Radioactive water and the 2013 VA Governor’s Race

I have an article in today’s National Memo on the politics of uranium mining in this year’s race for the governorship of Virginia: Radioactive?: “Uranium Mining Ban May Become Hot Issue In Virginia’s Election.” There’s a huge uranium deposit in southern Virginia. But in 1982, the Virginia Assembly passed a moratorium on uranium mining in the state. Mining proponents have been trying to end the moratorium for several years, opposed by what several lobbyists told me was the broadest coalition in decades.

One of the most interesting people I interviewed was former dairy farmer Bill Speiden, who got involved more than 3 decades ago when a uranium mining firm offered him a mining lease on his Orange County farm. Speiden, who has since quit the dairy business and sold his farm, is still fighting to keep the moratorium in place.

Before he signed a lease for his farm, which had tested as the most radioactive spot in the state, Speiden took a trip out west to see exactly what uranium mining looked like.

“I was looking forward to the royalties,” Speiden told me. “It looked like it would beat the hell out of milking cows. I went into this positively.”

But what Speiden saw appalled him: “What we found out was the agriculturally and economically, uranium mining was very often disasterous.”

Speiden and his late wife came back, developed a slide show that supporters of a moratorium showed more than 100 times, and put together a winning coalition of environmentalists, business people, and the United Mine Workers. Thirty-one years later, Speiden is out of the dairy business, but continues to work to keep the state moratorium in place. In his view, there’s ample history demonstrating that there is no such thing as “safe” uranium mining.

For more info on uranium mining in Virginia, check out the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Piedmont Environment Council, two of the leading environmental groups. For the broad coalition defending the moratorium, try Keep the Ban.

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Transmuting language: changing “risks” to “safety”

What is the basis of the claim by proponents of nuclear power that nuclear power plants can be operated safely?

For decades, nuclear proponents have defended the safety of nuclear plants using what they claimed were mathematically-sound probability estimates of low risk. Engineers provided estimates of the probability of failure for every component in the plant’s operating systems. By chaining all of probability estimates together, the engineers ended up with a final estimate of the over-all probability that the plant could be run without endangering the public.

To no one’s surprise, the nuclear industry and government regulators insisted that this process proved mathematically that nuclear plants posed a very small threat. There were serious critics of this claim, but they struggled to make themselves heard over the industry/government juggernaut.

But the safety engineers were unable to estimate the probabilities of what actually happened in one accident after another, from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima. What was missing from all of the fanciful calculations of probability was any acknowledgement of the fundamental impossibility of predicting in advance everything that could go wrong, an admission that would have been gravely damaging to the industry’s public relations efforts to sell “safety.”

A new report from the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) demolishes the probabilistic foundations of the nuclear industry’s safety calculations. The 750-page EEA report (Late Lessons from Early Warnings) draws on twenty case studies of the launching of controversial technologies. The chapter on nuclear power, “Late lessons from Chernobyl, early warnings from Fukushima,” concludes that the industry’s claims about safety are based on a deep philosophical mistake. The report shows how the commercial nuclear industry and government regulatory agencies (AEC, NRC) have consistently transmuted the great uncertainties about operating this unforgiving technology into the reassuring certainty of probability estimates.

The failure to predict severe accidents ought to be embarrassing, to say the least, if not a deal breaker for any country considering building nuclear plants. But instead of openly admitting the philosophical unreliability of using probabilities to estimate the risk of operating such complex machines, nuclear proponents use a wonderful phrase that covers all of their sins of probability omissions: a “beyond design basis accident.”

The term is used, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s glossary,

as a technical way to discuss accident sequences that are possible but were not fully considered in the design process because they were judged to be too unlikely. (In that sense, they are considered beyond the scope of design-basis accidents that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand.) As the regulatory process strives to be as thorough as possible, “beyond design-basis” accident sequences are analyzed to fully understand the capability of a design.

According to this definition, nuclear engineers foresaw all the accident sequences that could lead to the various “beyond design basis accidents” that have occurred, but chose not to “fully consider” them because the engineers “judged [these accident sequences] to be too unlikely.” Thus the failure was not one of failing to anticipate the danger, but something entirely different, a failure of judgment about a danger that was known, but put aside as “unlikely.”

This definition begs the question of whether there is, or should be, another term to describe accidents that the engineers failed to recognize during the design process, a Dr. Seussian “beyond the beyond design basis accident.”

The term is one of those dexterous phrases that simultaneously affirms and denies the existence of a problem. If the probability estimates were correct, then there could never be a “beyond design basis accident.” But when a serious accident does occur, the term closes the discussion. Once a “beyond design basis accident” has taken place, regulatory bodies engage in ritualistic investigations that end up with recommendations for changes that bring the causes of the latest accident inside the boundaries of “design basis accidents.” Any questions about how it is possible for “beyond design basis accidents” to occur disappear into the probabilistic fog.

The EAA’s authors carefully explain the process of transmuting the uncertainties of “fundamental radiation protection science” into the “language of certainty” that describes “the regulation and operation of nuclear facilities.”

To begin with,

the nearer one gets to the fundamental science and engineering of complex technological systems, the greater the uncertainty and complexity

But there is a paradox when one turns to operating such systems:

yet the nearer one gets to regulation and operation, the greater the certainty and simplicity.

There is a vast but essentially invisible qualitative change as we move from the uncertainties of science to the world of regulation and operation: “…somewhere along this continuum, uncertainty has been translated into certainty, and risk has been translated into ‘safety’…”

Turning “risk” into “safety” is the kind of linguist transmutation that Orwell described in 1984 as the essence of his totalitarian language Newspeak. But recognizing this transformation does not explain “when, how, and why does this transformation happen?”

We fall into error because our attempts at estimating probabilities are based on prior assumptions. We cannot estimate the probabilities of things we either cannot imagine in the first place, or choose to consider “unlikely” even when we are aware of potential problems.

Given the degree of uncertainty and complexity attached to even the most tightly framed and rigorous nuclear risk assessment, attempts to weight the magnitude of accident by the expected probability of occurrence has proven problematic, since these essentially theoretical calculations can only be based on sets of pre-conditioning assumptions.

In the politely refined language that characterizes most government reports critical of the status-quo, the authors conclude that experience has shown us that probability assessment is an unreliable basis for understanding the risks of nuclear power plants:

With its failure to plan for the cascade of unexpected beyond design-base accidents, the regulatory emphasis on risk-based probabilistic assessment has proven very limited. An urgent re‑appraisal of this approach, and its real-life application seems overdue. [my emphasis]

But gaining a better understanding of the problems of relying on probability estimates is only the beginning of what the authors recommend. Their final conclusion should send shivers down the spine of anyone with a personal, financial, or political investment in building new nuclear plants:

In the context of current collective knowledge on nuclear risks, both the regulation of operating nuclear reactors and the design-base for any proposed reactor will need significant re‑evaluation. [my emphasis]

But re-evaluation by whom? The industry and government regulators who designed the current fatally flawed system? The authors of the EEA report recognize that their recommendation is highly political. In the last paragraph of the nuclear power chapter, the authors state that any re-evaluation has to include significant public participation, a level of participation that was not only not allowed, but was basically unthinkable during the industry’s first decades:

…it is clear that European public needs to play a key role in taking these critical, social, environmental and economic decisions (8). Here, public values and interests are central, and the role of public dialogue and the participatory practices that enable it are core to the building of mutual understanding between European states, governments, industry and people. If carried out in a truly involving way, the integration of public, policy, and expert scientific knowledge allows for greater accountability, transparency, and much better take-up of necessary change and improved long-term likelihood of problem resolution. This conclusion mirrors those from many chapters in this publication — from leaded petrol to nanotechnology: that wider public engagement in choosing strategic innovation pathways is essential. [my emphasis]

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Obama Misses the Boat on Renewables in Inaugural

Just how fast can we get renewable sources of electricity online? Nuclear power propagandists like to argue that we need a crash program to build hundreds of new nuclear plants because such a program is the only way to quickly replace fossil fuel plants, thereby reducing the threat of climate change. In this view, renewables could not possibly come online fast enough.

Inexplicably, President Obama fed into this view of renewables as not ready for prime time in his inaugural address. His remarks on climate change suggested a somewhat heightened sense of urgency, to the delight of everyone concerned about the global failure over the last decade to take meaningful actions to keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees.

But the President then asserted that “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult” [my emphasis]. The President was ill-served by his own staff on this point: just last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a report showing that in 2012, half of the new electric generating sources were renewables!

Instead of the path towards sustainable energy sources being “long and sometimes difficult,” the facts on the ground show that Obama should have presented “the path towards sustainable energy sources” as short and increasingly attractive.

Wind energy leads the renewable pack in 2012, with 40.51% of new capacity, followed by natural gas at 33.15%, and then coal at 17.09%. Nuclear power added just  0.47%. (That’s not a typo: 0.47%.) For all the statistics, see FERC’s Office of Energy Projects Energy Infrastructure Update for December 2012.

Even more striking, more than one-quarter of the year’s total gains in renewables came in the month of December, another sign of the rapidity with which renewables are coming online.

The next time President Obama (or anybody else) wants to talk about the potential of renewables, he should first check the latest reports from FERC. We are long past the time when anyone should be treating renewables as difficult, long-term energy sources.


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US Should Emulate Germany and Japan

In the wake of last year’s devastating nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, both Japan and Germany — the third and fourth largest economies in the world — have radically turned away from nuclear power generation to meet their energy needs.

In Japan, still reeling from the impact of multiple meltdowns, all of the country’s commercial reactors are now idle. Although Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is appealing for public support to restart at least some of plants — most immediately two reactors at the O’hi nuclear plant in western Japan — many Japanese remain rightly skeptical  of their government’s ability to adequately oversee the country’s troubled but still powerful nuclear industry. Even though Noda claims Japan can not maintain its current living standards without nuclear power, and that national security dictates the country not rely too heavily on imported oil and natural gas, any permanent restart of nuclear facilities will be opposed by most Japanese citizens at least until their leaders vastly improve their oversight of nuclear plants –band radically alter the current system of too-tight links between regulators and utilities such as the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operator of the Fukushima plants.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Japan’s ongoing Fukushima disaster, Germany abruptly shut half of its operating nuclear plants, while promising to phase out the others and cease all nuclear power generation by 2022. Renewable energy sources — including solar, wind power and biomass plants — now produce about 20 percent of the country’s electricity, a share that is increasing as a result of government subsidies and investment incentives. Solar power generation alone reached a new record last month when it produced about 10 percent of the country’s overall electricity, thanks in part to a continuing boom in new solar panel installations.  German renewable energies sources should generate 30 percent of the country’s electricity by 2022 — and as much as 80 percent by 2050.

Other European states, some with smaller but still sizable economies (including Italy, Belgium and Austria) have also pledged either to eliminate nuclear power entirely or at least to stop building new nuclear plants.  Before Fukushima,  advanced industrialized nations were thought to be able to safely generate electricity through nuclear power; post-Fukushima, that assurance melted down along with the reactors. Before Fukushima, it was widely believed that nuclear power generation was necessary to maintain an advanced society and way of life; post-Fukushima, we see that the total elimination of nuclear plants is not only possible but highly desirable.

It’s time for the world’s largest economy — that of the United States — to learn from the Japanese and Germans and to emulate them by ditching nuclear power once and for all. Experience now shows that nuclear power generation is both unsafe and unnecessary — not to mention the disturbing fact that no one has yet come up with a solution to the ongoing dilemma of what to do with the thousands of tons of long-lasting, highly radioactive “spent fuel” — aka nuclear waste –still piled up at reactors all over the world, including of course, at the still volatile Fukushima site.

Although Prime Minister Noda recently went on national television to tell citizens there, “Japanese society cannot function if we stop or try to do without nuclear power generation,” the reality is that both Japan and Germany’s societies are still functioning well in its absence. The United States could — and should — follow suit and begin to phase out its dangerous and unnecessary reliance on nuclear power. It’s time for President Obama to turn away at long last from his silly but persistent pipe dream of a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States and begin to move instead to a “No Nukes”  future of clean, safe and renewable energy.

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Fukushima’s Unhappy Anniversary

As the first “anniversary” of the devastating March 11, 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan approaches, the ongoing disaster continues regularly to make front page news worldwide. The most recent example came with the recent release of an independent investigation by a private policy organization, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which revealed the true extent of the astonishing ignorance and arrogance displayed by Japanese industry and government officials alike throughout the emergency. We now know that even as they tried to play down the risks in public, Japan’s leaders were admitting privately that they didn’t actually know the true extent of damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Moreover, they were secretly considering the possibility of somehow evacuating tens of millions of residents of Tokyo’s metropolitan area.

After a powerful earthquake and tsunami shut down the plant’s cooling systems  nearly a year ago, officials began talking among themselves about a possible worst-case outcome: the plant could release such large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that it would force the evacuation of millions. At the same they began to worry about a potentially even worse scenario: larger radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods stored in unprotected pools near the damaged reactors.  It took five days after the earthquake, notes the independent report, for Japanese officials to confirm that the pools were still filled with water and thus safe.

Not surprisingly, the independent report conflicts greatly with the government’s own official investigation into the accident, which was  released as an interim report in December. A key difference between the two investigations, for example, involves accounts of what happened when prime minister Kan demanded that the plant’s operator, the utility Tepco, not remove all its employees from the damaged plant and instead continue efforts to contain the crisis. Siding falsely with the utility’s version of events, he government’s investigation concluded that Tepco executives (who refused to cooperate with the independent investigation) only wanted to withdraw a portion of the plant’s staff. But the independent investigators found instead that the company had in fact wanted a total pullout, which could easily have proved deadly for tens of millions of people.

The revelation that utility officials, nuclear regulators, and high government ministers (including then-prime minister Naoto Kan) significantly understated the true dangers of the accident for fear of setting off a panic — and that they deliberately hid their most alarming assessments not just from the Japanese public but also from staunch allies such as United States government officials — should come as no surprise. Nor is it unusual to learn that their post-accident reporting is highly suspect and includes false conclusions favorable to industry and government. After all, history has shown that hiding the truth about the danger and risks to the public is precisely what government officials, regulators and utility executives always do in the face of a serious nuclear accident.

More than three decades ago, the world’s first catastrophic accident at a large commercial nuclear plant — the March, 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island(TMI)  plant in Pennsylvania — inspired us to write Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in Americawhich outlined how a new and Orwellian public relations-oriented language spoken by nuclear developers had evolved. Nukespeak is a language of evasion and euphemism, of minimizing and sanitizing, and of public relations and promotion. It is a language where catastrophes are rendered harmless by sterile words; and where an “accident” can never happen, since it is instead defined as an event, an incident, an abnormal evolution, a normal aberration, or a plant transient…  Nukespeak takes its cues and techniques from the worlds of advertising, sales and marketing, since it too is blatantly aimed at selling us something we don’t need –and which in this case would otherwise be deemed dangerous and foolhardy.

Nukespeak is the language of the nuclear mindset — the world view, or system of beliefs of nuclear developers. The word mindset means what it implies, a mind that is already set. A mindset acts like a filter, sorting information and perceptions, allowing some to be processed and some to be ignored, consciously or unconsciously. Nukespeak encodes the beliefs and assumptions of the nuclear mindset; the language and the mindset continuously reinforce each other. Repeat after them: nuclear power is safe and cheap, green and clean…

For decades, the use of Nukespeak and its PR and information-management techniques has consistently distorted the debate over nuclear power. Time and time again — Fukushima is but the latest example — nuclear developers have confused their hopes with reality, publicly presented their expectations and assumptions as facts, covered up damaging information, harassed critics and fired scientists who disagreed with established policy, refused to recognize the existence of problems, generated false or misleading statistics to bolster their assertions, failed to learn from their mistakes, and claimed that there was little choice but to follow their policies.

Before the accident at Three Mile Island, for example, nuclear proponents liked to claim that meltdowns were nearly impossible events, virtually unimaginable. The TMI accident, which began with a sticky valve, proved otherwise. In the end, the plant came within thirty minutes of a full meltdown. And even though the plant operators averted disaster, the reactor vessel was still destroyed and radiation was released into the atmosphere.

But did the nuclear power industry ever learn or act upon the “lessons” of TMI? While it’s true that much has changed in the nuclear field since then, it’s also true that the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. Nuclear developers worldwide maintain the same culture and ways of thinking, and the same lack of transparency. The same sloppy mix of public relations and industry-dominated regulatory bodies is still the hallmark of the nuclear power industry.

In response to the partial meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi — the world’s third great nuclear plant catastrophe, following TMI and the far-worse meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 — we issued a Second Edition of our book, now called Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima. 

In preparing a new edition, we were amazed to find that no matter where we looked today, we found striking and alarming continuations of the effects of what we had earlier labeled the nuclear mindset, and of a self-contained world where “nothing can go wrong” because we are supposedly under the protection of a savvy nuclear priesthood of risk-managing engineers, nuclear deterrence strategists, unquestioning military officers, subservient regulatory officials, classification specialists, nonproliferation inspectors, and steely politiciansthe same people who once promised us energy “too cheap to meter,” produced in plants whose designers would foresee everything that could go wrong and then engineer redundant safety systems that would prevent any serious problems.

Looking back over the record of the decades from the Manhattan Project of World War II to last year’s triple meltdown at Fukushima, the nuclear mindset must be judged wanting in every respect. The accident at Fukushima  — like those at TMI and Chernobyl before it — should only remind us again that, in spite of their allegedly redundant “defense-in-depth” design safety features, and constant reassurances that nothing can go wrong, nuclear power plants have repeatedly failed, sometimes with extremely costly and deadly consequences. Attempts to correct past errors have led to huge increases in the price tags of new plants, making them so expensive that only massive government subsidies and guarantees keep the nuclear industry afloat. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable sources of electricity continues to fall, and investments in energy efficiency provide far higher rates of return than those in nuclear plants.

Before Fukushima, nuclear proponents had taken to calling the rush of state-subsidized orders for new plants a “nuclear renaissance,” and hailed nuclear power as a supposedly “clean and green” means of combating climate change by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. Despite the industry’s dismal history and lackluster present, however, many governments around the world — including those of China and the United States, where President Obama, other leading Democrats, and the leaders of the Republican opposition in Congress are all united on the issue — continue their insane push to build new plants. Yet amidst this boosterism, neither governments nor utilities have put forth a solution to the intractable problem of what to do with the many tons of radioactive waste these plants have already generated thus far. These dangerous materials are now stored on-site, turning every nuclear plant in the world into a de facto high-level radioactive waste dump — and a tempting target for terrorists.

Fortunately, the scale and staggering cost of the Fukushima accident has begun to break down the nuclear mindset in at least some parts of the world. Although U.S. regulators have downplayed the risks of the dozens of American reactors of the same flawed design as the plants at Fukushima, officials in other countries have already reacted with radical changes in their energy strategies. In Japan, regulators have temporarily shut down all but two plants.  And in Germany (with the world’s fourth largest economy), where the government had issued a controversial decision in the fall of 2010 to extend the licenses of the country’s aging nuclear plants, Prime Minister Angela Merkel reversed course and pledged to shut down all of the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022.

History has shown that we can and should expect more examples of the misuse and abuse of language by Japanese nuclear officials over the coming months – and even years. Although major nuclear accidents like that of Fukushima thankfully happen only rarely, they never end. The recent 25th “anniversary” of the Chernobyl accident, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged to build a “sarcophagus” to entomb the radioactive waste still there, should serve us all as a stark reminder. Nuclear developers are still incapable of “imagining the unimaginable” (such as the 100 foot tsunami wave that blasted over the forty foot protective seawalls near Fukushima) precisely because they lack the language, and thus even the concepts, with which to express the reality that nuclear power is neither safe nor cheap, but an expensive, dangerous and outmoded form of technology that threatens us all. If we don’t soon learn and take to heart the lessons of Fukushima — and of Chernobyl before it, and Three Mile Island before that — there is no reason to mark the first anniversary of the accident there with anything other than ever-growing alarm.


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An Ocean of Subsidies

Reader Michael Ingram reminds us that there are four investors in the two new nuclear plants in Georgia– Southern (Georgia Power), Oglethorpe, MEAG, and Dalton Utilities—and that the federal government’s loan would be shared proportionally among them.

But distributing the loan guarantees over all the investors does not change the underlying point: without the federal commitment of taxpayer money, these four companies would almost certainly not have gone ahead with this project. I am not opposed to the federal government putting up some of the seed money to get new industries off the ground, with the understanding that not everything the feds pick out will succeed (any more than someone investing in a private venture capital fund excepts the fund to pick 100% winners.)

But the nuclear industry is not a start-up! Commercial nuclear power has existed for more than 5 decades. And since the 1950s, the industry has claimed it would only require subsidies for a short time. Here’s a quote from a General Electric ad that ran in the National Geographic in 1954:

“We already know the kinds of plants which will be feasible, how they will operate, and we can estimate what their expenses will be. In five years—certainly within 10—a number of them will be operating at about the same cost as those using coal. They will be privately financed, built without.”

In the new edition of Nukespeak, we talk about the “Ocean of Subsidies” that has kept the U.S. nuclear industry afloat. Here’s an excerpt about the best study of the billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies that have gone to nuclear since the 1950s:

In February 2010, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable without Subsidies, an authoritative review of the history of nuclear subsidies in the United States, written by Doug Koplow. (UCS was created in the 1970s by scientists concerned about the safety of nuclear reactors.) Koplow showed that the nuclear industry has always enjoyed “a vast array of preferential government subsidies.” Koplow reached the stunning conclusion that these have been so great that they have often exceeded the actual value of the power produced: “This means that buying power on the open market and giving it away for free would have been less costly than subsidizing the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.”

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Nuclear Socialism Strikes Again

The nuclear industry is all atwitter (in the ancient sense of the word) at the possibility that an American utility may soon receive permission to build the first new nuclear plants in more than 30 years.

These plants may get built, but their construction is not a sign of a real “nuclear renaissance.” Private investors remain as uninterested in investing in nuclear power as they have been for decades, frightened away by the massive cost overruns that caused them to stop funding new nuclear plants in the late 1970s, well before the accident at Three Mile Island . (It’s all too common for nuclear promoters to cite TMI as the cause of the collapse of the nuclear industry. But the collapse was already well underway before the accident. For the industry, pointing to the accident as the turning point is actually a way for the industry to hide the economic collapse that soaring construction costs had already caused.)

So why is the giant utility Southern Company preparing to build two more plants (Vogtle 3 and Vogtle 4) next to two operating nuclear plants, Vogtle 1 and Vogtle 2? (The dangers of clustering nuclear plants closely together is one of the lessons from last year’s meltdowns at Fukushima that the American nuclear industry and its regulators are ignoring. Communities with existing nuclear plants are much less resistant to the construction of additional plants, making siting a much easier process than building on a new site.)

The answer to Southern Co.’s decision is simple: $8.3 billion in taxpayer money, in the form of federal loan guarantees created through the Energy Policy Act of 2005. These loan guarantees are only the latest form of nuclear socialism.

To read more about the nuclear industry’s failure to wean itself from federal subsidies for more than 60 years, check out these two excerpts from Nukespeak’s Chapter 23, “The Industry That Couldn’t Learn,” which are available on the Alternet news site and in the latest issue of the Canadian online journal Coldtype.


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