Monday, May 09, 2005

Cresting Hubbert's Peak 

If you have been relishing the prospect of life in the rapidly approaching post-oil era, the following items may punch a hole in your gusto. From Arianna H.'s spanking-new megablog The Huffington Post:

1.) There will be no oil grab in Saudi Arabia. Mindful of America's undiminished appetite for that precious resource, and obviously cognizant of the lessons to be learned from the recent invasion of Iraq, where the U.S. is now in the process of installing fourteen permanent military bases, the Saudis have for some time been taking rather extreme steps to deter potential aggressors. Their plan follows the logic of the Russian "doomsday device" in Dr. Strangelove -- attack us, and the whole world loses:
Investigative writer Gerald Posner reveals something most extraordinary in Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection, his book to be published by Random House later this month: that the Saudi government may have rigged its oil infrastructure with a self-destruct system that would keep it out of commission for decades. If true, this could undermine the world economy at any time.

Posner starts by recalling various hints that Americans dropped back in the 1970s, that the high price and limited production of oil might lead to a U.S. invasion of Saudi Arabia and a seizure of its oil fields. For example, in 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger murkily threatened the Saudis with a double-negative: “I am not saying that there’s no circumstances where we would not use force” against them.

In response, Posner shows, the Saudi leadership began to think of ways to prevent such an occurrence. They could not do so the usual way, by building up their military, for that would be futile against the much stronger U.S. forces. So the monarchy – one of the most creative and underestimated political forces in modern history – set out instead to use indirection and deterrence. Rather than mount defenses of its oil installations, it did just the opposite, inserting a clandestine network of explosives designed to render the vast oil infrastructure inoperable – and not just temporarily but for a long period . . . .

[T]he Saudis thought of ways to assure their oil would stay off the market. They began exploring the possibility of a single-button self-destruct system, protected with a series of built-in fail-safes. It was evidently their way to ensure that if someone else grabbed the world’s largest oil reserves and forced them to flee the country they had founded, the House of Saud could at least make certain that what they left behind was worthless . . . .

If such a system is in place, two implications leap to mind. Should the Saudi monarchy retain its grip on power (which I consider likely), it has created for itself a unique deterrence against invasion. But, should the monarchy be replaced by an Islamic emirate in the spirit of Afghanistan’s Taliban (the main contender for power), this ferociously anti-Western government would have at its disposal a cataclysmic suicide-bomber capacity; with one push of a button, conceivably, it could shake the world order. And it would be well-disposed to doing just that.
2.) James Lovelock, Patrick Moore of Greenpeace and Stewart Brand, among others, have latterly argued that environmentalists must overcome their aversion to nuclear power -- not just because fossil fuels are running out, but because their continued use over the next few decades all but guarantees incalculable, irreparable harm to the biosphere. What do we need? "[R]adical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough," writes Brand. "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power."

Unfortunately, even with recent improvements in safety and waste storage, there are still a few kinks to be worked out:

A leak of highly radioactive nuclear fuel dissolved in concentrated nitric acid, enough to half fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, has forced the closure of Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant.

The highly dangerous mixture, containing about 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium fuel, has leaked through a fractured pipe into a huge stainless steel chamber which is so radioactive that it is impossible to enter.

Recovering the liquids and fixing the pipes will take months and may require special robots to be built and sophisticated engineering techniques devised to repair the £2.1bn plant.

The leak is not a danger to the public but is likely to be a financial disaster for the taxpayer since income from the Thorp plant, calculated to be more than £1m a day, is supposed to pay for the cleanup of redundant nuclear facilities.

The closure could hardly have come at a worse time for the nuclear industry. Britain is struggling to meet its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2010, despite a substantial programme of wind farm construction, while generating capacity will also be hit by the rundown of some of Britain's coal-fired power stations.

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