Modern lessons from Antarctica | Fukushima 10 years on

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Monday was the Ides of March, which in ancient Rome was the last day for settling debts. ‘What's debt? Money printer go brrrr’, we hear you chuckle.

Okay fair enough. Well March 15 was also the day that Julius Caesar was killed by Brutus. So, in homage to the marvellous painting 'The Death of Julius Caesar' by Vincenzo Camuccini, we offer you an updated version we call 'Covid: One Year Later':

Are we going mad? Segues like the one above suggest that it is well within the bounds of possibility that one of us may be heading in that general direction, yes. The other half of International Intrigue is perfectly sane however, and in fact has just started an exciting new job! We'll tell you all about that at the end of the newsletter. Speaking of which:

This week:

  • 🥶 Modern lessons from Antarctica: what can the Antarctic Treaty System teach us about how to manage modern conflict?

  • 🌊 After Fukushima: 10 years after the nuclear disaster in Japan, is it time to go back to the future with nuclear power?

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🥶 Modern lessons from Antarctica

By John

As a young whippersnapper, I was captivated by Antarctica. Perhaps because Antarctica is in Australia's backyard (Melbourne is closer to Antarctica than it is to Darwin!), or perhaps because a mid-90s edition of the Guinness Book of World Records seared into my brain the fact that Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest place on Earth.

It felt like the last unknown place in the world - a throwback to a time when we had no idea what lay just over the horizon. I remember marvelling at the sheer bravery (or idiocy) of Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott as I read anything I could get my hands on about their race to the South Pole in 1911.

In the 110 years since their journeys, the world has set up permanent research stations, built airfields, and even developed glitzy tourist infrastructure in Antarctica. Oh and last year, a 30 year old British woman did this:

(Apparently there's internet in Antarctica and it’s probably better than Virgin Media in London 🙄).

How is Antarctica governed?

In the wake of the Second World War, several nations considered establishing a sovereign claim over Antarctica. The US, Britain and Argentina went so far as to train military personnel for potential Antarctic war, which culminated in the 'Hope Bay Incident' when Argentina fired on British personnel in 1952.

To avoid the escalation of such events, in 1959 the Antarctic Treaty (now known as the Antarctic Treaty System or ‘the ATS’) was signed by 12 countries. The treaty remains in force 62 years later, but has expanded to include 54 countries.

The ATS's main goals are to:

  • Keep Antarctica peaceful and prohibit any military activities.

  • Freeze (😂) all claims to sovereignty over Antarctica (see map below).

  • Promote scientific research and cooperation and ensure environmental protection.

  • Ban all mining and exploration for resources.

  • Prohibit nuclear explosions and waste disposal (testing nukes in unspoilt places was all the rage back then).

  • Set up dispute resolution systems to prevent conflict in the future.

The ATS holds a meeting of countries every year where decisions are made about how to administer and manage Antarctica.

(Random aside: I spent a good chunk of my foreign service career as an international lawyer working on Antarctic issues. Perhaps the most high-profile issue our team worked on was when Australia took Japan to the International Court of Justice over whaling in Australia's Antarctic waters).

Why does the ATS work so well?

The ATS is one of the most successful international agreements ever signed. A war-weary world in 1959 could scarcely dream that Antarctica would one day see China, Russia, Argentina, the US and Australia regularly collaborate for the greater good.

Politically speaking, Antarctica might as well be Mars. For example, last year China orchestrated a difficult evacuation of a sick Australian on Antarctica's east coast - all while politicians thousands of kilometres away in Beijing and Canberra jawed at each other over deep fakes.

The ATS model works so well because, in the language of game theory, it has created a stable equilibrium from which all participants have no incentive to deviate:

  • 🧊 Because sovereignty claims weren't extinguished, only frozen and lying dormant, there’s no incentive to over-develop or try to exclude other countries from a claimed area.

  • ⛏ Because mining is banned, there is no zero-sum race to extract minerals before other countries.

  • 👿 Dispute mechanisms have isolated and managed conflict and thus avoided any escalation of tensions that might destabilise the broader system.

  • 🧪 The promotion of scientific research and cooperation has demonstrated the benefits of collaboration, allowed trust to develop, and promoted a stable equilibrium.

  • 🕊 The sheer length of time the ATS has been in force has set a cultural precedent. No working politician, diplomat or scientist has known anything other than peace and cooperation in Antarctica.

Summed up, it is not worth it for any country to begin resource extraction or military activities - the resulting instability would damage that country’s long term interests and likely outweigh any short term gains.

How could the ATS apply to contemporary conflicts?

Take the dispute between China and several Southeast Asian nations over who 'owns' the South China Sea:

  • Could competing territorial claims in the area be frozen until some set time in the future?

  • Might demilitarisation and a nuclear ban lower political tensions and help promote a more stable status quo?

  • Could banning resource extraction or setting up joint resource development remove the zero-sum game dynamic and 'grow the pie' for all?

Critics of this approach would argue it is too late - China has already established a permanent presence in the South China Sea and would never agree to demilitarise. Sadly, they're probably right. After all, an international agreement requires... agreement.

But there is no shortage of territorial disputes elsewhere in the world (a remarkable number of which seem to involve China 🤔). The ATS might provide a nice framework of how to develop solutions for modern territorial conflicts in places like Crimea, Ethiopia, Gaza or the Himalayas.

Trust in global institutions is declining rapidly, largely because some organisations have proven ineffective or incompetent in high profile moments (cough cough WHO 'don’t wear a mask').

For those of us who generally believe in global institutions, the best way to push back against critics is to point to a compelling example of multilateral success. For that, look no further than Antarctica.

For fellow history nerds, check out this cool short video about the 1911 race to the south pole: “Two exploration teams raced to the South Pole. Only one made it out alive”.


🌊 After Fukushima: back to the future with nuclear?

By Helen

You’d be forgiven for having a visceral fear of nuclear power. Especially if you’ve watched HBO’s Chernobyl, or grew up thinking that all nuclear safety inspectors were like Homer Simpson:

In 2011, Japan copped the full brunt of a nuclear catastrophe: an offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami, which caused a meltdown at its Fukushima nuclear plant. The government evacuated over 100,000 people and spent US$200 billion cleaning it up. Japan’s remaining nuclear plants were suspended, and support for nuclear power plummeted.

So, ten years after Fukushima, why is the world warming on nuclear energy? And who are the biggest players in the industry?

First up, how nuclear energy works

Nuclear power plants are basically big kettles. (Ed: here’s an explainer for our American friends who have yet to discover kettles.)

Inside these water-filled kettles are nuclear reactors containing uranium fuel rods. Using a process called ‘nuclear fission’, the reactor splits uranium atoms to produce energy. This energy then heats up the kettle’s water to create steam, which drives turbines to generate power. ⚡️

Nuclear plants produce power more efficiently than their gas or coal counterparts because uranium contains more energy: a kilogram of uranium undergoing fission releases three million times more energy than a kilogram of coal being burned.

So, countries such as France, Hungary, Slovakia and remarkably Ukraine (where Chernobyl went down) manage to get more than half their power from nuclear energy.

Yet nuclear energy currently generates only 10% of the world’s total electricity, and just under a third of the world’s low-carbon power.

Why nuclear gets a bad rap

It’s not hard to see why nuclear energy is contentious:

  1. ☢️ Radioactive waste: there’s no easy way to deal with spent nuclear fuel. Storing it is expensive and impacts the environment, with few countries willing to take on nuclear waste (unlike Finland, who are building a ‘spent fuel repository’).

  2. 💣 Recycling nuclear fuel is tricky: the process creates a by-product called plutonium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. That’s why there’s a Non-Proliferation Treaty to make sure countries don’t enrich their uranium beyond civilian use (4%) to weapons grade (90%).

    Of course, there are countries who aren’t part of the treaty and build power plants as cover for uranium enrichment. For example, before it got nixed, the Iran Nuclear Deal was designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

  3. 💰 Steep cost: nuclear power stations are expensive. Traditional nuclear reactors cost over US$7 billion (or about 7,000 solar farms), making them less attractive than other, cheaper renewable energy options. Nuclear reactors take ~17 years to build, which adds to the political difficulty of construction.

  4. 🦺 Safety: even with heavy regulations put on nuclear plants, there’s always the risk of a catastrophic meltdown due to human, environmental or cyber mishaps.

Nuclear power 2.0

With the world striving towards a decarbonised future, might nuclear power (like buttery Chardonnay) undergo a renaissance of sorts?

Nuclear advocates argue that renewables alone won’t be enough to decarbonise the world economy, particularly for processes that require stable and significant power.

So, there’s a role for nuclear power to play. New technology can bring nuclear energy to fast-growing developing markets or replace ageing plants in developed countries:

  • Next generation reactors such as ‘small modular reactors’ are cheaper, can be mass-produced offsite, and have improved safety and waste reduction capabilities. Bill Gates’ TerraPower is one of a handful of companies doing this.

  • Government labs and private investors are getting closer to nuclear fusion, the holy grail of nuclear power capable of producing 4x more energy than fission. Jeff Bezos is an investor in General Fusion, one company building this technology.

Zoom out: the geopolitics of nuclear power

Nuclear power will grow in developing economies like China, India, UAE and Russia:

  • China turbo-charged its nuclear plans to reduce its current reliance on coal, and is on track to be the world’s largest producer of nuclear power by 2030.

  • China and Russia are also increasing nuclear technology exports (like parts to build plants) to meet the demand for nuclear energy in developing countries, which is estimated to grow 5x over the next 20 years.

  • This could build long-term relationships between suppliers and buyers: an opportunity that would bring China or Russia more influence and clout at the expense of the US (which is bound by laws prohibiting the export of nuclear technology).

In stark contrast, advanced economies are projected to lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040. This is not surprising. It’s tough to sell nuclear energy in democratic systems where politicians are held hostage by election cycles. Risky, expensive long-term infrastructure projects like nuclear can be radioactive for a political career.

So, it looks like nuclear might be back on the agenda. But, this time, world leaders must figure out how to deal with nuclear energy as a less combustible geopolitical tool.


➕ Extra intrigue

  • Brazil’s Supreme Court justice overturned corruption convictions against the former president and Latin America’s socialist icon Lula da Silva, who will now challenge Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections - pitting one populist against another.  

  • In northern Nigeria, a criminal group kidnapped more than 100 children and teachers in the sixth attack in three months. The UN’s Safe School Initiative (which might need to be renamed) pledged at least US$20m to fight back.     

  • Is this life on Mars? The sky turned orange in Beijing this week thanks to the most severe sandstorms in a decade. In some areas, they caused a spike in air pollution levels at 160x the recommended limit. Not a good day for a walk.

  • A bromance no more. North Korea is back to throwing shade at the US. This time, it’s Kim Jung-Un’s sister (and future leader?) who warned US Secretary of State Blinken not to ‘not cause a stink’ ahead of his visit to US ally South Korea.


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱  Helen: There's been a lot of change in my life of late: moving countries, a health scare, changing jobs, etc. You know, the usual life stuff. I've always enjoyed the words of Arthur Brooks, who reminds us what happiness is and how to appreciate what we've got. Might be a bit woo. I'm also a fan of his other work on the future of work.

👴 John: A hearty recommendation for Kevin Tellier’s newsletter which focuses on US-China technology competition, digital authoritarianism, and emerging technologies like central bank-backed digital currencies. Kevin is a portfolio manager for a hedge fund based in NYC (and an all-round good guy). His notes help me clarify my thinking and inform my writing here. Oh and the last word on how crypto works:


🎉 Intrigue update

So, biggish news from me (Helen): I've started a new job at Google! I'm very excited, even if onboarding remotely is a little, well… blurgh. But the reason I wanted to tell you is simply to be open and transparent. Your time and your trust are by the far the most important things you give us each week, and I want to make sure I honour that.

Rest assured nothing will change: I’ll keep trying (in my personal capacity) to make sense of the world of foreign affairs each week. I love doing it, and I know I speak for John as well when I say we’re delighted to have you along for the ride.


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Until next week!

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