“We would like to get to a prototype (of a nuclear fusion reactor) in five generations,” said Dr Thomas McGuire, the director of the Revolutionary Technology division at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works. “If we can meet our plan of doing a design-build-test generation every year, that will put us at about five years, and we’ve already shown we can do that in the lab.”
Dr McGuire was talking to Aviation Week, the oldest and most widely read magazine covering defence industry, and he was promising a working nuclear fusion reactor that puts out more energy than it consumes in five years. “It wouldn’t be at full power…but basically just showing that all the physics works,” he added – but he did predict a fully operational machine in another five years.
Lockheed Martin is not a fringe player hyping some technological fantasy in the hope of raising enough capital to build a prototype. It’s the biggest player in US defence-related technology, and it has a reputation to protect. It would not have invited Aviation Week in last week unless it was pretty confident that the project will succeed.
So suppose there really is a full-scale prototype of a 100-megawatt nuclear fusion reactor, ready to go into volume production, in just ten years. Nuclear fusion is clean energy – no radioactive waste, no risk of meltdown, and of course no carbon dioxide emissions – so if it is competitive in cost, it could easily sweep the field.
Fusion power would not replace the “renewables” (wind, solar, and “bio” power), whose cost would probably fall fast enough to stay competitive. But it would rapidly replace the fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, that are used to generate “base load” power – power that is always available even if the sun is down and the wind drops – especially because the compact reactors would easily plug into the existing gas turbine power infrastructure.
Lockheed Martin’s T4 project reduces the size of the reactor tenfold for the same output, so nuclear fusion could also replace oil directly in a great many uses, like powering large ships. Its abundant, cheap electricity from a compact source could also eventually drive oil out of most other transportation uses, including automobiles and aircraft. Lockheed Martin talks about meeting global base load energy demand with fusion power by 2050.
Lockheed Martin is not alone in the field. EMC2 Fusion Development Corp is working on a similar concept in New Mexico, and other significant players in the field include Helion Energy in Washington state, Canadian-based General Fusion, and Tri-Alpha Energy in California. After half a century of desultory tinkering with fusion power, this is an idea whose time has come. Assuming that it really happens, what would that do to the world?
For a start, it would kill off the coal industry entirely. Gas would be the next to go, but the demand for oil (and therefore its price) would also go into a long-term decline. The existing nuclear power plants, which depend upon fission for their energy, would be replaced with fusion plants on both cost and safety grounds. The geopolitical impacts would also be very large, as major countries that live on oil exports see their cash flow dry up.
Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other countries whose precarious prosperity and stability depend on large oil exports might face revolution or civil war when their income collapsed. So might Mexico, Indonesia, Iran and perhaps some Arab countries. On the other hand, countries that currently spend a lot of their income on energy imports would suddenly find themselves much richer. (The United States leads the pack in this regard.)
But above all, the threat of runaway global warming would go away.
It’s already too late to avoid some very large impacts, because there is a great deal of carbon dioxide in the air that has not yet produced its full warming effect, and there are a lot more emissions to come even if fossil fuels are successfully phased out in a matter of decades. If fusion power became available soon enough, however, we would never exceed 2 degrees C higher average global temperature and trigger a global catastrophe.
So you can fret all you want about terrorism and the other minor complaints of our times, but this is major-league Good News. And if you’re not happy with those predictions about “hot” fusion power, here’s something else to cheer you up.
COLD fusion power, which depends on low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), was dismissed with much ridicule when it was first mooted in 1989. Now it’s back on the table, and highly reputable organisations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are taking it seriously.
As Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Resarch Center, said in an interview last year, “Several labs have blown up studying LENR and windows have melted….When the conditions are ‘right’, prodigious amounts of energy can be produced and released.” The Age of Wonders is not past.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Lockheed…2050″; and “Russia…regard”)
“The price of oil will hit its floor and it will rise again,” President Nicolas Maduro assured Venezuelans, whose shaky economy depends critically on a high oil price. “Venezuela will continue with its social plans. Venezuela will move forward.”
No it won’t, and neither will Russia, Iran, or Nigeria. The only major oil exporters that are not in deep trouble are the Arab countries, whose governments have some room for manoeuvre because of low production costs, relatively small populations, and big foreign currency reserves.
Since June the cost of a barrel of Brent crude, the benchmark for world oil prices, has fallen by almost a quarter, from around $110 a barrel (where it was stuck for the past four years) to just above $80 a barrel. Last month, for the first time in decades, Nigeria exported no oil at all to the United States. Even at a big discount, Americans just don’t need it. And the main reason for all that is fracking.
American production has almost doubled in the past five years thanks to the new drilling technologies, and the United States overtook Russia last year to become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas combined. (Saudi Arabia comes a distant third.) With production soaring and world demand for oil stalling due to slow economic growth, a collapse in prices was inevitable. The question is how far they will collapse, and for how long.
The answer is probably not much further, for the moment – but they could easily stay down in the $75-$85 range for a couple of years. The reason for that is that the “swing” producers (mostly Arab), who could theoretically push prices back up by cutting their own production, have clearly decided not to do so.
Their concern is for the long-term power of the OPEC cartel, which used to be strong enough to set the price of oil. That never will be true again unless they can drive the (mainly American) frackers who are causing the over-supply of oil out of business.
Saudi Arabia and its allies are hoping that a prolonged period when the price of a barrel of oil is lower than the cost of getting that barrel out of the ground by fracking will ruin this new industry and bring back the Good Old Days. Dream on.
The Saudi strategy won’t work because some 98 percent of US crude oil and condensates has a break-even price of below $80 per barrel. Indeed, 82 percent of American production would still be turning a profit at $60 per barrel.
Even with its massive foreign currency reserves, Saudi Arabia probably cannot afford to keep the oil price low enough for long enough to break the American frackers. (Its own break-even price for conventional oil is $93 per barrel.) And the Iranians, Nigerians, Venezuelans and Russians, who depend on oil revenues for at least half of their national budgets, will be screaming for higher prices before they face riots in the streets.
So this is not a transient event; it’s a revolution. The Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) came into its own when the United States ceased to be the dominant global producer in the early 1970s. With the re-emergence of the United States as the biggest producer, OPEC’s clout is bound to shrink – so oil prices will probably stay well below $100 a barrel for the foreseeable future.
This will be a great boon for countries that depend heavily on imported oil, like India and China. It may eventually liberate the United States from its compulsion to intervene repeatedly in Middle Eastern disputes that are really none of its business. And it may be a disaster for repressive and/or corrupt regimes in countries like Russia (break-even price $105 per barrel), Nigeria ($119), Venezuela ($121) and Iran ($140).
It also means that worries about “peak oil”, and the underlying calculation that the world had only about forty years’ worth of proven oil reserves left, can be set aside for a while. We are already up to 53 years of reserves, and we are finding new oil faster than we are using existing reserves.
Of course, a broader view of our situation would find little reason for rejoicing in all this. Our global civilisation depends on fossil fuels for 85 percent of its energy, and our annual emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are still rising.
Just another twenty-five years of that will deliver us to the “point of no return”: 450 parts per million of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere. That would raise the average global temperature by 2 degrees C, and trigger natural sources of warming that it will be impossible for us to turn off again. Runaway warming is not a happy prospect, so it is unseemly to celebrate the news that we have even more oil to burn – and cheaper oil, at that.
On the other hand, it would be entirely appropriate to celebrate the news that other new technologies may open up a better escape route from fossil fuels. Solar power, wind power, nuclear fission, and hydro power all have a role to play in that task, but the Holy Grail for half a century has been fusion power. It may be much closer than we thought.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 15. (“This will…reserves”; and “On the other…thought”)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
THIS ARTICLE MAY ALSO BE USED AS THE FIRST OF A TWO-PART PIECE CALLED “GLOBAL ENERGY: BLIND-SIDED BY TECHNOLOGY”. In that case, this part would be sub-titled “FRACKING”, and the second part “NUCLEAR FUSION”. If you wish to use it that way, but still want the shorter length, THEN OMIT PARAGRAPHS 6, 11 AND 12 from this article.. (“Their…concern”, and “This will…reserves”
There was a time, as recently as 25 years ago, when military staff colleges around the world taught a reasonably effective doctrine for dealing with terrorism. Then it was forgotten, but we need it back. It would be especially useful in dealing with the terrorist state that has recently emerged in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The doctrine was painfully worked out back in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when terrorism was one of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the time, the strategy worked, whether the threat was the urban terrorists who plagued most Latin American countries and a number of big developed countries, or the rural guerillas who fought the government in many African and Asian countries.
The key insight was this: Terrorist movements always want you to over-react, SO DON’T DO IT. The terrorists usually lack the popular support to overpower their opponent by force, so they employ a kind of political jiu-jitsu: they try to use the adversary’s own strength against him. Most domestic terrorism, and almost all international terrorism, is aimed at provoking a big, stupid, self-defeating response from the target government.
The Red Army Faction terrorists, for example, hoped that their attacks would provoke West Germany’s democratic government into severe repression. This was known, in the works of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as “unmasking the repressive tolerance of the liberal bourgeoisie” – and once the West German government had dropped its mask, the RAF terrorists believed, the outraged workers would rise up in their millions and overthrow it.
But we never found out if the workers would actually do that, because the West German government refused to panic. It just tracked down the terrorists and killed or arrested them. It used violence, but only in legal, limited and precisely targeted ways. The same approach ended the terrorist campaigns in Italy (the Red Brigades), Canada (the Quebec Liberation Front), Japan (the Japanese Red Army) and the United States (the Weathermen).
In Latin America, by contrast, the “urban terrorists” did succeed in the first stage of their strategy. Their attacks drove the military in Argentina, Brazil and a number of other countries to seize power and create brutally repressive regimes. But even this did not cause the population to revolt, as the terrorists had expected.
Instead, “the people” kept their heads down while the military regimes destroyed the revolutionaries (together with many innocent bystanders). Extreme repression can also eventually succeed as a counter-strategy to terrorism, but it imposes a terrible cost on the population.
International terrorism has a somewhat better record of success, mainly because these terrorists are not actually trying to overthrow the government they attack. They are merely trying to trick that foreign government into using massive violence against the countries where they really do want to take power. The attacks of the foreigners will outrage and radicalise the local population, who will then give their support to the local revolutionaries.
The most successful operation of this kind was 9/11, a low-cost attack that incited the United States to invade two entire countries in the region where the revolutionaries of al-Qaeda hoped to replace the local governments with Islamist regimes. The local population has been duly radicalised, especially in the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq, and thirteen years later an “Islamic Caliphate” has taken power in the northern and western parts of that country.
Osama bin Laden would have condemned the extreme cruelty that the new Islamist state has adopted as its modus operandi, but in essence it is the fulfilment of the grand strategy that he worked out after the Russians left Afghanistan a quarter-century ago. He could not have predicted that the strategy’s greatest success would be in Iraq, for he had no allies or followers there before the US invasion, but he would still take credit for it.
So now that Osama bin Laden’s vision has finally taken concrete shape, how should we deal with it? (“We” in this case is practically every regime in the Arab world, most of the other Muslim countries, and all of the NATO countries, with Russia and China in supporting roles). ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?
Rule one in the old anti-terrorism doctrine was DON’T OVERREACT, and it still applies. That means as little bombing as possible, and only of strictly military targets. Preferably, it would mean no bombing at all except in specific areas where ISIS troops are on the offensive.
It means not letting yourself be lured into more extreme action by the public beheading of innocent hostages and the other atrocities that ISIS stages to attract a certain kind of recruit. Indeed, it means not launching a major ground offensive against ISIS (for which the troops are not available anyway), and waiting for events to take their course within the ‘Islamic State’.
Regimes as radical and violent as this one rarely survive for long. The revolution will eat its children, as so many have before, and it will happen a lot more quickly if they don’t have a huge foreign military threat to hold them together.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 10. (“In Latin…population”; and “Osama…it”)
The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.
The two big rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, are no longer besieged by Ukrainian forces. Luhansk airport fell to a Russian tank attack on Monday, Donetsk airport will also be captured soon, and the port city of Mariupol, back under government control since May, may be in Russian hands by the weekend.
Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.
The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on – and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.
It’s true that Putin has long referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He recently called for immediate talks on the “statehood” of the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that have fallen partly into the hands of the pro-Russians rebels. This would mean the further dismantling of Ukraine, after the Russian annexation of Crimea last March.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which used to be part of the old Russian and Soviet empires, are terrified by the implications of Putin’s recent actions for their own independence (they also have Russian-speaking minorities). Even Kazakhstan, far to the east, is getting worried, as Putin says that it is “part of the larger Russian world…I am confident that’s the way things are going to be.”
There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which would have required a very big war (though he never intended to fight a “world war”).
Putin has no second project. He cannot embark on a Hitler-stye campaign of conquest, given Russia’s relatively modest economic and human resources. In any case the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees.
Until the Ukrainian crisis blew up, Putin hadn’t even done much to regain the old Soviet frontiers during fifteen years in power. He’s still not talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, so there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud. He doesn’t have one.
This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland. Even though they actually had no military ability to help Poland, they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does: it is basically a local issue.
Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?
The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire – which seems still to be on offer. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).
Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by putting a cuckoo in the nest: creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.
Let the rebels run the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.
Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine – which would still have 90 percent of the population.
And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 6. (“The two…weekend”; and “It’s true…be”)