Putin attends Russia-China war games
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and SERGEI GRITS
Friday, September 14
TSUGOL FIRING RANGE, Russia (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Thursday attended Russia’s biggest-ever war games, which involved some 300,000 troops as well as a significant contingent of Chinese forces.
The week-long Vostok (East) 2018 maneuvers span vast expanses of Siberia and the Far East, the Arctic and the Pacific Oceans and showcase the military might of Russia and China at a time of simmering tensions with the U.S.
As well as the troops, some 1,000 Russian aircraft and 36,000 tanks and other combat vehicles are involved. The exercise surpasses even the biggest Soviet maneuvers in 1981.
China sent about 3,200 troops, 900 combat vehicles and 30 aircraft to join the drills at a Siberian firing range, a deployment that reflects its shift toward a full-fledged military alliance with Russia.
Speaking at the Tsugol firing range about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of the border with China, where Russian and Chinese troops performed joint drills, Putin lauded the troops for their skills, saying they “demonstrated their capability to deflect potential military threats.”
He emphasized that “Russia is a peaceful nation,” but noted that the country needs to strengthen its military capability to “be ready to protect its sovereignty, security and national interests, and, if necessary, support our allies.”
The Chinese media have described the People’s Liberation Army involvement in the drills as the country’s largest-ever dispatch of forces abroad for war games.
From China’s perspective, the emerging military alliance with Russia sends a strong signal to the U.S. and its ally Japan. China is intent on defending its interests in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, as well as Taiwan and the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing.
For Russia, the increasingly robust alliance with China is particularly important in light of the strained relations with the U.S. and its allies and the looming threat of more biting U.S. sanctions.
The drills come amid tensions over Syria, where the U.S. and its allies threatened to launch strikes against President Bashar Assad’s government if it uses chemical weapons to reclaim control of the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.
Russia, which has waged a military campaign in support of Assad, strongly warned the U.S. against military action in Syria.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.
Hungary sanctions: don’t expect Viktor Orbán to back down after parliament vote
September 13, 2018
Reader, Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University
Umut Korkut is the Principal Investigator for the European Commission funded project RESPOND: Multi-level Governance of Mass Migration in Europe and Beyond.
Glasgow Caledonian University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.
The European Parliament has, for the first time in its history, voted to trigger Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union against a member state for failing to adhere to European values. The parliament and its committees say Hungary has serious problems with respect for human dignity, equality and the rule of law. It is concerned about pluralism, tolerance and justice in the country. It has, for some time, criticised Hungary for the anti-EU turn it has taken since the election of Victor Orbán’s as prime minister in 2010.
Among other things, the parliament accuses Orbán’s government of extensive corruption and of stifling freedom of expression and religion. OLAF, Europe’s anti-fraud office, has carried out ten investigations into how Hungary spends EU funding – making recommendations for change in seven of these.
Transparency International describes Hungary as having “a centralised system of legalised corruption”, with 90% of the media controlled by the ruling Fidesz party and all major Hungarian institutions serving its interests.
The government silences dissent with punitive taxation threats and attacks against NGOs and academic institutions. It is now even planning to ban gender studies within its higher education institutions.
Orbán has proudly declared Hungary the first illiberal country in Europe. The question from here must be whether the parliament’s vote will have any effect on him at all. Following the parliamentary vote, the European Council – which brings together the heads of member states – must decide whether to sanction Hungary through Article 7. At the extreme end of the spectrum this could include suspending its voting rights as a member state.
A full reprisal is unlikely, not least because of Hungary’s strong alliance with Poland. And Orbán clearly has a strategy. Ahead of the European elections next year, he has been working to build alliances with Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s Lega alongside his traditional Bavarian, Austrian and Polish allies. With the UK leaving the EU, there will be an extra 27 seats up for grabs in the next European parliament. Orbán hopes to build an anti-migration alliance to shield European civilisation against “invasion” from the east and south.
Hungary and its allies in Europe have tried to frame the debate as being about the difficulties that countries on the periphery of Europe have been experiencing as a result of the increase in the number of asylum seekers. They accuse the EU of interfering in the internal affairs of a member state and argue they are being attacked by the “pro-migration lobby”.
Hungary recently made it a criminal offence to facilitate or support irregular migration – including initiating procedures on behalf of an asylum seeker. Our fieldwork in the southern provinces in Hungary has exposed serious breaches of European asylum procedures in migration management.
In its alleged defence of European borders, the Fidesz government has established transit zones for asylum seekers at its southern border with Serbia to which it accepts just one applicant per day. In August, it stopped sending food to the border in the hope of “encouraging” failed asylum seekers to leave before their appeal cases had been considered. The conditions in the transit zone and “push-backs” to Serbia put Hungary in breach of its obligations to the European Convention on Human Rights.
All in all, the Hungarian situation presents a complete reversal of democratisation and Europeanisation and their replacement by illiberal alternatives.
Will the Hungarian situation infect the rest of Europe? Orbán is keen to expand his anti-migration platform in cooperation with extreme right forces in Europe. Instead of absorbing the parliament’s decision and using it to make changes, he is likely to go on the counterattack. He wants to build a new European order, pushing for a new definition of Europeanisation that hinges less on equality, diversity and humanitarian principles.
The European parliament election in May 2019 will see the clash of two alternative courses for the future European integration. Will Europe stand by its founding principles of openness or will it fall into the trap of fear and populism?
Could coal ash be a viable source of rare-earth metals?
September 14, 2018
Graduate Research Assistant in Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology
Professor of Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology
Associate Professor of Sustainability, Rochester Institute of Technology
Saptarshi Das receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Eric Williams currently receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Ford Motor Company. The research reported was done under a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Gabrielle Gaustad receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the steel scrap industry. She also consults for The Aluminum Association and the Institute for Defense Analyses.
Rochester Institute of Technology provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Rare-earth elements, including neodymium and yttrium, are not actually rare – more common, in fact, in the Earth’s crust than copper and tin. But, because they are scattered widely, and hard to separate from their surrounding ores, mining and refining them is difficult.
Rare earths are valuable, too. They have unique properties that make them useful in modern energy and electronic products. Electric vehicles and wind turbines need high-performance electric motors and generators, which in turn require strong magnets made of neodymium and dysprosium. Yttrium, terbium and europium are key to energy-efficient color displays on laptop, cellphone and TV screens. Lanthanum is crucial to high-quality camera lenses, and cerium acts as a catalyst in automotive catalytic converters. Researchers are looking for alternatives and substitutes, but it’s not clear there are any.
Most rare earths – 85 percent of the world’s supply – are produced in China. The last U.S. rare-earth mine closed in 2015, leaving the country dependent on imports – and vulnerable when, as happened in 2010, China stopped all rare-earth exports in a trade conflict.
The fact that a trade war could again cut off rare-earth supplies has prompted some people to consider reopening U.S. mines. But our research has identified another possibility: extracting rare earths from coal ash, an abundant waste product with relatively high concentrations of these key elements.
Coal ash as a source
As a byproduct of burning coal to make electricity, the U.S. produces nearly 80 million tons of coal ash a year. About 43 percent of that is used as an ingredient in cement and to enrich soil with macro- and micronutrients. The rest goes to landfills or gets mixed with water and stored in open ground pits called containment ponds.
That coal ash contains reasonable amounts of rare earths, particularly scandium and neodymium. In ash from some types of coal, the concentrations of rare earths are as much as 100 times higher than when they’re found naturally in the Earth’s crust.
Research, funded in part by government money, has found at least three ways to extract rare earths from coal ash, though none is yet commercially viable. The first two methods, using acids and special bacteria, are either too expensive or too time-consuming and therefore unlikely to be practical at an industrial scale.
A third route, which our research explores, uses heated, compressed carbon dioxide to selectively dissolve and extract the rare-earth elements. This form of carbon dioxide, called “supercritical,” has several applications, including in the food industry, removing caffeine from coffee beans.
Using carbon dioxide
Our research has found a potential route to profitability for extracting rare earths from coal ash using supercritical carbon dioxide. There are still significant challenges, though.
First, the process needs other chemicals. Carbon dioxide is relatively cheap, but it can’t help rare earths clump together and separate from the other elements in coal ash. Doing that will likely require an expensive chemical such as tributyl phosphate. Researchers will need to find ways to use as little of that as possible to keep costs down.
Second, the process has to be especially efficient at extracting scandium and neodymium, which are particularly valuable. Many coal ashes have lots of those elements – but not all, which raises the third challenge.
Some coal sources – and therefore the ash when that coal is burned – have more rare earths than others. We found that the value of rare earths in a single ton of coal ash can vary from US$99 at a coal plant in Ohio to $534 at a West Virginia plant. With extraction costs expected to range between $380 and $1,200 per ton, not every coal plant’s ash will be a profitable place to find rare earths.
Dealing with the leftovers
After the rare earths are extracted where possible – and profitable – the rest of the coal ash would not need to be handled any differently than it is already. But it would help the coal industry take a step toward a “circular economy,” in which anything one process generates as waste can be used as a raw material in another process. Further, the carbon dioxide and other chemicals needed for rare-earth extraction can be reused, reducing waste from the process itself.
This method would give the coal industry an additional stream of income – which would not likely reverse its decline, but could give coal a different strategic role in the country’s economy, even as its use as an energy source ends.
Nuclear reactors in hurricanes: 5 questions answered
September 14, 2018
Theodore J. Kury
Director of Energy Studies, University of Florida
Theodore Kury is the Director of Energy Studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, which is sponsored in part by the Florida electric and gas utilities and the Florida Public Service Commission, none of which has editorial control of any of the content the Center produces.
University of Florida provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Hurricane Florence may affect the operations of several of the 16 nuclear reactors located in the Carolinas and Virginia, raising concerns about safety and power outages. Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida’s Public Utility Research Center, explains why nuclear power stations must take precautions during big storms.
1. Keeping cores cool is the top priority.
The top safety concern at nuclear power stations is protecting the nuclear cores of their reactors.
Reactors operate at temperatures exceeding 350 degrees Centigrade, relying on cooling systems to dissipate the heat. When cooling systems malfunction, portions of the reactor core may begin to melt. Meltdowns can lead to explosions and the potential release of radioactive material.
When a reactor’s power supply is interrupted, it may affect the system’s ability to cool the plant.
To prevent accidents, the outer wall of reactor containment systems are made out of reinforced concrete and steel. Since they are designed to withstand the impact of a large commercial airliner, flying debris – even if it’s propelled by 200 miles-per-hour winds – is unlikely to pose much of a threat.
Therefore, utilities prepare for storms by inspecting power stations, securing equipment, testing backup pumps and generators and stocking critical supplies in case workers have to stay on site.
2. Why do utilities sometimes shut down reactors before hurricanes?
The first time that a hurricane significantly affected a commercial nuclear power plant was in 1992, when the eye of Hurricane Andrew passed directly over Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point Nuclear Station.
The plant, located 25 miles south of Miami, was subjected to sustained winds of 145 miles-per-hour with gusts up to 175 miles-per-hour.
While the reactors themselves were not damaged, the plant site sustained US$90 million worth of damage. It lacked external power for five days, relying on backup generators to run critical equipment and keep the reactor cores cool.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s report on the incident noted that the plant had begun to shut down 12 hours before the storm arrived, earlier than required at the time.
Had the plant operators strictly adhered to the requirements, the plant may not have been ready to take the necessary precautions once the storm hit. As a result, plant operators today begin their shutdown procedures and status reports to the NRC 12 hours ahead of the storm’s impact.
3. Why do utilities sometimes wait before turning reactors back on?
At any given moment, the amount of power electricity grids generate must equal the amount customers consume plus what gets lost on its way to them. When there is no way to consume the power, or to transmit it, utilities halt generation.
And even when utilities take steps to protect the grid, such as by laying power lines underground to reduce the risks posed by downed trees and flying debris, it makes them more susceptible to storm surges and flooding.
Therefore, when large numbers of power lines and substations are disrupted, reactors once turned off may not be able come back on line until after all that infrastructure has been repaired.
Before Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida in September of 2017, Florida Power and Light originally planned to shut down the Turkey Point reactors 24 hours in advance of landfall, but ultimately made the decision to leave one of them online as Irma’s path changed.
4. What about the Fukushima disaster?
There was a major disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011. Few of the more than 100,000 people who were evacuated from the surrounding area have returned home, although the government has announced that it is safe to return to at least part of that region.
The disaster began when a tsunami caused by the Tohoku earthquake disabled emergency generators used to cool nuclear reactors, causing multiple meltdowns, followed by explosions and the release of radioactive material.
It changed how utilities prepare for major storms, including in the U.S., where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission strengthened safety standards across the board and instituted customized requirements at some power stations.
5. What might happen in the Carolinas and Virginia?
The U.S. gets about one-fifth of its electricity from nuclear energy but the region where Hurricane Florence will have the biggest impact relies on it more heavily.
About 57 percent of South Carolina’s grid is nuclear-powered while North Carolina and Virginia both get roughly a third of their electricity from nuclear power stations.
Duke Energy, which owns nearly all of the nuclear power stations in the Carolinas, reportedly planned in advance to shut down some of these reactors 12 hours before the hurricane’s landfall.
The company also predicted before the hurricane that as many as three-quarters of its 4 million customers in the Carolinas could lose power in outages that could last for weeks – depending on the storm’s severity and trajectory.
Llewellyn King: Are We Surrendering Americanism to Identity Politics?
By Llewellyn King
Francis Fukuyama earned his place in philosophical history by declaring “the end of history” on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism.
Nowadays Fukuyama, an engaging traveler through the world of ideas, poses this great question: Where are we going?
In New York on Sept. 11, Fukuyama seemed to answer that question by telling an audience: Nowhere very good.
The global crisis laid out in Fukuyama’s latest book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” is that identity politics — advanced tribalism, if you will — is eroding democracy.
Fukuyama writes that the United States invaded the Middle East, during the Iraq War, to Americanize the Middle East, but the Middle East has Middle-Easternized the United States. Not only is there no national identity in Iraq now, he argues, but we are also losing our Americanism to identity politics, with its baggage of racism and division.
He points to two decidedly democratic events as harbingers of a less democratic future: Britain’s vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union and the election that same year of President Donald Trump, disaster following on disaster, identity triumphing over political union.
In the case of Brexit, English nationalism upstaging the larger values of a unified Europe; and in the Trump election, the white working class voting against the other constituent parts of the nation.
Listening to Fukuyama answering questions at the New York event, organized by Philip Howard and his Common Good organization, one could be plunged into feeling that the famous American mixing bowl had become unmixed, breaking down, as Fukuyama gently suggested, into competing groups, supporting just those who belong to their group — all of this set off by white fear of the end of their hegemon in America. Hence, the hysteria over immigration.
The difference between the immigration alarm in Europe and in the United States, he said, is that Europe sees not just an invasion of different people with different customs, religions and languages, but also an assault on the cradle-to-grave welfare systems. Fukuyama said Europeans do not mind paying 60 percent of their incomes in tax because they believe they get a lot for it. That, he said, is what they see coming from immigration: People coming to live off the generous social structure for which they have not paid.
Immigrants from Africa going to Sweden — in the news because of its electoral swing to the right — must think they have entered nirvana: total freedom from want. Not quite the same as people coming across our Southern border, seeking safety and work.
Fukuyama sees the United States in danger from identity grouping overwhelming our commonality as a nation.
I wonder about that. When I landed on these shores as a young (legal) immigrant in 1963, I wrote to a friend in England — and I remember this clearly — saying: “This is no melting pot. This is a fruit salad.”
Well, that is still so, and it works until it is perverted by minority manipulators. For example, there has always been a racist element. It is just that Trump and his allies have blown on these embers and brought forth flame. Race dividers feel emboldened under Trump, just as they seethed under President Barack Obama.
It is worth pondering that before Trump, we twice elected an African-American president and that said something about us — something quite different from what Fukuyama is saying about us in today’s race-heavy, fact-short political debate.
Some at the New York meeting suggested that the pendulum will swing back. Yes, it will but not to the status quo ante. It will be to a new place.
Personally, I believe the Trump success was fueled not so much by resentment as by a pervasive sense of irrelevance. It expresses itself politically, but its root may be with the isolation felt by those who have to deal with monopoly businesses from the cable company to the online retailer. Think the politicians ignore you, try those who have market dominance: banks, health insurers, online vendors and telecoms among others.
Fukuyama calls for dignity as a kind of antidote to identity politics. He might want to extend that excellent thought beyond just the political arena.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.