Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Greg Palast’s Book Vulture’s Picnic
Texas and Tokyo
By mid-May 2010, with his presidency floating face down in the Gulf, Barack Obama had yet another crisis to deal with. Obama still had a couple of wars burning on the stove, and our troops needed, right now, “life-saving mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.”
So the President sent an emergency funding bill to Congress. Defense Secretary Robert Gates marched to Capitol Hill and said Our Boys on the front lines would be blown to bits if they did not get $1.1 billion for the mine-proof vehicles, $137 million for new body armor, and $9 billion for two nuclear power plants. Say what?
Actually, the Defense Secretary left that last one out of his testimony. I only know because an angel told me.
The angel is Harvey Wasserman of Columbus, Ohio. When God decides to smite this planet again, I know He will save Harvey from the waters, even though that means sparing Columbus. Harvey is the Cassandra of Radioactivity. For three decades, he has stared unblinking into the menacing eyes of power industry evil and the bored eyes of news editors. Harvey wanted me to sound the alarm, to bust open this billion-dollar nuclear boondoggle smuggled into the war bill inside the soldiers’ body armor. And, said Harvey, there’s a rock star who would make a donation to my investigations crew for writing it. But I don’t take money for stories if someone has their jones in it. Harvey knows that.
And I have no time. I have to get to the Gulf of Mexico, the Caspian Sea, Alaska. But this, said Harvey, is “urgent.”
WAMMToday is now on Facebook! Check the WAMMToday page for posts from this blog and more! “Like” our page today.
NEW! For the TC Events Calendar and the Actions and Action Alerts click on the tab at the top of the page and click on the item of interest to view.
Not now, Harvey.
I admit, it was tantalizing. The $9 billion takedown was so brilliantly done. The billions were concealed as a small item, by military budget standards: only $180 million for “alternative energy,” dumped in with some solar panels, appearing as part of the Army’s plan to “go green.” How some lobbyist wizards stuff $9 billion into a $180 million wrapper doesn’t matter, just that they did it. The guys behind it really knew their game. I smelled Houston.
The flimflam had that unmistakable aroma of the Houston Ship Channel where Exxon and BP dump their toxins from refining Venezuela’s heavy crude. The city that gives pollution a bad name. And the headquarters of NRG Corporation.
If there is some creepy, slithery way to tap into a free billion for some crackbrained and dangerous project, it would certainly attract NRG Corporation of Houston, Texas, and their entourage of bankers, contractors and muscled-up lobbyists.
“NRG is in,” said Harvey, but not under the name NRG. NRG changes aliases like Lady Gaga changes Order the complete book, hardbound, Kindle or eBook at www.VulturesPicnic.org13the color of her whips. This time they named themselves Nuclear Innovation of North America. NINA: That’s a good one. ”Nina” beat out twenty big-name power companies, said Harvey, to win half the $9 billion in the war bill.
I know NRG well. And NRG claims they know me: They kept a file on my penis with supposed evidence it ended up inside a rising young politician close to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. And I keep a file on them. So, for the moment, we’re even.
But no one’s giving NRG a dime, Harvey, let alone $4 billion, even if they change their name to Mother Teresa Nuclear Puppy Kisses. They’ve just come out of bankruptcy, so their investment grade rating is zorch; that means there’s no way in hell they can get government financing. Furthermore, Texas regulators officially designated NRG an “imprudent” manager, government-speak for “incompetent,” after squandering a billion dollars of their electricity customers’ money on their older South Texas plants—”you know that, Harvey”— not to mention the serious safety violations at their nuclear plants and the company’s record of massive fines paid for terrifying disregard for safety rules. Harvey, Harvey. This won’t happen. It will, he said. They’ve got a terrific “beard.” They teamed up with Westinghouse Nuclear, and they’re promising American jobs.
Harvey, there is no Westinghouse Nuclear anymore.
Yeah, there is. The Japanese bought the name.
And “Nuclear Innovation” has brought in Tokyo Electric Power to reassure the Department of Energy that they have “prudent” competent guys on top of the project because of Tokyo Electric’s excellent record operating nukes in Japan. NRG is giving Tokyo a 20 percent slice; that’s nearly a billion dollars out of the treasury subsidy.
I’m googling while Harvey continues his begging. And there it is, the press release from “Innovation,” dated May 10, 2010, not a week old:
TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company], acting as technical consultant, has provided the benefit of its experience achieved in developing, constructing, commissioning and operating the Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR) to the project. TEPCO also will continue to contribute to the essential task of training the highly skilled workforce.
So, Harvey, what you want me to do is tell my network and my editors to hold the presses because I have a story on how the White House is secretly funding a bunch of has-been operators to build nuclear plants in Texas with some Japanese guys with little hands who buy little girls’ dirty panties from vending machines. I read that somewhere. Is it true?
I can’t sell this one, Harvey.
Then Harvey decided to show me some leg. “Shaw is the A/E.” He knew I’d stay on the line for that. “A/E” means Architect-Engineer, the firm that draws up and actually builds the plant, pours the cement, bolts the panels to the wall. Shaw, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the latest corporate mask for another shape-shifter, Stone & Webster Engineering Company. In 1988, a jury found the company had deliberately falsified a nuclear plant’s ability to withstand an earthquake.
Earthquake, shmearthquake. The company settled and the judge let them off the hook with a payment of $50,000. I’m sure they celebrated with a $60,000 lunch.
The investigator who uncovered the Stone & Webster fraud, Greg Palast, wasn’t too happy about that. I don’t hold grudges. I do hold files.
And here comes Stone again, dressed as Shaw.
Fascinating: How were a bunch of guys from Tokyo Electric, who sing the company song in the morning and can’t hold their liquor, going to “train” a bunch of Houston rattlesnakes and Louisiana swamp rats?
“Still can’t do it, Harvey.”
But then, I did.
It was after I got The Brick through the door.
Three days after I guiltily put off Harvey, a package, no return address, no name on it, came from Houston. A pile thick as a cinder block.
I don’t know who sent it. I don’t ask. Whoever sent it took a hell of a risk to get it to me––career suicide, even imprisonment.
Sure I was tempted. But the Central Asia visa application can’t be changed—getting one was already a dicey dance involving a cockamamie story for the Azerbaijan dictatorship’s security ministry. You just don’t show up in the Islamic republic like it’s Club Med.
But that radioactive brick, the hot pile of documents from inside NRG, just sitting there in a rubber band, kept whispering, “Just take a look. Come on, you know you want to look.” I looked.
Inside: lots and lots of paper, a crazy mix. Hand notes, financial spreadsheets, scribbles, filings to government, and most marked “confidential.”
Now what? Maybe in Sam Spade movies or Batman or Columbo, the smoking gun smokes: the candlestick with the little bit of skull still stuck to it, the letter that screams “guilty guilty guilty.” That’s not how it works, at least not in the big cases, the billion-dollar cons involving corporate chiefs with accountants and finance mavens who could dazzle Merlin. Incriminating info is chopped up like a jigsaw puzzle thrown on the floor, with most of the pieces missing; it’s written in techno-Croatian, and if math is your problem, forget it. And it can take months or years to make it tell its story.
But this one went click, click, click. In a murder case, you look for fingerprints that match. In fraud, look for numbers that don’t match. And here were two that didn’t match—a lot. Order the complete book, hardbound, Kindle or eBook at www.VulturesPicnic.org15After a day and a half I couldn’t spare, I saw that “Innovation” had given the federal government what looked like their price for building the plant: $5 billion. In the crazy-ass world of nuclear, that’s cheap, a winner.
Then there was another batch of numbers, some put down in private handwritten notes sent from Tokyo, which looked to me like the reactor builder’s private estimate of the cost of the plant, what they would actually charge to build it. The note is marked over with in confidence and proprietary. And the numbers add up to seven billion dollars.
Call me crazy, but I just felt something wasn’t straight.
Two numbers, two continents, off by $1.4 billion.
I’m sure there’s an explanation. There’s always an explanation.
I can’t say no to Harvey Angel and sleep at night. What if I die and have to explain myself to the Lord and all I can do is mumble about deadline conflicts?
So, before I board for Central Asia, I slam down a story, “Nuclear Option in War Bill—Smells Like Fraud,” an exposé about Houston grifters, Japanese nuclear guys, and Louisiana tricksters. I’ve never had a spec story turned away in my entire career, which is why Harvey put the burden on me. “Never” came to an end. I got back a cheery e-mail ending with,
“It’s an interesting story but doesn’t quite fit for us.”
What fit for them was a story titled “Lesbians Who Love Male Gay Porn.” I kid you not. 1
I shoved the Radioactive Brick to the corner of my sloppy desk, where it slept quietly for almost a year, until March 11, 2011. Then it went critical.