A dreamer tilts with windmills


Deterrent: A California researcher is promoting the devices in North Korea as an alternative to nuclear plants -- and weapons

January 16, 2001|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BERKELEY, Calif. - Peter Hayes is a Don Quixote for the 21st century - a tall, dashing dreamer with a mission that some find foolhardy and others farfetched, but all deem noble in spirit and purpose. With a lot of imagination and a little money, Hayes has set out to rid the world of its deadliest weapons.

And he's trying to do it with windmills.

To counter a well-financed campaign to build a U.S. missile defense system, Hayes is putting up wind turbines and windmills - "like right out of Kansas in the 1930s," he says - in North Korea.

The graceful towers, with their spinning wheels, are providing water for dozens of North Korean homes and fields. The tall, spindly turbines, planted in fields of cabbage cultivated for the Korean dish kimchi, produce electricity for kindergartens, clinics and homes in the village of Unhari, about 60 miles southeast of the capital, Pyongyang.

The goal is to demonstrate the viability of alternative energy sources, particularly in rural areas, so the government will feel less need to build nuclear power plants that could, in turn, be used to develop nuclear weapons.

To some arms experts, it is indeed a quixotic quest. And Hayes concedes that his project is not a solution for the entire country - or a guarantee that a potential nuclear foe will soon become a peaceful neighbor. "North Korea is not a windy place. Windmills won't work everywhere," he says in a modest Berkeley office.

But to others, the groundbreaking collaboration between American and North Korean scientists represents a new kind of "alternative defense" that might reduce pressure for multibillion-dollar programs to block Pyongyang's ability to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States.

In recognition of his imaginative approach, Hayes was awarded this year one of the prestigious "genius" grants given to thinkers, scientists, writers and other innovators by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At its heart, Hayes' windmill project underscores a brewing debate over the best way to defend a nation in the 21st century.

"The missile defense argument is like saying the solution to America's handgun problem is for everyone to wear body armor. It doesn't work," says Hayes, founder of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, one of America's smallest research centers.

"Besides, the issue really isn't about missiles and warheads. It's about strategic rivalry and distrust and perceptions at a much deeper level. And that's what we're trying to deal with."

An energy specialist who's worked for the United Nations and the World Bank, Hayes began looking for ways to reverse tensions when North Korea crossed the nuclear threshold a decade ago by building reactors that it said would be used to generate electricity. By 1994, the government's suspected ability to siphon off fissile material to make nuclear weapons led the Pentagon to devise plans to attack the reactors.

The United States pulled back from "the brink of war," according to a recent book by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, after Perry advised the Clinton administration it might ignite a wider conflict. Former President Jimmy Carter then mediated an agreement that froze North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for U.S.-orchestrated aid and technology to build two "safe" nuclear reactors.

But the danger remains. North Korea does not have to give a full accounting of its nuclear program until the reactors are built and working. And it may have enough plutonium in reserve for one or two bombs.

Because the reactors won't be ready for several years, Pyongyang still feels vulnerable. Fuel supplies ended after the Soviet Union's demise. North Korea's electrical grid has been devastated by natural disasters. Millions of people have been left without regular electricity, contributing to the collapse of industry, communications, agriculture, transportation and the economy.

So Hayes and a small crew of energy experts set out to find an interim source of energy - and to plant the seeds of a relationship between the nations.

"A lot of what drives the military is fear or uncertainty. We're willing to embrace uncertainty. Otherwise we'll keep developing the same old world with the same old problems," said Hayes, who grew up on a farm - with windmills - in Australia but has lived in the United States since finishing his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1988.

With funding from American foundations, the Hayes team took the first seven wind turbines to Unhari in 1998. In October, on his sixth trip, he took a team to build two windmills to channel water for crops and human consumption to ease a famine that has killed an estimated 2 million people.

Windmills and wind turbines have appeal because of their low cost ($2,500 to $12,000 each), low maintenance, readily accessible technology, environmental safety and sustainability, even in rural areas. The next step is designing a windmill using local materials.

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