Longtime proponents of nuclear power like myself have had to confront the ongoing events in Japan with a refocused critical eye. That theoretically remote statistical event which constitutes a catastrophic worst case scenario has shockingly become reality in the very nation widely considered to possess the world’s foremost competence when it comes to the generation of nuclear power. The Fukushima aftermath appears grim on all fronts.
Nuclear power advocates have long used the incident at Three Mile Island as clear evidence that the safety measures and protocols established within the nuclear industry do indeed work. Chernobyl was roundly dismissed as a clear case of criminally incompetent 1950’s era Soviet design (no containment seal) that no Western nation would ever emulate.
It is true that the Fukushima plant’s G.E. Mark I reactors are vintage 1960’s era in design and that the very latest third generation reactors are completely different beasts. But, beasts they are indeed and the ability to handle catastrophic failure always seems to end in largely uncharted radioactive waters. For nuclear power proponents, this make for an extremely serious issue of gigantic proportions.
The Western world will now pause long and hard on commissioning any new nuclear plants. Despite recent events, China has indicated that they will indeed go boldly forth with their ambitious plans to build dozens of advanced reactors incorporating the very latest in design and technological innovations. Regardless about how you feel when it comes to nuclear power, China will make a tremendous technological leap ahead of the West when it comes to advanced nuclear power generation.
China has no choice but to embrace nuclear power as a significant portion of their internal energy mix. Maximizing energy selfsuffi ciency is a central pillar of China’s growth and security strategy. In addition, the mining of coal as well as the mining of rare-earth metals which are heavily used in the so-called ‘green technologies’ (i.e. wind turbines, solar panels and advanced battery technology) has caused even the economically hard charging Chinese state to pause and consider the impacts that extensive domestic environmental degradation could have on their dreams of long term prosperity and global economic hegemony.
China recently announced that due to the significant environmental degradation which has developed in the region around the city of Baotou, the Ministry of Mining will decrease their export quota for rare-earth metals by 35 percent over the first six months of 2011. That could slam the brakes on wind turbine, solar panel and advanced battery deployment for the rest of the world because China currently produces over 97 percent of the planet’s rare-earth metals.
For example, each extended range battery used in the Chevrolet Volt contains seven pounds of Chinasourced rare- earth magnets. The average utility scale wind turbine uses between 600 and 700 pounds of China-mined rare-earth neodymium, terbium and dysprosium. China dominates global production of wind turbines, solar panels and advanced batter technology for three reasons: 1. a monopoly on rare-earth metals, 2. an unbeatable array of artificially cheap economic inputs, and 3. artificially undervalued currency which makes their products even cheaper on world markets.
American and Australian rare-earth mining evaporated in the 1980’s and 1990’s due to environmental concerns and their inability to compete economically with China’s unregulated, statesubsidized mining operations. It looks as though that pigeon of under-regulation has come home to roost in China. The landscape around Baotou appears stripped even from the vantage of the orbiting space station. Large reservoirs of toxic hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide wastewater used in the separation of minute percentages of rare-earth metals from literal mountains of soil litter the region.
Uranium is also a rareearth metal and these wastewater impoundments also happen to be radioactive. Ironically, China claims their ambitious nuclear program will clean up the environment because this wastewater will be sourced as fuel for reactors. Only time will tell.
Even prior to Fukushima, Wall Street demonstrated little willingness to finance new nuclear power capacity. Western free market investors are increasingly driven by a cancerous quick-buck mentality which seeks the juicy quarterly return, fast cash snatched from a corporate merger or break up, oil market speculation or some economically destructive, financial bubble inducing scheme like repackaged and resold sub-prime mortgage credit default swaps.
Wall Street no longer has much interest in large, longrun oriented infrastructure style projects because returns are small and spread across decades. In the case of nuclear power financing, one accident and those marginal returns can turn into big losses virtually overnight for investors and insurance underwriters. By contrast, China practices a more long range, wholistic and coordinated style of centralized economic planning. They look very far down the tracks and enthusiastically make those investments which only begin to pay off over multiple decades.
Corporate welfare is alive and well in all of America’s energy sectors. Whether it be nuclear, coal, natural gas or renewables, the entire spectrum of energy production receives robust public assistance. A subsidy may be open, direct and clearly traceable in the form of tax credits, grants, Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws, low interest loan packages or government- funding research. More often than not, subsidies take an indirect, discreet form such as obscure tax loopholes, back room pork barrel favors, unenforced existing regulations or unregulated internal costs of production which an energy industry producer is simply allowed to externalize or ‘socialize’ free of charge (i.e. pollution and related health care costs).
Simply put, virtually no sizeable energy business in America fits the romantic ideal of the rugged, independent entrepreneur. The $4 billion federal subsidy total received by the extremely profitable oil and gas industry is current under scrutiny in Washington. Socializing costs and privatizing profits is the private sector business strategy of choice, especially in energy industry circles.
Energy production is a complex and messy endeavor. The ‘true’ costs of coal have been examined and documented from many angles. The booming natural gas industry is still largely unregulated and increasingly full of irresponsible ‘fly by night’ operators.
Clean water is the primary casualty in the current wild West style rush to ‘frack for cash’. Increasingly, the oil industry is forced to focus on risky deep water drilling projects in order to access and tap badly needed new reserves. As with nuclear radiation, pressing problems a mile or more beneath the waves can be extremely diffi cult to manage in a timely manner.
Extreme weather events and natural disasters are on the rise and nuclear power plants are clearly vulnerable. The long term economic and environmental consequences of Fukushima are still being tabulated. Renewable wind and solar are not yet capable of supplying the necessary baseload power currently provided by conventional sources because their output is unpredictably intermittent and even when on-line, highly variable. In addition, the reliance upon rare-earth metals involves environmental degradation that cannot be ignored.
So, pick your poison. At the moment, humanity is between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the production of energy. JAMES LEWIS Whitesburg