From the Print Edition: Nuclear November

I did not originally intend to create a whole series on nuclear power, but the subject matter is such fertile ground – particularly in a country like the Philippines, where favorable attitudes toward nuclear energy are rather infantile in nature – that I could hardly stop myself. The Philippines does need to expand its energy base, but it needs to do so with technology that makes sense. Nuclear energy no longer makes sense, anywhere, and particularly not in a country that has virtually no native experience in it, along with a tenuous grasp of concepts such as regulation, accountability, and waste and environmental management. From time to time, it needs to be reminded of that.

Only Russia will benefit if PH goes nuclear (Oct 29)

First of two parts.

FOR the second time during the term of the current administration, fast-talking salesmen from Russia’s nuclear energy agency Rosatom have managed to convince a few impressionable officials here that the mighty atom is the answer to all the Philippines’ energy needs, especially if it is packaged in the product Rosatom has to offer.

The only people who will benefit from the Philippines’ adopting nuclear power will be the shareholders of Rosatom. Nuclear power is an economically and environmentally disastrous proposition for the Philippines, and no amount of persistence from the misguided nuclear advocacy can change that.

On October 17, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi announced that the Department of Energy had signed a memorandum of intent with Rosatom for the latter to conduct feasibility studies on the possible deployment of so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) in the Philippines. These reactors, which generate between 20 and 200 megawatts (MW) of power, can be mounted on floating platforms to provide electricity to island provinces, or slaved together like giant batteries to create larger land-based power plants.

Russia currently has one such floating plant in operation, a 21,000 metric ton barge carrying two 35-MW reactors and dubbed the Akademik Lomonosov. The craft, which will replace a coal plant and an old nuclear plant in Russia’s far east, can provide power to about 100,000 homes and has a crew of about 70.

The (weak) case for nuclear power

Hard on the heels of the announcement of the DoE’s agreement with Rosatom, local nuclear advocates took part in a “Stand Up for Nuclear” event held in Manila and other cities around the world on October 20. The event achieved what its organizers presumably hoped it would, the publication of a rash of news articles and opinion columns in the days following it, all touting the supposed benefits of nuclear power to the energy-challenged Philippines.

The arguments put forth in favor of nuclear power in general – which haven’t changed in years – and of SMRs in particular are rather shallow, but at first glance seem to be valid. The benefits of nuclear power, according to its advocates, are that it does not produce harmful emissions, unlike conventional fossil-fueled power plants; it is an extremely efficient energy source, which results in lower power costs to consumers; it has a very good overall safety record, in spite of attention-grabbing disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima; and it provides reliable baseload power to augment energy from intermittent sources like solar and wind power.

SMRs are touted as a good option for countries like the Philippines without well-developed nuclear capabilities or budgets to sustain them because they are small, versatile, relatively inexpensive, and less complicated than normal-scale nuclear plants. For example, unlike a conventional pressurized water or boiling water reactor, the cooling and steam generation water flows in most SMR designs are gravity-fed. This presumably makes them immune from the sort of loss-of-coolant accidents that led to the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disasters.

All of these arguments are very positive-sounding, enough to convince many impressionable government officials and media commentators, whom the nuclear advocacy hopes have neither the time, inclination, nor capacity to look critically at the facts, which tend to be a more than a little inconvenient.

Cutting through the nonsense

The first argument, that “nuclear plants do not produce harmful CO2 emissions,” is true in a very literal sense, but it is not true that nuclear plants do not contribute to harmful emissions at all, as some advocates claim. All nuclear plants emit heat and water vapor to the atmosphere at the rate of 4.4 grams CO2-equivalent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy produced. While this is certainly very much less than a conventional power plant, it is not zero, and compares unfavorably with solar and wind power, which actually remove water vapor and heat flux to the atmosphere at the rate of -2.2 g CO2-e/kWh.

An even bigger environmental problem with nuclear power is that any nuclear reactor uses an enormous amount of fresh water, and discharges a large amount of heated waste water. Because of the complicated chemistry within a nuclear reactor, sea water cannot be used, and even fresh water must be “scrubbed” to remove any impurities. In a country such as the Philippines, where fresh water supplies are increasing constrained, any nuclear power facility is a problematic option.

The second argument, that nuclear energy is extremely efficient and therefore less expensive than other forms of power, is again only literally true in a narrow context. Uranium as a fuel is incredibly efficient; one ton of uranium has the energy content of about 80,000 tons of coal. However, to obtain useable fuel a great deal of processing is necessary, which of course comes at an energy cost, and the amount of useful uranium to be used as nuclear fuel is quickly being depleted; US reserves of uranium have virtually disappeared, and reserves elsewhere in the world are estimated to last no more than 100 years.

The supposed cost benefits of nuclear power are completely misrepresented by the nuclear advocacy. A comparison between an existing nuclear plant and an existing coal plant, for example, would show that electricity derived from nuclear power is less costly on a per-MW basis, but power costs, as Filipino consumers have long been painfully aware, include all the costs associated with building and maintaining a power plant. The proper way to calculate comparative costs is through a formula called levelized cost of energy (LCOE), which takes into account construction costs, regulatory costs, fuel costs, available subsidies, and operating costs.

This is where nuclear power completely falls apart compared to other energy alternatives. According to the 2018 report of Lazard (the go-to source for energy cost analysis), nuclear has a high-end LCOE of $189/MWh. Coal has an LCOE of $143/MWh; utility-scale solar of between $44/MWh and $48/MWh; and wind, $56/MWh. Of the various energy sources analyzed, only gas peaking plants and rooftop solar installations had a higher LCOE than nuclear power, at $208/MWh and $287/MWh, respectively.

And Lazard’s results may be a serious underestimate of the true cost of nuclear power. In the next installment, I’ll explain further why, despite supplying about 20 percent of the world’s electricity, nuclear power is one of the worst solutions for the Philippines, or any other country for that matter.

The nuclear money pit (Nov 3)

Second of two parts.

IN the first part of this rejection of nuclear power, a topic that has to be taken up repeatedly in the Philippines due to the continually uncritical enthusiasm the energy “option” seems to generate, I briefly explained why nuclear power is neither as environmentally friendly nor as cost-effective as its advocates claim. But that discussion actually soft-pedaled the arguments against nuclear power; the truth is, nuclear power is not simply a poor choice in environmental or economic terms, but a horrifying one.

The Marble Hill NPP in Indiana was abandoned after 14 years of construction; at that point, the estimated price tag to finish the plant was another $4 billion. It sat derelict for another 20 years until it was finally written off by the state and demolished in 2008.

Let’s deal with the cost of nuclear power first. As I pointed out earlier, according to Lazard, the acknowledged expert source of cost analysis, nuclear power has the third-highest levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of any energy option, behind only gas-peaking power plants and rooftop solar installations. At the high end, nuclear power’s LCOE is $189 per megawatt-hour (MWh); the best-case LCOE is around $140/MWh, and the average is about $151/MWh. Those figures take into account the costs and time required to build a nuclear plant, operating costs, regulatory costs, and whether or not construction or operations are subsidized to any degree.

While those generally accepted figures are unattractive enough – they are four to five times higher than the LCOE of alternatives like utility-scale solar or wind power – they are actually far lower than the real costs, for three reasons.

First, Lazard bases its assumptions on an average construction time of 5.75 years for a new nuclear plant, which is far too low. Several studies that analyzed the construction and planning-to-operation (PTO) times of every nuclear plant in existence all came up with similar figures: PTO times of 10-19 years (or even longer, in a few cases), and an average construction time of 14.5 years. That factor alone adds about $21/MWh to the LCOE. Even the supposedly cheaper and easier to build small modular reactors (SMRs) have taken much longer than expected; Russia’s floating nuclear power plant, the Akademik Lomonosov – the same sort of plant the Russian nuclear agency Rosatom is trying to sell to the Philippines – took 11 years to build, from 2007 to 2018.

Second, the Lazard analysis does not take into account the cost of cleanup from nuclear accidents, which are far more frequent than advocates would like people to believe. True, there have been relatively few large-scale accidents such as Britain’s Windscale, the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl, and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi, but these have been incredibly expensive. The cost estimates to clean up the three melted-down reactors at Fukushima has been estimated at between $460 billion and $640 billion; this is the equivalent of 10 to 18.5 percent, or an average of $1.2 billion of the capital cost of each nuclear reactor in existence. This does not even include numerous smaller accidents involving reactors, processing facilities, or nuclear waste.

Third, the costs of handling nuclear waste, which is produced in copious amounts by any nuclear facility, is not considered in the LCOE calculation. Currently, there are very few options for storing the most dangerous high-level waste, which includes used fuel rods and internal reactor components; this waste is generally kept near its source, and must be maintained for thousands of years. Low-level waste, such as waste cooling water, contaminated soil, and contaminated equipment poses more of a risk despite being less toxic because it is harder to control; for example, there have been numerous incidents of waste water being discharged into seas or rivers, either accidentally or intentionally. 

Disaster waiting to happen

Nuclear advocates usually point to the comparatively low numbers of fatalities associated with nuclear power than with more conventional sources as evidence of the “safety” of nuclear power, but based on the historical record, nuclear power plants suffer failures of their core systems at a much higher rate than conventional power plants, where the failure rate of those systems is virtually nil.

Since the introduction of commercial nuclear power in the mid-1950s, about 1.5 percent of the world’s nuclear reactors have suffered some sort of meltdown. Only a few have posed a serious threat to their surroundings – namely, Windscale, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – but all have been catastrophic to their facilities; any degree of “meltdown” in a nuclear reactor for all intents and purposes destroys the reactor. Thus, any new nuclear reactor has a one in 67 chance of destructive failure – odds that would not be acceptable to most insurance companies, if they were applied to a different context.

Here in the Philippines, the biggest risk of an environmental catastrophe is probably not the chance that a nuclear reactor would suffer a meltdown, but rather the risk of exposing dangerous nuclear waste to the environment. A fun fact about the Akademik Lomonosov, the type of contraption Rosatom is hoping to sell to the Philippines, is that it is configured for on-board storage of high-level nuclear waste for up to 12 years. That feature becomes alarming when one considers the near-certainty that such a floating power station will at some point, perhaps frequently, be exposed to a typhoon.

It has happened before; during Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, Napocor’s Power Barge 103 near Estancia, Cebu (a bunker oil-fueled generator) was driven aground by the storm, rupturing its tanks and causing an oil spill that fouled about 20 kilometers of coastline and polluted the air so badly in Estancia that families that were otherwise unharmed by the typhoon had to be evacuated. Substitute smelly bunker oil for highly-radioactive spent fuel rods and their containment water, and the scenario becomes even more nightmarish.

Even if that sort of calamity is carefully avoided, the ability of the Philippines to properly handle radioactive waste of any kind is questionable at best. This country does not, after all, have a functioning infrastructure for the safe and efficient disposal of any kind of waste, let alone the highly dangerous discards of a nuclear power facility. Conducting an underwriting analysis on the issue of nuclear waste management indicates an accidental release is virtually inevitable, except in the highly unlikely scenario that allows the country to export 100 percent of its nuclear waste beyond its borders.

If the Philippines purchases nuclear power capabilities from Rosatom (or anyone else), there is precisely one benefit that will be realized from the arrangement: Rosatom will collect several billion dollars in revenue, while in return, the Philippines will gain a costly, dangerous, and difficult to manage energy option that is greatly inferior to what it already has in almost every respect. Filipinos are known as a generous people, but this is ridiculous.

DoE finds a new way to push the nuclear drug (Nov 5)

EVER since the Russian government, through its atomic energy agency Rosatom, first made its pitch to sell nuclear technology to the Philippines back in 2016, the Department of Energy (DoE) under Secretary Alfonso Cusi has gone to great lengths to try to convince a largely indifferent public that nuclear power is the magical key to the Philippines’ energy future. This effort descended to ludicrous depths last week with Cusi’s pronouncement that 79 percent of Filipinos would support the use of nuclear energy if the president told them to.

This was the result of a survey commissioned by the DoE from Social Weather Stations (SWS) and conducted among 4,250 respondents “from all regions of the Philippines,” according to Cusi. As the survey was commissioned by a paying customer, SWS did not divulge the details as to the sample size or when the survey was conducted.

As the Energy Secretary described it, the survey was commissioned to determine the public mood toward nuclear energy in general, as well as who within the government would be the most publicly trusted endorser of nuclear power. Cusi highlighted the survey’s results during a media event at which representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) handed over what was called the Phase 1 Mission Report of the IAEA’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review (INIR) for the Philippines. More on that later. 

Cusi explained, “Sinasabi sa survey, 79 percent would follow or would believe the decision of the President. Pinakamalaking endorser nuclear would be President Duterte.”

Cusi added, however, that, “The only problem is that [they] do not want to have a nuclear power plant in [their] own backyard.”

We can draw two conclusions from this. First, it would seem that ordinary Filipinos have an attitude toward nuclear power that is quite similar to ordinary people anywhere: Perhaps nuclear power has its uses, but don’t build that thing in my neighborhood. Second, the DoE and its nuclear power conspirators are evidently less concerned with making a sound use case for nuclear energy (probably because they can’t) than they are with figuring out the best way to market the concept to the uncritical public. Convincing one man – particularly one who has always been rather forthright about the limits of his own expertise and his need to rely on competent advisors – is obviously a lot easier than trying to educate an entire population.

This may give the impression that Cusi and like-minded officials within the government have some misgivings about nuclear power, but that is probably not the case; they seem to have swallowed the half-truths of cost-effective energy and reduced greenhouse emissions hook, line, and sinker. Rather, they are simply anxious to rush the process, under some friendly pressure from the Russians, who are doing nothing more or less than peddling an industrial product. Despite the rosy picture painted by nuclear advocates, nuclear energy is gradually falling out of favor around the world, and has been for several decades. The only reason it appears to be otherwise is because nuclear development is such a long process. Nuclear power plants that are under construction now, which the nuclear advocacy holds up as examples of continuing interest in the technology, were all planned between 14 and 20 years ago, or even longer in a few cases.

Thus, there is a palpable sense of urgency among the nuclear advocacy and especially within Cusi’s DoE to ‘get nuclear done’ before the end of Duterte’s term a little less than three years from now. Having been stymied during the nuclear-unfriendly Aquino administration – it also didn’t help that the Fukushima disaster happened during that time – and uncertain whether the next president will be as pliant to a slick Russian sales pitch as the current one, the people who want to plant the nuclear time bomb in the Philippines have to move fast.

That brings us back around to the IAEA’s Integrated Nuclear Infrastructure Review. A detailed analysis of what that report contains will have to wait; the IAEA only publishes it 90 days after it has been turned over to the subject government, unless the subject government requests that it be kept confidential.

Even without those details, one conclusion that can be drawn from the fact of the INIR even taking place is that if nuclear power is to become a reality, it won’t happen within the current president’s term, probably not during that of the next one, and maybe not even in the one after that. That is because the IAEA’s three-phase “milestones approach,” which the Philippines is following, is a 10- to 15-year process from the beginning of development of a nuclear program to the actual opening of a nuclear power plant.

Although the Philippines has toyed with developing a nuclear infrastructure policy for years, that process only really began in earnest in 2016 with the formation of the Nuclear Energy Program Implementing Organization (NEPIO) under the DoE. The INIR mission concluded its work in mid-December last year; the report turned over to the DoE last week, which presumably spells out the work the country needs to do to prepare for a nuclear energy program, was the result of that mission. A best-case scenario puts a nuclear power plant on the Philippines’ map sometime in 2026; given the long development and construction time for any nuclear facility, which even the IAEA consistently underestimates by a factor of at least three, a better bet for when the Philippines might have its own functioning nuclear plant would be sometime in the 2030’s.

Nuclear power is a mature technology in the same sense that the internal combustion is; there may be refinements, but these will be incremental – nuclear energy is about as cheap, safe, and reliable as it is ever going to be, which is to say, much less so in all those categories than other forms of power technology that are developing much more rapidly. The Philippines’ “technology neutral” approach to energy policy is reasonable, but only if it is carried out sensibly. Embarking on a multi-year development plan to embrace an increasingly obsolescent technology is not in any way sensible.

Tickling the dragon’s nose (Nov 7)

ONE of the selling points of nuclear power, according to those who favor it, is that in spite of its fearsome reputation, it is actually quite safe. More people have died as a result of the use of other forms of energy production than from the use of nuclear power, they say, and they have statistics to back them up.

For example, the most objective studies of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster put the overall death toll at around 6,000 – about 50 as a direct result of the accident, the rest from various forms of radiation-induced illnesses in the months and years after the event. By contrast, about 13,200 deaths in the US each year are attributed to fine particle air pollution, of which coal-burning power plants are the biggest source. Even if only half of those deaths could be conclusively linked to power plant emissions, that is still a Chernobyl and then some in terms of casualties, not just once, but year after year.

And, if the definition of deaths caused by power generating facilities is taken literally, nuclear advocates point out, then hydroelectric power is the deadliest of them all; in 1975, a cascade of failures of hydroelectric dams in China caused floods that killed 230,000 people.

Comparisons of nuclear power to conventional fossil-fueled power in terms of fatal risk to humans are invidious, and a straw man argument; at this point, enlightened as we are to the risks and implications of climate change, no one would assert that conventional coal- or petroleum-fueled power plants are a better option. In fact, no one really needs to argue that there are better options than nuclear power (even though there clearly are), but simply point out that nuclear power’s irrefutable record of failure and huge economic costs make it an equally unacceptable option at best.

The development of nuclear power for commercial use began after World War II, and finally came to fruition in 1956 and 1957 in the UK and US, respectively, with Britain’s Calder Hall plant, and the Westinghouse plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The history of serious nuclear accidents, however, began a few years earlier, with a partial meltdown of Canada’s NRX research reactor in 1952.

The severity of a nuclear incident is measured according to what is called the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), which was introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1990. The scale ranges from 0-7, with 0 representing a “deviation” and 7 representing a “major accident.” To date, there have only been two level 7 events – the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, considered to be the worst nuclear accident ever, and the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Anything with an INES rating of 4 or higher is considered an “accident,” in that it has consequences outside the nuclear site.

Since 1952, there have been 113 nuclear incidents worldwide (an average of 1.7 incidents per year), defined as causing at least $50,000 in property damage or a loss of human life, which would make them at least a level 0 or 1 on the INES scale. Of these, there have been at least 38 incidents which would qualify as a level 4 or higher on the INES scale.

Since the beginning of commercial nuclear operations, about 1.5 percent, or about one out of every 67 nuclear reactors ever built has experienced some degree of meltdown. Even if no radiation escapes to the environment, such an accident is catastrophic and essentially destroys the reactor. In the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, for example, very little radiation was actually released from the reactor containment building, and in terms of its environmental or human safety risk, the accident was not nearly as serious as was first thought. The Unit 2 reactor, however, was thoroughly wrecked; in service for only 13 months at the time of the accident, cleaning up the mess took 14 years and cost an estimate $973 million (about $1.73 billion in today’s money).

That is the real threat of nuclear power; it may be statistically safer in terms of deadly risk, but its economic risk is enormous. Unlike a conventionally fueled power plant, where the power source is essentially a big furnace, or a solar PV plant that doesn’t even have any moving parts, even a “simple” nuclear system is complex, and requires delicately balanced chemistry to operate efficiently, or even operate at all. And while it is true that virtually every serious nuclear incident or accident has been unique – which allows nuclear advocates to say things like, “The same kind of accident as Three Mile Island/Chernobyl/Fukushima couldn’t happen here” – the reason they have been unique is because there is almost an infinite number of ways a nuclear power system can fail. And when it does, even if it doesn’t kill anyone or poison the surrounding environment, the cost of cleaning up the mess may be more than what the plant is worth, and take longer than what it did to build the thing in the first place.

Bill Gates’ nuclear wave of the past (Nov 14)

ONE of the things driving the persistent search for a “nuclear solution” to the Philippines’ energy needs is the apparent availability of several new technologies that, on the surface, seem to overcome some of the significant drawbacks of standard nuclear power plant designs. Small modular reactors (SMRs) are said to hold some promise, particularly in their floating version, which was discussed a few columns ago. Another technology that at first glance seems to be within reach is what is called the traveling wave reactor (TWR), which is being pursued by TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates.

A TWR is a form of breeder reactor in which fertile material such as natural uranium, depleted uranium, spent fuel from conventional nuclear reactors, thorium, or some combination of these materials is converted and undergoes fission – “burns,” in technical jargon – after being initiated by a small amount of fissile material, usually uranium-235. The fission zone moves away from the initiation point as the fuel is consumed, hence the “traveling wave” description, leaving behind depleted fission products in its wake. The TWR is cooled by liquid sodium, which is used to heat water into steam to drive turbines and generators.

The biggest advantage of a TWR is its economical use of fuel. First, it uses material that is otherwise unusable in standard reactors; “fertile” refers to material that cannot undergo direct fission, but can be converted to fissionable material through absorption of neutrons. Second, because the reaction process is actually rather inefficient – only 25 to 35 percent of the fertile material is converted and undergoes nuclear fission, the TWR’s own fuel can be recycled one or two times. In several talks promoting the technology, Gates has pointed out that the US has a massive stockpile of usable fuel for TWRs, including over 700,000 tons of depleted uranium, and that a medium-sized TWR could theoretically run for 40 years before requiring refueling. 

This hypothetically makes the cost of electricity generated by a TWR on a per-megawatt basis much lower than other forms of nuclear power, and as a consequence more competitive with other power generation options such as coal, gas, or hydroelectric. The concept has been studied off and on since about 1958, but was only subjected to intensive work beginning in 2006 when TerraPower was formed.

In 2015, TerraPower signed an agreement with the Chinese government for the development of a 600-megawatt (MW) demonstration TWR by 2018-2022, with one or more commercial-scale plants of 1150 MW to follow sometime during the late 2020s. That agreement was canceled in January 2019, however, due to restrictions on nuclear technology transfer to China imposed by the Trump administration, according to Bill Gates.

Been there, done that

Geopolitics may have been an immediate reason for ending the experiment in China, but even under favorable circumstances, it is unlikely TerraPower would be able to come anywhere close to meeting its optimistic timeline or its cost estimates, mired as the design is in technical problems that have yet to be overcome. The sodium-based reactor system has been intensively studied since the late 1950s, because using sodium – actually a form of molten salt – as a coolant presents certain advantages; the material is an excellent heat exchanger, and a sodium-cooled reactor can run at low pressure, which simplifies the coolant system to some extent.

However, the use of sodium requires exotic metals for components in the system due to being highly corrosive, and most sodium-cooled reactor systems have been balky and difficult to operate at commercial scale. The two most recent commercial sodium reactor attempts, France’s Superphenix reactor and Japan’s Monju facility, were both utter failures. The Superphenix ran at an average capacity factor of less than seven percent in 11 years of operation before being shut down in 1996. Monju, brought online in 1995, almost immediately suffered a sodium leak and fire and was shut down until May 2010; it managed to run for less than four months before suffering another accident and being shut down again in August 2010, and has not been restarted since.

In a review of a report by the non-profit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), physicist M.V. Ramana of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, dismissed the TWR concept in its entirety.  “Sodium cooled fast neutron reactors have been pursued by several countries around the world. The lesson from the many decades of such pursuit has been that these reactors are expensive, are prone to operational problems and sodium leaks, and are susceptible to severe accidents under some circumstances,” he wrote. “There is no evidence that the Traveling Wave Reactor will overcome any of these. It is not convincing even on paper.”Like most critics of the TWR idea, Ramana pointed out the obvious: The main selling point of the TWR, that it can make use of what has become an enormous stockpile of cheap fuel is a complete non-issue. Fuel, even if it is newly mined and processed uranium, represents less than two percent of the capital costs of a nuclear plant of any type. A TWR, if one is to be built, is unavoidably more expensive to fabricate than a conventional nuclear system of the same capacity due to the demands of the sodium cooled design. Therefore, any cost savings from the fuel would be greatly exceeded by other capital costs, even over a very long operational life, which so far, no sodium-based reactor has been able to demonstrate.

October Highlights from the Print Edition: When Privatization Fails

THIS was my favorite column of the month, and it received some thoughtful commentary from a number of readers. Unfortunately, due to a rather bizarre glitch – the hyperlink redirects one to a 2011-vintage news article about Syria – it no longer appears online, so I am copying it here in its entirety; it was originally published in The Manila Times on October 15.

When privatization fails

LAST week, the public, the media, and some lawmakers erupted after a threatening statement was issued by Manila Water that claimed it would have to impose a “780 percent” increase in water rates and tear up several hundred kilometers of streets if it was compelled to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that imposed heavy fines on the company and its counterpart concessionaire Maynilad. This is what is known in business parlance as “a dick move,” and it was properly regarded as such by everyone who read it.

This is not the first time one or both of Metro Manila’s two water providers have been taken to task for attempting to grossly abuse their customers. Whatever else results, the current case should encourage a careful reassessment of the wisdom and efficacy of privatization of basic public services.

The Supreme Court ruling, which was issued in early August, upheld a 2011 decision by the Court of Appeals, which in turn had confirmed a lower court ruling that the two water concessionaires had violated the Clean Water Act of 2004 by failing to provide sewerage connections to all their customers within the five-year timeframe provided by the law. The 12-0 decision (two Justices recused themselves for having been associated with the CA at the time of that court’s ruling) imposed a huge penalty on both water concessionaires: A P921 million lump-sum fine for each, plus an additional penalty of P322,000 per day from the date of the Supreme Court ruling until the expected sewerage network is completed.

Both concessionaires have appealed the Supreme Court’s ruling, but Maynilad has refrained from making inflammatory public comments about it. In this, they seem to have learned their lesson from a scandal in 2013, when they and Manila Water were denied a requested rate increase and actually ordered to reduce rates after it was revealed that they had been rolling their corporate income tax liabilities into their customer charges. Maynilad’s attempts to publicly explain their shenanigans then were met with appropriate derision, so they have apparently decided to let their counterpart absorb the punishment this time around.

For its part, Manila Water quickly tried to walk back its earlier statement after it was pointed out by regulator Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System that the concession agreements with both suppliers specifically prohibit the passing of “penalties, interest charges on late payments, financing costs, bad debt provisions and depreciation provisions” on to consumers.

In a rather comical statement issued on Friday, Manila Water said, “We never stated that it will be an impending increase nor did we make any statement about passing [it] on to consumers.” Even though that is exactly what everyone heard, what Manila Water meant was, “…The 780-percent increase included in the pleading in our motion for reconsideration to the Supreme Court is what it would have cost to build wastewater facilities to comply with the Supreme Court decision subject of our motion for reconsideration,” which, as capital expenditures are allowed to be recovered through customer charges according to the concession agreement, amounts to precisely the same thing as a “780-percent rate increase.”

The bigger picture

Underneath the semantic tangle of Manila Water’s public statements and its appeal of the Supreme Court ruling are a few stark, unavoidable facts.

Since 1997, when the role of the MWSS was reduced from service provider (a job it was doing very badly) to mere regulator and the actual services were outsourced to Maynilad and Manila Water, both companies have been collecting an “environmental fee” from their customers, ostensibly to fund the completion of metro-wide sewerage networks, infrastructure that was later formally mandated by the 2004 Clean Water Act. This was, in fact, the main point of the Act, to eliminate the appalling level of water pollution caused from sewage discharge into bodies of water, and groundwater contamination from hundreds of thousands of aging septic tanks.

Over the past 22 years, however, the companies’ progress towards providing a sewerage system – a stipulation of their concession agreements and a legal obligation per the Clean Water Act – can only be charitably described as modest at best. In its appeal, Manila Water has even had the temerity to argue that the Clean Water Act does not say what it actually says (thus again demonstrating a unique sort of selective corporate illiteracy), claiming that the law only required them to “interconnect” customers to “existing” sewerage systems. By 2009, the timeframe allowed by the Act, it had done that, or at least done as much as it could, Manila Water said. There were 63,000 customers (either individual homes or businesses, subdivisions, or large buildings such as condominiums) that potentially could have been hooked up to the “existing” system. Manila Water was able to accommodate 61,000 of those; any more would have overwhelmed the system, the company explained.

For reference, Manila Water has approximately six million customers in its East Zone concession area, while West Zone supplier Maynilad has about 9.5 million.

Many critics of the MWSS and the water companies lay the blame for the entire sorry state of affairs with regard to Metro Manila’s water supply on the concept of privatization of public services, and in a way, they are absolutely correct. The rationale behind privatization is that private enterprise is much more agile than public enterprise, and that the profit incentive encourages private companies to deliver services as efficiently as possible. Privatization often does work; a familiar example would be the comparative superiority of the LRT-1 and LRT-2 (notwithstanding the recent fire damage to the latter, which appears to have been the result of an unforeseeable accident), which are privately operated, over the state-run MRT-3.

Privatization, however, clearly carries some large-scale risks, and these are manifested in the seemingly endless woes associated with water and sanitation services in Metro Manila. Concession agreements that are too favorable to concessionaires coupled with insufficient regulatory authority, inadequate enforcement tools, and weak enforcement performance have removed the incentives to provide efficient and cost-effective service. As a consequence, customers are bearing high costs for things they should not, such as corporate income taxes, unbuilt infrastructure, and double-digit system losses, while at the same time faced with frequent supply constraints.

The question now is whether or not privatization itself, in the context of the water and sanitation system specifically or any public services generally can be improved, or should be discarded. Either solution will require a great deal of analysis, effort, and financial resources; but if whatever solution chosen results in something better than the current situation, those will be investments and not costs.

October Highlights from the Print Edition: The Grace Poe Show

THIS was not my best column of the month (at least as far as I’m concerned), but it was the most popular by a wide margin:

If there was a ‘dumb ideas’ contest, Grace Poe would win

What is truly inexplicable – unless one wants to go to a very dark place where the fundamentally irredeemable flaws of this entire society are revealed – is how someone as aggressively incompetent and unaware of the world around her as Grace Poe has such staying power in Philippine politics. This is a person who knows nothing, reveals it every time she opens her mouth, but says it with the confidence of one who believes her authority is divinely ordained – by virtue of being the adopted (some still say illegitimate) daughter of a long-dead matinee idol and a multi-term Senator, and literally nothing else.

Mercifully, perhaps, the particular lunacy I addressed in this column dropped off the public radar in a few days, but with Grace Poe it is only a matter of time; she will be back, with something equally or even more ridiculous.

‘Dick Move’ is actually traditional US policy toward the Kurds

AS the details of President Donald Jane Trump’s attempts to do exactly what forced Richard Nixon from office grow in scope and credibility, Cheeto Mussolini is coming apart faster than a Peep® in a microwave and behaving in an increasingly irrational manner, even by Trump’s usual lunatic standards. Because he is obviously wholly consumed by the ongoing impeachment inquiry against him, it is tempting to assume that everything he has done since the scandal blew up in his face has somehow been a reaction to it. However, that may not always be the case. In his latest controversial move, for which he has been thoroughly and appropriately condemned from almost every direction, Donald Trump was actually acting less like a “talking bag of diarrhea” and more like a “typical American president.”

On October 6, after a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered the withdrawal of a small contingent of US troops that had been working with Kurdish forces in Northern Syria in order to allow Turkey to launch an invasion. This immediately brought howls of protest that Trump was abandoning a key ally, even from some of his staunchest supporters, including Fox News and spineless toady Sen. Lindsey Graham. And to the surprise of no one, Turkey immediately acted, carrying out nearly 200 airstrikes against Kurdish positions within 24 hours of Trump’s order to US personnel to get out of the way.

The criticism has been justified, mostly because of the practical implications of Agent Orange’s decision, which former National Security Advisor Susan Rice called “batshit crazy,” and because it was yet another expression of an ad hoc, impulsive foreign policy that has made every situation it has been applied to worse than it was before.

As Rice explained, the Kurds have essentially carried on a proxy war against the ISIS terrorist group in Syria on America’s behalf. Provided substantial financial and materiel support by the US (hence the presence of active US personnel in Northern Syria), the Kurds virtually destroyed ISIS, slaughtering most of them and keeping thousands more that had the good sense to surrender safely locked away.

Subduing ISIS has come at a stiff cost; more than 11,000 Kurds have reportedly been killed in fighting in Syria. Abandoning them is not only a dick move from a moral standpoint and will discourage anyone else from cooperating with the US, Rice explained, it will also very likely lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Late last week, the Kurds (reportedly with the help of a few US personnel who were nonplussed by their Commander-in-Chief’s order, and were determined to at least follow it as slowly as they could get away with) foiled two mass breakout attempts by imprisoned ISIS fighters, but just about every knowledgeable observer considers it just a matter of time before they are all free. Although the Kurds are renowned as some of the most fearsome warriors on the planet, they likely do not have the numbers or the resources to withstand the Turkish onslaught, which will leave the ISIS fighters unguarded. And sure enough, by Sunday there were reports that hundreds of ISIS family members and probably a considerable number of fighters had already escaped detention as the Kurds have been forced to retreat by the Turkish advance.

Trump was clearly taken aback at the force of the criticism of his move, but because he is a moron, only made things worse by trying to explain it. Initially he tried to justify his order for the US personnel to be withdrawn as being in line with his oft-stated position that the US should remove itself from the various Mideast wars in which it has gotten entangled. When that failed to impress anyone – because it is a position many disagree with, including key allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia – instead of limiting the damage by keeping his mouth shut, Trump tried to downplay the Kurds’ value to the US by saying, “they didn’t help us in World War II.”

Although it doesn’t make Trump’s decision any less execrable, the historical fact is that his throwing the Kurds under the bus is not unique. The Kurds have long been treated as a disposal tool in US Mideast policy, and Trump’s betrayal is just the latest episode in a shameful legacy going back almost a century.

Born to be snubbed

The Kurds, which number somewhere 25 million and 35 million people, inhabit a region that covers parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. They first appeared on the world radar in the wave of nationalism of the later part of the 19th century, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was beginning to collapse under its own weight. The end of the war seemed to finally give the Kurds a chance at having their own homeland, and the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) that dismembered the Ottoman Empire even made a provision for a Kurdish homeland. Even though the US, which by that time had rejected membership in the League of Nations, was not a party to the treaty, it supported it as the fastest way to reestablish peace in that part of the world.

However, this would turn out to be just the first of many betrayals of the Kurds. The onerous terms of the Treaty of Sèvres sparked an explosion of Turkish nationalism led by Mustafa Kemal, and the establishment of a Turkish republic with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The US backed this treaty as well, because it traded recognition for Turkey within its modern-day borders for Turkish withdrawal of claims to any of the rest of the former Ottoman Empire – most significantly, the oil-rich territories in Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. That it consigned most of the Kurds to Turkish rule and ended their short-lived dream of a country of their own was inconsequential; they simply didn’t fit into the big picture.

In 1927, Great Britain – which had carved out Iraq for itself from the old Ottoman lands, while France took Syria – made a feeble attempt to make amends for the Treaty of Lausanne by tacitly supporting a Kurdish “Republic of Ararat,” mainly because it lay completely within Turkish territory and not in Iraq. However, Turkish control of access to the Black Sea and its importance as a buffer between the Soviet Union and the Mediterranean were more valuable to Britain, and so it quietly acquiesced in Turkish action to stamp out this second abortive attempt to establish a Kurdish state, which, like the first, lasted about three years. The bitter enmity between the Kurds and the Turks dates from this time.

America first

After World War II, the US assumed the mantle of the Mideast’s biggest douchebag from Great Britain, and raised kicking the Kurds to the curb to a whole new level. It began during the rule of Abdel Karim Kassem in Iraq in 1958-1963; Kassem was uncooperative, so the US covertly armed Iraqi Kurds to force him from power. A military coup in 1963 (in which a young Saddam Hussein played a part) accomplished that aim much more effectively, however. The US, not wishing to pressure the new Iraqi government with ethnic unrest, immediately cut off aid to the Kurds, even turning a blind eye to Iraq’s use of US weapons against them.

It happened again about 10 years later. Iraq, now under the de facto rule of Saddam Hussein, by this time had gravitated toward the Soviets, which was alarming to both the US and the Shah of Iran. Sometime after a meeting between the Shah and President Nixon in May 1972, a covert program to again arm the Iraqi Kurds was initiated, with the weapons being funneled through Iran.

The project was a sublime, but horrifying tour de force on the part of Nixon’s security advisor (and later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger. The Kurdish uprising had the desired effect of forcing Iraq out of sphere of the Soviets and to the bargaining table with the Shah on the basis of the two countries’ “common problem” with the recalcitrant Kurds. When an agreement was signed in March 1975, the US immediately cut off aid to the Kurds in Iraq, who, predictably enough, were attacked and nearly wiped out by Iraqi forces. This too was part of Kissinger’s strategy; having used the Kurds to bring Saddam Hussein into line, withdrawing support and letting Hussein attack them would (and did) discourage Iranian Kurds from rebelling against the Shah.

Later that year, when Kissinger was criticized for the betrayal of the Kurds during testimony before the US House Intelligence Committee, he was typically unrepentant. “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” Kissinger told the committee.

After the ouster of the ailing Shah in 1979 stood the US position in the region on its head, the Reagan administration curried favor with Saddam Hussein, as he spent most of the decade engaged in a brutal war with Iran. This obliged the US to overlook some of Hussein’s atrocities, such as the open use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds. When the Iran-Iraq War ended with both sides battered but their leadership intact, US support for Hussein became a liability, one that Hussein himself helpfully provided an opportunity to resolve with his invasion of Kuwait in late 1990.

President George H.W. Bush, who was intimately familiar with the usefulness of the Kurds thanks to his long career in US intelligence and national security, famously (or infamously, as it turned out) called on “the Iraqi military and Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside” as the US launched its massive attack against Iraq in January 1991. The Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq and the Shia population of southern Iraq (the so-called Marsh Arabs) took Bush at his word and revolted, only to watch in horror as the US stood down after the Iraqi forces were ejected from Kuwait. Saddam Hussein struck back, and both the Kurds and Shiites were savagely attacked.

This was a bad look for the US, however, and threatened to squander whatever moral ascendancy it had gained from kicking Hussein’s ass just a few weeks earlier. It also temporarily drove a wedge between the US and Britain, and so at largely British insistence, the allies established some protection for the rebellious minorities by declaring large sections of northern and southern Iraq “no-fly zones.”

The truth, which the US government couldn’t admit publicly but that even dull-witted observers could figure out, was that the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings were problematic for US relations with its more valuable allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Whatever else could be said about Saddam Hussein, he held together Iraq with an iron grip, and that was preferred, because it kept the Kurds (enemies of the Turks) and the Marsh Arabs (supported by Iran, the enemy of the Saudis) in check. What Bush had been hoping for was certainly not a democratic movement in Iraq brought about by an ethnic and sectarian uprising, but a military coup that would have maintained Saddam Hussein’s tight control over the country, but without his troublesome presence. When that was not forthcoming, Bush simply backed off, justifying abandoning the Kurds and Shiites by saying that the whole point of the Persian Gulf War was not actually to change the Iraqi regime (despite his having said exactly that earlier) but to chase it out of Kuwait.

Protecting Turkey

Since the end of the Gulf War, US policy toward the Kurds has been to defer to Turkey; Trump’s betrayal of them in Syria, while no less egregious because of it, is simply a continuation of this policy. From a certain brutal point of view, it makes sense. Turkey, for better or worse – perhaps worse, now, because it is led by an Islamofascist who fancies himself the second coming of Ottoman greatness – is a NATO ally, and access to its installations is critical to what the US sees as its mission in the Levant. Thus, while the US can champion the cause of Kurds in Iraq, especially now that it has taken over the task of holding Iraq together in the vacuum left by Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster, that goodwill only applies to those Kurds who stay in Iraq and do not pose a threat to Turkey. That includes occasionally allowing Turkey to cross its border to preemptively attack the Kurds; in 2007, the US stood aside and let Turkey conduct a heavy bombing campaign in northern Iraq.

There is some hope that this time might be different, that the US bargain with the devil with regard to Turkey might blow up in America’s face. Turkey’s Erdogan is deeply unpopular and presiding over a country where social and economic tensions are building, and Trump is, well, Donald Trump, a narcissistic sociopath with the mental capacity of a cinder block and the ethical standards of a Gila Monster. But no one should count on it; the Kurds certainly are not at this point. History, after all, has a way of rhyming when it doesn’t actually repeat itself.

A Field Guide to the Trump Impeachment

Illustration from Effin' Birds (@effinbirds) on Twitter. This shit is hilarious, go check it out.IT was a moment some of us have been waiting for since the surreal night of November 8, 2016 when the appalling possibility that the United States might actually elect Donald Trump president became a soul-crushing reality: On Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House of Representatives would begin formal impeachment inquiry proceedings against the president, following the emergence of an anonymous “whistle-blower” report about apparent efforts by Trump to use his office to solicit foreign interference in the upcoming 2020 US elections.

That is an extraordinarily mild way to characterize the situation, and I’m surprised I was able to write that without having a stroke, or suffocating due to uncontrollable laughter.

The reality is that what is happening right now in the United States is a completely unprecedented, mind-bending political conflagration. An utter garbage fire. The specific allegation being subjected to the House inquiry is just the beginning, and things are going to get a lot messier; as we will soon see, Congress’s move kicked the rotting pumpkin of the Trump White House, and a lot of reeking, gag-inducing nastiness is going to spill out.

We know this, because there is an eerie precedent for it in American history, the near-impeachment and subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The Congressional inquiry into that matter was a two-year-long soap opera of damning revelations and Nixon confidants trying to throw each other under the bus to save their own skins (which didn’t work all that well, several of them went to prison anyway), while in the background, the president himself did whatever he could to derail or deflect attention from the investigation.

Student of history that I am, this drama will occupy my attention for as long as goes on, and is going to result, I am quite certain, in many more musings after this post. But for the sake of providing what I hope is a simple summary for my audience outside the US who may very well be wondering just what the hell is going on in Washington, I will try to guess at your questions and answer them here.

What is Trump accused of doing?

As of now, he is not technically accused of anything; that will come later – much later – when the House of Representatives prepares Articles of Impeachment, a set of specific charges against the president that will be tried by the Senate acting as an impeachment court. If found guilty, he will be removed from office, and at that point, might be subject to ordinary criminal proceedings, depending on the charges.

Okay, so what is he alleged to have done?

Unlike Nixon, whose specific illegal actions in the Watergate case took nearly two years to uncover, Trump – who does these things because he has the intellect of a toadstool, and surrounds himself with like-minded people – has helpfully revealed his wrongdoing right off the bat. On Wednesday, the day after the Pelosi announcement of an impeachment inquiry, the White House released a detailed record of a July 25 phone call by Trump to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked the latter to help investigate former Vice President and likely 2020 election opponent Joe Biden and his son to aid his reelection campaign, and suggested that the continuation of US aid to the Ukraine (which he had just unilaterally suspended) would be contingent upon that cooperation.

Of course, that’s not what Cheeto Mussolini and his crew were hoping everyone would read into it, but the subject matter of the call was apparently so worrisome to some officials in the Administration that they were openly discussing whether or not they were legally exposed. These concerns were shared with an as-yet unnamed CIA official attached to the White House, who on August 12 filed a detailed whistle-blower’s complaint to the Director of National Intelligence, and addressed to the Chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. As the Director confirmed in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday – where he was interrogated as to why he took the complaint to the White House first before delivering it to Congress – the unnamed author of the complaint strictly followed legal procedure in filing it.

Because impeachment is a political rather than a judicial process, the grounds for it defined in the US Constitution manage to be both vague and narrow at the same time:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

In the case of President F.O. Nazi Punk, the prevailing opinion is that soliciting the interference of a foreign government in a US election amounts to treason; whether the issue stops with that or (as seems likely) will grow to include other charges is something that will be determined over the coming weeks and months.

What happens next?

Although there is a specified process for impeachment, it happens so rarely that every case is a unique event. Through 230 years of organized history and 45 presidencies, this is the only the fourth time a formal impeachment inquiry has been launched. Only two presidents, Andrew Johnson in 1867 and Bill Clinton in 1998, have actually been impeached in the strict sense of the word – i.e., been subjected to a Senate trial. Neither were convicted, and of course, Nixon resigned just before the House was to vote on the articles of impeachment passed by the House Judiciary Committee.

Although Pelosi and several other leading Democratic politicians (the Democrats control the House of Representatives by a wide margin, while Trump’s Republican Party controls the Senate) have said that they want to wrap up the inquiry quickly and send the articles of impeachment to the Senate at an early date, possibly as soon as next month, this is unlikely to happen.

Rather than create a select committee to deal with the impeachment inquiry, or give the Judiciary Committee (the traditional starting point of impeachment proceedings, though this is not dictated by the Constitution) control over the entire process, Pelosi has decided for now to allow the six House committees currently investigating the Ukraine and other Trump issues to continue their work, and to formulate the articles of impeachment from the outcomes of those inquiries; collating all that information and preparing the actual articles for a House vote would probably fall to the Judiciary Committee.

The downside of that is that it will be a time-consuming process, and will likely stretch well into next year, which is problematic because of the election in November. On the positive side – unless you’re a Trump supporter, in which case you should probably rethink your life – the ambition of the various committees to have their individual work reflected in the eventual articles of impeachment likely means much more of Trump’s record of majestic bullshit will be the subject of formal charges.

Grab a comfortable seat and get some snacks, this is about to get really interesting.

How not to be a Hack, Lesson 2: You are not a stenographer

HERE is an example of an infuriatingly common problem with the way modern-day journalism is practiced, an item that caught my attention because it looked like a good topic for my Sunday column this week:

“SENATE Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Wednesday warned that at least 1,200 companies were poised to leave while a “good number” of investors were having second thoughts because of the government’s plan to remove tax perks under a second package of tax reforms.”

Just to put the topic in a little context, the tax reform package being debated in the Senate would reduce corporate income taxes, but also “rationalize” fiscal incentives by removing many of them and gathering administration of the rest under a single agency. The controversial measure has pitted the government, which feels that the current incentive regime is uncompetitive and is being taken advantage of by companies that don’t really need tax perks, against the business community, which of course doesn’t want to lose them. Drilon, a bloated plutocrat since birth, is evidently siding with business on this one.

The common mistake made here is confusing notoriety with credibility. In a general sense, yes, what Frank Drilon says is newsworthy, particularly when he says it during Senate floor proceedings, which are a matter of public record. Drilon is a senior elected official, so presumably the public has an interest in what he says in the course of discharging his office.

His position, however, only entitles him to be listened to; it does not automatically confer competence and authority over whatever subject matter is at hand. At no point in Drilon’s remarks did he provide any evidence to back the specific numbers in his assertions: 1,200 companies that would leave the Philippines, and 150,000 workers who would lose their jobs. One could hope that he had some factual basis for his claim, but for all anyone knows, Drilon could have figuratively pulled those numbers from his prodigious ass.

Simply reporting what Sen. Drilon said results in a maddeningly incomplete story, and worse still, a story that gives an impression of fact, even if that it is not its intent. As the story is presented, the news item is that “1,200 businesses will close and 150,000 workers will become unemployed if the tax reform package is passed without at least being significantly amended,” and the primary source is Frank Drilon. Based on his position alone, however, Drilon is only credible as a primary source for news about the Senate; absent any explanation of where he got the information he is sharing, he is simply offering an opinion.

The obvious reaction on the part of the reporter should be to challenge Drilon as to the source of his information. If that is not possible, or no explanation is offered, there are three ways this story could be approached that would make it credible:

Good – Clarify that the news item was merely a statement by Drilon, and that he offered no evidence to support his assertion. In this case, the story is no longer “what Drilon said,” but rather “Drilon said something.” This story will not be of any actual use to readers, but it will at least be technically correct and neutral.

Better – Report the unsupported statement by Drilon, then seek a viewpoint from the opposite side (in this case, the Department of Finance or the Department of Budget and Management). The readers can then draw their own conclusions as to whether the pro or con point of view is more credible.

Best – Report Drilon’s statement; a counterpoint by a proponent of the tax reform plan; and an analytical viewpoint from a third-party, recognized subject matter expert, who may support one or the other views or offer a completely different one. This presents readers with a reasonably well-rounded overview of the entire topic, and allows them to form informed opinions about it.

Simply repeating what an official says without context or corroboration is not reporting a story, it’s taking dictation. Build your skills and credibility by learning to question more.

The Wages of Arrogance, Paid in Full

IT seems somehow unfair that a tribe who are considered the most isolated people on Earth were the subject of international attention this week, but that is exactly what happened to the Sentinelese after they reacted predictably to a trespasser on their remote Indian Ocean island.

The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island, an outlier of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and are considered the last pre-Neolithic people on Earth, direct descendants of the first people in Asia who migrated from Africa about 75,000 years ago. Nobody knows how long the Sentinelese have been there; some anthropologists have estimated the tribe may be between 15,000 and 30,000 years old.

In fact, nobody knows much about the Sentinelese at all. Written descriptions of the tribe date back to at least the 14th century but are vague at best, and an attempt by the British colonial government to establish contact in the late 1800s ended in disaster. For a period of about 15 years beginning in the late 1970s there were intermittent attempts by scientists to observe the Sentinelese up close, but these were unsuccessful; until this week, the last report of any substance about the islanders came from the Indian Coast Guard, which attempted to survey the island by air in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The reason why nobody knows much about the Sentinelese is because the Sentinelese have made it abundantly clear at every encounter with someone from the outside world that they want absolutely nothing to do with them. Anyone who has ever dared to venture onto or even within shouting distance of North Sentinel Island has been met with a savage response. The Indian Coast Guard helicopter sent to ascertain the condition of the tribe after the 2004 tsunami was famously greeted with a hail of arrows from the Sentinelese (the picture at the beginning of this article is a still from a short video the crew managed to shoot as they were fleeing the area); in the official report of the mission, the helicopter pilot noted drily that the tribe was evidently “fighting fit” despite the disaster.

In 2006, two fishermen poaching in the waters near North Sentinel Island ran aground and were hacked to death by the tribe, leading the Indian government to declare the island off-limits; by law, no one is allowed to approach within three nautical miles of North Sentinel Island. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard mount regular patrols to keep trespassers away, and even avoid violating the cordon themselves except in emergencies. The reason for the prohibition is to protect both would-be visitors and the Sentinelese from almost certain death; because of their isolation, it is presumed the tribespeople do not have immunity to most common diseases – even something as mundane to us as a cold virus could very well completely wipe them out.

Pest Removal, Sentinelese-style

To John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old, self-professed evangelical Christian missionary and adventurer, this unique little society needed to be “brought into the kingdom of Jesus.” And so with full knowledge of the ban on approaching North Sentinel Island – in his diary he opined that “God was hiding him” from the Indian patrols – he hired some fishermen to take him just off the shore of North Sentinel Island, and set off in a canoe to bring the heathens the gifts of a soccer ball, scissors, safety pins, some fish, and the Word of the Lord.

The news reports about what actually happened have varied, but it seems Chau made two attempts. The first, on November 16, resulted in the Sentinelese breaking his canoe, and forcing him to swim to safety back to the fishing boat sans gifts but sporting a couple of brand-new arrow wounds, including one through the Bible he was carrying. His second attempt the following day was his last; the fishermen observing from offshore reported seeing some tribesmen dragging Chau’s body along the beach and then burying it. The fishermen then returned to Port Blair, the administrative capital and largest town of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, to break the news to Chau’s waiting friends that the Sentinelese had been no more interested in joining the kingdom of Jesus than they had been those of modern India, Emperor Hirohito, Queen Victoria, or the various Indian maharajahs, South Asian sultans, or Chinese emperors who have come and gone over the centuries.

In the aftermath of Chau’s death, Indian authorities arrested seven persons in connection with violation of the ban on the island – five fishermen, and two friends of Chau, according to various news reports. The authorities also registered a case of murder against “unknown persons,” but later explained that doing so was mainly a matter of keeping paperwork in order so that Chau’s cause of death could be accurately recorded, and that they had no intention of bothering the islanders about it. As of now, at the behest of the US consul, Indian officials and researchers are studying whether it would be feasible to try to recover Chau’s body; the tone of official comments on the matter, however, suggests that they probably won’t.

No Sympathy

What has been interesting to watch as the story has cycled through the media this week is the differences in the angle taken by the US and global media, and the universally harsh reaction of readers to it.

Foreign media, for the most part, has focused on the Sentinelese and their protected status; this headline from The Irish Times is a typical example:

American media, on the other hand, has focused on the young adventurist, and made his religious conviction an extenuating circumstance to his having willfully violated the law of a foreign country, as this headline from CBS News suggests:

The public is having none of that; while a sympathizer with the man’s self-ordained cause is occasionally seen, reactions have been overwhelmingly damning:

And well the reactions ought to be damning, because John Allen Chau’s ill-conceived “mission” perfectly exemplified the arrogant, exploitative exceptionalism of evangelical Christian culture. A graduate of Oral Roberts University (founded by a real-life Elmer Gantry who once famously extorted $8 million out of his followers by claiming that God told him He “would call him home” if they didn’t cough up the money), Chau was evidently sincere in his belief that anyone not living according to the precepts of the modern white American interpretation of Pauline dogma is evil and needs to be corrected – in one of his diary entries, he referred to the North Sentinel Island society as “a last stronghold of Satan.”

His “sincere belief” is being used to somehow excuse, if not exactly justify, his destructive and self-serving objectives. It is clear he was aware that he was violating the law, beginning with entering India on a simple tourist visa – which explicitly prohibits proselytizing – with the intention of carrying out missionary activities. His diary indicates that he was clearly aware that his mission was illegal under Indian law, and that he made a plan before setting out to evade detection and arrest. And of course, he was obviously aware of the fatal risk of approaching the Sentinelese. If he was aware that his having contact with them might also be fatal to them, that too was not enough to dissuade him.

The Sentinelese are one of Earth’s rarest cultural treasures, a unique and exceedingly fragile living link with our own species’ ancient past. They have maintained an unaltered way of life since perhaps 300 centuries before the earliest tenuous seeds of Abrahamic religion even sprouted.

Yet John Allen Chau sought to destroy all this and remake it according to his own naïve and narrow conception because of his “beliefs,” which was not only a display of willful disrespect towards the Sentinelese people, but an aggressive attempt to rob humanity in general of an artifact of our collective heritage. His actions, and the dogmatic principles driving them, were no less horrifying and damnable than the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or ISIS’ destruction of Nimrud and Palmyra.

The only difference is, this time, the monument fought back. And for the time being at least, the world is probably just a little better place because it did.