With quite some joy, I just penned the following wikipedia update under Westinghouse Electric Company LLC:
On March 24, 2017, parent company Toshiba announced Westinghouse Electric Company was filing for bankruptcy because of US$6 billion in losses from nuclear reactor construction projects. The nuclear projects responsible for this loss are mostly the Vogtle reactors in Georgia and the Summer reactors in South Carolina. 
This bankruptcy might halt the construction of every reactor being built in the US at the moment, at least for some period of time. Without a bailout from a likely reluctant Trump administration, these reactors might never be completed though over $10 billion has been spent on them. Before you doubt these projects might be abandoned, remember that half of the reactor projects started in the US were abandoned, many because of cost overruns.
Despite having followed this story intensely for some weeks now, I am still surprised at this result. I thought the Koreans would want to buy this reactor company for both its contracts and its technologies. Westinghouse has active construction projects and solid leads in many countries including the 4 nearly complete reactors in China. Russia and China were never serious suitors because they are unlikely to be approved by the US federal government for the sale of this sensitive technology.
My first anti-nuclear protest was at the Westinghouse reactors at Diablo Canyon in 1981. I fought Westinghouse at the Temelin reactors in the Czech Republic through the 1990s. Westinghouse developed the first 3rd generation reactors including the AP 1000 which is currently under construction in more locations than any other Gen 3 western design.
What went wrong? There is a pretty standard formula for building nuclear power plants in the US. The reactor vendor comes in and underbids the contract, while still seeking a huge amount of money. The regulators accept this low bid on behalf of the state. Not long into construction inevitable delays and cost overruns begin. The nuclear construction company turns to the utility and says, “Please pass these extra costs on to your rate payers (or in some states the tax payers.)” Historically, the regulator has obliged. This way the frequently exploding costs of nuclear construction, typically over 200% the initial contracted price in the US, do not bankrupt the construction company. But even this formula was not good enough to restart nuclear construction in the US.
Beyond this the AP 1000 was Westinghouse’s new design. It was simpler, more safe, better simulated and tested than any other reactor Westinghouse had ever built. And it was testing the future of reactor construction: Modularity. Historically, reactors are built on site. There are too many custom pieces, many of which are huge, to be built in a factory. But Westinghouse was a forward thinking company. They knew they need to change the ways reactors were built to keep costs down. They presumed, as did many in the industry, that standardizing designs and building components in factories like giant legos, which were then fastened together onsite would make it easier and less expensive. Turn out reactors are not like legos, and this modular strategy was central to Westinhouse failure at Summer and Vogtle.
The Bush/Cheney administration attempted to boot strap the “nuclear Renaissance” with a generous aid package, which included:
- Government-preferred equity investment facilities
- $18 billion of subsidized federal loans
- Tax-exempt financing
- Federal power purchase agreements at above-market rates
- Taxpayer-backed insurance
Despite this generous program, only 4 reactors began construction, two in Georgia at Vogtle and two is South Carolina at Summer. A disappointing yield for an industry that at its high point (2009) had 30 applications in for new reactors.
To land these 4 contracts, Westinghouse (which was acting as the general contractor) had to require that the construction subcontractors bid fixed price contracts. Chicago Bridge and Iron (CBI) was working on the Vogtle reactors and ran into serious difficulties working with Westinghouse and sued them. Counter-suits which further delayed construction followed. Ultimately, Westinghouse would purchase CBI for $229 million to avoid going to court for $1.5 billion.
But once Westinghouse owned most of the construction responsibilities for these reactors there became no way to pass on the cost overruns. The nuclear utilities had protected themselves from this old trick by requiring fixed-cost contracts. It is telling that once the cost overruns could not be passed on, this scam no longer worked, and it promptly bankrupted the nation’s largest nuclear construction firm.
I’ve been fighting Westinghouse my entire adult life, and I did not expect to outlive it. There will be some hard won celebrations by clean energy advocates across the land this week.
The founders of Twin Oaks faced a dilemma. They could see the faults of a voting based democratic decision system, but did not want to have to wait for every single person in the group to agree. It was 1967, the feminists had not yet taken the consensus process from the Quakers, secularized it and released it onto progressive moments across the land.
If the magic threshold number is not 50% plus 1 person nor 100% what is it? We could not choose a number, instead we chose a process. It would be wrong to call it a “super majority” because the exact threshold is not fixed. What i clumsily call it is “negative minority centric”. But what does this actually mean?
If you get 24 accept votes to become a member after your visitor period and you get 6 rejects, you get rejected. Wait a minute, that hardly seems fair. With membership decisions this is easier to justify. We get a lot of visitors, the average Oaker has lived here about 8 years, which means they have seen perhaps 500 visitors, plus an uncountable number of guests. If you have seen that many visitors when you get a little input slip in your 3 x 5 slot requesting you give your input on these people who were just here for three weeks, you think back and say “Oh, i did one tofu shift with them and they were pleasant at a lunch at the fun table, they would probably be a good member.”
But the 6 reject votes the membership team is reading are saying things like “Was a disaster in the garden, pulled up vegetables instead of weeds” and “told an off color joke at the party and kept interrupting everyone, bad sense of boundaries” and “i have concerns about the amount of alcohol they consumed during the visitor period and i think they might have addiction issues”. And thus they choose to reject, or visit again.
Part of the problem is that Twin Oaks is so large we don’t do what Acorn and most smaller communities do and gather together as a group and discuss membership applications. Partly we don’t do this because it would be terribly time consuming. We had a visitor period last year where we had 9 people applying for membership, if it took 20 minutes on average to discuss each of these people (which would be quite short in some cases) and there were 90 members (which has been the average membership for the past several years) that would be 270 person hours of membership decision making.
The deeper reason, however, is as the community has grown, we have become accustomed to the idea that a small subset of the community will make decisions affecting the entire group. Not everyone reviews the types of insurance policies we buy, or the available cars to replace one which is worn out, or the complex mechanics of the tofu expansion. We are a trust based community, and part of that means we need to let go of deciding everything about what happens around us.
For Twin Oaks there is a definite risk associated with this. While theoretically once you are accepted as a provisional member (after your 3 week visitor period) you have another poll after you have lived with us for 6 months. This is your full member poll, and if you are granted full member status you basically have tenure. Unless you break our by laws, you can live in the community forever. This is an important control on our membership process, but it does not really work that well. In the last 20 years, there have only been 4 people who were rejected going from provisional to full member. This is out of hundreds of people who have been accepted.
Why do so few people get rejected moving to this desirable status? Mostly after 6 months we have figured out how to integrate almost everyone into the community. And everyone has some friends and expulsion (either by failing to accept someone or by actively throwing them out) is a big deal, it tears up the fabric of community.
In the late 1970’s the utility which would become Dominion Resources proposed to build four nuclear reactors less than 15 miles from Twin Oaks community. The members of the community were upset with this decision and decided to host activists who were opposing the project. An action camp was set up and protesters flooded in.
The tactics and positions of the protesters did not quite match that of the community and, long after the protesters left, locals, who viewed these protesters as representative of the community, were still upset with Twin Oaks. The community, which values local relationships highly, decided that it would not do this again. We officially adopted a position of neutrality on political issues in the future. Twin Oaks as an entity does not take political stands.
The community also decided that we were an “embrace diversity” community. As much as possible we do not tell members what to do (as long as it doesn’t impact other members). For example, we do not tell members that they need to be vegetarian or that they have to home school their kids or that they have to stop smoking cigarettes or follow a particular spiritual path or avoid all spiritual paths, etc.
One of the places we are most clear is that we don’t tell people what to do with their love lives. Which means we attract all manner of exotic romantic relationship models, including a number which obviously won’t fly. And this falling in love business is dangerous on the best days.
One of my personal favorite types of relationships is open polyamory. This is a form of open relationship that is the poly subset of relationship anarchy. Relationship anarchy is the practice of forming relationships that are not bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree on. This type of arrangement plays to the strengths of community. It requires you to think about what you are doing and be intentional about the agreements you make with your partners.
And while this philosophy has been extremely important in my life, it is certainly not what all of my diverse community is doing. The 90 plus adult members cover the spectrum of relationships models from quirky alone to poly to monogamous and back around towards celibacy. Add to this that the community after many years of not being able to hold onto trans members actually has an important trans subculture now.
Twin Oaks will turn 50 in three months. We have not been the same way the whole time. In the very early days we were coming off of the free love revolution, which swept the nation in the late 60s and 70s, and open relationships were common in the community. When Hawina and i arrived almost 20 years ago now, there was a very small minority of poly people living here and the poly dinners often had more outsiders than members. Currently my personal estimate is the majority of the community is involved in some form of open relationship, especially if we include things like party agreements.
So we are not a polyamorous community and that question increasingly making less sense to ask. Relationship models inside of highly intentional communities are often becoming more dynamic and less willing to be tacked down with labels.
Which turns out to mean
This post originally appeared on CommuneLife Blog.
We got to Binghamton via MIT. It was one of the first presentations of the Communities in Crisis materials. It was a small crowd, perhaps half a dozen people not affiliated with the Point A project in the room.
“But they are the right people,” Raven said, and not knowing much about the Boston coop scene, I was happy to defer to him. Turned out he was right.
Rachael from the audience said we had to talk with Maximus and put Genome Collective on our agenda. And with Genome came our growing connection to Binghamton University and David Sloan Wilson and the birth of the Chloroplast Research Institute.
It is from these connections that we have started seriously exploring the thesis that living in community is more sane than not and that people who join heal with time. A radical, if not obvious, notion. There is quite some chance that Maximus’s PhD thesis will be working with the income sharing communities in an effort to prove this. Which would be wonderful for us.
We have been working with Genome Collective in Binghamton for over a year, with several Point A visits. We did some strong group process work in our early visits to Genome and, at one point, even hoped they would morph from being a group house into being an income sharing community.
The house itself has a number of positive attributes. A large separate meeting space over the garage called “the temple” is ideal for workshops, meditation or yoga classes. The house has the beginnings of a thriving culinary mushroom business. Genome has both numerous bedrooms and a top floor which can host several sleepover guests.
Maximus gave us a full schedule of classes and workshops while we were there. We presented on a number of topics including climate change, polyamory, income sharing communities and sustainability. Our classes spanned the range from large freshman lectures to small grad student seminars. What was universal was that we got thoughtful and insightful questions from every group of students and several students interested in visiting and/or studying our cultures.
It is also clear that, while we are welcome in Binghamton to do more speaking gigs at the university and to stay at Genome, the house has decided that they will be a group house instead of an income sharing community, and will not be needing the services of Point A to help them go in that direction. Our future visits will be more connected to the Twin Oaks Academic Speaking Tour (TOAST) instead of Point A work.
[This story originally appeared on the CommuneLife.org blog]
It’s been too long since we have organized a Point A trip, and it’s fun to be on the road again. Tufts University, outside of Boston is proving a worthy first stop on our adventure. I am lucky to have a capable fun group of people to be presenting with:
Long experienced communard and construction wizard, Nina is not the chatty type, but what she says is more than worth listening to. She was the principal presenter of the Community as the Solution to Climate Change workshop on Saturday.
Skylar is Nina’s strongly bonded partner. Twin Oaks brought them together and they are enjoying a long honeymoon. Most people who meet Skylar don’t believe she can actually be as happy as she appears, but I know better. Optimistic, fanciful, quick to comment and engage, Skylar is, in a positive way, Nina’s mirror image. Skylar navigated the workshop on Transcending Jealousy and Building Compersion that we did at the Tufts LGBTQ center.
Raven is my steady ally on the prolonged roller coaster ride of the Point A. He tries, with some success, to catch all the flying pieces of wreckage hurling from my poorly organized multi-city trips. He is making sure our crew gets fed (me: people need food?) and that local organizers know what to expect from our small invasion of commune activists. When I neglected to secure housing in Somerville, Raven tapped his deep Boston co-op roots and found us all places to sleep. He is the wrangler in chief for the commune life blog.
Maximus from the Genome Collective in Binghamton, NY has been the godfather of this trip. Getting dates months in advance so they fit into the several classes we are doing at Binghamton; finding us honorariums for presenting; finding us amazing venues and local support at Tufts (where he went to school). Specifically, he hooked us up with the fine folks from Crafts House, who have an adorable college collective living situation, combined with stewardship of the well stocked student art space at Tufts, the Craft Center.
Telos did not think he was going on this trip. He made the mistake of calling me for advice on rides to Virginia, after he was disqualified at the last minute from a medical study that his community, Cambia, was doing in Baltimore. He ended up going North instead, where he joined this intrepid crew with his organizing and writing skills, and experience from previous Point A trips with the Genome collective, who we are advising later in the trip. Moral: I am happy to help find you a ride, it just might not be to where you think you were going.
The way these trips work, ideally, is we work with a group house (Craft House in the case of Tufts, or the Genome Collective in the case of Binghamton) and give them a collection of workshops to choose from.
Elise from Craft House consulted with her coop and choose three:
- Polyamory Principals: Transcending Jealousy and Crafting Compersion
- Intentional Community as the solution to Climate Disruption
- Community Communication: Clearnesses and Transparency Tools
Craft House itself has been supportive and hospitable. When our team grew in size with Telos arrival and needed another place for someone to sleep, Craft House gave us a luxurious closet to sleep in. It is currently their small costume commie clothes. I jumped at the chance to sleep in their fine closet, even before i found out it’s august history. It also turns out to be the closet the be off the room where Tracy Chapman lived while she went to Tufts in 1987.
The audiences to our workshops have been growing steadily since we started presenting at Tufts. A number of people are interested in coming to the Virginia communes to visit and dozens of fingerbooks have been distributed on various topics. We have several solid offer to host us when we return next semester and well as Tufts students and area residents who want to explore the path from dorm to student coop and then from coop to egalitarian community. It feels like important beginnings.
On to Binghamton.
Update March 2017: Crafts House is coming to visit the communes over spring break! 12 members of Crafts House will be coming down and staying at Simple House (a property near Twin Oaks controlled by Cambia) for 4 days and visiting the communities and working at income sharing farms in Louisa.
In the time of Trump, it is critical to seek high functioning alternatives to the mainstream culture. Twin Oaks and the surrounding cluster of egalitarian communities could be a model for new behaviors of sharing technologies and cooperative culture. But perhaps our most daring export, because many default culture citizens think they are expert in this, is how to be a father.
Keegan and adder (sic) are two young fathers living in a rural income sharing egalitarian commune. But if you are willing to listen, i think their advice might be applicable for your world as well.
Other articles about communes and families:
- Parenting in Community – It takes a Village
- Negligent Parenting Magazine
- Wrong from word 2 – Yahoo Parenting discovers the Commune
- Utopia Child Rearing – by Keenan (not Keegan)
- Momentarily Viral – Don’t Read the Comments (on Yahoo Parenting article)
- Being a “Yes”
This is a rich topic. Your comments are welcome.