MS. IFILL: Ripple effects from Japan to Libya and everywhere in between as the world copes with the fallout from uprising and disaster, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: Ample warning was given that Gadhafi needed to stop his campaign of oppression or be held accountable.
MS. IFILL: As Moammar Gadhafi closes in on Libyan rebels, the world community reacts.
BAN KI-MOON [Secretary General of the U.N.]: I urge the Libyan authorities to immediately cease fire and implement all the resolutions.
SUSAN RICE [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.]: The violence must stop. The killing must stop. And the people of Libya must be protected and have the opportunity to express themselves freely.
MS. IFILL: Will Gadhafi lose his grip? Are we on the brink of all-out war? While on the other side of the world Japan copes with a disaster of biblical proportions. After the quake, after the flood, now nuclear fallout.
GREGORY JACZKO [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission]: There is no water in the spent fuel pool and we believe that radiation levels are extremely high.
MS. IFILL: How Japan’s calamity could affect us all. Covering the week: Tom Gjelten of NPR; Coral Davenport of National Journal; and Davis Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. All eyes tonight are on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but a coalition of nations with a tough new U.N. resolution behind it is promising to do more than just watch. President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron each made that clear today.
PRES. OBAMA: Now, once more, Moammar Gadhafi has a choice. The resolution that passed lays out very clear conditions that must be met. These terms are not subject to negotiation. If Gadhafi does not comply with the resolution, the international community will impose consequences and the resolution will be enforced through military action.
DAVID CAMERON [British Prime Minister]: Our forces will join an international operation to enforce the resolution if Gadhafi fails to comply with its demand that he ends attacks on civilians. The defense secretary and I have now instructed the chief of the defense staff to work urgently with our allies to put in place the appropriate military measures to enforce the resolution, including a no-fly zone.
MS. IFILL: Appropriate military measures, Tom. The question tonight is what does that mean?
MR. GJELTEN: It means air strikes. It means bombing. It could mean cruise missiles – anything than boots on the ground. The resolution specifically precludes a foreign military occupation force. But short of an invasion, you could see some really robust measures. Two things to keep in mind: this was – this resolution was not for a no-fly zone. It’s much broader than a no-fly zone.
A no-fly zone would prohibit – it would authorize action to take out his aircraft, et cetera. But if he – if Gadhafi were to attack on the ground with tanks and artillery or RPGs, this resolution would authorize attacks against those tanks. So it’s broader. It’s for the protection of civilians. That’s the first thing.
The second point to keep in mind is that a ceasefire will not be enough. Of course, we heard today that the Libyans are willing to do – to stop military operations and act an immediate ceasefire. But all the governments behind this – Britain, France, the United States, some of the Arab governments – put out a joint statement late today – it’s the one that President Obama referred to – specifying very particular things that the Gadhafi regime has to do in order to force all military action.
MS. IFILL: And yet, just this time last week, all the signals coming from the Obama administration was that even a no-fly zone, even that was going to be too risky and too much. Secretary Gates at the Pentagon made this clear. What changed?
MR. GJELTEN: What changed was – what President Obama said changed was that they were looking at the possible massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians. So clearly the violence behind Gadhafi’s counterattack was much more severe. The other thing is the prospect of Gadhafi of actually winning, of actually beating back, there is a fear that this would in itself create a precedent in the Middle East and embolden authoritarian leaders, tyrants there to take much more violence measures. And that could have – you know, we began with this very peaceful movement, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the movement in Egypt, but since then we’ve seen these movements become much more violent. And there was a fear that, if this were allowed to run its course, we could see the Middle East really blow up.
MR. WESSEL: But wouldn’t it have been move effective to take this on earlier before the rebels were on the run?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, it certainly would have been move effective. It would have saved a lot of lives. But the fact is that only last weekend did the administration get the Arab League to endorse a no-fly zone. It’s been very important to this administration that this not be seen as a U.S. operation. So there really was a need from their point of view to build up enough international political support so that the United States could stay if not in the background, at least sort of on the sidelines.
MR. WESSEL: And the president in his press conference was – I thought it was striking to list the things that we’re not going to do: we’re not going to deploy ground troops; we’re not going to use force to go beyond a well defined goal. What’s with all this not, not stuff?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, actually there’s a lot of ambiguity in that. You’re right. He did say we’re not going to deploy a ground force – that’s prohibited by the U.N. resolution as well. He also said that the goal of this operation will not go beyond protecting civilians. But at the same time, he said Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead. And you had Secretary Clinton and you had the French government also saying that the logical result of this operation will be that the Gadhafi regime is overthrown. So they’ve certainly injected some ambiguity in it.
MS. IFILL: The logical result, but is that the goal? I mean, they have now set out a goal where they have to push him out of office. They can’t stop short of that.
MR. GJELTEN: You know, and I think that they are assuming that the Gadhafi regime is not going to comply with these demands which will then –
MS. IFILL: There’s evidence already of that.
MR. GJELTEN: In fact, Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador, ambassador at the U.N. already has said that the Gadhafi government is not in compliance with the ceasefire demand. So if you see this kind of strong, robust military action, you know, there may be a feeling that that in itself will topple the Gadhafi government.
Now, remember 1991, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when tanks were going back to Iraq. With air power alone we were able to wipe out entire tank columns. The air power here is pretty stunning in what it can do.
MR. WESSEL: And we’re going to arm the rebels?
MR. GJELTEN: That is a question for lawyers. It looks to me like the ceasefire and the arms embargo would apply to everyone. But the State Department, the Obama administration has taken the position that in fact that option is not off the table, that it does not specifically bar them from arming the rebels. And there’s a suggestion here that if these moves are not enough, that that can be sort of the next step.
MS. IFILL: Timing – Hillary Clinton is going back to Paris this weekend having just returned from the region and is meeting with our allies who’ve signed on to this U.N. resolution. Does that mean we can expect to see bombs drop anytime soon?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think the fact that Ambassador Rice said that they’re already not in compliance would suggest that you’d want to act fairly quickly. The problem is that imposing a no-fly zone is a pretty complicated thing. It takes a command and control operation to be set up and the fact that the United States is not doing this unilaterally means that you’ve got to divvy up the responsibilities. You’ve got to find out, well, who’s going to do command and control? Who’s going to do the actual air operations, the combat operations? Who’s going to do refueling? Who’s going to do the suppression of the radar? And so, there’s a lot of planning that has to go into this. So, as long as Gadhafi does not send tanks to Benghazi or in some other way really continue attacks on civilians, I think we’re likely to see this kind of play out over a day or two.
MS. IFILL: I kind of – go ahead, Coral.
MS. DAVENPORT: Can you talk about what’s going on in Bahrain and Yemen and how this fits in as well?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, remember I said that these revolutions have really taken a different course. I mean, Yemen, which is a U.S. ally, 40-some, up to 46 people shot down in the square there today and a couple of hundred people injured, it’s hard to see how Saleh, the president of Yemen, can survive this. But the problem is that’s a U.S. ally and it’s a country where al Qaeda is strong. The U.S. is very nervous about that. And Bahrain, a similar thing – what began as a democratic uprising has turned into a sectarian uprising of Shi’a versus Sunni, very bad news for the Middle East.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Thank you, Tom.
Now we move on to Japan which is still reeling from the one, two, three punch heard around the world as search, rescue and relief continues for the victims of last week’s earthquake and tsunami. Engineers and scientists in Japan and around the world are keeping a worried eye on the severely damaged nuclear plants along its decimated northeast coast.
HILLARY CLINTON [Secretary of State]: This is a catastrophe. We know that prior to events at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl had consequences but what we’re seeing unfold in Japan is on a much greater scale.
MS. IFILL: As the crisis seemed to deepen with each passing day, there were more new questions than new answers about the extent of the damage. We’ll try to tackle some of them tonight. Coral, starting right now – welcome to “Washington Week.”
MS. DAVENPORT: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Starting right now, what do we know and what don’t we know?
MS. DAVENPORT: Well, we know that Japan’s Nuclear Agency Safety today elevated the risk assessment of the situation from a four to a five on a scale of seven. Seven is a Chernobyl level disaster. Five is a Three Mile Island level disaster. But already energy Secretary Steven Chu and other U.S. officials have said this disaster has clearly far surpassed Three Mile Island.
We know that there is water running out that has drained or completely drained both from the reactors and the spent fuel containers. We know that if the spent fuel pools are completely drained, then that will lead a radioactive fire that could spread radioactive material and could definitely lead to deaths. And that’s what the level five warning tells us. What we don’t know is how much the water has drained. This is one of the many points on which there’s a lot of conflicting information. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says their data shows –
MS. IFILL: It’s all gone.
MS. DAVENPORT: – that the water has drained completely. From Japanese officials we’re hearing, no, that’s not the case. We understand that the Japanese soldiers are trying to refuel those spent fuel pools; are telling us that that water is refilling. From the U.S. we’re hearing that there’s leaks, that the water is draining. So this is really highlighted. There’s so much that we still don’t know.
MS. IFILL: David, we look at this and we realize there are ripple effects which go beyond just what’s wrong with this particular plant. It goes across the whole world. What are you watching?
MR. WESSEL: Right. Well, I think the first thing to remember is as soon as you talk about the dollars and cents you want to pause and say it’s a human tragedy, people killed –
MS. IFILL: Of amazing proportions.
MR. WESSEL: – communities wiped out, may never be rebuilt. On the economic side, one thing is that Japan is just not as important as it was just a few years ago. It’s 6 percent of the world economy. China is now a bigger economy. And it does not seem to be creating a new global recession. But globalization has meant these very global supply chains. And it’s really illustrating how that works.
Yesterday General Motors had to suspend production of pickup trucks in Louisiana. Today they suspended production of some plants, some cars in Europe. Renault, the French automaker, is suspending production of cars in Korea, South Korea, because the parts come from there. One of the people here in “Washington Week” told me before we started the show that some of the tapes that you get from Sony are not arriving. Auto parts and electronic components are something that Japan produces and they’ve supplied very much to the rest of the world. I think the other thing is that it goes beyond these kind of tangible things. This is a time of great anxiety in the world markets, in people’s minds, in businessmen’s planning. Libya, European debt situation, now this, and I think this generalized anxiety could be a real problem for the world economy. It could exceed some shortage of this or that plan.
MR. GJELTEN: I have a question for both of you. Do we know yet how bad the disaster will be and how bad the economic consequences of those disaster scenarios are? I was wondering, for example, about if there is a worst case scenario and some of the area around the nuclear power plant becomes uninhabitable, how important is that? What would that do the Japanese economy? What’s the chances of that happening?
MS. DAVENPORT: Officials are very reluctant certainly to say how exactly this might unfold. Clearly we’re seeing soldiers and the Japanese workers working as hard as they can on the ground to prevent the absolute worst case scenario. The worst case scenario probably wouldn’t be as bad as the Chernobyl in parts because this plan is constructed much better. The damage isn’t as bad. But it does seem that we could certainly – we could see a large number of deaths and illness.
MS. IFILL: But also we didn’t know until years after Chernobyl and years after Three Mile Island how extensive the damage was. Isn’t that right?
MS. DAVENPORT: It’s true. So it’s very hard. You know, I’ve been asking that question to experts every day this week. No one wants to say exactly what it might look like.
MR. WESSEL: Right. I think that debt is one of the things that’s so frightening about this. You know, initially, the economists likened it to the Kobe earthquake in 1995. And they took heart from the fact that Japan, a rich country, a resilient society recovered from that relatively quickly, faster than experts expected. But now they’re saying, oh, my gosh, this thing might not be over yet. It’s like a horror movie and you don’t know when it’s going to end, so the possibility that some pieces of the thing are inhabitable, the possibility that large parts of the Japanese electric production system will be out of commission for a long time. Honda said today they may not be able to restart their plant and it’s not even close to the thing until May.
MR. GJELTEN: And ports.
MR. WESSEL: And ports and to mention a political system that’s not in the greatest shape. So I think that what’s scarier here is that we’re now beginning to see that the worst case scenario might be a little more likely than we thought when this first happened.
MS. IFILL: And so, what we have here is – the recurring question is can it happen here? People look at our nuclear industry, such as it is, which is – there are at least 100 and more plants online. And people look at what the president said this week which is, I want to check it all out. I want to launch an investigation. Do we have any idea of the answer to that question?
MS. DAVENPORT: It’s unlikely that we will see a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami here in the United States but clearly that – clearly, anything can happen. We do see that now. And there are nuclear reactors and sites that store nuclear waste in areas that are near fault lines, for example, in Diablo County in California. So the first thing that the president’s going to do, he has said we need to review all of the safety, all of the regulations. We’ve already seen the Union of Concerned Scientists came out this week with a report citing concerns about existing safety regulations at some power plants. So certainly this is likely to put a freeze or a delay, even if not through policy or legislation, but simply through public anxiety on any kind of new power plan construction for a number of years.
MR. WESSEL: And I think that’s a significant development because the president was on the cusp of turning to nuclear power as a way to reduce our dependence on imported oil, as a way to deal with global warning.
MS. IFILL: Or deep ocean drilling, which was the result of –
MR. WESSEL: Right. So now you see this situation where we don’t really have a clear energy strategy, nor do we have any clear way to deal with global warming because nuclear was a big part of that.
MS. IFILL: That was the clean energy solution.
MR. WESSEL: I don’t think it matters what the experts say. It’s hard for me to imagine we’re going to be building five nuclear power plants.
MR. GJELTEN: So that means that we’ll be using more oil which means oil prices are probably going to go up and that has already been proven to be a really destabilizing element.
MS. IFILL: Speaking of Libya.
MS. DAVENPORT: Well, see the fuel that will probably replace nuclear power in the U.S. and in Japan is natural gas. Oil – nuclear power produces electricity. Oil is a transportation fuel. But we will almost certainly, both in the U.S. and around the world, we’ve seen calls for halts of freezes on nuclear power in Switzerland, in China, in Germany, in Austria.
MS. IFILL: And you made the point in your story, something I didn’t see widely reported which is there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant that went online in this country since 1979.
MR. WESSEL: Three Mile Island.
MS. IFILL: Yes. Three Mile Island. So it’s hard to imagine that this is going to jumpstart that industry in that way.
MR. WESSEL: Absolutely.
MS. DAVENPORT: No, there was an expectation in the past couple of years of this idea of the nuclear renaissance. But what that was really triggered by was the idea that there was going to be some kind of climate change policy, some kind of policy that put a price on carbon emissions, that made it more expensive to produce energy with fossil fuels. In that economic reality, nuclear power would become more economically viable. We’ve seen that climate change legislation failed in Congress. We’re not going to see a climate change law anytime in the near future.
And within the industry, people were saying, well, that nuclear renaissance already was not going to happen. It was becoming – you know, nuclear power is so expensive, and without that switch in the economics, it was already sort of freezing and slowing down. And this is clearly – it’s also just going to raise the price. The liability, the insurance, the new regulations are all going to send the price even higher and Wall Street’s not comfortable with that.
MR. GJELTEN: Yes. I’ve got an economic question, David. Is it true that – do we know yet the cost of this? This is like somewhere around $200 billion, right? Is it true that the economic cost of this tragedy, this disaster is much less than the economic cost of the financial crisis was to the economy of Japan?
MR. WESSEL: Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think –
MR. GJELTEN: In terms of lost wealth and what it’s taken off the –
MR. WESSEL: Japan really didn’t get hit very hard by the economic crisis because they had already put their banks into the toilet once and so they hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they were making these crazy loans. So many of the results, but they took a big hit after the financial crisis. I think the difference is that as hard as it is to recover from a financial crisis and you lose all this wealth, it’s all kind of money, intangible stuff. What makes this so frightening is, you know, you see these reports that it’s going to be good for the Japanese economy in the long run because it will increase growth because they will have to employ all these people in reconstruction. That’s some kind of stimulus. That has to do with the way we account for this stuff. We have destroyed an enormous amount of infrastructure and housing and public safety stuff in Japan. And so now they’re going to have to spend a lot of money to rebuild it to get back where they were before.
MS. IFILL: And that’s what we are going to be watching for in the next couple of weeks after we get over the enormity of just the tragedy itself. Thank you everybody. Both of these stories are far from over. Keep up with daily developments online and on the air at the PBS “NewsHour.” We have to leave you a few minutes early to give you the chance to support the local stations that in turn support us. But our conversation will continue online. Find the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” at pbs.org. And we’ll see you around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.