Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ignoring the onrushing locomotive, then and now

Back in the 1930s, at the height of the Soviet Union's pre-nuclear malevolence, progressive Western opinion bent over backwards denying, rationalizing, and/or making excuses for what the Soviets were up to. Communist Russia was surrounded by enemies, threatened with traitors, trying to create a new future that was the only hope of mankind, they said. Nevermind that entire populations were being exiled or starved, that the country was on a war footing of incredible harshness in peacetime, that the Cheka was swarming over the world, kidnapping and assassinating Enemies of the People. Russia just wanted a warm water port, we were told. They just had bad memories of the Kaiser, and of Napoleon before him. They just wanted the prestige of being recognized as a Great Power. Progressive Western opinion seldom quoted the stated intentions of the Soviets themselves: to bring the entire world under communist domination. Because really! They couldn't possibly mean it, could they? Why, if they did, progressive Western opinion would disapprove! And the Russians surely wouldn't want to risk that, now would they?

I had that flashback to that bygone time when I listened to NPR's Weekend Edition this Saturday morning. An expert named Lisa Margonelli was on, discussing oil politics. Then came this:

WE: You were able to get at least some view of the Iranian oil industry. By taking a look at the Iranian oil industry, Americans might better understand what nuclear power represents to Iranians — even Iranians that are not wild at all about the government of Iran...

LM: Nuclear power, even since the time of the Shah, has been a very potent idea in Iran, because it would provide them with a more consistent electrical supply, and it would allow them to sell their oil for money while producing their own electricity. Nuclear weapons are also very symbolic, because Iran spent eight years or so at war with Iraq and has seen that Iraq was attacked because it didn't have nuclear weapons, while North Korea was left alone. So Iran has a sense of being besieged for years. Nuclear weapons offer a couple of things. They offer a very symbolic development and they offer what they feel is a kind of protection against attack by outside countries.

Of course, the stated reasons for the ayatollahs acquiring these weapons--stated more than once--is far from symbolic. Their stated purpose is to wipe Israel off the map. Of course, the nukes do have a more limited use. They are seen as being good for holding America at bay while Iran subverts the elected Iraqi government, stepping up Hezbollah's assault to the death on Israel, and who knows what else, some day. But surely they can't mean it, can they? If Israel were to be nuked, then experts would come on Weekend Edition and criticize Iran for it--or at least call for restraint by both sides in future nukefests!

If Ms. Margonelli thinks the Islamic nuke is for symbolic use, let her relocate to Tel Aviv, once Iran has a device in hand.

And a little comparison between eras like this shows the power of wishful progressive thinking or, as P. J. O'Rourke called it, "the awful power of make-believe.


  1. Regarding "Ignoring the onrushing locomotive, then and now" (2007-01-24), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in Iran or anwhere else in the Middle East (or Europe or North Africa or the USA) because there is a simple mature technology available that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

    I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

    CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, these are not always nearby! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to London with only about 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe. A recent report from the American Solar Energy Society says that CSP plants in the south western states of the US "could provide nearly 7,000 GW of capacity, or ***about seven times the current total US electric capacity***" (emphasis added).

    CSP offers substantial benefits to people in North Africa and the Middle East, including desalination of sea water using waste heat from electricity generation - a major benefit in arid regions. In addition, the shaded areas under the solar mirrors can be used for many purposes including horticulture using desalinated sea water. And of course, there would be plentiful supplies of inexpensive, pollution-free electricity and earnings from the export of that electricity to countries with less sunshine.

    In the 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in CO2 emissions, and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

    Further information about CSP may be found at and . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from . The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised at .


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