The False Energy Crisis, and the Economic Fallout
How short-term selfish reasons have stifled humanity’s progress, and how long-term selfish reasons might save us all.
If I asked you, “what’s less dangerous, to live in Fukushima, or to be a coal miner?” what would you answer? What about living in Beijing with smog so thick, you can’t even recognize your neighbour? What about living in a war torn country without access to fresh water? What about walking through Detroit on a sunday evening?
This might seem like an odd question, one you’re probably not well informed to answer, but you likely didn’t say Fukushima is the safest, and you’d be wrong. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss here, this article is about how politics drives science, and what the ramifications of it are. Conversely, when science (and technology) is driven by scientists, merely funded by governments, what great advances can be made.
In the post-WWI years, the industrial revolution demanded technological advances, giant industries were willing to pay for generic research, something IBM (one of the few) still does to this day. Then as war loomed in the 30’s, again there was a new rush towards war driven industrial technology, while in parallel, a lot of science was being funded by the U.S. government with the aim of developing military applications. These were boom times for science, experimenting was encouraged, safety was discouraged, kind of like how the Chinese operate today then. And it quickly hustled us into the nuclear-age. It was all downhill from there.
As the nuclear-age became a nuclear-proliferation-age, suddenly serious science, became a serious threat. Luddites started having misgivings about it all, politicians with panicky trigger finders were sweating like malaria patients, and the scientists working in their underground labs, we completely ignorant to the plight of normal folks. Perhaps this was the real problem, scientists are terrible at marketing ideas. They wanted to do things ordinary people didn’t understand, for pie-in-the-sky gains no one could predict, for sums of money only federal governments could afford.
A backlash may have been inevitable. There was a wave of denial about the benefits of research, and an ever-present fear of the research being stolen by the Russians, didn’t help things. This started whittling away at the public funding, leaving the military as the primary source of research grants, usually with strings attached, including secrecy, and they were certainly much less focused on societal advancements. Nuclear technologies as related to submarines, or bombs, became their focus. At least until Chernobyl exploded.
I think the subsequent periods from the early 70’s, to the late 80’s, could best be described as technological doldrums. We might have got velcro, teflon and carbon fiber from the aerospace industries, but it wasn’t really until the internet age that things really picked up again. It’s also obvious the arms industry really benefited from the surge in micro-electronics developments. Miniaturization, new alloys, new composites, and better sensors all resulted. Ironically, the roles even changed, they were subsuming consumer technology for adapting to military applications, bet they didn’t see that coming. That’s why sharing information is so vital to science.
Absent in all this was public funding, that was flowing directly to the space agency NASA, and the arms industry, via DARPA and the Pentagon. There were billions in cancelled projects, usually as a result of political short-sightedness, or because they were in competition with faster yielding projects. There was a huge shakeup of public funding right at the beginning of the 2000’s, leading to famous projects like the Hubble telescope being de-funded. Fermilab’s particle collider was also shut down, giving the Europeans a crack at taking the science reins, though this was more symbolic than anything, the Tevatron was quite old.
Belatedly, there’s a movement in the southern States to re-introduce religion into schools, contrary to the Constitution, while at the same time, attempting the widespread discrediting of the theory of evolution, as if it was just one of many hokey theories we believed in. If this movement continues without enough pushback by the anti-social scientific community, things are going to get ugly for science in America, fast. Yet, as sad as it sounds, the country with an increasingly large group of creationists, who actually want Armageddon to come, is still the leading force in science.
Maybe we are doomed.
Steering the future
It would be nice to tell the U.S. Senate science committee, “Enough superstition, on with the show!” but everything they recommend, seems closer to a grotesque perversion befitting a carnival act, than a guideline for sound research. There have been a large number of questionable decisions by the committee, and some outright political grandstanding, usually with the aim of supporting their financial backers, or keeping jobs in their electoral regions. However spineless, or backwards facing the committees, often they are also beholden to the personal meddling by less-informed government officials.
Although it’s not surprising that political pressure is applied to other countries, like when Mr. President convinced Mr. Prime Minister to cancel a highly advanced jet fighter program, by suggesting guided rockets are the future. As we all know, America was still gung-ho on air superiority fighters, and they had no intention of ever giving it up; it was purely to crush superior outside competition.
It doesn’t make nearly as much sense when a government pulls federal funding from a promising science project they own, not some esoteric experiment involving sheep and telepathy, but science with real promise to change the world. Though to some extent, changing the world is scary to everyone. People like consistency, predictability, and politicians are no different. Industries with billions invested, in technology that might be obsoleted overnight, really don’t want the world to change.
Everybody is squeezing somebody, sometime.
The politics of resisting leverage
Now, there’s a raging debate amongst business tycoons, world government elites, and megalomaniacs like the Bilderbergs in general. Normally they are so used to being able to effectively direct countries from afar, mostly by influencing their leading politicians to frame the debate, and they influence the official opposition just as often. But this influence is like a ring of fire, where the stuntman (aka politician) has to jump through it, where great riches await on the other side, and the farther they can stay from the fire, the less it hurts. Carrot and stick. They just don’t know what to do about China. None of their well-honed manipulation techniques work on them, and if they haven’t clued into why, they don’t deserve to rule the world anyway, do they?
China is a giant, almost glacially slow bureaucracy, driven as much by ideology as long-term gain. Then there’s the small matter of harsh penalties. Chinese law takes a dim view of people that dare to upset the status quo, it even offers death sentences for a large number of ordinary crimes, and then invoice the families for the cost of the bullets used. Corrupt officials aren’t exempt either, unlike in America, where it might be OK to abuse drugs, cheat on your wife, or lie on TV, but still get re-elected. All this contributes to making China into a walled garden of evil, as far as the New World Order folks are concerned, for everyone else, it’s a great place to shop.
Once in a while, you might hear of a U.S. President lament how the Chinese have unfairly changed the rules, how they have resisted all diplomatic efforts to open them up for exploitation. For example, up until a decade ago, the Chinese Yuan value was arbitrarily decided by their government. This was very upsetting to the Central Bank cartels, they want to be the ones in charge of squeezing nations with debt obligations, something they can’t do when a currency isn’t “market” driven. Whenever the Americans devalued their currency in the past, the Chinese would devalue it in unison.
It was almost like the opposite of a trade war, it was the customer who couldn’t leave.
International trade, barriers, and other things
So why is China’s style of government significant to the world? There’s a simple, yet complex answer, it starts with manufacturing. More precisely, as the world moves towards more technology based societies, or tries to, cost pressures arise that just weren’t there before. A consumer in Indonesia couldn’t possibly spend the same amount of money on a microwave, or a clock radio, as the average American. There may be exceptions to this, the rise of iPhone usage in Asia is a prime example, Apple has strict pricing around the world, mostly to prevent gray market imports back into the U.S. market.
We could argue the intensification of North American’s appetites for cool gizmos is the driving force behind cost cutting, but that will always be the most mature market, and mature markets don’t have the growth percentages mega conglomerates thrive on. By business process alone, it usually makes more sense to manufacture cheaply, then to distribute the same product (with minor variations only) around the world, than it does to make high-cost units exclusively bound for high-value markets. Again, there are exceptions. A hybrid approach can work too, where they do indeed make an even cheaper product for developing (aka poor) markets, while reusing as much technology, or components, as they can, or even by borrowing an existing low-cost design.
When developing countries are descended on by the vultures, as in the case of Guam by American sportswear firms, they are always screened against the skill levels required, to the skill levels provided by their future slaves. Thailand and Vietnam were traditionally too backwards to produce much more than socks, with militaristic governments that weren’t too keen on cooperating with this economic rape. The other significant part of the equation is long-term stability, more aptly described as stagnation, both politically, and socially. These multinationals are deathly afraid of unions forming, or unexpected minimum-wage increases.
Places like South Korea and Taiwan by contrast, are very much high-tech centers. There are lots of products and technologies being developed, with a highly skilled workforce, but they are also mature economies. They have moved up-market as they say, they have become attractive as a replacement for North American R&D centers, but increasingly less attractive for manufacturing, except where quality outweighs cost.
This all makes China an interesting paradox. The waves of outsourcing have created a kind of technological renaissance over there, they have become so good at manufacturing, everything from cheap plastic goods, to high precision aerospace components, to the point where any company serious about taking over the world, can’t ignore them. All the while remaining an inexpensive workforce. The Chinese also smartly demand joint foreign-domestic ownerships, of all factories, as Canada once did, just to make sure that they can’t skip town with all the profits either.
This rush to make the world a more blinky, spinny, whirry place, has side effects.
The challenges of supply
The majority of technology companies, technology manufacturers especially, consume vast quantities of water, and rare earth minerals. Every electric motor, or generator/turbine these days contains neodymium, also known as a rare earth magnet. Every smoke and carbon monoxide detector contains americium, or cesium. Every circuit board, no matter how large or small, contains gold, strontium, yttrium, europium, surrounded by a lovely toxic soup of fire-retardants and binding agents.
All these rare elements are hard to come by, and where they are found, you find other radioactive materials, or by-products thereof. To put things into perspective, let’s examine how the re-branded Tar Sands in Canada operates. In many ways, they are trying to accomplish a similar goal, in a similar setting; they have to put in a lot of effort, to get something expensive, in unforgiving places, to drive an insatiable industry.
The Oil Sands projects could be considered a challenge to extraction. Certainly it’s tougher, and much more expensive to extract from there, than their OPEC counterpart oil fields. Yet the difficulty lies not in finding the stuff, it isn’t that scarce, it just takes a lot of processing. In the earlier cases, the Oil Sands projects looked more like strip mines, where chasms were dug to chase the oil rich earth, not much different than what you might have seen 100 years ago. More recently, they’ve been chasing more elusive pockets of oily dirt, deeper underground, and that has required technology closer to what’s found in modern off-shore oil drilling rigs.
As with all mining, keeping it financially viable is important to the mining companies, and their shareholders, so with every increase in complexity, or reduction in output, tough questions are asked. It’s a safe bet that in the long term at least, the most likely cause of the mining to cease, will be due to low profitability, not environmental protection.
Then, once the sludge is mined, all the methods to separate the petrochemicals from the earth that it’s trapped in, use immense quantities of water, often in the form of steam, with even more petrochemical solvents. All of which leaves giant pools of toxic leftovers, called tailings. In that black goop, there is still a lot of residual energy, and minerals, waiting for a recovery solution that never comes.
We could always launch a new worldwide conservation ad campaign, that always works right?
How abundant energy could reshape the world
If the picture isn’t painted that clearly, let’s recap: governments can promote or obstruct research based on strategic needs; corporations can promote or obstruct research based on financial/market pressures; politicians can promote or obstruct research based on the jobs created in their own jurisdiction or for re-election points. There’s no such thing as a free lunch for science anymore, it can’t live for free in its parent’s basement any longer, it has to grow up, and get a job.
What happens to the supportive science and technology then? Well, not much. We could be living in an era of virtually limitless electricity, with a nearly limitless supply of medical isotopes to save lives, with very powerful magnets for inexpensive generators, and all the benefits that nearly free electricity could provide. We could be, except for those aforementioned political decisions.
Studies have shown, that the quality of life anyone has, directly correlates to energy usage. The magic line between poverty and comfort appears to be 2,000 kilowatt-hours per year. Below that, you are likely heating your home and cooking with fire, likely derived from wood. Your consumption of electricity would be like a special occasion, when it’s unavoidable, or in some cases, just when it’s even available. Above that however, the situation is similar to that of a small apartment unit, or other shared dwelling structure. My own personal usage is an average of 230kwh’s per month, so I’m sure this is true.
The United States spends close to 700 billion dollars yearly on it’s militaristic tentacles. That’s a huge sum of money, it outweighs all the social programs, like medicaid, and social security. All that money designed to give them military supremacy, so they can wage war over finite resources, like oil and gas. They claim it’s for energy security, but there’s really no risk of running out, or even that no one will sell oil to them, it’s entirely profit driven. Profits for the oil industry, and more profits for the arms industry. Imagine what could be done to improve the infrastructure of the entire country by redirecting that budget.
Energy isn’t everything though, we’re going to run out of resources unless things change.
The science of water
We humans are using fresh water trapped in the ground at a record rate, often faster than it can replenish. This is because only about 3% of all the water on the planet is fresh, the rest is salty, and two-thirds of that fresh water is locked in ice at the polar ice caps. More than one-fifth of the fresh water is in the Great Lakes. Fresh water is pretty scarce in the grand scheme of things.
Now, imagine fresh water was freely available everywhere near an ocean. Desalination plants would be trivial to run without using expensive filtering membranes, instead using plain electrolysis. Then we wouldn’t have to suck all the deep aquifers out, or use up fresh water lakes that don’t replenish. Then, imagine all the waste-water could be similarly purified, including those toxic tailings ponds, not with equally toxic chemical solvents, not with some future bio-engineered algae, just electrically. How different would the world be?
What if by using our nearly free electricity, we could convert water into any kind of hydrocarbon that we needed for industry, instead of drilling for oil? Imagine diesel fuel cost $10 per barrel, 90% of which was made in a factory from seawater, with nearly none of the impurities that make smog. All those plastic products we consume in western societies would be entirely independent of the price of oil too. Even without switching to electric cars, we could extract just enough oil for automotive or other transportation usage, never having to worry about supplying feedstock for other petrochemicals as well.
Societies would no longer be trapped by their geographies, and smart sensor grids could monitor moisture levels in soil, to bring even more efficiency to farming. Even sewage could be cleaned for reuse. Wouldn’t it be laughable if on some isolated country or island, bottled water came from sewage? Oh wait, that’s being done right now in Singapore. However, it could be done everywhere, or at least used to irrigate crops, instead of diverting rivers, which usually destroys a lot of habitat.
Would multinationals like Coca-cola buy up water rights, if there was no danger of running out?
Environmentalists are part of the problem
We all know Greenpeace wants to save the planet, they say so all the time. They lobby against whaling, baby seal clubbing, and wish we all gave up dish soap. Nothing wrong so far? They also have serious issues with climate change, specifically they blame coal plants for majority of the man-made CO2 problem, way ahead of cars in fact.
Despite what the nuclear industry tells us, building enough nuclear power stations to make a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would cost trillions of dollars, create tens of thousands of tons of lethal high-level radioactive waste, contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, and result in a Chernobyl-scale accident once every decade. Perhaps most significantly, it will squander the resources necessary to implement meaningful climate change solutions.
How’s this for an ironic existence then: Greenpeace campaigns against nuclear power, which has basically zero CO2 emissions, based on lies. In the wake of the Fukushima-Daiichi reactor meltdown, Greenpeace has been ecstatic. Japan has shut down all of their nuclear plants, as have a lot of governments around the world. Even though a very similar nuclear facility, further up the Japanese coast, was completely unaffected by the tsunami, because the commissioner in charge of approving it, insisted on a taller sea-wall.
So what’s the backup plan for a world without nuclear energy you might ask? Coal, and all the lovely greenhouse gas that comes with it. This might be the hypocrisy in the energy industry, the backup plan is always dirty. If it can’t be clean, it better be cheap. And in that respect, nothing fits the bill like coal.
Right now, we have more coal fired power plants operating than ever before, despite climate change fears.
The renewable lie
We need an energy system that can fight climate change, based on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Nuclear power already delivers less energy globally than renewable energy, and the share will continue to decrease in the coming years.
One of the major foundations of the push to renewable energy sources, is the assumption that energy costs will continue to rise, thereby nullifying the cost premium to using overpriced renewable energy. So presumably, one day in the future, energy from natural gas will cost more than energy from wind turbines. Except there’s a huge hole in this argument, even if you can squeeze your brain to accept the cost theory, you can’t rely on renewable sources as backup power for the grid. I’ll explain why.
Wind power sources are low density, that means a 2 mega-watt turbine can’t be within 800 meters of the next turbine, so you have a serious problem with land utilization. They require strategic locations too, away from tall buildings that might impede air flow, usually at the tops of escarpments. Also, wind isn’t strong everywhere, not every country has enough to make it worth the investment. Such low density power production guarantees it will never provide the needs of sprawling cities, even Google knows this.
At the start of RE
England has been rolling out a national wind farming project, with the latest generation of turbines, though mostly by political will instead of scientific enthusiasm. They still only work an average of 15% of the time, outside of that, they produce no appreciable energy. You might find it interesting to note, the highest wind available to harness, happens before dawn, and after dusk, otherwise known as off-peak, when communities don’t need much at all.
Solar farms are equally poor ways to make power on a global scale. Photovoltaic cells are still expensive, but at least have the potential to reduce further over time; they are really only good for serving as quickly deployed portable power, for recharging battery packs etc. When you require huge amounts of power, you require equally huge amounts of land, with the small caveat, that it also has to be in locations where there’s strong sunlight more than 300 days per year.
The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.
In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive – which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive
This should immediately ring alarm bells, because if you live in the far northern or deep southern hemispheres, that means you’d have no power for half the year, or more. That only leaves the equatorial regions. It might work in Spain, but it’s not going to work in Poland. Then to rub some molten salt on that wound, solar energy plants typically have a gas fired heat source, for when the sun turns off. This turns your lovely renewable energy facility into a fossil fuel guzzler when it cools off. Yay. Oh, and don’t tell Greenpeace.
For the time being then, renewable energy only belongs on satellites, we earthlings need something more constant.
Rare earths, and not-so-rare earths
There’s a hugely ironic situation today in the rare earths business. Ever since nuclear power became the poster boy for mutually assured destruction, almost all the radioactive isotopes we mine have becoming national security nightmares. Not that the vast majority are even dangerous to keep in your pocket, but the speculative fear was there. Nuclear power plants became a pariah, and they also run on rare earths, like uranium. As you no doubt guessed, they all come from the same places too.
Meanwhile, people are developing cancer at record rates from the radon gas being naturally released, everytime there’s a foundation built for a construction project, and everytime a Big Oil company decides to frack under a populated area. Radon naturally occurs in heavy stone too, like granite, think about that next time you buy a granite counter top, and wonder where the warning label is. Strangely, radon is one of those dangers that western governments refuse to acknowledge, maybe because it is naturally occurring, not man-made, although there is a massive list of other dangers to be fair.
There is a very good reason to worry about this anti-nuclear sentiment, and that’s mainly because the people driving the discussions aren’t scientists. They are not even close. Which begs the question, why are we even listening to them? Oh right, they’re politicians, and lobbyists, they happen to be good at this. Though I’m sure the last thing the nuclear industry wants is commoditized nuclear power stations that anyone could order from a catalogue, interestingly, that’s not where they make their money. They follow the same business model as ink-jet printer companies do, sell the printer below cost, then bring in huge profits on the ink refills. So how much of the suppression is encouraged by the nuclear industry, to keep prices of nuclear fuel, and service costs high?
But this leads to a wider problem, and no one seems to have the backbone, or even sense of urgency to change it. If all the rare earths in North America are classed as hazardous waste, that means any time you go mining, you have to expensively contain and dispose of anything you can’t use, according to federal guidelines designed for nuclear bombs. Uranium is found with helium, but there’s a huge industry around processing uranium, and helium, which makes it all saleable. This can’t be said for something like thorium, which is found wherever there’s strontium, tungsten, molybdenum, etc. There’s currently no commercial value for thorium, and that makes mining in some regions high in thorium content, prohibitively expensive.
The Canadian nuclear industry managed to come up with a more efficient design to burn uranium, they dubbed it CANDU. The DU stands for deuterium-uranium, which makes it a heavy-water reactor design, with dual phase heat transfer to the turbine, unlike traditional light-water designs. Through various tricks with fuel rod design, and a reduction of neutron capture by the deuterium, the CANDU reactors operate almost 40% more efficiently than the American light-water reactors. They also have the advantage of burning uranium in it’s natural concentrations, so there’s no costly enrichment process required, and fuel rods don’t need to be constantly shuffled around manually to maintain the right heat output.
The CANDU is also a rather significant development in the nuclear age. While it had largely the same basic design as other uranium reactor types, it could produce power from the left-overs of light-water reactors, and thorium as well. In fact, it can burn damn near anything radioactive, which is fantastic for another reason: it can create a wide range of very important isotopes for the medical and scientific communities, based on the diet they are fed. That said, they still produce a range of dangerous isotopes like any other water based reactor.
When various nuclear plants were mothballed, or partly deactivated, the stocks of these hard to come by isotopes started dwindling. The insatiable technology industry, and federal governments have stepped up recycling programs, but this can only lessen the impact of the short-sighted policies regarding radiation. Ultimately, recycling is expensive, and the disposal costs are usually off-loaded onto the kind souls trying to recycle their old electronics, making it more attractive to hide them in the trash. So much for cleaning up the environment.
So if everyone in America is afraid to mine rare earth isotopes, who will?
The thorium problem
In a stunning display of selfish politics, Nixon had nixed the Molten-salt Reactor technology developed at the Oak Ridge National Labs, which would have burned thorium almost exclusively, and produced a myriad of rare earth isotopes. Ever since then thorium has been in limbo. Not because thorium is dangerous, it isn’t even poisonous in the water supply because it’s inert, just that no one at the EPA seems to care. The EPA will happily say that irradiating your vegetables to kill bacteria is perfectly harmless however, chew on that.
Thorium has a half-life as long as our planet is old, which might sound scary, but it’s quite the opposite. The longer the half-life, the less radioactive it is, because it’s less active. Some isotopes on the other hand, like plutonium decay relatively quickly, into many dangerous isotopes over their lifespan, perfect for bombs, very bad for typical nuclear reactors. Those uranium reactors in the early days, called the fast-breeders, always conveniently produced bomb grade isotopes as a by-product. You can easily see why the military was so interested in pushing some technologies, over others.
To explain any radioactive isotope’s life metaphorically, we could compare it to the life of a butterfly. At first it lives as a caterpillar, those colourful, wrinkly, sausage-like insects, and it lives like this peacefully, for a period of time. This would be the isotope’s pre-decay stage. Once it’s reached maturity, and amassed enough energy reserves, it builds a little shelter for itself to transform. Then at some defining moment, the pod breaks open, and a butterfly emerges. This would be the post-decay period, assuming there’s a single decay in it’s chain. During the transition is where the magic happens, energy is released, not much happens until then. Capturing that transitional energy release is the basic premise of a nuclear reactor.
So we know the abundant thorium is a very mildly radioactive isotope, you can find it as sand on beaches, you can find it hidden in uranium deposits, but you won’t find it in the tissues of animals you cook for dinner. Not that this matters, Greenpeace, and western governments alike, just won’t grow the balls to challenge their nuclear industry supporters, and kickstart a new generation of nuclear technology. "Think of all the lost jobs!" they’ll say, when they really mean: think of all the lost profits.
Some anti-nuclear detractors like to say it’s still an unproven technology, that won’t be feasible without heavy subsidies, which is kind of a ridiculous position to hold; without subsidies, there would be no "green" energy production at all. Greenpeace sure doesn’t seem bothered by promoting subsidy rich renewable energy sources, that still produce more CO2 emissions than any nuclear facility. They seem to thrive on climate change debates, yet actively scupper our only viable solution. At this point, I would just discount all their pandering, they need a big bad bugaboo to rail against to score donations. They are just as opportunistic as the industries they so hate.
This problem really only exists because elected politicians are generally cowards.
Enter the Dragon
Heavy metals, and rare earths, contrary to the name, are not that rare, or at least not much rarer than fresh water, relative to the oceans. Platinum and uranium are quite rare amongst the rare earths, but even they don’t seem to be running out. Low demand helps. The same can’t be said about some of the other isotopes needed by the electronics industry, and I can’t see a world where we abruptly halt producing that stuff.
In perhaps one of the greatest ironies in this rare earth drama, China is doing what America is politically incapable of doing, solving the shortage by itself, for itself. They have been mining rare earths for some time now, they have factory mouths to feed after all. There were even some WTO spats between the Chinese and Americans about monopolizing production. The Chinese first flooded the market to depress prices on the hard to obtain minerals, thereby making production in America even less desirable. Then, as all shrewd businesses would do, the Chinese started turning the screws, ratcheting up prices for foreigners with tariffs.
Trade wars are all fun and games to the U.S. government, until someone does it to them. Those evil totalitarian anti-fascists just won’t play ball, nor are they under any real pressure to do so. China is the one manufacturing the overwhelming majority of goods that require rare earths, any extra-terrestrial would clearly see, they are just preserving their interests. Namely their own manufacturers. Nothing nefarious there.
But China also has a smog problem. Beijing was recorded to have more smog alerts, than clear days. There’s times when the populous city looks more like Marrakesh in a sand storm, except it’s all industrial pollution. Technically, that’s as valid an excuse to play the protectionist card, if there ever was one.
China acknowledged that the duties at issue were imposed on products that are not included in the relevant Annex, but sought to justify its imposition of export duties on the basis of the “General Exceptions” provision in Article XX of the GATT. Specifically, Article XX(b) allows WTO Members to maintain measures that would otherwise be inconsistent with the GATT 1994 if the measures are necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health. In this case, China argued that the export duties are necessary to protect human, animal and plant life and health from the pollution caused by mining the products at issue.
Even the world’s worst environmental polluter, has to draw a line in the sand somewhere, right?
The old long-term solution
A few years ago, the Chinese sent some delegates to America, in the form of tourists. They made all the usual stops, like nuclear facilities, because no self-respecting diplomat can go home without diagrams of American technology, and they visited the Oak Ridge facility with one agenda; they wanted to know everything about the quietly aborted project, the molten-salt reactor. Otherwise known as the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).
That lowly regarded mineral found just about everywhere, the rock that America won’t touch, even with a technology they invented, has had a really good use all along. You can bet the Chinese have mined mountains of thorium in their quest to fulfill the needs of their industry, and you can bet they’ve been looking for a solution to dispose of it, preferably if it generates economic benefit. Reducing smog would just be icing on that gritty cake. Naturally, they did what they are best at, copying technology.
They now have all the plans to begin (or finish depending how you look at it) developing the thorium reactor technology, and they have pressurized heavy-water reactor technology similar to CANDU already. I wouldn’t be surprised if they develop something entirely new this time around, perhaps even a hybrid. They’ve already got the raw materials waiting for it, whenever it comes online, and manufacturing expertise. All those state-owned heavy foundries littering the country will have renewed purpose, if they pull it off. No reason to think they won’t either.
Imagine what it could mean for China long-term. Developing clean burning reactors that can provide power for their exploding population is only the first step. They have several empty metropolises waiting for occupants to move in. Manufacturing hasn’t appreciably slowed even in the worldwide recession. There’s also nearly a billion people living below the energy threshold which dictates one’s prosperity, ripe for being thrust into a higher quality of living. And short of a civil war, the growth trend will continue as well.
Solving China’s air pollution problem would be an immense challenge, but shutting down all the coal fired power generation would be a huge leap forward. Every modernized nation has coal plants, and every one of them wish they didn’t. Coal just happens to be the cheapest option in North America, and China. They’d be leaving only the economically vital factories to spew their hazy chemical stew, possibly recycling their now worthless coal into industrial lubricants.
Then in a single swoop, they’ll solve much of their rare earth, and scientifically important isotope shortages. Those thorium reactors produce a wide range of useful fission products, such as bismuth-213 and molybdenum-99, which are used in cancer treatments, 90% of which is currently supplied by Canada. Meanwhile, mining thorium yields a lot of the rare earths, or alternately, mining rare earths yields an endless supply of thorium for the reactors. The reactors then produce thousands of times more clean energy, which can be used to mine even more! This is the opposite of the Oil Sands, where the trapped energy takes almost two-thirds as much energy to extract.
It’s not hard to predict a future where China, India, and a small handful of nations, are the new nuclear technology superpowers, since they have a pressing need to prevent a looming energy crisis. There’s also serious investment into the research in Norway, even though they have plenty of oil production from off-shore rigs, they are a forward thinking people, without the political or industrial baggage of larger nations. Lately even the British are partnering with other universities around the world, both to research the applications of the technology, and to solve some of the challenges with it, no doubt hoping to build healthy patent portfolios in the process.
In the end, those governments that are stuck in cold-war mentality will be left behind. There’s a new type of war being waged, one that can break all the societal norms, and has the power to destroy the vertical power structures resisting change, that have been so well cultivated by military interests over the years. The democratization of power, and lowering the threshold to a better life for people everywhere, might be the most fundamental advances to humanity since we learned how to sail ships. We might even save the environment at the same time.
It just may take a defiant totalitarian regime to save the world.