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April 2001

Subs, PG&E, GE Corn, Mad Cow, Who Can You Trust?

By Jim Scanlon

"You couldn't replicate this in a million years" These words were spoken by Admiral Albert H. Konetzni Jr. about the sinking of a Japanese training and research vessel by a US Navy attack submarine.

Of course it would be absurd to reproduce an accident, but, yes, I totally agree with the Admiral. Just think about it---a ship leaves Honolulu and sails for two hours in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean and suddenly a submarine shoots up to the surface directly beneath it, slashing open its hull and sending it to the bottom within five minutes time.

A training voyage for the sub's crew was canceled and replaced with a day trip with sixteen influential civilians and their wives. The time allotted for lunch was exceeded for some unknown reason, and the captain, admittedly hurrying to get his VIP civilians back to port on time, did not exercise proper caution and---as the billion dollar nuclear weapons' platform rapidly surfaced--bang, bang---a ship sunk, lives lost, a captain disgraced, careers ended, the Navy embarrassed.

Was it perhaps the cook's fault, or perhaps was it that the after dinner conversation was too cordial and expansive? The captain reportedly was signing autographs. There are so many things that might have contributed to the intersection of the two ships that a delay of a second or two, or a deviation of just a meter or two in the position of either might have resulted in a near miss. Finding a "cause" becomes difficult.

The probability of such an "accident"---coming up under another ship in the Pacific Ocean---would be small indeed, hardly imaginable, but it happened.

Is it wise to accept the low probability that an atomic power generating plant will not blow up and poison a country, or a region? Could an airplane accidentally crash into such a power plant? It doesn't seem likely does it? Or does it? Once in a million years? Once in ten million years? The time periods become absurd.

Back east last January New Yorkers took a great interest in California's energy crisis. Television and newspapers were full of California's power problems---too much growth, too fast, no construction of power plants within the last ten years due to restrictive "red tape" regulations, only partial privatization, a "not in my backyard" attitude of pleasure-loving Californians etc.

Did these criticisms mean that California had to be "energy independent," that it could not depend on the national energy market, or even the global energy market?

Never mentioned was that the City and County of Los Angeles, (that most maligned metropolis), did not have a problem with the availability or cost of electricity, nor did Sacramento. Both cities have publicly owned power generators. It would have made a great story, LA doing something right for change! Few mentioned that the California Legislature, both houses, Democrats and Republicans, in a rare display cooperative stupidity, passed so-called deregulation legislation with not one opposing vote! The sort of thing the servile Soviets were reviled for.

Were there no experts, no planners who disagreed? The seventh largest economy in the world on the brink of collapse and no one foresaw the consequences---at least enough to say something or give a warning. Even after the dimensions of the problem became apparent in May of 2000 when the new system produced huge price rises in San Diego where there was no price ceiling on electricity. Something bad just couldn't happen.

New York critics said the price cap on electricity rates (with Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego left out of the equation) were responsible for the crisis. If the price were only allowed to rise, in a really unregulated market, people would conserve, demand would fall, prices would go down, and the market would work it's magic!

One has only to imagine the magic of the market producing business closings and people dying without summer air conditioning in Fresno, or Red Bluff or El Cajon! The Market worked a strange kind of magic in 1929 and more recently in Asia and Russia. But then, it can't happen here? It's improbable? Didn't we win the Cold War? Don't we have the wrinkled sage, Alan Greenspan? He surely hasn't lost his magic?

There are those who still perhaps remember "Operation Plowshare" back in the 1950s when American GIs marched into the Nevada desert just after the detonation of a tactical atomic bomb was exploded. Despite the lessons learned from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our "boys" were ordered to march through the contaminated area with full assurance it was perfectly safe.

During Gulf War in 1992, US and British combat aircraft and battle tanks fired "depleted uranium" as armor piercing projectiles. Similar projectiles were used by US and British aircraft under NATO command to drive Yugoslavian forces from Kosovo, a Yugoslavian province. (Too much of a muddle to go into here.) Soldiers handling the projectiles were instructed not to touch the heads of the anti-tank shells, and not to enter wrecked vehicles without protective masks and clothing. Areas contaminated with spent ammunition were to be fenced off and entered only by special units.

Now, however, after 15 still young, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Belgian and Spanish soldiers who served in the Balkans died from leukemia and cancer like diseases, US and NATO representatives, claim that according to medical experts, there could be no link between the depleted uranium and the deaths. But then the Europeans with access to their own experts, found other highly radioactive elements in the depleted uranium that were not supposed to be there. It might be better to change the name from "depleted uranium" to "atomic waste."

Does anyone know or care?

A genetically modified corn plant is denied approval from the US Department of Agriculture for human consumption but, under pressure from the developer, a huge, wealthy and powerful corporation, approval is granted to grow the corn for animal feed. The modified corn is found in taco shells in the US, then in Mexico and Japan. The animal corn got mixed in with corn for humans. The company, acknowledging that whatever controls existed didn't work asks for approval for humans. Can any of the genetically modified foods that are developed to make profits for agribusiness corporations be trusted? The distribution system is obviously uncontrollable.

The bodies of dead sheep and cattle were efficiently processed into feed supplements to improve the growth rate of cows and profits. The result was the manufacture of an epidemic of what is know as "Mad Cow Disease." This disease was not only preventable, it was created. It never existed before. Now billions of dollars are being spent on diagnostic tests and a cure.

After years of muddling and denial, cattle are not fed beef or lamb. Is it safe for humans to eat beef or lamb?---or to eat gelatin made from beef?---or to drink expensive wines clarified with blood from cattle?---or to eat British cheese?---or to get a blood transfusion from someone who lived in the UK? Transfusions used to be perfectly safe. Then they were safe from hepatitis B, then safe from AIDS, now they are perfectly safe from the human variety of Mad Cow Disease and maybe safe from Hepatitis C and so on.

And vaccines? Half the population of Egypt is infected with Hepatitis C in an effort to protect them from a water born parasite. And aren't many vaccines made with bovine serum which is safe even if they don't come from Britain. Well maybe.

Can one trust economic projections when the experts can't predict even extreme stock market disasters?

But there is an official solution: Rear Admiral Konetzni the senior officer who approved the day trip of the civilians on the US nuclear submarine testifying at a court of inquiry on the accident, "...dismissed any suggestion that the civilians [visitors] had contributed to the collision". "They had nothing to do with this", he is quoted, "Forget about it."

Yes sir! Anything else sir!

 

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