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Nuclear Energy

Tag Archives | Nuclear Energy

The West is Unlikely to Slap Meaningful Economic Sanctions on Russia

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Escalation of the Crimean conflict and the risk of an invasion by Russian troops further into Ukraine have raised a concern about international mechanisms of deterrence, economic sanctions being among them.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris, France

Although Brussels and Washington made rather harsh statements at the outset of the crisis, it is quite improbable that they will impose heavy sanctions on Moscow. This means that the international community lacks an adequate response to Russia. The Russian Federation is the third largest trading partner with the European Union (next to the US and China) with $417.4 billion in trade in 2013. Therefore economic sanctions could have an adverse effect on Europe. Considering the current state of several European economies, the results would be grave.

Russia is one of the world’s biggest oil producing countries and the world’s second largest oil exporter. It supplies most of its oil and gas to the European Union. The only way to affect the Russian economy and deter Putin would be to target Russia’s energy sector. The European Union would have to refuse to purchase Russian natural gas, which presently they are not be able to do. In 2013, Russia’s earnings from oil and natural gas exports amounted to $229 billion.

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Sanctions against Russia look Great on Paper but they’re a Dead-End

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Now that Crimea has voted to unite with Russia and Vladimir Putin has welcomed Crimea with open arms, the Western half of the world, especially the United States and the European Union, are talking at lengths about imposing sanctions on Russia in order to bring Vladimir Putin to his senses.

U.S. reliance on Russian uranium makes sanctions difficult

However, the task seems easier said than done. The United States is simply not in a position to impose long-term sanctions on Russia. Economic and political ties between the United States and Russia are surely not exemplary. Yet, one key American industry relies heavily on a particular import from Russia: fuel for nuclear power plants. American dependency on Russia for its nuclear fuel is not a new development. It dates back to the early 1990s, when the HEU-LEU scheme was launched after the demise of the Soviet Union. Under this scheme, highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Russian nuclear warheads is processed into low enriched uranium (LEU) for use as fuel for American nuclear power plants.

While there are plans of reducing the need for nuclear energy, the United States still receives 100 GW of its power from nuclear power plants (compare this with Russia’s nuclear energy production of 230 GW). As a result, during 2014, 48 million pounds of uranium will be needed to fuel America’s nuclear power plants. Going by data released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the total uranium Oxide produced within the United States is roughly 4.8 million pounds. Barely 10% of the total demand.

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Japan’s Solar Boom

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Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

As Japan still struggles to contain leaks from its tsunami-wracked Fukushima nuclear plant, its alternative energy sector is growing rapidly to meet electricity demand. The island nation is poised to overtake Germany as the world’s largest solar revenue market this year. In the first quarter of 2013, 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar PV systems were installed in Japan. Analysts expect to see $20 billion in PV installed this year, up 82 percent from $11 billion in 2012. The market could top out at 6.1 GW by year’s end. One GW can supply about a quarter million homes with electricity.

Japan’s energy reformers celebrate the solar boom as proof of the country’s smooth transition away from nuclear—technology deemed too dangerous after Fukushima’s meltdown. The country is projected to install solar capacity this year equivalent to five to seven nuclear plants.

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New Risks for U.S. Nuclear Power

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Corn fields next to a nuclear power plant in Byron, Illinois

In the past month, the White House has conveyed mixed messages about the president’s position on nuclear energy. Once praised at the highest levels as part of a wise “all of the above” energy strategy, commercial nuclear power was omitted from the State of the Union. Meanwhile, the president’s choice for Secretary of Energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz, supports a nuclear renaissance in America. As the White House refines its message on climate change for this congressional session, it should push nuclear power to the fringes of its energy policy.

Civilian nuclear power in the United States faces a new cluster of dangers unique to the 21st century energy market. These risks to public safety, considered alongside economic costs and waste management issues, render nuclear power an option of last resource for solving the climate crisis. First, the current U.S. fleet of nuclear plants is more vulnerable than ever before to cyber security threats. In the past decade, hackers have ritually mocked the U.S government and corporate standards for internet security. In 2011, hackers broke into the security division of EMC, an IT security firm used by the NSA, CIA, the Pentagon, the White House, and the Department of Homeland Security. The security firm called the attack “extremely sophisticated.”

The U.S. Secret Service testified in 2010 that “nearly four times the amount of data collected in the archives of the Library of Congress” was heisted from the United States. Mike McConnell, a former director of national intelligence, has said: “In looking at computer systems of consequence—in government, Congress, at the Department of Defense, aerospace, companies with valuable trade secrets—we’re not examined one yet that has not been infected by an advanced persistent threat.”

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Which way will Japan Swing?

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“I have experienced failure as a politician and for that very reason, I am ready to give everything for Japan.” – Shinzo Abe

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of Japan wait in the Green Room of the White House. Pete Souza/White House

The Meiji Period in Japan is known for having transformed the country’s social structure from feudalism to one based on market capitalism. Meiji the Great had realized that if Japan were to survive colonization, industrialization would be key. Japan would either have to reform or perish. Young Japanese students were sent to European nations to learn the tricks of their trade and what resulted was state investment in education and the transfer of science & technology to Nippon. Wealth and power soon followed and from a marginal presence in Asia, Japan rose to become the dominant non-European power on the continent. Japanese nationalism in this period served as an essential tool to beat back European powers.

Japan’s electorate has voted and it is suggested that the Liberal Democratic Party is coming back to power (after having left office only three years ago). The Liberal Democratic Party has ruled Japan for the majority of the country’s post-war history. Smacking of conservatism, the comeback of this centre-right political outfit may not be altogether unrelated to the steady rise of nationalism among the youth of the country. Earlier this year, the former Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, caused protests in neighboring China when he offered to buy the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) Islands in the East China Sea–was he Emperor Meiji reincarnated? Well, not quite but he has since resigned and regenerated the old Sunrise Party.

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Israel and the Iran Nuclear Weapons MacGuffin

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I think there is some misunderstanding about Israel’s concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

To use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the Iranian bomb is simply “the MacGuffin,” the psychologically potent but practically insignificant pretext for action, reaction, and drama. To my mind, the main object of Israel’s foreign policy as practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu, is to preclude US and European rapprochement with Iran. If peace breaks out in the Middle East, in other words, Iran, its markets, and its oil would quickly become remarkably popular with Western governments and investors.

In that case, the focus of unwelcome attention would shift away from the mad mullahs of Tehran to the bigots in Tel Aviv, with their creepy crypto-apartheid state, their undeclared nuclear arsenal, and their violent and unilateral overt and covert security policies that destabilize the entire Middle East. Exacerbating the polarization between Iran and the US and Europe is, therefore, an important element in the Israeli foreign policy game plan. Iran’s currently non-existent nuclear weapons program offers a suitable opportunity for Israel to declare an existential threat. The objective is not simply to repel and terrify the West with the image of the Iranian nuclear bugbear.

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Ordinary Iranians: The Silent Victims of the Iran Sanctions

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Tehran’s Grand Bazaar

While the United States and the European Union compete with each other in the seemingly endless race of imposing sanctions on Iran, ordinary Iranian citizens are experiencing the brunt of these crippling embargoes.

On July 31, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sent a letter to all members of the U.S. Congress, demanding a concerted action to approve the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, which would impose a new set of sanctions on Iran’s energy and transportation sector. On August 1, the media reported that the Congress has ratified the bill and its awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature. Iran is already under 6 rounds of sanctions endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions are purportedly aimed at preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons even though Iran is a signatory to the NPT and is allowed nuclear energy, which it badly needs in light of its lack of adequate domestic energy production capabilities.

The UNSC sanctions stipulate the freezing of Iran’s international assets, the closure of Iranian banks in other countries, barring the export of nuclear and military facilities to Iran, a ban on investment in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sector, business dealings with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, insurance transactions and traveling restrictions for high-ranking government and military officials. The United States, Israel and the EU have long accused Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons, a charge, which Iran has persistently and categorically denied. Iran says that it needs civilian nuclear power to meet its growing energy needs, especially since Iran is a country mostly reliant on fossil fuels for its energy demands and oil revenues to keep its economy alive. The United States and its allies, in response, have penalized Iran with excruciating economic sanctions to derail the possible chances of Iran developing nuclear weapons.

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Iran Sanctions: War by Other Means

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran. Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent. Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Times says “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity. The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.

Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, costing the country just under $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and a EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Teheran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 1/5 million barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.

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Is the Developing World Abandoning Iran?

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In a recent interview, the eminent geo-strategist Ian Bremmer suggested that a “nuclear-armed Iran” is inevitable.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Ecuador. Photo: Miguel Ángel Romero

In Bremmer’s opinion, in an emerging “G-Zero World” where no single bloc of countries can dominate international affairs, the emerging powers can frustrate the West’s efforts to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. There are basically two underlying assumptions to his argument: first, that the rising powers have the will and the capacity to ameliorate Iran’s growing isolation; and second, that Iran is willing to push its nuclear frontiers at any cost.

However, recent years give lie to these assumptions. Not only are many emerging powers beginning to distance themselves from Iran, but also Tehran itself — facing the prospect of an economic meltdown — is beginning to reexamine its nuclear calculus. Clearly, emerging powers are explicitly prioritizing their ties with the West at the expense of Tehran, while the moderates and pragmatists within the Iranian leadership are pushing for a diplomatic compromise to diffuse rising tensions.

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The Futility of Talk: Why Negotiations with Iran Won’t Work…Yet

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A few days ago, a top UN official announced a new round of talks with Iran over access to restricted nuclear sites.

Catherine Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, presented a package of new incentives on behalf of the P5+1 to Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief negotiator. Source: Al Jazeera

The talks are the latest in a diplomatic effort to engage Iran over its nuclear program, reflecting recent optimism that a negotiated solution is possible. Only a few weeks ago Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1 talks in Baghdad, confidently expressed her desire to secure “the beginning of the end” of the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. Both parties left Baghdad empty handed, though faith in a diplomatic way forward remained, as both parties agreed to meet again in Moscow on June 18th.

While misguided, this latest bout of optimism over diplomatic engagement with Iran—nowhere to be found only a few months ago—is not entirely unwarranted. The latest round of comprehensive sanctions from the U.S. and Europe has had crippling effects. Crude oil exports—Tehran’s lifeline— were down as much as 1 million barrels a day in April. The IEA (International Energy Agency) expects that sanctions, once in full force, will curb Iran’s oil exports by 50 percent. A frenzy of panic, moreover, has thrown the Iranian currency into a free fall. In just six weeks, the Iranian rial lost half its value.

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A New ‘Rough Patch’ in U.S.-South Africa Relations

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The U.S.-South Africa bilateral relationship over the past eighteen months has been a diplomatic minefield. Issues include everything from military equipment and nuclear energy/weapons to oil, communication companies and the global north versus the global south. The most recent, and the most serious issue regarding U.S.-South Africa relations is Iran.

President Barack Obama talks with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma at the session with African Outreach Leaders at the G8 Summit in Muskoka, Canada. Looking on are British Prime Minister David Cameron and Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan. Pete Souza/White House

According to a press release sent out this week by the South African Revenue Service, South Africa imported 3.37 billion rand (US$435 million) of crude oil from Iran in March. This means Pretoria nearly doubled its purchases from the Islamic Republic compared to the same period last year, despite strong objections by Washington in order to cut off Iran financially and halt its nuclear program.

This is interesting because Sasol, South Africa’s global petrochemical group whose primary business is based on CTL (coal-to-liquid) and GTL (gas-to-liquid) technology, has stopped buying Iranian crude oil and is talking with potential buyers to off-load its Arya Sasol Polymers plant in Iran. Sasol sat in front of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in October 2011 and were told of a risk that sanctions may be imposed on them by the U.S., the European Union and the UN as a result of its investments in Iran.

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Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Why This Time is Different

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The latest P5+1 talks in Istanbul rejuvenated the diplomatic track between Iran and the West, paving the way for a new chapter in Iranian nuclear negotiations. Yet if the recently concluded talks were a test of intentions, the upcoming negotiations in Baghdad are going to be a real test of wills.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours the Natanz enrichment facility

Both sides will have to overcome huge obstacles if they want to establish a “sustained process of serious dialogue” to resolve the Iranian nuclear impasse. The only way the Baghdad nuclear talks can work is if both sides confine their demands to a mutually acceptable deal. This means that the Iranians need to concretely demonstrate their openness to greater transparency — subjecting not only their (increasing) stockpile of highly enriched uranium to real-time, verifiable, and comprehensive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but also opening up their more controversial facilities in Fordo and Parchin.

Simultaneously, the West should refrain from imposing further sanctions, conditionally reverse unilateral sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and central bank, and patiently lay down the groundwork for a nuclear swap deal, whereby Iran will cap its enrichment levels at around 3.5-5 percent and exchange its 20-percent enriched uranium stockpile for guaranteed amounts of medical isotopes from the West.

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Profiting from Patience: Why Israel Should Not Act Unilaterally Against Iran

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“As Prime Minister, I will never gamble with the security of the State of Israel.” – Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech to AIPAC, March 5, 2012

Israeli military units conducting exercises. Photo: Ori Shifrin

Even before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at the 2012 AIPAC conference, the crowd of more than 13,000 participants knew what the topic of his speech would be: Iran. Speaking with passion unmatched by any of the other notable speakers, including US President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, PM Netanyahu used biblical quotes, touching personal stories, and unbridled rhetoric to ensure that those in attendance understood that Israel would no longer stand by as Iran developed a nuclear weapons program.

His speech made it clear that Israel was losing patience with the diplomatic approach that has been favored by President Obama, and that Israel was seriously considering unilateral military action. This threat, credible or not, would not create the stability that PM Netanyahu seeks for his country. On the contrary, unilateral military action by Israel could possibly be the worst course of action available. Iran’s search for nuclear weapons has created a regional and global political environment that is substantially more beneficial to Israel than ever before. Such an environment would no longer exist should Israel pursue pre-emptive military action.

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Why Iran will Compromise this Time

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As we inch closer to the crucial nuclear talks between Iran and the world powers, the so-called P5+1, the primordial question is whether this time will be different: Is Tehran willing to make necessary compromises – from greater nuclear transparency to more stringent restrictions on its enrichment activities - to reverse the economic siege that is bringing the country close to the edge? Is she going to use the talks as a delaying tactic or will she finally strike a mutually-acceptable deal with the West?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House, July 6, 2010. Pete Souza/White House

From the perspective of the Iranian leadership, with sanctions beginning to squeeze the Iranian economy - atop intensifying threats of military invasion and a growing Western naval presence in the Persian Gulf - the nuclear impasse is worryingly morphing into a question of regime survival. Sure, the regime has significant resources – both financial and military – as its disposal to head-off growing international isolation, and pursue its nuclear program, but growing external pressure can affect the very foundation of Iran’s trillion-dollar industrializing economy. Moreover, growing economic uncertainty – compounding decades-long structural economic challenges - could also impact the country’s very social cohesion, amidst lingering discontent among certain quarters of the population.

This is precisely why this time could be different, and there are no shortages of diplomatic overtures on the part of Iran, signaling Tehran’s interest in resolving the crisis. If there is one thing that is consistent with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is her undying instinct for self-preservation. Moreover, the Iranian regime is anything but monolithic: even within the upper echelons of the politico-military leadership, pragmatic forces have always sought to prevent any crisis or conflict, which would endanger the country’s territorial integrity. After all, the 1979 Iranian Revolution was nationalistic: its founding principles emphasized Iran’s territorial integrity and independence.

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Conference Report: “Humanity and Humanitarianism in Crisis”

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After many months of following and writing about the triple disasters in Fukushima, Japan- the earthquake, the tsunami, and the meltdown of the nuclear power plants—I was pleased to discover a conference that seemed as though it might touch on precisely these issues.

Source: Asia Association for Global Studies

I signed up to attend the annual meeting held in Tokyo in Mid-March, of the Asia Association for Global Studies (AAGS), a forum for international educators focusing on global events across many disciplines, to be held in Tokyo. The theme for the annual conference was “Humanity and Humanitarianism in Crisis”. Hosted by International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan between March 17 and 18, 2012, the conference setting was very comfortable, even opulent- International Christian University, a huge university campus on the outskirts of Tokyo, replete with topiary gardens and what will soon, with a little rain, be a plush carpet of moss, felt like a 1970‘s American island in a Japanese sea. And about as far away from the disasters we were recounting, as it could be.

Some of us conference presenters even attempted to take a side trip up north to Fukushima, to better understand the scenario we had been writing about, only to be kindly but firmly told to observe the exclusion zone around Ground Zero. And that if we were so foolhardy as to try the trip, we would need special papers and steel toed boots to enter the zone. Our safety could not be guaranteed and we gave up. The conference presentations were interesting, thoughtful, often inspired, some genuinely moving. My goal here is to portray a very brief sampling (five papers out of 40) of the talks. All conference papers are posted on the AAGS website and many will later be published as conference proceedings.

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