquid through vertical tanks, where the plutonium and uranium are separated through a series of chemical treatments. The cocktail of high-level liquid waste, which can reach temperatures over 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit, is siphoned off into a large, refrigerated underground tank, where it will later be mixed with molten glass and formed into log-shaped cylinders for storage.
Finally, some of the uranium is remixed with equal parts plutonium and the compound is dried to form a yellow-green oxide the consistency of flour. The purpose of creating the mixture is to ensure that the plutonium can’t be directly used to build a bomb.
The problem is that plutonium has some unsettling properties: It tends to smear, smudge and creep into crevices, where it sticks like lampblack. When chopped up, grains can slip into cracks and corners. When dissolved in acid, it can coat pipes or cling to chemical wastes. Small amounts can stick to scrap metal when equipment is replaced.
That’s why experts say the International Atomic Energy Agency will be able to track only 99 percent of the plutonium as it moves through the plant, even with a comprehensive monitoring plan based in part on a computerized, three-dimensional map derived from laser range finding. “That’s the best we can do with measurement,” said Shirley Johnson, a chemist and retired IAEA safeguards inspector, who has worked at Rokkasho.
While 99 percent might sound good, the plant’s annual output will be so high that a one-percent error rate means roughly eighty kilograms of plutonium a year could be untraceable — enough for 26 bombs. Critics worry as a result that the large uncertainties will open the door to diversion attempts by insiders.
Asked for comment, Gill Tudor, an IAEA spokeswoman in Vienna, did not dispute the one percent error estimate, which experts say is standard for all such large plants. But she said “nuclear material accountancy is only one of the safeguards measures” that will be applied to Rokkasho, and that the agency will for example also make random, short-notice visits to monitor the plant’s operation. She added that all the measures “provide assurance that all nuclear material remains in peaceful purposes at the Rokkasho plant.”
The plants operators say that many of the operations will be done robotically or by remote control, and under the gaze of 65 overhead and underwater video cameras watched at IAEA headquarters in Vienna. To guard against sabotage, Iwamoto said that the plant was preparing to institute a rule requiring two persons to participate in the most sensitive operations.
But none of the workers have been subjected to formal background checks like those required for anyone given access to secure areas at U.S. nuclear plants, including part-time workers. Those checks typically involve verification of a worker’s identity, confirmation of past employment, a search of FBI records based on fingerprints, a drug test, a credit check and reports from references.
Employers in Japan, in contrast, are barred from accessing government records to verify whatever workers claim, and part-time contractors are often not vetted at all.
As the tour ended, Kaoru Yoshida, the silver-haired director of media relations for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the utility that will operate the plant, invited a journalist to sit with him in a small café at the plant so he could quell anxieties by setting the record straight. He is well-known to Japanese media as the combative chief spokesman for the Tokyo Electric Power Company during the early months of the Fukushima crisis.
The Rokkasho plant, Yoshida said, was built strictly as part of Japan’s civilian energy program, not to serve any potential nuclear arms program. Nor, he said, was there any chance that workers at the plant would try to pilfer any plutonium. “We think we have a 100 percent guarantee that the people working here would not do that,” he said.
As for terrorism, he said, why would militants target the plant? Rokkasho’s mixture of plutonium and waste uranium can’t be used to make a bomb. “Because the plutonium is mixed already with uranium, because of the security level that we have here, we don’t have plutonium itself,” he said. “It doesn’t exist here.”
But independent experts say mixing the two nuclear materials does little to reduce the plutonium oxide’s potential to become a bomb fuel.
Paul Dickman, the former NRC official, is a chemist and a policy fellow at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, the premier center for U.S. research into fast breeder reactors. He said the only difference between uranium-plutonium oxide and the pure metallic plutonium preferred by bomb-builders “is a chemist.” Extracting the plutonium from the mixture would not be difficult, he said. “It doesn’t take much to do the separation.”
A difference of opinion inside Japan
Nobumasa Sugimoto, director of nuclear security at the government’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority— a group established in part to implement tougher rules in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster — offered a less sanguine view than Yoshida of the risks at Rokkasho.
Speaking about potential terror attacks on nuclear facilities, Sugimoto said “we believe that these incidents could occur at any time.” He spoke while surrounded by boxes and little furniture at the authority’s Tokyo office, a year after its creation.
He said that his new group is particularly concerned about reports that companies with links to organized crime are providing services to the nuclear industry. Hundreds of subcontractors, for example, are working on the government-sponsored cleanup of radioactive fallout in the zone around the devastated Fukushima reactors. Police say some are linked to the yakuza, tattooed mobsters who operate in a kind of twilight zone, engaging in legitimate businesses as well as loan-sharking, extortion and other crimes.
The authority is concerned, Sugimoto said, that if yakuza-connected workers are given sensitive jobs, they could be bribed into conspiring with terrorists to steal materials or mount an attack. “Basically, they are criminals, and they would do anything for money,” he said. A senior official at the National Police Agency, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive government information, confirmed that the yakuza have been involved in nuclear site operations.
The regulatory group’s experts will publish a report later this spring recommending tighter security measures, including some form of background checks for workers, he said. He called these regulations “one thing we definitely lack.”
But he added that there is little chance of arming the private security guards at Rokkasho or other nuclear plants. “It’s a very strong and deeply cultural way of thinking, and therefore civilians, although they are security guards, are requested to do their jobs unarmed,” he said. “If arms would be given to security guards, there would be a huge national debate.”
What if unarmed guards like those at Rokkasho were confronted by armed terrorists? Sugimoto said they are trained to call the police. “The security guards are expected to withdraw for their lives if there is a lethal threat,” he said, echoing remarks made by other Japanese officials to U.S. officials, who recall being astonished.
Japan’s prime minister during the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Naoto Kan, said in an interview with the Center at his parliamentary office that he worries that Japan’s government and industry are still committed to propping up the plutonium program, despite what he now claims are some obvious reasons to cancel it.
Kan, a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, is one of several ex-premiers urging the conservative Abe government to reconsider its commitment to nuclear power — so far without success. Before the disaster, Kan said, he had debriefed some officials with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency who had traveled to the U.S. to discuss the terror threat to nuclear plants. NISA, since abolished, was part of the powerful, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, a bastion of support for the nuclear industry.
Kan said the NISA officials returned from their trip unimpressed, telling him they concluded that “America might be under terrorist attacks, but Japan is very unlikely to be so.” Therefore, Kan said, NISA felt it wasn’t necessary to take the threat of terror attacks on nuclear facilities seriously.
He said this attitude was widely shared in industry and government. “Japan simply didn’t consider terrorism a possibility here,” he said, and as a result “Japan almost entirely ignored the advice” of the United States after 9/11.
“And you may ask whether Japan is prepared for such threats. Well, the answer is that it isn’t prepared for such attacks.”
Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article.
TOKAI, Japan — Wedged in a corner of a pine-scented, campus-like research center here is the so-called Fast Critical Assembly, which — except for a squat reactor containment dome — looks more like a suburban elementary school than a nuclear laboratory handling some of the world’s most dangerous materials.
About a dozen researchers work at the FCA, which began operations in 1967. They study plutonium and weapons-grade uranium, the principal building blocks of nuclear arms, to design fuel for Japan’s future breeder reactors, a key to the country’s ambition to increase its energy independence.
But their work will soon be altered, because Japan — after years of resistance — has finally agreed to return its stock of plutonium at the FCA to the United States, in the form of 5,451 square metal wafers, according to officials in both countries. The agreement is to be announced at a U.S.-led international summit to promote the security of such fissile materials, beginning March 24 in the Netherlands.
The Obama administration will hail the deal as a crucial step in its global campaign to ensure that terrorists cannot obtain such explosive materials, authorities say. U.S. officials say they have been worried the materials here have been casually guarded, and are concerned that that there is no federal standard requiring workers at such plants to be subjected to formal, detailed background checks like those for nuclear workers in the United States.
Some nonproliferation experts say the withdrawal of the explosives from Japan, while a step in the right direction, represents little more than window dressing, however, since the country has 9.3 metric tons of additional plutonium stored at other locations domestically and plans to start producing more at its new Rokkasho factory later this year.
“The first place the Japanese would go if they wanted to make nuclear weapons would be to [this] stockpile, because it’s the best plutonium they have for making weapons,” said Thomas Cochran, a Natural Resources Defense Council physicist who has spent much of his career opposing breeder reactor programs like Japan’s. “But they have plenty of other plutonium. If they wanted nuclear weapons, this [shipment] wouldn’t reduce the risk of [their] acquiring them.”
Nor would the return of the materials, by itself, reduce the risk of terrorists stealing similar materials stored elsewhere in Japan, including at Rokkasho, Cochran said.
About 50 researchers and staff presently work at the research facility here, formally known as the Tokai Research and Development Center and located about 70 miles north of Tokyo. It includes a storage building holding a total of 730 pounds of plutonium and 660 pounds of weapons grade uranium. More than 90 percent of the plutonium is the isotope plutonium-239, the kind favored by professional nuclear weapons designers.
Both the plutonium and the weapons grade uranium were provided by the United States and Britain to Japan’s civil nuclear program starting in the 1960s. And the Obama administration has been asking for the materials since before the president convened the first international Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, partly because U.S. officials were alarmed by how casually the explosives have been protected there.
The stocks of both explosive materials here could provide sufficient fuel for roughly 375 bombs with the explosive force of 20 kilotons, or 20,000 tons of TNT. That was the power of the bomb that exploded over Nagasaki in 1945.
Like the security guards stationed at most Japanese nuclear facilities, none at the Fast Critical Assembly facility are armed, although local police are stationed nearby in the larger research campus. Japanese officials have acknowledged to visiting Westerners that if the guards ever faced attacking terrorists, their instructions are to flee.
To U.S. officials, this approach is almost unthinkable — as if the U.S. had decided it couldn’t or wouldn’t post armed guards with security clearances at the sites in Texas, New Mexico, and California where most of its bomb fuels are stored.
With the encouragement of the United States, Japan since 1978 has shut down a few research reactors that used such risky fissile fuels, sometimes converting them to use low-enriched uranium. But Japanese officials have until now resisted relinquishing the fuel at the Tokai facility, the largest research center of its kind in the world, because it will be difficult to replace.
Tsuyoshi Yamane, a silver-haired senior engineer at the site, told the Center for Public Integrity during a visit in November that there has been increasing “pressure imposed” by the international community, including the United States, for Tokai to halt its work with nuclear explosives.
He acknowledged that the facility is “very, very old” and that a room adjacent to the reactor in which fuel is assembled had cracked during the March 2011 earthquake. “Luckily, that was a day when there was no actual test or experimenting,” he said.
But Yamane said then that the fuel development done at Tokai could not be conducted using other, less dangerous materials. “The research groups who work here have said they need to use the system as it is, in order to carry out experiments and tests,” he said.
Two-thirds of that research, he said, is aimed at designing the most efficient fuels for fast breeders, a type of reactor that both consumes and produces plutonium. The United States, France and Britain all launched commercial fast breeder programs, only to abandon them in the 1980s and 1990s. Only Japan, Russia and India are still developing fast breeder reactors.
A Japanese official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said a key issue in recent negotiations with Washington over the materials’ return was whether alternate fuels might be used for research at Tokai, possibly with U.S. or British help.
During a recent visit, Yamane led his entourage down a corridor lined with dingy beige walls, with linoleum peeling off floors beneath fluorescent lights. After the visitors picked up dosimeter badges and put on white overalls, slippers, and hats, they moved through an airlock into the reactor workroom. A construction crew and foreman were working inside the room, repairing the building and replacing an overhead crane. One worker was seen carrying a heavy tool bag through the main airlock without any escort.
Under current Japanese practices, these subsidiary workers also are not subjected to detailed background checks.
The Fast Critical Assembly at present consists of two steel honeycombs, about eight feet high and eight feet wide, facing one another. To conduct the fuel studies, wafers of plutonium or uranium 2 inches by 2 inches or 1½ inches by 1½ inches are assembled by hand in trays resembling those that hold library catalogue cards and inserted into the cells. The low-power reactor goes critical — the nuclear chain reaction begins — when the two sides of the apparatus are pushed together.
The direct involvement of the researchers in manipulating the disks greatly increases the risk of theft or diversion, according to U.S. experts who have visited the plant.
No diversion has ever been documented. But another facility at the Tokai research center — the Plutonium Fuel Production Facility — has acknowledged difficulties in keeping track of its plutonium. It opened in October 1988 to develop fuels for a small experimental breeder reactor. But by 1994 about 152 pounds of plutonium — enough for about 23 bombs — was missing, a fact first reported by the late Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute of Washington.
As a result, the International Atomic Energy Agency asked Tokai’s operators to shut down the fuel plant, cut up the equipment and measure the plutonium stuck inside it. Officials spent two years and $100 million on the effort, and whittled the “missing” plutonium down to about 22 pounds — still about three bombs’ worth. That was the best they said they could do.
Jonathan Lalley, assistant press secretary for national security at the White House, said return of the plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly was the subject of an “ongoing negotiation.” But other informed sources in both countries said the deal was done.
Debt collectors are targeting members of the Armed Services by calling their superior officers, threatening reduction in rank and even courts-martial, despite stepped-up efforts to protect them from abuse, according to a government report issued last week.
“I have heard in my many visits to military installations across the country about aggressive and deceptive tactics by debt collectors specifically targeting members of the military,” said Holly Petraeus, assistant director for service member affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Petraeus, in a letter accompanying the report, said the “sheer volume of debt collection complaints alone” makes the issue important to her office.
While all Americans are covered by laws barring debt collectors from overly aggressive or deceptive tactics, military members and their families are supposed to receive additional consideration, including protection from foreclosure while deployed, tricky high-rate loans and other financial pitfalls.
That’s because they face particular financial challenges: they relocate frequently, deploy overseas and often are targeted by scammers promoting rip-off deals, officials and advocates say.
Yet military members routinely are denied their additional legal protections, Petraeus’ office found.
Among those protections, it is illegal to foreclose on deployed military personnel, or to charge service members interest rates above 36 percent on high-cost loans including payday loans, car title loans and tax refund advance loans.
The rules aim to prevent service members from being hurt financially because of their decision to serve.
Under a law called the Service Members Civil Relief Act, people entering active duty can have interest rates on credit cards, student loans and mortgages reduced to 6 percent. They can cancel auto leases without incurring penalties, put mortgage payments on hold temporarily and have extra tools to prevent foreclosure while they are deployed.
Federal law enforcement authorities have pursued several big-name violators of these laws in recent years. Bank of America is paying out $37 million to people who were foreclosed on illegally under a 2011 agreement with the Justice Department. In 2012, Capital One Financial Corp. agreed to pay $12 million to settle a DOJ lawsuit involving similar alleged violations.
The new CFPB report noted that the agency has recovered more than $1 million for veterans and service members who were mistreated by mortgage companies, debt collectors and payday lenders. Yet it said companies continue to violate the SCRA and other protections against financial abuse.
The crackdown is being coordinated by the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, a group set up initially to go after the perpetrators of the financial crisis. The task force separately has been scrutinizing banks that help fraudulent businesses debit people’s accounts illegally, the Center reported last year.
The new details come from the CFPB’s second summary report on complaints filed by military consumers from every state, rank and branch of the Armed Services. The new data were culled from 14,100 complaints submitted by military families through the agency’s consumer complaint portal, Petraeus said.
Small Smiles, which has been under federal scrutiny for years for performing unnecessary dental treatments on children, could be barred from the Medicaid program beginning next month.
The inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services notified the chain last week that after years of monitoring, the company remains out of compliance with the terms of a 2010 settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit brought by the Justice Department.
The decision affects one of the nation’s largest dental chains, with clinics in 20 states. It could force thousands of children in low-income families to find a new dentist willing to treat them.
Small Smiles will be excluded from the Medicaid program in early April unless it appeals the decision. The owner of the company could not be reached for comment Monday.
The settlement of the Justice Department lawsuit required Small Smiles to refund $24 million to the Medicaid program for performing unnecessary treatments on children and to submit to independent monitoring to assure the problems are fixed. Last week’s letter cited a series of ongoing quality and reporting problems at Small Smiles clinics.
Small Smiles was first accused of paying dentists bonuses to hit production targets in a 2007 television news report. The Center for Public Integrity and PBS Frontline exposed similar practices at another chain, Kool Smiles, in a 2012 report titled “Dollars and Dentists.”
Small Smiles’s owner eventually sold its assets in May 2012 to a venture capital firm in Nashville called CSHM LLC.
The new owners say that problems found in 20 reports done by independent monitors mostly occurred under the previous owners. The five reports done while CSHM was in control were all done within the first five months of the sale, CSHM said in a statement.
“The new team immediately initiated an aggressive turnaround effort premised on patient care, clinic excellence and regulatory compliance,” the company said.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, praised the inspector general’s decision. Last year, Grassley encouraged the inspector general to cut Small Smiles out of the Medicaid program after a yearlong investigation by his staff. A report from that investigation said that some dental chains are run by corporate investors who place “profits above patient care.”
“Our oversight found that when states can’t hold owners accountable, then clinics are more likely to fail to meet standards that protect the children who should be helped,” Grassley said. “The actions of some dental practices strained the Medicaid program and put low-income children in traumatic, highly questionable situations.”
Virginia lawmakers have moved to strengthen the state’s modest ethics laws, approving reform legislation that seeks to reign in excessive gifts to public officials. Even before the bill passed, however, critics had already begun deriding the effort as little more than a gesture, and it remains unclear whether new Gov. Terry McAuliffe will sign the measure in its existing form.
Virginia has among the least restrictive ethics laws in the nation, and the issue has become front-page news in the Old Dominion. The state received a grade of F from the State Integrity Investigation, a 2012 survey of ethics and transparency laws carried out by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. And the legislature had come under intense public pressure to strengthen those laws after news broke last year that former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his family had received at least $165,000 in gifts — most of which were not disclosed — from a political supporter.
The bill, which was passed on Saturday, puts an annual limit of $250 on gifts from lobbyists and people seeking business with the state to lawmakers and other public officials. But that cap does not apply to gifts of travel, meals, entertainment or other events, which make up the majority of the largess that lobbyists bestow on lawmakers.
State Sen. John S. Edwards, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which was in charge of the legislation, acknowledged the reforms do not go as far as he would have liked — but asserted that the effort represented at least a first step. “We needed to do something,” he said. “This was something.”
Many others have not been so generous. “The bill is so slack it would be disingenuous to refer to it as ‘reform,’” the Washington Post wrote in a February editorial before the bill’s final passage. “In fact, it would do practically nothing to stanch the cascade of freebies to which Richmond’s high and mighty evidently feel entitled.”
Other newspaper editorials have called the effort “shoddy” and “falling short,” and the reforms may end up having little effect on the number or size of gifts given to politicians, said Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, a liberal watchdog group. “The final version is a pretty useless law,” Scholl said. “It’s just not going to do very much.”
An analysis by ProgressVA showed that the law would not have prevented any of the 756 gifts received by lawmakers in 2012, for example. Only 18 of those were so-called “tangible” gifts — that is, not travel or other events which largely escape coverage under the new bill — the analysis found. And while eight of the tangible gifts were worth more than $250, none of them came from registered lobbyists and so would likely have been allowed under the new law.
It’s also unclear whether the new legislation would have prevented any of the gifts received by McDonnell, since Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the executive who gave them, was not registered as a lobbyist. The scandal erupted when the Post reported that Williams had paid for the $15,000 catering bill at McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding. McDonnell did not disclose the gift, arguing later that it was for his daughter. Subsequent reports revealed many other undisclosed gifts that Williams gave to McDonnell and his wife. The new law will require public officials to disclose gifts to their immediate family, but that will not include grown children who do not live at home.
In February, federal authorities charged McDonnell and his wife with illegally accepting gifts. The pair has pleaded not guilty and the trial is set to begin in July. It remains unclear whether the couple violated any state ethics laws.
The legislation also creates an ethics advisory council, made up of appointees of the governor and the legislature, which will review — and, for the first time, post online — public officials’ financial disclosure forms. The council will be able to issue opinions but will not have any enforcement powers. The bill creates several new requirements for those disclosure forms.
“The most important thing is reporting,” Edwards said. “If people know who’s giving you money and it’s reported, then the public is entitled to elect who they want to elect.”
The bill now awaits action by McAuliffe, who has not said what he plans to do. In addition to signing or vetoing the legislation, McAuliffe could choose to amend the measure, which would require another vote from the legislature.
A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return a call requesting a comment.
On his first day in office, in January, McAuliffe issued an executive order that put a $100 limit on gifts to most executive branch employees. At the time, he called on lawmakers to pass “the strongest possible new ethics rules to hold all Virginia elected officials to the highest of standards.”
Leaders on two U.S. House committees acknowledge that parallel investigations into computer security and staffing breakdowns at the Federal Election Commission aren't living up to their initial billings.
Such apparent lack of action comes at a critical time for the FEC, which this month warned Congress of threats to its computer networks that have "increased dramatically," and of staff vacancies across the agency that "have begun to affect negatively the FEC’s ability to provide public services."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Operations Subcommittee that oversees federal IT matters, in January promised to "conduct a full and thorough review of the vulnerabilities of FEC systems which should raise concerns for all federal elected officials."
That hasn't yet occurred.
“We have been diverted with several pending crisis [sic] but are having staff review the FEC data breach," Mica wrote in an email. "We will keep you posted.”
Mica did not elaborate on what the pending crises are. Brian D. Waldrip, Mica's legislative director, said he didn't have additional information.
Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., the ranking member on the Committee on House Administration, which has FEC oversight powers, in January called on his committee to conduct a hearing on the FEC that he considered "long overdue."
He's still waiting.
"I certainly believe that we should have held multiple hearings on the FEC by now," Brady said in an email. "Between new commissioners, a security breach and ongoing gridlock, the committee should be playing a more active role in the oversight of the agency."
Brady's office had no comment on whether the committee's chairman, Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., is refusing to schedule a hearing, as is her prerogative.
So: Is Miller the cause of the delay?
"Our committee and staff are in constant contact with the FEC, and Chairman Miller had met with [former FEC Chairman] Ellen Weintraub in her office last year discussing various FEC issues," Miller spokeswoman Erin Sayago said in a statement. "A hearing always remains a possibility."
Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which among upper chamber committees has FEC oversight responsibilities, is also showing little outward appetite for addressing the agency's problems.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has declined through staff several requests for comment since January.
Committee member Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, shrugged when asked recently if the committee plans to conduct an oversight hearing on the FEC or otherwise publicly address the agency.
"You'll have to ask the chairman," King said.
Alec Palmer, who doubles as the FEC's staff director and information technology director, did visit Capitol Hill in January to speak with congressional staffers about his agency's troubles.
But current FEC Chairman Lee Goodman, a Republican, confirmed Monday that he has not personally met with congressional leaders about the FEC's problems since taking the agency's gavel in January. Vice Chairman Ann Ravel, a Democrat, also said congressional leaders have yet to meet with her.
Appointed in September, both Goodman and Ravel officially joined the FEC in late October, days after Chinese hackers breached the agency's computer network and IT defenses.
They frequently disagree on philosophical and legal issues before the FEC, such as political spending disclosure. That's nothing new for the bipartisan agency, which last year logged record-level gridlock on high-profile issues before the six-member commission.
Goodman and Ravel have, however, united around the issue of bolstering their agency's staffing and security resources, and they have restored a measure of civility to commission proceedings after a notoriouslyturbulent 2013.
Not that the White House is particularly impressed. It, like Schumer's committee, has largely been silent on the FEC's woes.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 federal government budget proposal recommended $67.5 million for the FEC — $500,000 less than the FEC had requested in September.
The White House's proposed allotment was a slight increase compared to the FEC's current budget of $65.8 million, which is itself below the agency's funding level from four years ago.
Yet the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal was short of the millions of new dollars that'd be required to quickly — and all at once — fill dozens of FEC staff positions either cut or left vacant in recent years, erase a campaign finance report processing backlog 2 million pages thick and address numerous computer and IT needs.
On Friday, the FEC submitted a budget request to Congress that mirrored the White House's proposed funding level, with Ravel, the vice chairman, noting that the agency didn't want to "overreach" in its recommendation. The FEC's request asked for about $1.5 million in funds dedicated to enhancing the agency's computer and IT systems.
"The FEC’s budget reflects the priorities it has identified," Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Emily Cain said when asked whether the White House believes the FEC, as it contends, remains at risk to computer hackers and is understaffed in various departments.
Letting the FEC languish, or attempt to fix its problems by itself without intervention, shouldn't be an option, insisted Brady, the congressman from Pennsylvania.
"The FEC has stated plans to improve their operations and IT security, but we have not had the appropriate opportunity to question the commissioners on their progress in a public forum," he argued. "This is vital to ensuring the efficacy of the agency and must be a priority."
Republican David Jolly tonight narrowly won Florida’s contentious 13th Congressional District election that attracted an astonishing $12.7 million as national partisans fought for bragging rights heading into November’s midterm election.
Outside groups spent nearly $5 million on Jolly's behalf, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of FEC records, including the National Republican Congressional Committee ($2.2 million), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($1.2 million), the American Action Network ($470,000) and American Crossroads ($470,000).
Outside allies — including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Majority PAC — also sprung to vanquished Democrat Alex Sink’s defense, but their combined $3.7 million advertising blitz could not help lift her over the finish line.
In all, Sink and Jolly controlled less than one-third of the $12.7 million that was pumped into the race.
Of the candidates' share, Jolly’s campaign was dramatically outraised by Sink's — $1.3 million versus $2.7 million — according to a Center for Public Integrity review of Federal Election Commission reports.
Outside political groups spending more money than candidates during an election used to be exceedingly rare.
It's now becoming increasingly common during the big-money era following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in January 2010.
During the 2010 election cycle, party committees, super PACs and nonprofits outgunned the candidates themselves in a dozen House races, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by the Center for Responsive Politics. The phenomenon was repeated two years later in more than two dozen House races.
“Post Citizens United, this is the easiest money to raise, and these groups aren't leaving it to the candidates to determine what themes will dominate the race,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Outside groups may not determine the victor, but they'll very often determine the dialogue and what themes dominate the ads, news and public conversation,” she continued. “Candidates will have to raise even more money to compete.”
Neither the Sink nor Jolly campaign responded to requests for comment.
Tuesday’s special election was held to fill the vacancy created by the death of Republican Rep. Bill Young, who died in October.
Barack Obama carried Florida's 13th Congressional District by one percentage point in 2012.
TOKYO — When Taro Kono was growing up as the son of a major Japanese political party leader, he had what he calls a “fever for the atom.” Like many of his countrymen, he regarded nuclear power plants as his country’s ticket to postwar prosperity, a modern, economical way to meet huge energy needs on an island with few natural resources.
Over the next five decades, pro-nuclear sentiment led Japan to build the world’s third largest fleet of nuclear reactors. Its officials spent more than two decades and $22 billion building a factory to create plutonium-based nuclear reactor fuel, the largest ever to be subject to international monitoring. The facility is slated for completion in October at Rokkasho on Japan’s northeast coast, kicking off a new phase in the country’s long-term plan to increase energy independence.
By the time Kono was elected to the parliament, known as the Diet, at the age of 33 in 1996, however, he had become a skeptic about the Rokkasho plant. After interrogating scientists and meeting with critics, he concluded that a vast array of new reactors fueled by its plutonium faced huge technical challenges, posed a major proliferation risk, and probably would not reap the financial benefits claimed by its backers. He told the American ambassador at an embassy dinner in 2008 that its high costs were improperly kept hidden from the public.
But Kono’s campaign in Japan against the plant has now been systematically squashed, in what he and his allies depict as a telling illustration of the powerful political forces — cronyism, influence-buying, and a stifling of dissenting voices — that have kept the nuclear industry and its backers in the utilities here going strong.
By all accounts, the Japanese nuclear industry’s sway and its governmental support remain high, even in the face of technical glitches, huge cost overruns, and accidents like the meltdowns of three reactors at Fukushima three years ago this week — which led to the abrupt closure of all its remaining reactors.
The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who leads Kono’s party, announced in February its support for restarting some reactors and possibly building new ones, designed specifically to burn plutonium-based fuel.
Abe did so with apparent confidence that he has the enduring support — if not of the public — of the so-called “nuclear power village,” a tightly-woven network of regulators, utility industry executives, engineers, labor leaders and local politicians who have become dependent on nuclear power for jobs, income, and prestige.
Kono, a fluent English-speaker who received his undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, said in an interview that he has been talking about nuclear power “for the last 16 to 17 years,” but “no one really paid attention, right?”
Kono was unable to defeat the plutonium fuel program, he said, because its powerful constituency includes not only members of the ruling party, but bureaucrats, media leaders, bankers and academics. They were, he wrote in a 2011 book, “all scrambling for a place at the table” where nuclear-related funds are distributed. The louder he complained, the more these elites turned their backs on him. Just 60 legislators out of 722 in the parliament’s lower and upper chambers have joined the anti-nuclear caucus he helped organize.
Industry officials contend that Rokkasho’s completion makes sound fiscal sense. Yoshihiko Kawai, president of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd., the consortium of 85 utilities and other companies that owns the plant, has argued that making new plutonium-based fuels from old reactor fuel — according to the Rokkasho plan — was thrifty, not wasteful. “By directly disposing of spent fuels, we would be just throwing this energy resource away,” he told Plutonium Magazine in 2012.
The publication is produced by a Japanese nonprofit group, the Council for a Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which has seven current or former lawmakers on its board and is dedicated to promoting the “peaceful uses of plutonium,” a material initially created for use in nuclear weapons.
Its director Satoshi Morimoto, who was briefly the country’s defense minister in 2012, attracted attention when he asserted that year that the country’s commercial nuclear power reactors have “very great defensive deterrent functions” — an apparent allusion to the fact that the plants Japan has built to make reactor fuel could be used to make fuel for nuclear arms, if Japan ever decided to do so.
A broadside over dinner
On a warm, cloudless fall evening in 2008, Kono brought his strong views about the corrupting influence of the “nuclear village” to a dinner at the walled residence of U.S. ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, a longtime friend and former business partner of President George W. Bush.
Schieffer was eager to take the measure of a rising politician who opposed Bush’s plan for wider use of plutonium-based nuclear fuels around the globe, under a program known as Global Nuclear Energy Partnership that envisioned a large role for the Rokkasho plant.
Kono was not just a scrappy and ambitious young politician: He is the heir to a fourth-generation political dynasty — the son of the longest-serving speaker of the parliament’s lower house in postwar history, an influential figure who is less outspoken but also has an independent streak. Taro Kono himself, who sometimes campaigns in colorful suspenders, is popular within Kanagawa prefecture, part of the greater Tokyo area, where the residents gave him 186,770 votes in 2005. Kono says that was the second-highest total in Japan’s electoral history.
But his anti-nuclear efforts had gotten little traction elsewhere in Japan. And so, while seated in the small dining room of the residence where Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito in 1945, Kono attempted to sketch out the institutional reasons why Japan’s bureaucrats and its utilities remained wedded to what he considered an outdated nuclear policy. A confidential embassy summary of the unusual conversation, full of criticism by Kono of his country’s policies, was published by Wikileaks in 2011.
Kono said junior officials in the government, who saw plutonium fuels as a costly technological dead end, were trapped by policies they had inherited from more senior lawmakers whom Japanese culture did not permit them to challenge. He complained that under Japanese parliamentary customs, he could not hire or fire committee staff but often had to rely on bureaucrats loaned from government agencies, all with a vested interest in promoting nuclear power. Any questions he asked were quickly passed back to those agencies.
Kono said it would be cheaper for Japan to “buy a uranium mountain in Australia” than to build breeder reactors and fuel them with plutonium produced at Rokkasho. He further told his hosts that the industry dominated the national conversation over power not only through its heavy advertising but by squelching any public criticism. Electric companies, he said without providing details, had forced a television station to short-circuit an interview with him by threatening to withdraw their advertising.
At the end of the evening, Kono recalls, Schieffer hold him, “What you are saying is totally different from what all the others say.” In his recent interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Kono said Schieffer’s appraisal did not surprise him. Most of Kono’s contemporaries have long regarded him as an eccentric or someone oddly allied with the tiny, vehemently anti-nuclear, Communist Party here.
A desire for the atom
Japan’s appetite for nuclear power seems quixotic for a nation devastated by its dark underside: the plutonium- and uranium-fueled weapons developed by American scientists. But one lesson its leaders took from the explosions over Nagasaki and Hiroshima was that they should master the technology that defeated them.
“I saw the mushroom cloud from my naval operation base in Takamatsu,” a young sailor named Yasuhiro Nakasone recalled in his autobiography. Nakasone, who would become Japan’s top science official and then its prime minister from 1982 to 1987, said he concluded that if Japan didn’t use the atom for peaceful purposes, it would “forever be a fourth-rate nation.”
That impulse was nurtured, carefully and secretly, by Washington. A 1954 cable to the director of the CIA — declassified only eight years ago — called for an “atomic peace mission” to Japan by U.S. nuclear scientists and reactor-company officials to overcome prevailing anti-nuclear sentiment and help “revive the hopes of the deflation-oppressed Japanese in reconstructing their economy.”
To carry out what the cable described as “an enlightenment propaganda program,” the agency in particular enlisted the assistance of Matsutaro Shoriki, a former head of the notorious Tokyo police commission in the 1920s who had gone on to become a prominent publisher and broadcaster. The Yomiuri Shimbun, his newspaper, enthusiastically promoted nuclear power and Shoriki himself helped found Japan’s Atomic Industrial Forum, a tight alliance of companies and utilities. He died in 1969.
Beginning in 1966, Japan started building about one reactor a year. From the start, however, Japan planned to use uranium-fueled light-water reactors — the technology in predominant use around the globe — only until it had created a new energy system based on advanced, breeder reactors, so named because they can both consume and produce plutonium in what in principle could be an endless cycle, almost like perpetual-motion machines.
Uranium was initially — and mistakenly — thought to be rare. And breeders, initially predicted to be less costly than conventional reactors, have proven expensive to build, difficult to operate, and hard to secure, provoking France, Britain, and the United States to cut back or close their breeder programs several decades ago.
As a young man, Kono read in his “manga” comic books that breeder reactors were ideal for Japan, because they could provide the country with energy for thousands of years “without having to burn oil,” he wrote in his recent book on the Fukushima disaster. The major Japanese utilities all supported this claim, and helped spread that word through advertising expenditures that totaled $27.6 billion over the past four decades, according to a 2013 investigation by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, the Center’s partner in this examination of Rokkasho.
Construction of the Rokkasho plant began in 1993 and was initially supposed to be finished by 1997, but technical setbacks and construction problems forced a delay of nearly two decades. Paul Dickman, a senior policy fellow at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, the center of U.S. breeder reactor research, said Rokkasho is “a great facility.” But he also said it was a “construction project that’s gone out of control,” because Japan chose to modify an existing French design for such plants, rather than simply copying it.
A dissenting view is suppressed
Throughout Rokkasho’s construction, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has been a bastion of pro-nuclear boosterism. But four officials in its economic and industrial policy bureau dared to challenge orthodoxy in 2004, when they prepared a 26-page Powerpoint entitled “The Unstoppable Nuclear Fuel Cycle” that called the planned plutonium-based nuclear program outdated and its promoters corrupt.
The presentation, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, said nuclear policymaking was controlled by “those involved with and interested in the nuclear power industry.” It noted that four of the Atomic Energy Commission’s five members had a professional or financial stake in the industry, presaging a widespread criticism of the organization in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
The presentation also predicted that building, operating, and decommissioning the Rokkasho plant would cost almost $190 billion, and warned that the practicality of building special reactors to burn the fuel it would make “has yet to be proven.” In a rush to embrace plutonium recycling, it said, Japan’s political leaders had “ignored the lack of conclusive research” and failed to acknowledge technical criticisms.
Although the authors urged that their report be published to encourage a public debate, it was instead suppressed, and they were all swiftly purged from the policy bureau, according to a source with direct information about METI’s response. The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper finally disclosed the report’s existence in 2012.
The AEC meanwhile disregarded the policy bureau’s advice, and approved initial testing of the Rokkasho plant in 2006, which contaminated its pipes and equipment with highly radioactive dust, solvents, and other wastes. That ended any hopes of simply mothballing the plant. Any future decommissioning will take decades and cost $16 billion, according to AEC estimates.
Members of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan since 1955 except for a year in the 1990s and for a three-year period ending in 2012, have been rewarded for their pro-nuclear stance with campaign donations from the ten giant electrical utilities that control around 96 percent of the nation’s power supply.
The largest of these, the Tokyo Electric Power Company or Tepco, formally ended its direct corporate donations in 1974. But it systematically encouraged “voluntary” donations by company executives and managers to a fund-raising entity created by the ruling party, according to a 2011 investigation by Asahi. At least 448 Tepco executives donated roughly $777,000 in total to the entity between 1995 and 2009, according to documents obtained by Asahi and shared with the Center.
Roughly 60 percent of Tepco’s executives participated, a rate similar to that at other utilities. Together, they funded $2.5 million of the party’s expenses, based on today’s exchange rates. A Tepco spokesman told Asahi that the donations were “based on the judgment of the individual and the company is not involved. We do not encourage such donations.”
But Tepco executives, in interviews with Asahi reporters, said the company repeatedly stipulated how much they should donate — roughly $3,900 for top executives, $3,300 for executive vice presidents, and $1,700 for managing directors, the newspaper said. Kono alleged contributions such as these had purchased the loyalty of the ruling party and officials in the localities that hosted nuclear power plants.
Tepco’s influence has also been enhanced by its enthusiastic participation in revolving door-employment practices similar to those involving bureaucrats and companies in Washington, D.C.
A METI report in 2011, prepared at the insistence of nuclear opponents in Japan’s tiny Communist Party, said for example that between 1960 and 2011, Tepco hired 68 high-level government officials. From 1980 to late 2011, the report said, four former top-level bureaucrats from METI’s own Agency for Natural Resources and Energy became vice presidents at other electric utilities. The practice is known here by the amusing term, amakudari, for appointees who “descended from heaven.”
Tepco officials also regularly move into key regulatory positions, part of a migration known as ama-agari, or “ascent to heaven” that has involved dozens of top utility officials. More than 100 such utility executives between 2001 and 2011 were able to keep drawing an industry paycheck while also working part-time for the government, a practice that is legal here, according to a former member of the Japanese Diet Lower House Economy and Industry Committee, who spoke on background. An official working in the Nuclear Regulation Authority’s research division, in an interview, said on condition of anonymity that the ama-agari system is “like having cops and thieves working in the same police station.”
Perhaps the most significant instance of ama-agari was the Liberal Democratic Party’s appointment in 1998 of Tokio Kano, a longtime Tepco executive, as chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees METI and as the parliamentary secretary of science and technology. Both are posts crucial to the nuclear energy industry, and Kano used them to advance legislation enabling plutonium-based fuel to be burned in some standard reactors — not just breeders. He also pushed through a law requiring that all spent nuclear fuel be sent to Rokkasho or similar Japanese plants.
Taro Kono, the industry critic, charged that Kano “acted like the secretary general of whatever committee had anything to do with energy and electricity.” Kono says that when he himself raised objections to nuclear policies during committee meetings, Kano would say “well, there’s a strange voice in this room, but we kind of got unanimous consent” and then proceed.
When Kano retired from the parliament in 2011, he returned to Tepco — where he had kept an office throughout his work writing legislation — as a special adviser.
Kano declined the Center’s request for an interview. But he told Asahi in 2011 he remains convinced that nuclear power is sensible. “Reactors were built because local residents strongly desired them, and it’s a fact they generated employment and income,” he said. “Some researchers say that low-dose radiation is good for your health. It’s a persuasive argument.”
Kano separately told The New York Times that year it was “disgusting” that his critics considered him a Tepco “errand boy” merely because he had the business community’s support.
Funds and wastes cement Rokkasho’s role
The Aomori region where the Rokkasho plant is located, with a windswept coastline and harsh climate, ranks near the bottom of the nation’s 47 prefectures, or statelets, in per capita income. “You can’t grow much,” says Taro Kono, the anti-nuclear activist lawmaker, who said he understands the plant’s local appeal. “It’s a tough place to live.”
In the 1980s, the central government tried and failed to stimulate Aomori’s economy with sugar beet farming and a tank farm for petroleum reserves, both of which faltered. So the nuclear plant’s construction, which started in 1993, turned out to be a vital source of jobs, taxes, and even tourism — contributing around 88 percent of the village’s total tax revenue in 2012, according to Aomori Prefecture officials. A Japanese study last year said it had boosted per capita income levels by 62 percent.
Moreover, to smooth the way for the plant, the central government pays the village — which has a population of just 12,000 — $25.9 million in grants yearly under a special nuclear subsidy program created in Tokyo to promote the siting of nuclear energy facilities all over the country. The grants have amounted to more than $2,300 annually for every man woman and child in the village, according to prefecture officials. The village’s Chamber of Commerce has reported that roughly 70 percent of the businesses there are now involved with or dependent upon the nuclear industry.
Of course, the downside of the program for local citizens is that Rokkasho has since become a storage site for three thousand tons of highly-radioactive spent fuel from commercial power plants, waiting to be processed into new plutonium. To win the right to do this, Japan’s electric power monopolies 16 years ago pledged that the vast bulk of that spent fuel would be recycled as fuel — or it would be sent back.
But doing so would swamp spent-fuel pools at reactor sites that are already close to capacity, Japanese officials say, and could doom the Abe government’s plans to reopen many of Japan’s 50 surviving reactors.
Kono says renegotiating this agreement — which many politicians regard as sacrosanct — is the single biggest challenge to unraveling the plans of the “nuclear village.”
A latent nuclear arsenal?
After the Fukushima disaster, some of Kono’s political adversaries embraced another argument in favor of the country’s reactors and the Rokkasho plant that may seem surprising to some in the West: Operating these facilities sends a useful signal to would-be aggressors that Japan could quickly develop nuclear arms.
“There’s a pro-nuclear power plant argument that we need to keep the nuclear reactor running so that we can pretend that we may have a nuclear weapon one day,” Kono said during the late-night interview in his apartment house.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister who was Kono’s rival for a ruling party leadership post in 2009 and is now its general secretary, caused a stir in October 2011 when he told Sapio, a right-wing magazine, that Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors “would allow us to produce a nuclear warhead in a short amount of time.” He added: “It’s a tacit deterrent.”
Japan has a pacifist constitution, and a 47-year-old policy of ruling out the production, possession or introduction of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. It has signed and ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is a leading advocate of nuclear arms control.
Moreover, all of Japan’s existing plutonium stockpile is under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, while its uranium — a linchpin of any effort to restart the country’s civilian reactors — is largely imported.
These large challenges would have to be overcome for Japan to embark on a weapons program, according to Jacques E.C. Hymans at the University of Southern California and other scholars.
But a potential linkage between Rokkasho’s product and nuclear weapons has hung over the program from the start. Kumao Kaneko, a 76-year-old former director of the Nuclear Energy Division of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Center for Public Integrity that Tokyo pressed the Carter administration in 1977 for permission to start producing plutonium partly to ensure Japan had a weapons option.
“We concluded, Japan should not [build] nuclear armaments, while leaving the ability” to do so, said Kaneko, who retired from the ministry in 1982 to become a director of a Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank.
That decision followed a formal, secret study of options for building nuclear arms, conducted in 1970 at the behest of Yasuhiro Nakasone, then Japan’s defense minister. After two years of work, the group concluded “it would be possible in a legal sense to possess small-yield, tactical, purely defensive nuclear weapons without violating the constitution.” But it decided that the effort would be costly, take years, and alienate Japan’s neighbors. The country decided instead to stay under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
But many prominent Japanese officials still want the capability to produce nuclear arms if they were needed, according to Naoto Kan, who held a series of top government financial and strategic policy positions before becoming Japan’s prime minister from 2010 to 2011, representing the Democratic Party of Japan — the LDP’s main rival. He said the desire for a nuclear weapons capability is an important source of support for Japan’s plutonium programs.
“Inside Japan, and that is not only within the Democratic Party of Japan, there are entities who wish to be able to maintain the ability to produce Japan’s own plutonium,” Kan said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity in his parliamentary office. “They do not say it in public, but they wish to have the capability to create nuclear weapons in case of a threat.”
It’s a bold assertion, which independent figures — like Hiroaki Kodai, a 63-year old physicist at Kyoto University — say Japanese society usually does not tolerate. Kodai, who is an assistant professor, says his own similar declarations have “not been good for my career.”
The U.S. has long been concerned about potential development of a Japanese bomb, since Japan has the scientific skills, infrastructure and — most important — the raw explosive material in the form of plutonium, hundreds of pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and the technology to produce more. Washington’s worry is that such an arsenal would set off a regional arms race, complicating Japan’s relations with its neighbors, some of whom would clamor for a similar capability.
U.S. policymakers have pursued a two-pronged path to blocking that development: Over the past four years, they have quietly brought a stream of Japanese diplomats and military officers into highly restricted U.S. nuclear weapons centers — including the Strategic Command headquarters in Nebraska, a Minuteman missile base in Montana, and a Trident submarine base outside Seattle — to remind them of the robustness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. also has gently urged Japan to cap or reduce the size of its plutonium stockpile. Its officials have encouraged Japan to reopen its closed reactors, in part so any newly-created plutonium can be burned at the same rate it is being produced. They’ve also pressed Japan to give up, through repatriation to the United States, some of its existing plutonium stocks before production gets under way.
But the U.S. has not urged Japan to cancel its Rokkasho project, several current and former senior U.S. and Japanese officials said. Authorities say one reason Washington has not offered that advice is that killing it — and all the future nuclear power plants linked to it — would increase Japan’s dependence on traditional energy supplies and drive up their price on the world market, adversely impacting the U.S. economy.
“Obviously what is done in the long term at Rokkasho is a decision for the Japanese people, the Japanese government to make,” Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said during a July 2012 press conference in Tokyo. He added that “to the extent that there would be paths forward for Rokkasho” that could avoid increasing Japan’s stockpile of plutonium, “that would be a good thing.”
Poneman coupled this, however, with a public pitch for letting Japan use nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions, acknowledging that it is an important tool “for our friends and colleagues in Japan … who are very worried about climate change.”
Jon Wolfsthal, who until two years ago served as a nonproliferation expert on the staff of Vice President Joe Biden and the White House National Security Council, said many in the administration believed that Japan wouldn’t listen to pleas for canceling Rokkasho, and that insisting on it would only fracture U.S. relations with the country.
“They don’t need the United States to tell them that Rokkasho is a giant waste of money and that there’s no need for them to start marching down this road,” Wolfstahl said. “But I’m not sure there’s much the U.S. could do about it.”
Gary Samore, who directed nuclear proliferation policy at the White House during Obama’s first term, put it more bluntly: “If the Japanese government really decided, ‘yes, we’re going to turn it on,’ then the Obama administration would have to make a decision,” he said. Either the United States will have to stick “with existing policy, which is not to object,” or it will have to try to persuade Japan to abandon its plutonium manufacturing plan.
Toshihiro Okuyama and Yumi Nakayama, staff writers for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, contributed reporting for this article.
Douglas Birch is a senior writer at the Center for Public Integrity. R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center. Jake Adelstein has worked as an investigative journalist in Tokyo since 1993.
Companies including Alabama Power, drugmaker Pfizer and insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama helped fund the secretive “social welfare” nonprofit arm of the Alabama House Republican Caucus during 2012, the Center for Public Integrity has learned.
The Alabama House Republican Conference, organized under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, focuses on “research, education and policy development,” according to tax records.
Media reports from Alabama also indicate Republican lawmakers in part use the nonprofit, which is not required by law to publicly reveal its donors or the amounts donated, as a vehicle for allowing lobbyists and special interests to hobnob with them — for a price.
But when the Center for Public Integrity asked Rachel Adams, the communications director for Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, for a copy of the group’s most recent tax form, she provided a version that is typically only delivered to the Internal Revenue Service and includes contributor names and contribution amounts.
This document named 16 contributors — including several corporations, trade associations, political action committees and one labor union, the Alabama Education Association. Each entity donated between $5,000 and $15,000.
The Center for Public Integrity also discovered that Pfizer, which produces such popular brands as Advil, Lipitor and Viagra, voluntarily self-reported a $2,500 contribution to the group. The pharmaceutical giant is among a growing number of companies that are voluntarily disclosing information about their giving to politically active nonprofits.
Collectively, these 17 organizations gave $100,000 — or about 49 percent of the $204,000 the Alabama House Republican Conference raised in 2012. The remainders came from donors who each gave less than $5,000.
Adams declined to answer specific questions about how the Alabama House Republican Conference raises money, saying only that the group “is funded via private fundraising.”
Republicans currently control nearly two-thirds of the seats in the 105-member House of Representatives. Hubbard is one of the three directors listed in the Alabama House Republican Conference’s 2012 tax return.
The largest donor to the GOP nonprofit in 2012 was the PAC of the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association, which gave $15,000 — an amount it previously disclosed to state campaign regulators.
The group, which is a chapter of a national trade association, represents the interests of about a dozen independent beer distributors in the state. The Alabama Beverage Control Board controls the state’s alcohol beverages through distribution, licensing and enforcement.
Currently, Alabama regulates the sale of beer with a limit on bottle size and alcohol by volume, and until 2013, it was one of only two states that outlawed homebrewing.
Officials with the Alabama Wholesale Beer Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, at least $25,000 that the Alabama House Republican Conference raised in 2012 came from the pharmaceutical and health industries. Of these donations, the largest was from drug-maker Eli Lilly’s PAC in the amount of $7,500.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, the state’s largest health insurer, gave $5,000 to the GOP nonprofit, as did the Medical Association of the State of Alabama and the PAC of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, a trade association for facility owners, operators and administrators.
For their part, House Democrats formed a “social welfare” nonprofit group in October of 2012, and tax records show it raised less than $2,400 between its launch and December 2012.
House Republicans in Alabama also operate a nonprofit foundation organized under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code. Tax records show this group raised $143,600 in 2012 from an unknown number of anonymous donors.
Research by the Center for Public Integrity has, however, revealed the identity of one of these donors: rail company Norfolk Southern, which voluntarily reported giving $1,000 to the foundation during 2012.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman declined to elaborate on the donation, although the company’s website states that it “supports public officials and candidates whose views match those of Norfolk Southern.”
Adam Wollner contributed to this report.
The surging number of unaccompanied Central American and Mexican child migrants represent a growing challenge for U.S. officials, who must weigh who gets to stay here — and who gets sent back to countries torn by violence, according to a new United Nations report, “Children on the Run."
U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions of minors traveling on their own from three countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — leaped from about 4,060 in 2011 to nearly 21,540 in 2013. The number of unaccompanied Mexican kids who were apprehended — and who are typically sent back over the border in a day or two — grew from 13,000 in 2011 to more than 18,750 in 2013.
“The narrative of international migration has changed,” said Leslie Velez, senior protection officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ U.S. regional office in Washington, D.C.
She spoke at an unveiling of the report Wednesday at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.
During or after October 2011, U.N. researchers interviewed more than 400 such minors who were between 12 and 17 years old and who had been held at some point in U.S. federal custody.
“No less than 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection,” the report said. That’s compared to 13 percent of minors surveyed in 2006 whose stories suggested they were in need of international protection from violence.
Kids interviewed in 2011 said they fear armed criminal gangs, including drug cartels, and many kids from Mexico—39 percent—said they feared recruitment into gangs involved in smuggling. Some minors from all countries expressed fear of violence in their own homes. The report urged careful screening of all these children to give them a fair opportunity to seek asylum from danger and prevent them from being returned to threatening conditions.
In 2011, the Center for Public Integrity reported on how screenings failed to identify and aid minors attempting to escape from drug gangs or sex trafficking rings bringing girls into the United States. A Mexican minor was eventually allowed to seek refuge, his pro-bono lawyer said, after being turned back by Border Patrol agents who suggested he return to Mexico and provide information about smuggling routes first.
In February, a report by Washington, D.C.-based Kids in Need of Defense, “Treacherous Journey,” outlined the challenge of trying to provide legal counsel to unaccompanied migrant minors whose numbers, if recent pace of growth remains steady, could reach 60,000 in 2014. The nonprofit group, known as KIND, organizes pro bono counsel for unaccompanied minors.
“The U.S. government usually does not appoint counsel for unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings,” the KIND report explains. “Without counsel, the children are unlikely to understand the complex procedures they face and the options and remedies that may be available to them under the law."
Federal anti-trafficking law has required since 2008 that the Department of Health and Human Services — which shelters these kids when they are apprehended — “make every effort to utilize the services of pro bono counsel” to represent children in immigration proceedings free of charge.
Stories in the U.N’s “Children on the Run” reflect violence afflicting countries with some of the worst crime and murder rates in the world. Fifteen-year-old Maritza, from El Salvador, told researchers that a gang member warned her uncle that another man had his eye on her.
“In El Salvador, they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags,” Maritza is quoted saying. “My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there and I should go to the United States.”
Seventeen-year-old Kevin, from Honduras, often identified as the world’s highest per-capita murder capital, is quoted telling researchers: “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’ “