No Fun on the Day of the Sun

By Mike Cronin

Disclaimer: I currently work for the US Air Force. The opinions expressed below are mine alone.

What’s all the fuss about with North Korea? They are always making threats.  Why do things seem more dangerous this time around?

Every year on this date (April 15th) while Americans are contending with getting their tax returns postmarked on time, North Korea celebrates “Day of the Sun,” in commemoration of the late Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Kim Il-sung was the founder of North Korea, and is still the Head of State and officially revered as the “Dear Leader,” a god in all but name.  The birthday celebration is the biggest “holiday” in North Korea, and is celebrated with military parades and usually some form of demonstration of military might, such as missile test-launches.

North Korea has announced it will do something spectacular this particular Day of the Sun; the concern is that the “something spectacular” will be the underground detonation of a nuclear device, in violation of UN sanctions.

In addition to celebrating the “Day of the Sun,” North Korea also has a habit of stirring up diplomatic and military trouble to see what they can get away with whenever there is a new US President. The current North Korean regime, led by Kim’s grandson, Kim Chong-un, has been testing Mr. Trump’s administration by launching missiles over the Sea of Japan.  Given that North Korea is believed to have chemical weapons and has allegedly test-detonated nuclear devices before, and that they claim to have produced nuclear warheads that can fit on a missile, these launches have been extremely provocative to South Korea, Japan and the United States.

You may recall the recent launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for the Bashad Regime’s use of chemical weapons against rebels, and the use of the “MOAB” bomb to destroy an ISIS tunnel complex in Afghanistan.  Those actions have not escaped the North Koreans.  The first demonstrated that President Trump favors action over diplomacy as a direct response to aggression, and that US cruise missiles can hit their targets, even when they have to go through heavily defended airspace (such as North Korea’s).  The second demonstrated that tunnels and underground bunkers (such as the North Korean military favors) are no guarantee of safety from conventional US weapons.

USS Carl Vinson battle Group Steams Towards Korean Waters

Kadena AB “Elephant Walk” 

Osan AB “Elephant Walk”

A US aircraft carrier battle group is steaming towards the Korean Peninsula, and there have been two no-notice “elephant walk” show-of-force exercises at Kadena and Osan air bases in recent days.  On top of that, the rhetoric is escalating, making for a tense situation.

Perhaps the most serious indication of trouble is that China has announced it will move 150,000 troops to the region of its border with North Korea, and is calling for cool heads to prevail.

The North Korean regime is like a crime family headed by the selected Kim heir.  They are hideously brutal to their own people and bellicose to the rest of the world. I would not mourn their loss. The trick is to demonstrate US resolve while leaving Kim a way to de-escalate without losing face. Not that he deserves to be let off the hook, but if we leave the North Korean regime with no options, their response could leave our administration without options – and that could ultimately put us into conflict with China.

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Nuclear Power, Shaving Cream, and Magnets

By Mike Cronin

Q: How is the nuclear power industry like shaving cream?

A: We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but a little background is in order. According to the video above, the “energy density” from nuclear fission (splitting atoms of heavy radioactive elements, like uranium and plutonium) is a million times greater than from chemical reactions, such as occur with conventional explosives or burning fossil fuels.  A nuclear reactor perhaps the size of your thumb could power your car. Yet there is a huge fear factor with nuclear power because nuclear fission is also the same energy source in atomic weapons, and because of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

We needn’t be so fearful.  Check out these facts:

The nuclear energy industry is safer than the coal industry. As of Februray 2013, no one had died due to radiation poisoning from Fukushima.  In fact, despite the deaths that occurred at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry is the safest of all of the major power generating industries in terms of deaths per terawatt hour generated.  Here’s the breakdown (retrieved from http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/191326/deaths-nuclear-energy-compared-other-causes ):

Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh

Coal – world average, 161

Coal – China, 278

Coal – USA, 15

Oil – 36

Natural Gas – 4

Biofuel/Biomass – 12

Peat – 12

Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83

Wind – 0.15

Hydro – world, 0.10

Hydro – world*, 1.4

Nuclear – 0.04

That’s right: even solar and wind energy are more hazardous to workers than nuclear power.

So if nuclear power is safer and more energy-dense than any of these other forms of power, why aren’t we using more of it, and burning less fossil fuels? Cost, mainly.  Because nuclear power scares people, and because a reactor safety failure can lead to radioactive contamination, the industry is heavily regulated and plants are very expensive to build. (By the way, the coal industry releases far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the nuclear industry!)

But some of that problem is due to the business model followed by the industry.  Power plant reactors are designed to use radioactive uranium or plutonium isotopes in their cores. Very little of the uranium that occurs naturally in the earth is of the required isotope.  The necessary isotope can be made by “enriching” regular uranium through various processes, all of which lead to a very expensive (on par with gold or platinum in price per ounce) final product.  Plutonium doesn’t even occur in nature, but it can be man-made, or “bred,” in nuclear reactors using enriched uranium…for about the same price per ounce.  Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be made “weapons grade” and used to make the cores of atomic bombs. In fact, the weapon industry, inaugurated by the Manhattan Project, gave rise to the power industry as we know it today.

So how is the nuclear power industry like the shaving industry?  Some time ago, Gillette came upon the idea of selling razor handles cheaply, at or below cost, or even giving them away, and charging prices with high profit margins for shaving consumables (disposable blades, creams, and gels).  A perpetual profit engine was born.

Nuclear power companies often work the same way.  They might build a power plant for a utility for little or no profit, but then reap a profit stream via the consumables (enriched uranium and plutonium) end of the business.

There is another business model that might make nuclear power much more palatable to the average customer, if the corporations in the industry could be convinced it would be as profitable.  It involves using a much more widely available radioactive material to generate the fission reaction: thorium. In this model, the thorium would be mixed with fluoride and circulated in the reactor as a molten salt.  The acronym the industry uses for such a system is LFTR (“lifter”). The benefits are worth considering:

Thorium is far more plentiful and far cheaper to obtain than uranium or plutonium

The reactor can’t “runaway” and “melt down” through its own containment – the fuel is already molten, but it’s at ~700 degrees, not the thousands of degrees needed to melt through steel and concrete

The fuel can be used much more efficiently (there would be far less radioactive waste)

A power plant that used it would not be cheap, but it wouldn’t need to cost any more than a standard nuclear plant

The reactor operates at ambient pressures, which means the plant doesn’t need expensive pressure containment “vessels,” such as the ones that failed at Fukushima

There is increasing debate about using the LFTR model in the nuclear power generation industry.  It may or may not be a better system, but to have a chance at replacing the current standard, proponents will have to convince the industry that they can make as much or more profit from LFTR than they can with traditional reactors.  They may get two boosts from unexpected quarters: magnets and China.

Not just any magnets, but strong, rare-earth magnets made from a metal element called neodymium. Neodymium magnets are used in such applications as microphones, speakers, and computer hard drives.  Where thorium may be plentiful and cheap (compared to the desired uranium isotope), neodymium is relatively scarce and expensive…but it is often found in the same geological areas (in other words, a thorium mine might produce some significant quantities of neodymium as well, according to an extended version of the video above). China currently has a corner on the world market for neodymium, and China, and a few other countries, are looking into building LFTR nuclear plants.   Switching the US nuclear power generating paradigm from uranium to thorium might not generate the same kind of profitable consumables stream, but obtaining the neodymium might make up for the loss – and break China’s near-monopoly on neodymium to boot.

Weasel Words: Crony Capitalism

weasel

By Mike Cronin

No doubt you’ve heard the term “crony capitalism.” It’s a “weasel word.” Weasel words are terms or phrases that are used to steer your thoughts or beliefs away from the hard truth.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, both of the dominant political philosophies in American discourse today, liberalism and conservatism (each weasel words in their own right, to discuss in separate posts!) tend towards the collectivist end of the political spectrum vice the individualist side. Neither school wants fully unchecked free market capitalism. The liberal school believes capitalism is exploitative, but it knows that without a productive economy that is at least semi-free, there will be no wealth to “redistribute.” The “establishment” branch of the conservative school professes to hold capitalism in high regard, but has never given up political power by totally de-regulating our economy and giving us a truly free market, despite having had occasional chances to do so. (The “Tea Party” branch of conservatism espouses capitalism and free market economics, but it has yet to achieve enough power in Washington to affect any changes to our mixed-economy system.)

Hence, members of both camps use the term crony capitalism in place of the term “corporatism” as a way to attach a negative connotation to pure capitalism. Corporatism is the result of industries, large corporations, unions, and other pressure groups essentially “buying” the laws and taxes and tariffs they want in order to change the game against their competitors. The competitive principles of bringing the best product to the buyer at the best price are replaced by using the coercive power of government to penalize or prevent the activities of newer, smaller or foreign businesses, or to rake in subsidy and bailout money.

Capitalism, and the free market, is the politico-economic system that develops as a natural result of government that recognizes and protects individual rights and liberty. It rewards achievement and is free from governmental coercion. We have never had a fully free and unfettered market in the US, yet our greatest periods of economic growth and prosperity have occurred during the times when our market was freest and our government was most constrained. China has risen to become the world’s second largest economy over the last 30 years because it shed many aspects of communist central economic planning and adopted some free market reforms. If China ever allowed its 1.4 billion people the same amount of political and economic freedom as we have enjoyed from time-to-time in this country, it would easily eclipse the US as an economic power. In essence, China’s rise is commensurate with the degree it has adopted free-market economic principles, and the decline of the US is commensurate with the degree corporate and other pressure groups, via government coercion, have shackled our economy.