Unbeatable Fusion: Big Tech and US Armed Forces

Big tech equips the armed forces and United States law enforcement with cloud storage, databases, app support, admin tools and logistics. Now it is moving closer to the battlefield. Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle are expected to divvy up the $9bn five-year contract to operate the Pentagon’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC). In 2021 Microsoft was awarded a $22bn contract to supply its HoloLens augmented-reality headset to simulate battles for army training for up to ten years. It is also helping develop the air force’s battle-management system, which aims to integrate data sources from across the battlefield. In June 2022 Alphabet launched a new unit, Google Public Sector, which will compete for the DOD’s battle-networks contracts. In a departure from Google’s earlier wariness of the Pentagon, its cloud chief, Thomas Kurian, has insisted: “We wouldn’t be working on a programme like JWCC purely to do back-office work.”

Except from  Defense Technology: Can Tech Reshape the Pentagon, Economist, Aug. 13, 2022

The Power of Listening: when Indigenous People Win

 Indigenous traditional owners on Sept. 21, 2022 won a court challenge that prevents an energy company from drilling for gas off Australia’s north coast. The Federal Court decision against Australian oil and gas company Santos Ltd. was a major win for Indigenous rights in the nation. Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, who was described in court documents as an elder, senior lawman and traditional owner of the Munupi clan on the Tiwi Islands, had challenged the regulator’s approval of Santos’ $3.6 billion plan to drill the Barossa Field beneath the Timor Sea. Justice Mordy Bromberg quashed the February decision by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, to allow the drilling.

Tipakalippa had argued that the regulator could not be “reasonably satisfied,” as required by law, that Santos had carried out necessary consultations with indigenous peoples about its drilling plans. Santos had not consulted with his clan, Tipakalippa said, and he feared the project would harm the ocean environment.

See Tipakalippa v National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (No 2) [2022] FCA 1121    

Judge Bromberg went to the Tiwi Islands in August and took evidence about the Munupi people’s connection to the environment. According to indigenous peoples, the court’s willingness  to travel and listen to communities are signs that Australian institutions are increasingly taking  the concerns and heritage of indigenous peoples into account.

ROD McGUIRK, Australian Indigenous traditional owners halt gas drilling, AP, Sept. 21, 2022; Mike Cherney, In Australian Gas-Project Dispute, Sacred Dances Part of Court Hearing, WSJ, Sept. 8, 2022

New Drugs: Animals Stuck to the Seabed

Biologists are working with engineers to develop new tools to accelerate the development of medicines derived from marine animals, focusing on ocean-going robots with onboard DNA-sequencing gear. They foresee fleets of autonomous submersible robots trolling the ocean like electronic bloodhounds to sniff out snippets of the animals’ DNA in seawater—and then gathering and analyzing this so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“The ultimate goal is an underwater vehicle that collects environmental DNA samples, sequences them and then sends the data back to the lab,” says Kobun Truelove, senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “We would like to set up a network where you would have these autonomous vehicles out there sampling and then basically be getting the data back in real time.”

More than 1,000 marine-organism-derived compounds have shown anticancer, antiviral, antifungal or anti-inflammatory activity in medical assays, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 drugs derived from marine organisms, including ones for chronic pain and high cholesterol. Another 29 marine animal-derived compounds are now in clinical trials, according to the database.

Marine invertebrates are a key target of biomedical research because the animals—mostly attached to the seabed and unable to move—have evolved sophisticated chemical defenses to fend off fish, turtles and other predators in their environment. Research has shown that the natural toxins that comprise these defenses can be toxic to cancer cells and human pathogens. These sea creatures “make a broad range of different chemistries, things that synthetic chemists never thought of making,” says Barry O’Keefe, who have also identified compounds produced by bacteria living symbiotically with marine invertebrates. Once scientists have a suitable sample of eDNA and it’s been sequenced, they say, they can identify compounds the organisms are capable of producing. Then researchers can synthesize the compounds and test them to see if they have medicinal properties…

Collection of eDNA promises to be faster and less costly than the complex method commonly used   collect marine specimens—one that Amy Wright, director of the natural products group at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, likens to a treasure hunt. Currently, research vessels on weekslong expeditions launch submersible vehicles equipped with clawlike grabbers and suction tubes for gathering specimens. Once the vehicles and their payload are back on the ships, researchers preserve them and deliver them to labs, where their genomes are sequenced. The entire process can take weeks and is expensive. Just paying the crew to operate a research vessel for a single day can cost $35,000, according to the National Science Foundation.

Excerpts from  Eric Niile, Finding New Drugs From the Deep Sea via ‘eDNA’, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2022

Bury It and Forget It: Nuclear Waste

The first nuclear burial site has been built in Finland, the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository]. Deep geological disposal of this sort is widely held to be the safest way to deal with the more than 260,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel which has accumulated in 33 countries since the first nuclear plants began churning out electricity in the mid-1950s, and the still large…. Spent fuel is a high-level nuclear waste. That means it is both physically hot (because of the energy released by radioactive decay) and metaphorically so—producing radiation of such intensity that it will kill a human being in short order. Yet unlike the most radioactive substances of all, which necessarily have short half-lives, spent fuel will remain hot for hundreds of thousands of years—as long, in fact, as Homo sapiens has walked Earth—before its radioactivity returns to roughly the same level as that of the ore it came from.

Once full, the waste repository will be backfilled with bentonite before their entrances are sealed with a reinforced-concrete cap. In 100 years’ time, Finland will fill the whole site in, remove all traces of buildings from the surface and hand responsibility over to the Finnish government. The thinking is that leaving no trace or indication of what lies below is preferable to signposting the repository for the curious to investigate.

[Unless someone decides to drill?]

Excerpt from Nuclear Waste: Oubliette, Economist, June 25, 2022

Military Uses of Dolphins

The U.S. NAVY MARINE MAMMAL PROGRAM: Since 1959, the U.S. Navy has trained dolphins and sea lions  to help guard against threats underwater….Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to science. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are difficult to detect with electronic sonar, especially in coastal shallows or cluttered harbors, are easily found by the dolphins. Both dolphins and sea lions have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters. They can also dive hundreds of feet below the surface, without risk of decompression sickness or “the bends” like human divers. Someday it may be possible to complete these missions with underwater drones, but for now technology is no match for the animals…Dolphins are trained to search for and mark the location of undersea mines that could threaten the safety of those on board military or civilian ships..
How do the animals travel to remote work sites? By airplanes and helicopters (yes!)

Excerpt from US Naval Information Warfare Center

Stopping the Bleeding of the Horseshoe Crab

Every April in South Carolina, fishermen catch hundreds of horseshoe crabs as they crawl onto shore to mate. The crabs are transported to labs owned by Charles River, an American pharmaceutical company, in Charleston. There they are strapped to steel countertops and, still alive, drained of about a third of their blue-colored blood. Then they are returned to the ocean. This liquid is vital for America’s biomedical industry. A liter of it goes for as much as $15,000. Bleeding is not without harm to the crabs. Conservationists estimate that between 5% and 30% of them die on release…In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed them as “vulnerable” to extinction… 

Parts of modern medicine have been unusually reliant on the horseshoe crab. Its blood is the only known natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), an extract that detects endotoxin, a nasty and sometimes fatal bacterium. Drug firms use it to ensure the safety of medicines and implanted devices, including antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, heart stents, insulin and vaccines. The immune cells in the crab’s blood clot around toxic bacteria, giving a visual signal of unwanted contamination. As pharmaceutical companies ramped up production of the covid-19 jab, demand for the blue liquid soared. In 2020 nearly 650,000 crabs were bled in America, 36% more than in 2018.

As crab numbers fall and demand for LAL rises, America’s biomedical industry will face a crunch. Yet a synthetic alternative to LAL is already available and used in China and Europe.

Excerpt from In America, crab blood remains vital for drug- and vaccine-making, Economist, Sept. 3, 2022

Spoiling the Nuclear-Industry Party: Nuclear Waste

According to a new study, the world’s push for Small Modular Nuclear Reactors to address climate change will generate more radioactive waste than the larger, existing reactors, and its chemical complexity will make it more difficult to manage.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences, the study compared designs for three small modular reactors (SMRs) with a standard pressurized-water reactor… It concluded that most SMR designs will “entail a significant net disadvantage for nuclear waste disposal” and will produce wastes that aren’t compatible with existing disposal practices and facilities…

Traditional reactors have been capable of generating up to 1,000 or more megawatts of electricity, and are water-cooled; their spent fuel is highly radioactive and must be isolated from the environment for hundreds of thousands of years. SMRs by definition produce less than 300 megawatts, and would be cooled by novel substances such as molten salt or helium, producing different wastes…The smaller a reactor is, the more neutrons tend to escape the core and affect other components. That will create more radioactivity in the materials used in the reactor vessel which will have to be accounted for as a waste product. The researchers also determined that fuels from some SMRs would likely need processing to make them suitable for underground disposal.

The researchers found the SMRs would produce between double and 30-fold the volumes of waste arising from a typical reactor. They estimated spent fuel would contain higher concentrations of fissile materials than that from traditional reactors. That means the fuel could be at risk of renewed fission chain reactions if stored in high concentrations, meaning it would need to occupy more space underground. Such assertions contradict marketing claims from many SMR vendors…

In 2021, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a report that concluded many proposed SMRs would require new facilities to manage their wastes. It called claims that SMRs could burn existing waste “a misleading oversimplification.” The report found that reactors can consume only a fraction of spent fuel as new fuel – and that requires reprocessing to extract plutonium and other materials that could be used in weapons, thus raising what the organization described as an “unacceptable” risk.

Excerpt from MATTHEW MCCLEARN,The world’s push for small nuclear reactors will exacerbate radioactive waste issues, researchers say, Globe and Mail, June 3, 2022

What is your Extinction-Risk Footprint?

A new study quantifies how the consumption habits of people in 188 countries, through trade and supply networks, ultimately imperil more than 5,000 threatened and near-threatened terrestrial species of amphibians, mammals and birds on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. For the study, recently published in Scientific Reports, researchers used a metric called the extinction-risk footprint. The team found that 76 countries are net “importers” of this footprint, meaning they drive demand for products that contribute to the decline of endangered species abroad. Top among them are the U.S., Japan, France, Germany and the U.K. Another 16 countries—with Madagascar, Tanzania and Sri Lanka leading the list—are designated as net “exporters,” meaning their extinction-risk footprint is driven more by consumption habits in other countries. In the remaining 96 countries, domestic consumption is the most significant driver of extinction risk within those nations.

African trees logged in gorilla habitat, for example, could end up as flooring in Asia.  Other species highlighted in the study include the Malagasy giant jumping rat, a mammal that can jump 40 inches high and is found only in Madagascar. Demand for food and drinks in Europe contributes to 11 percent of this animal’s extinction-risk footprint through habitat loss caused by expanding agriculture. Tobacco, coffee and tea consumption in the U.S. accounts for 3 percent of the extinction-risk footprint for Honduras’s Nombre de Dios streamside frog, an amphibian that suffers from logging and deforestation related to agriculture.

Excerpt from Susan Cosier, How Countries ‘Import’ and ‘Export’ Extinction Risk Around the World, Scientific American, May 31, 2022

God’s Channels: How to Hear Whales and Bomb Explosions

About 1 kilometer under the sea lies a sound tunnel that carries the cries of whales and the clamor of submarines across great distances. Ever since scientists discovered this Sound Fixing and Ranging (SOFAR) channel in the 1940s, they’ve suspected a similar conduit exists in the atmosphere. But few have bothered to look for it, aside from one top-secret Cold War operation.

Today by listening to distant rocket launches with solar-powered balloons, researchers say they have finally detected hints of an aerial sound channel, although it does not seem to function as simply or reliably as the ocean SOFAR. If confirmed, the atmospheric SOFAR may pave the way for a network of aerial receivers that could help researchers detect remote explosions from volcanoes, bombs, and other sources that emit infrasound—acoustic waves below the frequency of human hearing.

After geophysicist Maurice Ewing discovered the SOFAR channel in 1944, he set out to find an analogous layer in the sky. At an altitude of between 10 and 20 kilometers is the tropopause, the boundary between the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere (where weather occurs), and the stratosphere. Like the marine SOFAR, the tropopause represents a cold region, where sound waves should travel slower and farther. An acoustic waveguide in the atmosphere, Ewing reasoned, would allow the U.S. Air Force to listen for nuclear weapon tests detonated by the Soviet Union. He instigated a top-secret experiment, code-named Project Mogul, that sent up hot air balloons equipped with infrasound microphones. The instruments often malfunctioned in the high winds, and in 1947, debris from one balloon crashed just outside of Roswell, New Mexico; that crash sparked one of the most famous UFO conspiracy theories in history. Soon after, the military disbanded the project. But the mission wasn’t declassified for nearly 50 years…

[Today] researchers plan to listen to launches of rockets with multiple solar-powered balloons staggered at different altitudes to figure out where the channel’s effects are strongest. They also plan to test the range of the signals and investigate the mysterious background noise. Understanding how the channel functions could help lay the groundwork for a future aerial infrasound network, which would monitor Earth constantly for major explosions and eruptions.

Excerpts from Zack Savisky, Balloon Detects First Signs of a ‘Sound Tunnel’ in the Sky, Science, Apr. 27, 2022

The Best Opportunity for Nuclear Industry

[After the war on climate change….]Russia’s war in Ukraine has created the “best opportunity” for Japan’s nuclear industry to stage a comeback since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, according to the country’s largest reactor maker. Akihiko Kato, nuclear division head at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said in an interview with the Financial Times…” Japan’s heavy reliance on Russian gas imports has rekindled a debate over nuclear power in the country more than a decade after regulators took most plants offline following one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The world’s third-largest economy has been plunged into a power crisis exacerbated by the soaring cost of liquefied natural gas and oil. Japan imports about 9 per cent of its LNG from Russia, putting it in a difficult diplomatic position as its western allies impose sanctions on Moscow.

But in contrast with the US, which sources close to a quarter of its processed uranium from Russia, Japan imports about 55 per cent of its processed uranium from western European countries, according to Ryan Kronk, a power markets analyst at Rystad Energy. Kato’s remarks underscored a shift in the country’s nuclear narrative, with an industry that had been in retreat now emboldened to speak out. His remarks come after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told investors this month in London that Japan would use nuclear power to “help the world achieve de-Russification of energy”. “

Mitsubishi Heavy expects an increase in orders for components from Europe in the coming years, as countries including the UK and France commit to building new nuclear plants.  

Excerpts from Ukraine war is ‘best opportunity’ for nuclear comeback since Fukushima, industry says, FT, May 15, 2022

Everybody and their Watch Box: State Surveillance

Aerial surveillance can reach backwards in time, by the expedient of indiscriminately recording everything that is going on in a particular neighborhood, and then looking for useful patterns in the resulting footage. This technique, called wide-area motion imagery (Wami), has been around since 2006. But improvements in both the recording equipment used and the means by which the images are analysed are making it more and more valuable.

Wami was first employed by American forces in Iraq to track down those placing roadside bombs. When such a bomb went off, it was possible to run the relevant footage in reverse and trace the events that led up to the explosion. That often allowed the bombers to be identified and dealt with…Wami began with an aircraft-borne system called Constant Hawk, which was developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California. Constant Hawk’s success in Iraq begat more powerful versions. Gorgon Stare, carried by drone, was designed by the armed forces themselves…

But there is a problem. Explosions are easy to see. For many tasks, however, an awful lot of staring at screens looking for things that are out-of-the-ordinary is involved. People are bad at this…So AI is here to help…. Chips called graphic-processing units, borrowed from the video-game industry, are helping. So is machine learning, the basis of much modern artificial intelligence. .

l3Harris, a company in Florida, sells Wami sensors for use as automatic sentries. Their software monitors the coming and going of vehicles and pedestrians into and out of so-called watch boxes. These are protected areas surrounded by virtual trip wires, the triggering of which will cause a vehicle or individual of interest to be tracked…This approach can detect immediate threats. It can also, working over a longer period, carry out “pattern of life” analysis by building up a picture of what normal daily traffic looks like in an area. That permits the identification of anomalies which might signal hostile agents whose movements would otherwise be masked by the hurly-burly around them.

The sensors themselves are getting better, too….The latest version includes a so-called hyperspectral sensor, which sees simultaneously across many different wavelengths, including infrared and ultraviolet. It is thus able to distinguish things which the naked eye cannot, such as the difference between camouflage and vegetation. This approach’s real power, however, lies in software which automatically passes data between sensors…Future multi-sensor pods may include other instruments, such as signals-intelligence receivers. These are bits of equipment which can detect radio-frequency communicators like mobile phones and walkie-talkies, enabling particular devices to be identified and located. That would permit the individual carrying the phone, and also those he or she came into contact with, to be tracked and photographed. 

So far, the costs and complexity of Wami have kept it as a predominantly military technology. But that is starting to change. Smaller and more affordable versions are now within the reach of police, fire services and other non-military users…The most famous examples were in Baltimore, where the local cops experimented with the idea twice—first in 2016 and then in 2020. The second time around they made the mistake of monitoring a political protest as well as looking for crimes such as vehicle theft. 

Excerpts from Aerial Surveillance: The Spies in the Sky that See Backwards in Time, Economist, May 7, 2022

Why China Fears Elon Musk More than the U.S.

Chinese military observers have been increasingly concerned about the potential of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network in helping the US military dominate space, especially so, in the wake of the Ukraine war, where Elon Musk activated Starlink satellites to restore communications that had stopped because of shelling by the Russian troops…. 

“SpaceX has decided to increase the number of Starlink satellites from 12,000 to 42,000 – the program’s unchecked expansion and the company’s ambition to use it for military purposes should put the international community on high alert,” said the article on China Military Online, the official news website affiliated with the Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s highest national defense organization headed by President Xi Jinping himself.

The article notes the SpaceX Starlink’s role during the Russia-Ukraine war, where Elon Musk provided Starlink terminals to restore communications…However, there have also been reports of Starlink aiding the Ukrainian armed forces in precision strikes against Russian tanks and positions, which has not been unnoticed by Chinese military observers.

“In addition to supporting communication, Starlink, as experts estimated, could also interact with UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] and, using big data and facial recognition technology, might have already played a part in Ukraine’s military operations against Russia,” said the China Military Online article…..Another remarkable event was SpaceX’s swift response to a Russian jamming effort targeting its Starlink Satellite service which was appreciated by the Pentagon’s Director for Electromagnetic Warfare. Elon Musk had claimed that Russia had jammed Starlink terminals in Ukraine for hours at a time, following which he also said that after a software update, Starlink was operating normally….“And suddenly that [Russian jamming attack] was not effective anymore. From [the] EW technologist’s perspective, that is fantastic … and how they did that was eye-watering to me,” said Dave Tremper, the Director of electronic warfare  (EW)for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The China Military Online commentary listed the numerous instances since 2019 when Starlink has cooperated with the US military, which also included the successful data transmission test conducted by the US Air Force (USAF) on March 3, 2022…It also raised a possibility that Starlink could form a second and independent internet that threatened states’ cyberspace sovereignty.

Another concern for Chinese military analysts has been the scarcity of frequency bands and orbital slots for satellites to operate, which they believe are being quickly acquired by other countries. “Orbital position and frequency are rare strategic resources in space,” said the article, while noting, “The LEO can accommodate about 50,000 satellites, over 80% of which would be taken by Starlink if the program were to launch 42,000 satellites as it has planned.” “SpaceX is undertaking an enclosure movement in space to take a vantage position and monopolize strategic resources,” the article further added.

Excerpts from Tanmay Kadam, China ‘Deeply Alarmed’ By SpaceX’s Starlink Capabilities That Is Helping US Military Achieve Total Space Dominance, EurAsian Times, May 9, 2022

The Lies Around Plastics

California’s attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil C and other fossil-fuel and petrochemical companies, accusing them of misleading the public about the impact of plastic pollution. He said his office has issued a subpoena to Exxon seeking information about what he called an “an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.” 

“The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled,” Mr. Bonta said. “This first-of-its-kind investigation will examine the fossil fuel industry’s role in creating and exacerbating the plastics pollution crisis—and what laws, if any, have been broken in the process.”

Plastics and other petrochemical products are ubiquitous features of modern life, used to fashion everything from car fenders and shampoo bottles to smartphones. The United Nations estimates that the world generates more than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste every year and that vast amounts of that end up in oceans and other waterways. Plastics take hundreds of years to decompose and first break down into tiny particles. Scientists have found these particles in drinking water and food, and some estimate many human beings will consume dozens of pounds of plastic in their lifetimes.

Driven by the shale drilling revolution, which unleashed massive volumes of oil and gas, the petrochemical industry has invested more than $200 billion in U.S. plastics-and-chemical-manufacturing plants over the past decade. Exxon has invested billions of dollars on such facilities and is one of the world’s largest producers of virgin plastic.

Petrochemical companies have recently promised to invest billions of dollars in recycling. Exxon said last year that it would build its first large recycling facility in Texas, which it said would initially have the capacity to recycle 30,000 metric tons of plastic waste a year. The Minderoo Foundation, an Australian philanthropic group, estimates that Exxon produced 5.9 million metric tons of single-use plastic in 2019. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the U.S. typically recycles only about 9% of produced plastic.

Excerpts from Christopher M. Matthew, Exxon Subpoenaed in California’s Probe of Plastics Makers, Apr. 29, 2022

See also Inside the long war to protect plastic

Should We Boil Lobsters Alive?

If the UK joins a handful of other nations to recognize the sentience of invertebrates, such as cephalopod mollusks and decapod crustaceans, by, for example, prohibiting the boiling of live lobsters, this will be based on evidence that emotions and felt experiences (i.e., sentience) are not limited to animals close to humans, such as the mammals.

Over a decade ago, the same debate revolved around fish. Do fish feel pain? …This debate was settled when fish were found to learn from encounters with negative stimuli by avoiding dangerous locations. The best explanation is that fish remember these locations because they felt and neuronally processed aversive experiences. The same logic has been followed for arthropods, such as crabs, which in experiments learn to avoid locations where they have been shocked…

For example, the face—the proverbial window on human emotions—expresses emotions through similar muscular contractions…indistinguishable between humans and chimpanzees. Obviously, increasingly distant species have increasingly different expressions of the emotions, but research has found that, for example, physiological changes, lowered temperature of the extremities, and activation of the amygdala during fear are notably similar in fearful rats and fearful humans…. 

Bees subjected to vigorous physical agitation (shaking) to simulate a predatory attack proved less willing to explore new tastes, and hence were negatively biased by their experience. They also showed reduced amounts of hemolymph dopamine, octopamine, and serotonin. Changes in these neurotransmitters mark anxiety or depression in humans.

 It is not hard to see that the denial of animal emotions, and by extension animal feelings, has been morally convenient during human’s history of animal exploitation. Conversely, their recognition is bound to shake up our moral decision-making…If crabs experience emotional states, then they have an interest in these states being positively valenced. Current research indicates that a wide range of animals have interests in avoiding felt pain, and that they would not consent to painful procedures if given the opportunity….

When the medical community recognized infant pain in the 1980s, it was because the evidence was so overwhelming that physicians could no longer act as if infants are immune to pain.

Excerpts from Frans BM de Waal and Kristin Andrews, The question of Animal Emotions, Science, Mar. 25, 2022

Who Is Responsible for the Death of Birds?

Oil industry groups and wildlife conservation advocates are squaring off over Biden administration plans of 2022 to adopt new federal rules for the accidental killing of migratory birds…The measures being considered could include a permit process for new skyscrapers, power lines, wind turbines and other structures that birds fly into, often with fatal results. Businesses that secure a permit would limit exposure to steep fines for inadvertent bird killings under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Fish and Wildlife officials are also considering assessing a conservation fee as part of that permit process, with the money going to help mitigate habitat loss that has contributed to declining bird populations.

The agency said the rules are needed to protect declining populations of migratory birds, noting that nearly 10% of roughly 1,100 species protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are threatened or endangered. While much of that is because of habitat loss from new development and agriculture, the agency says that “millions of birds are directly killed by human-caused sources such as collisions with man-made structures,” according to a Fish and Wildlife document.

Environmentalists are backing the effort, along with some businesses that say existing regulations are ambivalent and need clarification. But the permit system, even in its infancy, is being opposed by the American Exploration & Production Council and several other oil and gas production groups. They say no data exists to show that a permitting program will protect birds “over and above our industry’s operational practices and conservation measures.” Oil and gas drilling contributes to accidental deaths of birds in several ways, including when birds fly into the colorless flames as excess methane gas is being burned off from wells.

Pits used for disposal of mud, wastewater and other liquids in connection with oil drilling are estimated to kill hundreds of thousands of birds annually, according to a Fish and Wildlife report….The American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying group, said the Biden administration should limit criminal punishments to intentional killings following court rulings that the law doesn’t apply to accidents. If regulators create a permit program, they said it should be general, not project specific, to minimize “undue administrative burdens or delay.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups raised concerns that the permit process could obstruct projects funded by the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure plan—along with new wind and solar energy projects that the White House wants to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and help combat climate change…Wind turbines are estimated to kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds a year, according to Fish and Wildlife, and a major expansion of those turbines could push bird deaths over 1 million annually, wildlife researchers have estimated.

Duke Energy Corp., whose subsidiary was fined $1 million in 2013 after dozens of birds died at a wind-turbine project in Wyoming, said it supports the new rule-making effort.

TOP THREATS TO BIRDS
Hazard type — Average annual deaths (est.)

Cats — 2,400,000,000
Building glass collisions — 599,000,000
Vehicle collisions — 214,500,000
Poison — 72,000,000
Power line collisions — 25,500,000
Communication tower collisions — 6,600,000
Electrocutions — 5,600,000
Oil Pits — 750,000
Wind-turbine collisions (land-based) — 234,012
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2017

Excerpts from Katy Stech Ferek, Battle Looms Over Bird Protection, WSJ, Apr. 15, 2022

Normal Nuclear Accidents

In March 2022, a nearly tragic accident involving India and Pakistan pointed to another path to nuclear war. The accident highlighted how complex technological systems, including those involving nuclear weapons, can generate unexpected routes to potential disaster—especially when managed by overconfident organizations.

India and Pakistan possess more than 300 nuclear weapons between them, and have fought multiple wars and faced many military crises. On March 9,2022 three years after their dispute over Kashmir escalated into attacks by jet fighters, the Pakistan Air Force detected “a high speed flying object” inside Indian territory change course and veer suddenly toward Pakistan.* It flew deep into Pakistan and crashed. The object was a BrahMos cruise missile, a weapon system developed jointly by India and Russia. India soon stated the launch was an accident.

The firing of the BrahMos missile falls within a long history of accidents involving military systems in India. Military aircraft have strayed across the borders during peacetime. India’s first nuclear submarine was reportedly “crippled” by an accident in 2018, but the government refused to divulge any details. Secrecy has prevented the investigation of an apparent failure of India’s ballistic missile defense system in 2016. Engagements between India and Pakistan can arise from such accidents, as in 1999 when a Pakistani military plane was shot down along the border by India, killing 16 people. Pakistan has had its share of accidents, including a Pakistani fighter jet crashing into the capital city in 2020.

All these weapons systems are inherently accident-prone because of two characteristics identified by organizational sociologist Charles Perrow decades ago—interactive complexity and tight coupling—that combine to make accidents a “normal” feature of the operation of some hazardous technologies. The first characteristic refers to the possibility that different parts of the system can affect each other in unexpected ways, thus producing unanticipated outcomes. The second makes it hard to stop the resulting sequence of events. For Perrow, “the dangerous accidents lie in the system, not in the components,” and are inevitable.

Perhaps the best and most troubling proof of this proposition is in the realm of nuclear weapons—which embody all the properties of high-risk technological systems. Despite decades of efforts to ensure safety, these systems have suffered many failures, accidents and close calls. During 1979–1980, for example, there were several false warnings of Soviet missile attacks, some of which resulted in U.S. nuclear forces being put on alert.  

Given the secretive nature of Indian nuclear policymaking, little is known about India’s nuclear command and control system. However, the 1999 Draft Nuclear Doctrine called for “assured capability to shift from peacetime deployment to fully employable forces in the shortest possible time.” The combination of technology and plans for being able to rapidly launch nuclear weapons raises the risk of accidental and inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.  

South Asia’s geography is pitiless. It would only take five to 10 minutes for a missile launched from India to attack Pakistan’s national capital, nuclear weapon command posts or bases….Compounding these dangers is the overconfidence of India’s officials, who displayed no recognition of the gravity of the Brahmos accident.

Excerpt from Zia Mian, M. V. Ramana, India’s Inadvertent Missile Launch Underscores the Risk of Accidental Nuclear Warfare, Scientific American, Apr. 8, 2022
 

Regulators are Smart but Smugglers are Smarter

In a move cheered by climate activists, the European Union began in 2015 to restrict the production and import of gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are widely used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and manufacturing, but they are also potent greenhouse gases. The first big shortages hit in early 2018. Prices across Europe multiplied sixfold or even more. The EU wanted to push HFC users to adopt pricey, climate-friendlier alternatives. It thought that the engineered shortage would do the trick.

But prices are still not much higher than before the crunch. The reason: HFCs were being smuggled into the EU. The trafficking is still going on. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in London that has dispatched researchers to pose as buyers in Romania, estimates that a quarter of all HFCs  in the EU are contraband. A body formed by chemical companies, the European FluoroCarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), says the proportion may be as high as a third.

Such estimates are rough. But they have not been plucked from thin air. Much can be inferred, for example, by examining officially registered trade flows. Data from Turkish sources show that in 2020 more than four times as much HFC tonnage left Turkey bound for the EU than the latter reported as imported. This suggests that plenty of tanks and canisters holding HFCs enter on the sly.

The smuggling has hit some firms particularly hard. To supply greener alternatives to HFCs, Chemours, an American firm, spent around $500m on r&d and production facilities. But with illegal imports continuing to hold down HFC prices, demand for alternatives has been “stagnating” and even declining…

This has miffed America. In a report last year on barriers to trade, Katherine Tai, the American trade representative, wrote that the eu’s “insufficient oversight and enforcement” of its HFC caps is hurting American chemical firms, not to mention the climate. European officials, for their part, point to the difficulty of preventing profitable

When prices first soared, a car boot could be filled in Ukraine with canisters of an HFC blend called R404A that would sell, hours later, for ten times as much in Poland. Margins have since shrunk as legions have got in on the action. But contraband HFCs are still so valuable that canisters are sometimes given space on boats trafficking migrants from north Africa to Europe…The black market is now dominated by crime syndicates that move large volumes, says the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Most of the contraband seems to come from China, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Excerpts from HFC Smuggling: Free as Air, Economist, Feb. 26, 2022

How Forests Create Clouds and Cool the Earth

Tropical forests have a crucial role in cooling Earth’s surface by extracting carbon dioxide from the air. But only two-thirds of their cooling power comes from their ability to suck in CO2 and store it. The other one-third comes from their ability to create clouds, humidify the air and release cooling chemicals. This is a larger contribution than expected for these ‘biophysical effects’ says Bronson Griscom, a forest climate scientist.

The analysis, published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change in March 2022, could enable scientists to improve their climate models, while helping governments to devise better conservation and climate strategies. The findings underscore growing concerns about rampant deforestation across the tropics. Scientists warn that one-third of the world’s tropical forests have been mown down in the past few centuries, and another one-third has been degraded by logging and development. This, when combined with climate change, could transform vast swathes of forest into grasslands

Trees in the tropics provide shade, but they also act as giant humidifiers by pulling water from the ground and emitting it from their leaves, which helps to cool the surrounding area in a way similar to sweating, Griscom says. “If you go into a forest, it immediately is a considerably cooler environment,” he says.

This transpiration, in turn, creates the right conditions for clouds, which like snow and ice in the Arctic, can reflect sunlight higher into the atmosphere and further cool the surroundings. Trees also release organic compounds — for example, pine-scented terpenes — that react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to sometimes create a net cooling effect… When they considered only the biophysical effects, the researchers found that the world’s forests collectively cool the surface of the planet by around 0.5 °C.

Threats to tropical rainforests are dangerous not only for the global climate, but also for communities that neighbour the forests, Lawrence says. She and her colleagues found that the cooling caused by biophysical effects was especially significant locally. Having a rainforest nearby can help to protect an area’s agriculture and cities from heatwaves, Lawrence says. “Every tenth of a degree matters in limiting extreme weather. And where you have forests, the extremes are minimized.”

Excerpts from Freda Kreier, Tropical forests have big climate benefits beyond carbon storage, Nature, 

Unleashing Hydropower without Wasteful Disasters

After years of fighting, Native American tribes, environmentalists and the hydroelectric power industry say they have reached a deal on a proposed legislative package that could boost clean energy as well as river conservation. The compromise deal, which would require approval from Congress, is the result of four years of talks between groups that have long been courtroom and policy adversaries because of disagreements involving vanishing fish populations and changes to river ecosystems. Concerns over climate change have helped them find common ground to potentially expand hydroelectric power, a carbon-free energy source, they said.

The deal seeks to grant approvals to add hydroelectric power to some existing dams in as little as two years, while speeding the approval of off-river pumped-storage projects, which store surplus energy for later use, in as little as three years. Another key component would give tribes, instead of the Department of the Interior, authority on the conditions put on permits for things like the protection of tribal cultural resources or fish passage.

Groups supporting the package include the National Hydropower Association, American Rivers, the Skokomish Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Our respective constituencies have battled each other to a draw for generations,” said Malcolm Woolf, the National Hydropower Association’s chief executive.

Hydroelectric power makes up about 7% of the U.S. electricity mix. Around 281 hydro-generating facilities, making up roughly one-third of non-federally owned generation, are up for re-licensing by 2030. The re-licensing process usually takes more than seven years and new projects take almost as long, a regulatory environment that has been likened to nuclear power approvals. Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the current permitting process for hydropower “a wasteful disaster” because of its yearslong timelines. “I look forward to seeing the agreement various stakeholders have reached,” he said Friday.

The proposal would amend the Federal Power Act, first passed in 1920.

Excerpts from Jennifer Hille, Tribes, Industry Groups Reach Deal to Boost U.S. Hydroelectric Power, WSJ, Apr. 4, 2022

Under Chemical Attack: the Human Body

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has proposed reducing by a factor of 100,000 the tolerable daily intake of bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that interferes with hormone systems and has been linked to disease. The huge reduction could lead to a de facto ban on the cheap and durable material in food-related uses, such making plastic water bottler or lining metal cans. And it could mark a shift in how European regulators use research findings in setting exposure limits. Traditionally, those limits have been shaped by large studies directly linking a chemical to an increased risk of disease. In this case, however, risk assessors put greater weight on smaller studies showing low levels of BPA can cause subtle changes that could lead to future health problems. This approach, if adopted widely, could justify much lower exposure limits for other chemicals.

“It’s a big deal,” says Laura Vandenberg, an endocrinologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who calls the proposed limit “a gravestone for BPA in Europe.” Environmental and public health advocates are praising the proposal, which is open for comment until 22 February. Industry groups, however, are dismayed. Plastics Europe argues EFSA ignored relevant, older studies in setting the standard…

Bisphenol A is used in many plastics, including thermal paper for receipts, but most people are exposed through food. BPA leaches out of polycarbonates used to make bottles and food containers, for example, as well as the epoxy liners used to protect steel and aluminum cans from acidic food and beverages….

In the United States, a number of groups recently urged FDA to follow EFSA’s lead and consider new limits on BPA. Others note that people are often exposed to BPA in combination with other chemicals, which could increase the risk from low doses. F

Even if Europe adopts the new standard, public health advocates worry manufacturers will replace BPA with very similar chemicals, such as bisphenol S (BPS), that have also been linked to health effects. “We don’t want to see this assessment repeated for the BPS or BPF [bisphenol F] and need more decades of risk assessment,” says Ninja Reineke, head of science at the CHEM Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on environmental and health impacts of endocrine disruptors.

To avoid that problem, many advocates have called for regulators around the world to set limits for whole classes of related compounds, rather than consider them one by one. For now, Vandenberg says, regulators are simply playing “chemical whack-a-mole.”

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Europe Proposes Drastic Cut of Endocrine Disruptor in Plastic, Science, Feb, 18, 2022, at 708

Toxic Waste: Down the Toilet and into the Seas

Dumping oily wastewater into the ocean has been outlawed globally for decades, but an investigation by DW, in collaboration with the European nonprofit newsroom Lighthouse Reports and eight other European press outlets, has found that the practice is still common today, with potentially devastating effects for the environment.

Satellite imagery and data provided by the environmental group SkyTruth helped identify hundreds of potential dumps across the globe in 2021 alone. But the number of spills is most likely significantly higher because the satellites used by SkyTruth cover less than one-fifth of the world’s oceans. According to the group’s estimate, the amount of oily water dumped into the oceans this way could amount to more than 200,000 cubic meters (52.8 million gallons) annually, or roughly five times the equivalent of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska — one of the worst maritime environmental disasters.

As merchant ships make their journeys, liquids from the engine room, oil, detergents, water and other substances collect in the bottom of the vessel, the bilge. This noxious mixture, called “bilgewater,” is then stored in tanks. In a day, a single merchant ship can produce several tons of it. International regulations require that large vessels treat the bilgewater with an “oily water separator” before it is discharged into the ocean. Each liter of bilgewater pumped into the sea after treatment is permitted a maximum residual-oil proportion of 15 parts per million, or 15 milligrams of oil per liter of water (0.0005 ounces per quart), according to a limit set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in 1973. The remaining toxic mixture is stored in tanks onboard and later discharged at harbor in port reception facilities.

All big vessels are required to have working separators. But many ships circumvent the system entirely…through a small, portable pump. “It’s very easy,” one man who had witnessed it in operation on several occasions told DW. “You can assemble this portable pump in five minutes and then detach (in) five minutes and hide (it) if someone is coming.”

The pump is used to transfer the oily water into a different tank — in most cases, the sewage tank. On the high seas, ships are allowed to dump their sewage untreated. Then, the toxic mix is quietly released into the ocean, often under the cover of night or during inclement weather, when there is a lower chance of getting caught, according to several seafarers DW talked to. At night it is harder for authorities to verify the crime, and bad weather can prevent the deployment of surveillance ships and planes… Because the illegal dumps happen at sea, it is difficult for authorities and researchers to track them. That is why satellite imagery is used to monitor the seas for pollution. When a vessel discharges oily wastewater illegally, it usually creates a spill kilometers long and with a very distinct shape.

A system set up in 2007 by the European Maritime Safety Agency, or EMSA, uses radar satellites to “see” through cloud cover and at night to identify possible spills. It alerts the respective member states when one is found…Illegal dumps “still regularly occur in European waters,” according to EMSA, and the number of spills detected and prosecuted remains low. Individual member states do not always follow up on the alerts, and, when they do, it is often not quickly enough. The longer it takes authorities to verify a spill in situ, the less likely they are to find oil, as spills begin to dissipate. In 2019, only 1.5% of spills were verified within a critical three-hour time frame. Polluters are only caught in a fraction of cases.

The satellites are also not able to monitor EU waters continuously, meaning that there is a window of several hours each day during which oil spills can go unnoticed. To get a sense of the total scope of this issue in EU waters, SkyTruth combined data and assumptions from EMSA with calculations of satellite coverage. Based on that fairly conservative estimate, the group expects that every year nearly 3,000 slicks are caused by vessels discharging mineral oil into EU waters. That averages out to more than eight per day — the majority of which go unseen by satellites.

Excerpts from Exclusive: How chronic oil pollution at sea goes unpunished, DW, Mar. 2022

Loving Oil in Any Way, Shape or Form — Damn Climate Change!

Many oil assets are ending up in the hands of private-equity (PE) firms. In the past two years alone these bought $60bn-worth of oil, gas and coal assets, through 500 transactions… Some have been multibillion-dollar deals, with giants such as Blackstone, Carlyle and KKR carving out huge oilfields, coal-fired power plants or gas grids from energy groups, miners and utilities. Many other deals, sealed by smaller rivals, get little publicity. This sits uncomfortably with the credo of many pension funds, universities and other investors in private funds, 1,485 of which, representing $39trn in assets, have pledged to divest fossil fuels. But few seem ready to leave juicy returns on the table.

As demand for oil and gas persists while dwindling investment in production limits supply, prices are rising again, boosting producers’ profits….And discounts imposed on “brown” assets by the stock market, linked to sustainability factors rather than financial… create even more pockets of opportunity…The Economist has looked at 8 PE firms that have closed fossil-fuel deals in 2020-2021 The investors in some of their latest energy-flavored vehicles include 53 pension funds, 23 universities and 32 foundations. Many are from America, such as Teacher Retirement System of Texas, the University of San Francisco and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, but that is partly because more institutions based there disclose pe commitments. The list also features Britain’s West Yorkshire Pension Fund and China Life. Over time, some investors may decide to opt out of funding their portion of fossil-fuel deals.

But a third, yet more opaque class stands ready to step in: state-owned firms and sovereign funds operating in the shadows. Last month Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s national oil company, acquired a 30% stake in a refinery in Poland, and Somoil, an Angolan group, bought offshore oil assets from France’s Total. In 2020 Singapore’s GIC was part of the group that paid $10bn for a stake in an Emirati pipeline.

Excerpts from Who buys the dirty energy assets public companies no longer want?, Economist, Feb. 12, 2022

Unparalleled Generosity: How China Won the Hearts and Minds of Africa

When  it comes to building big things in Africa, China is unrivalled. Beijing-backed firms have redrawn the continent’s transport map. Thanks to China’s engineers and bankers you can hop on a train in Lagos to beat the traffic to Ibadan, drive across parts of eastern Congo in hours rather than days or fly into any one of dozens of recently spruced-up airports from Zanzibar to Zambia. Throw in everything else from skyscrapers and bridges to dams and three dozen-odd ports and it all adds up to rather a lot of mortar.

It was not always so. In 1990 American and European companies scooped up more than 85% of construction contracts on the continent. Chinese firms did not even get a mention. Now Western firms are struggling to win business in a fast-growing market. (The World Bank predicts that demand for infrastructure spending alone will be more than $300bn a year by 2040.) Africa’s population is growing faster than that of any other continent, and Africans are moving to cities faster than people elsewhere. Both these trends will drive demand. The dragon’s share will be built by Chinese firms, which in 2020 were responsible for 31% of all infrastructure projects in Africa with a value of $50m or more, according to Deloitte, a consultancy. That was up from 12% in 2013. Western firms were directly responsible for just 12% or so (compared with 37% in 2013)…

Chinese lenders are pluckier than their Western rivals. Sometimes this borders on recklessness. When Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, wanted $4.7bn to build a new railway which the World Bank warned would never turn a profit, Chinese lenders backed it. The railway has since lost more than $200m. Often, Chinese firms are tough negotiators. Several have struck resources-for-roads deals, such as those worth more than $1.1bn in Ghana and Guinea, where the loans are backed by bauxite… 

In 2021,  China said it would stump up its own cash to build smart new foreign ministries in Congo and Kenya. It has also picked up the tab for numerous other official buildings, from parliament complexes in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe to presidential palaces in Burundi, Guinea-Bissau and Togo. Given such generosity, it is hardly surprising that some African governments are predisposed to favor Chinese firms…. 

Perhaps as important is that China is unwittingly crowding in Western money by stoking the geopolitical anxieties of Western leaders. Britain’s government recently said its development arm would invest $1bn in Kenyan infrastructure and that a British firm would build a new rail hub in central Nairobi. The G7 group of countries last year launched the Build Back Better World initiative, a shameless copy of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). All this should mean more opportunities for construction firms of all nationalities, whether Western, Chinese or, with a bit of luck, African, too.

Excerpts from Chasing the dragon: How Chinese firms have dominated African infrastructure, Economist,  Feb. 19, 2022

How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Produce Better Chemical Weapons

An international security conference convened by the Swiss Federal Institute for NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) Protection —Spiez Laboratory explored how artificial intelligence (AI) technologies for drug discovery could be misused for de novo design of biochemical weapons.  According to the researchers, discussion of societal impacts of AI has principally focused on aspects such as safety, privacy, discrimination and potential criminal misuse, but not on national and international security. When we think of drug discovery, we normally do not consider technology misuse potential. We are not trained to consider it, and it is not even required for machine learning research.

According to the scientists, this should serve as a wake-up call for our colleagues in the ‘AI in drug discovery’ community. Although some expertise in chemistry or toxicology is still required to generate toxic substances or biological agents that can cause significant harm, when these fields intersect with machine learning models, where all you need is the ability to code and to understand the output of the models themselves, they dramatically lower technical thresholds. Open-source machine learning software is the primary route for learning and creating new models like ours, and toxicity datasets that provide a baseline model for predictions for a range of targets related to human health are readily available.

The genie is out of the medicine bottle when it comes to repurposing our machine learning. We must now ask: what are the implications? Our own commercial tools, as well as open-source software tools and many datasets that populate public databases, are available with no oversight. If the threat of harm, or actual harm, occurs with ties back to machine learning, what impact will this have on how this technology is perceived? Will hype in the press on AI-designed drugs suddenly flip to concern about AI-designed toxins, public shaming and decreased investment in these technologies? As a field, we should open a conversation on this topic. The reputational risk is substantial: it only takes one bad apple, such as an adversarial state or other actor looking for a technological edge, to cause actual harm by taking what we have vaguely described to the next logical step. How do we prevent this? Can we lock away all the tools and throw away the key? Do we monitor software downloads or restrict sales to certain groups?

Excerpts from Fabio Urbina et al, Dual use of artificial-intelligence-powered drug discovery, Nature Machine Intelligence (2022)

Who Cares? Clicking Away Privacy Rights

The latest developments in a high-profile criminal probe by  US special counsel John Durham show the extent to which the world’s internet traffic is being monitored by a coterie of network researchers and security experts inside and outside the US government. The monitoring is made possible by little-scrutinized partnerships, both informal and formal, among cybersecurity companies, telecommunications providers and government agencies.

The U.S. government is obtaining bulk data about network usage, according to federal contracting documents and people familiar with the matter, and has fought disclosure about such activities. Academic and independent researchers are sometimes tapped to look at data and share any findings with the government without warrants or judicial authorization…

Unlike the disclosures by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from nearly a decade ago, which revealed U.S. intelligence programs that relied on covert access to private data streams, the sharing of internet records highlighted by Mr. Durham’s probe concerns commercial information that is often being shared with or sold to the government in bulk. Such data sets can possess enormous intelligence value, according to current and former government officials and cybersecurity experts, especially as the power of computers to derive insights from massive data sets has grown in recent years.

Such network data can help governments and companies detect and counter cyberattacks. But that capability also has privacy implications, despite assurances from researchers that most of the data can’t be traced back to individuals or organizations.

At issue are several kinds of internet logs showing the connections between computers, typically collected on networking devices such as switches or routers. They are the rough internet equivalent of logs of phone calls—showing which computers are connecting and when, but not necessarily revealing anything about the content of the transmissions. Modern smartphones and computers generate thousands of such logs a day just by browsing the web or using consumer apps…

“A question worth asking is: Who has access to large pools of telecommunications metadata, such as DNS records, and under what circumstances can those be shared with the government?…Surveillance takes the path of least resistance…,” according to Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Excerpts from Byron Tau et al., Probe Reveals Unregulated Access to Data Streams, WSJ, Feb.. 28, 2022

The Sacrificial Lambs of Green Energy

Lithium Americas, a Canadian company, has plans to build a mine and processing plant at Thacker Pass, near the southern tip of the caldera in Nevada. It would be America’s biggest lithium mine. Ranchers and farmers in nearby Orovada, a town of about 120 people, worry that the mine will threaten their water supply and air quality. Native American tribes in the region say they were not properly consulted before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency that manages America’s vast public lands, decided to permit the project. Tribes also allege that a massacre of their ancestors took place at Thacker Pass in 1865…

The fight over Thacker Pass is not surprising. President Joe Biden wants half of all cars sold in 2030 to be electric, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These ambitious climate targets mean that battles over where and how to mine are coming to mineral-rich communities around the country. America is in need of cobalt, copper and lithium, among other things, which are used in batteries and other clean-energy technologies. As with past commodity booms, large deposits of many of these materials are found in America’s western states . America, of course, is not the only country racing to secure access to such materials. As countries pledge to go carbon-free, global demand for critical minerals is set to soar. The International Energy Agency, a forecaster, estimates that by 2040 demand for lithium could increase by more than 40 times relative to 2020. Demand for cobalt and nickel could grow by about 20 times in the same period.

Beyond its green goals, America is also intent on diversifying mineral supplies away from China and Russia (big producer of nickel), which—by virtue of its natural bounty and muscular industrial policy—has become a raw-materials juggernaut… The green transition has also turned the pursuit of critical minerals into a great-power competition not unlike the search for gold or oil in eras past. Mining for lithium, the Department of Energy (DOE) says, is not only a means of fighting climate change but also a matter of national security.

Westerners have seen all this before, and are wary of new mines…The economic history of the American West is a story of boom and bust. When a commodity bubble burst, boomtowns were abandoned. The legacy of those busts still plagues the region. In 2020 the Government Accountability Office estimated that there could be at least 530,000 abandoned hardrock-mine features, such as tunnels or waste piles, on federal lands. At least 89,000 of those could pose a safety or environmental hazard. Most of America’s abandoned hardrock mines are in 13 states west of the Mississippi River…

Is it possible to secure critical minerals while avoiding the mistakes of previous booms? America’s debates over how to use its public lands, and to whom those lands belong, are notoriously unruly. Conservationists, energy companies, ranchers and tribal nations all feel some sense of ownership. Total harmony is unlikely. But there are ways to lessen the animosity.

Start with environmental concerns. Mining is a dirty business, but development and conservation can coexist. In 2020 Stanford University helped broker a national agreement between the hydropower industry and conservation groups to increase safety and efficiency at existing dams while removing dams that are harming the environment….Many worry that permitting new development on land sacred to tribes will be yet another example of America’s exploitation of indigenous peoples in pursuit of land and natural resources. msci, a consultancy, reckons that 97% of America’s nickel reserves, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt are found within 35 miles of Native American reservations.

TThe BLM is supposed to consult tribes about policies that may affect the tribes but the  consultation process is broken. Often it consists of sending tribes a letter notifying them of a mining or drilling proposal.

Lithium Americas has offered to build the town a new school, one that will be farther away from a road that the firm will use to transport sulphur. Sitting in her truck outside a petrol station that doubles as Orovada’s local watering hole, Ms Amato recalled one group member’s response to the offer: “If all I’m going to get is a kick in the ass, because we’re getting the mine regardless, then I may as well get a kick in the ass and a brand new school.”

Excerpt from America’s Next Mining Boom: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Noise-Barriers and Noise-Victims: the Plants

Sounds are concussive pressure waves transmitted through gases, liquids and solids. Scientists have previously hypothesized that plants may be able to sense these waves as they are struck by them. A number of experiments have confirmed this in recent years—plants bombarded with ultrasound in the lab have shown a range of adverse responses including the expression of stress-related genes, stunted growth and reduced germination of seeds.

Yet blasting plants with ultrasound is not the same as growing them in the presence of actual traffic noise. To this end, Dr Ghotbi-Ravandi decided to set up an experiment to study precisely this question….Dr Ghotbi-Ravandi’s results were published in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology. His findings make it clear that, though plants lack ears, the vibrations generated by the noise of traffic still bothers them enough to trigger potent stress responses that are not much different to those that would be found in plants exposed to drought, high salinity or heavy metals in their soil… Whether some plant species have evolved coping mechanisms, which might one day be collected and transferred into urban-dwelling species, is a mystery worth exploring.

Excerpt from Botany: Deafened, Economist, Feb. 12, 2022

Living in the Russian Digital Bubble

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has portrayed his aggression on the Ukrainian border as pushing back against Western advances. For some time he has been doing much the same online. He has long referred to the internet as a “CIA project”. His deep belief that the enemy within and the enemy without are in effect one and the same… Faced with such “aggression”, Mr Putin wants a Russian internet that is secure against external threat and internal opposition. He is trying to bring that about on a variety of fronts: through companies, the courts and technology itself.

In December 2021, VK, one of Russia’s online conglomerates, was taken over by two subsidiaries of Gazprom, the state-owned gas giant. In the same month a court in Moscow fined Alphabet, which owns Google, a record $98m for its repeated failure to delete content the state deems illegal. And Mr Putin’s regime began using hardware it has required internet service providers (ISPS) to install to block Tor, a tool widely used in Russia to mask online activity. All three actions were part of the country’s effort to assure itself of online independence by building what some scholars of geopolitics, borrowing from Silicon Valley, have begun calling a “stack”.

In technology, the stack is the sum of all the technologies and services on which a particular application relies, from silicon to operating system to network. In politics it means much the same, at the level of the state. The national stack is a sovereign digital space made up not only of software and hardware (increasingly in the form of computing clouds) but also infrastructure for payments, establishing online identities and controlling the flow of information

China built its sovereign digital space with censorship in mind. The Great Firewall, a deep-rooted collection of sophisticated digital checkpoints, allows traffic to be filtered with comparative ease. The size of the Chinese market means that indigenous companies, which are open to various forms of control, can successfully fulfil all of their users’ needs. And the state has the resources for a lot of both censorship and surveillance. Mr Putin and other autocrats covet such power. But they cannot get it. It is not just that they lack China’s combination of rigid state control, economic size, technological savoir-faire and stability of regime. They also failed to start 25 years ago. So they need ways to achieve what goals they can piecemeal, by retrofitting new controls, incentives and structures to an internet that has matured unsupervised and open to its Western begetters.

Russia’s efforts, which began as purely reactive attempts to lessen perceived harm, are becoming more systematic. Three stand out: (1) creating domestic technology, (2) controlling the information that flows across it and, perhaps most important, (3) building the foundational services that underpin the entire edifice.

Russian Technology

The government has made moves to restart a chipmaking plant in Zelenograd near Moscow, the site of a failed Soviet attempt to create a Silicon Valley. But it will not operate at the cutting edge. So although an increasing number of chips are being designed in Russia, they are almost all made by Samsung and TSMC, a South Korean and a Taiwanese contract manufacturer. This could make the designs vulnerable to sanctions….

For crucial applications such as mobile-phone networks Russia remains highly reliant on Western suppliers, such as Cisco, Ericsson and Nokia. Because this is seen as leaving Russia open to attacks from abroad, the industry ministry, supported by Rostec, a state-owned arms-and-technology giant, is pushing for next-generation 5g networks to be built with Russian-made equipment only. The country’s telecoms industry does not seem up to the task. And there are internecine impediments. Russia’s security elites, the siloviki, do not want to give up the wavelength bands best suited for 5g. But the only firm that could deliver cheap gear that works on alternative frequencies is Huawei, an allegedly state-linked Chinese electronics group which the siloviki distrust just as much as security hawks in the West do.

It is at the hardware level that Russia’s stack is most vulnerable. Sanctions imposed may treat the country, as a whole,  like Huawei is now treated by America’s government. Any chipmaker around the world that uses technology developed in America to design or make chips for Huawei needs an export license from the Commerce Department in Washington—which is usually not forthcoming. If the same rules are applied to Russian firms, anyone selling to them without a license could themselves risk becoming the target of sanctions. That would see the flow of chips into Russia slow to a trickle.

When it comes to software the Russian state is using its procurement power to amp up demand. Government institutions, from schools to ministries, have been encouraged to dump their American software, including Microsoft’s Office package and Oracle’s databases. It is also encouraging the creation of alternatives to foreign services for consumers, including TikTok, Wikipedia and YouTube. Here the push for indigenization has a sturdier base on which to build. Yandex, a Russian firm which splits the country’s search market with Alphabet’s Google, and VK, a social-media giant, together earned $1.8bn from advertising last year, more than half of the overall market. VK’s vKontakte and Odnoklassniki trade places with American apps (Facebook, Instagram) and Chinese ones (Likee, TikTok) on the top-ten downloads list.

This diverse system is obviously less vulnerable to sanctions—which are nothing like as appealing a source of leverage here as they are elsewhere in the stack. Making Alphabet and Meta stop offering YouTube and WhatsApp, respectively, in Russia would make it much harder for America to launch its own sorties into Russian cyberspace. So would disabling Russia’s internet at the deeper level of protocols and connectivity. All this may push Russians to use domestic offerings more, which would suit Mr Putin well.

As in China, Russia is seeing the rise of “super-apps”, bundles of digital services where being local makes sense. Yandex is not just a search engine. It offers ride-hailing, food delivery, music-streaming, a digital assistant, cloud computing and, someday, self-driving cars. Sber, Russia’s biggest lender, is eyeing a similar “ecosystem” of services, trying to turn the bank into a tech conglomerate. In the first half of 2021 alone it invested $1bn in the effort, on the order of what biggish European banks spend on information technology (IT). Structural changes in the IT industry are making some of this Russification easier. Take the cloud. Its data centres use cheap servers made of off-the-shelf parts and other easily procured commodity kit. Much of its software is open-source. Six of the ten biggest cloud-service providers in Russia are now Russian…The most successful ones are “moving away from proprietary technology” sold by Western firms (with the exception of chips)…

Information Flow

If technology is the first part of Russia’s stack, the “sovereign internet” is the second. It is code for how a state controls the flow of information online. In 2019 the government amended several laws to gain more control of the domestic data flow. In particular, these require ISPS to install “technical equipment for counteracting threats to stability, security and functional integrity”. This allows Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, to have “middle boxes” slipped into the gap between the public internet and an ISPS’ customers. Using “deep packet inspection” (DPI), a technology used at some Western ISPS to clamp down on pornography, these devices are able to throttle or block traffic from specific sources (and have been deployed in the campaign against Tor). DPI kit sits in rooms with restricted access within the ISPS’ facilities and is controlled directly from a command center at Roskomnadzor. This is a cheap but imperfect version of China’s Great Firewall.

Complementing the firewall are rules that make life tougher for firms. In the past five years Google has fielded 20,000-30,000 content-removal requests annually from the government in Russia, more than in any other country. From this year 13 leading firms—including Apple, TikTok and Twitter—must employ at least some content moderators inside Russia. This gives the authorities bodies to bully should firms prove recalcitrant. The ultimate goal may be to push foreign social media out of Russia altogether, creating a web of local content… But this Chinese level of control would be technically tricky. And it would make life more difficult for Russian influence operations, such as those of the Internet Research Agency, to use Western sites to spread propaganda, both domestically and abroad.

Infrastructure

Russia’s homegrown stack would still be incomplete without a third tier: the services that form the operating system of a digital state and thus provide its power. In its provision of both e-government and payment systems, Russia puts some Western countries to shame. Gosuslugi (“state services”) is one of the most-visited websites and most-downloaded apps in Russia. It hosts a shockingly comprehensive list of offerings, from passport application to weapons registration. Even critics of the Kremlin are impressed, not least because Russia’s offline bureaucracy is hopelessly inefficient and corrupt. The desire for control also motivated Russia’s leap in payment systems. In the wake of its annexation of Crimea, sanctions required MasterCard and Visa, which used to process most payments in Russia, to ban several banks close to the regime. In response, Mr Putin decreed the creation of a “National Payment Card System”, which was subsequently made mandatory for many transactions. Today it is considered one of the world’s most advanced such schemes. Russian banks use it to exchange funds. The “Mir” card which piggybacks on it has a market share of more than 25%, says GlobalData, an analytics firm.

Other moves are less visible. A national version of the internet’s domain name system, currently under construction, allows Russia’s network to function if cut off from the rest of the world (and gives the authorities a new way to render some sites inaccessible). Some are still at early stages. A biometric identity system, much like India’s Aadhaar, aims to make it easier for the state to keep track of citizens and collect data about them while offering new services. (Muscovites can now pay to take the city’s metro just by showing their face.) A national data platform would collect all sorts of information, from tax to health records—and could boost Russia’s efforts to catch up in artificial intelligence (AI).

Excerpt from Digital geopolitics: Russia is trying to build its own great firewall, Economist, Feb. 19, 2022

Ending the Plastic Paradise?

Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) on March 2, 2022: “End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument.” The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. 

The resolution…establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which will begin its work in 2022, with the ambition of completing a draft global legally binding agreement by the end of 2024…The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will convene a forum by the end of 2022 that is open to all stakeholders in conjunction with the first session of the INC, to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world.

Plastic production soared from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017, becoming a global industry valued at US$522.6 billion, and it is expected to double in capacity by 2040. 

Exposure to plastics can harm human health, potentially affecting fertility, hormonal, metabolic and neurological activity, and open burning of plastics contributes to air pollution. By 2050 greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production, use and disposal would account for 15 per cent of allowed emissions, under the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (34.7°F). More than 800 marine and coastal species are affected by this pollution through ingestion, entanglement, and other dangers.

Some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste flow annually into oceans. This may triple by 2040. A shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics entering oceans by over 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs – mainly in the global south.

Excerpts from ,Historic day in the campaign to beat plastic pollution: Nations commit to develop a legally binding agreement, UNEP Press Release, Mar.  2, 202

Robots to the Rescue: Best Dams on Amazon River

Proposed hydropower dams at more than 350 sites throughout the Amazon require strategic evaluation of trade-offs between the production electricity and the protection of biodiversity. 

Researchers are using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify sites that simultaneously minimize impacts on river flow, river connectivity, sediment transport, fish diversity, and greenhouse gas emissions while achieving energy production goals. The researchers found that uncoordinated, dam-by-dam hydropower expansion has resulted in forgone environmental benefits from the river. Minimizing further damage from hydropower development requires considering diverse environmental impacts across the entire basin, as well as cooperation among Amazonian nations. 

Alexander Flecker et al., Reducing adverse impacts of Amazon hydropower expansion, Science, Feb. 17, 2022

How to Make Carbon-Negative Chemicals

Bacteria engineered to turn carbon dioxide into compounds used in paint remover and hand sanitiser could offer a carbon-negative way of manufacturing industrial chemicals.

Michael Köpke at LanzaTech in Illinois and his colleagues searched through strains of an ethanol-producing bacterium, Clostridium autoethanogenum, to identify enzymes that would allow the microbes to instead create acetone, which is used to make paint and nail polish remover. Then they combined the genes for these enzymes into one organism. They repeated the process for isopropanol, which is used as a disinfectant.

The engineered bacteria ferment carbon dioxide from the air to produce the chemicals. “You can imagine the process similar to brewing beer,” says Köpke. “But instead of using a yeast strain that eats sugar to make alcohol, we have a microbe that can eat carbon dioxide.” After scaling up the initial experiments by a factor of 60, the team found that the process locks in roughly 1.78 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of acetone produced, and 1.17 kg per kg of isopropanol. These chemicals are normally made using fossil fuels, emitting 2.55 kg and 1.85 kg of carbon dioxide per kg of acetone and isopropanol respectively.

This equates to up to a 160 per cent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, if this method were to be broadly adopted, say the researchers. The technique could also be made more sustainable by using waste gas from other industrial processes, such as steel manufacturing.

Excerpt from Chen Ly, Engineered bacteria produce chemicals with negative carbon emissions, New Scientist, Feb. 21, 2022

Who Will Save the Red Sea from the Safer Oil Spill?

An oil tanker, the Safer,  tuffed with a load of more than 1 million barrels of crude oil has been left abandoned and rusting off the coast of Hodeidah, Yemen since 2015. Its decaying hulk encompasses the complexity of the civil war in Yemen. The Safer was permanently anchored off Hodeidah in 1987 and used for some four decades as a floating storage unit by Yemen’s state-run oil company to get oil from other tankers onto the mainland. However, the tanker fell into the hands of Houthi insurgents in March 2015 and has since then been – for all intents and purposes – left to rot. As a result, the structural integrity of the ship, which was built in 1976, is now at serious risk. Its firefighting system is out of order, and it has sprung several leaks over the past couple of years.

Experts estimate that the risks of an explosion on the tanker are huge and that the impact of this would be massive, as a full-blown leak in the closed basin of the Red Sea would be four times bigger than the historic Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. Under the worst-case scenario, all of Yemen’s Red Sea ports would have to shut down, depriving millions of people of food and life-saving humanitarian aid. A spill would also affect the country’s water supply by shutting down its desalination plants…

The question is who will undertake the cost of around $75-100 million needed to defuse the Safer time bomb…On February 16, 2022 the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, informed the Security Council of an agreement, in principle, for a UN-coordinated proposal to shift the oil to another ship. Now all eyes are turned to the conference of donors that the UN is holding at the end of March 2022, where various states are expected to offer money to bankroll the operation.

Excerpt from Nikolas Katsimpras, An impending Red Sea disaster and Greece, Ekathimerini, Feb. 23, 2022

See also Greenpeace report

The EU and US Bait and Switch Operation in Ukraine

What Is Bait and Switch?
Bait and switch is a morally suspect sales tactic that lures customers [Ukraine] in with specific claims about the quality or low prices on items [joining NATO and the EU] that turn out to be unavailable in order to upsell them on a similar, pricier item [Russian invasion]. It is considered a form of retail sales fraud, though it takes place in other contexts…From the Investopedia

Q-Day: the Behind-The-Scenes Internet

In cybersecurity circles, they call it Q-day: the day when quantum computers will break the Internet. Almost everything we do online is made possible by the quiet, relentless hum of cryptographic algorithms. These are the systems that scramble data to protect our privacy, establish our identity and secure our payments. And they work well: even with the best supercomputers available today, breaking the codes that the online world currently runs on would be an almost hopeless task.

But machines that will exploit the quirks of quantum physics threaten that entire deal. If they reach their full scale, quantum computers would crack current encryption algorithms exponentially faster than even the best non-quantum machines can. “A real quantum computer would be extremely dangerous,” says Eric Rescorla, chief technology officer of the Firefox browser team at Mozilla in San Francisco, California.

As in a cheesy time-travel trope, the machines that don’t yet exist endanger not only our future communications, but also our current and past ones. Data thieves who eavesdrop on Internet traffic could already be accumulating encrypted data, which they could unlock once quantum computers become available, potentially viewing everything from our medical histories to our old banking records. “Let’s say that a quantum computer is deployed in 2024,” says Rescorla. “Everything you’ve done on the Internet before 2024 will be open for discussion.”

But the risk is real enough that the Internet is being readied for a makeover, to limit the damage if Q-day happens. That means switching to stronger cryptographic systems, or cryptosystems. Fortunately, decades of research in theoretical computer science has turned up plenty of candidates. These post-quantum algorithms seem impervious to attack: even using mathematical approaches that take quantum computing into account, programmers have not yet found ways to defeat them in a reasonable time.

Which of these algorithms will become standard could depend in large part on a decision soon to be announced by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In 2015, the US National Security Agency (NSA) announced that it considered current cryptosystems vulnerable, and advised US businesses and the government to replace them. The following year, NIST invited computer scientists globally to submit candidate post-quantum algorithms to a process in which the agency would test their quality, with the help of the entire crypto community. It has since winnowed down its list from 65 to 15. In the next couple of months, it will select a few winners, and then publish official versions of those algorithms. Similar organizations in other countries, from France to China, will make their own announcements…

Although NIST is a US government agency, the broader crypto community has been pitching in. “It is a worldwide effort,” says Philip Lafrance, a mathematician at computer-security firm ISARA Corporation in Waterloo, Canada. This means that, at the end of the process, the surviving algorithms will have gained wide acceptance. “The world is going to basically accept the NIST standards,” he says. He is part of a working group that is monitoring the NIST selection on behalf of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, an umbrella organization for groups worldwide. “We do expect to see a lot of international adoption of the standard that we’ll create,” says Moody…

China is said to be planning its own selection process, to be managed by the Office of State Commercial Cryptography Administration... “The consensus among researchers in China seems to be that this competition will be an open international competition, so that the Chinese [post-quantum cryptography] standards will be of the highest international standards,” says Jintai Ding, a mathematician at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Meanwhile, an organization called the Chinese Association for Cryptologic Research has already run its own competition for post-quantum algorithms. Its results were announced in 2020, leading some researchers in other countries to mistakenly conclude that the Chinese government had already made an official choice…

Fully transitioning all technology to be quantum resistant will take a minimum of five years and whenever Q-day happens, there are likely to be gadgets hidden somewhere that will still be vulnerable, he says. “Even if we were to do the best we possibly can, a real quantum computer will be incredibly disruptive.”

Excerpts from Davide Castelvecchi, The race to save the Internet from quantum hackers, Nature, Feb. 8, 20202

Sustainability or Lethality: Space

The United States SPACEWERX is the innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force and a part of AFWERX (the Air Force technology accelerator) whose purpose is to increase lethality at a lower cost.

The SPACEWERX has launched Orbital Prime whose purpose is to invigorate the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) market using Active Debris Remediation (ADR) as a use case for the foundational technologies. As the congestion of the space domain and  space debris threaten the long-term sustainability of the space domain, Orbital Prime will transition agile, affordable, and accelerated OSAM space capabilities to build the foundation for space logistics while preserving the global commons.

Excerpt from Space Prime

Relentless Efficiency: the View of Pigs

Gestation crates for pigs are typically about two feet wide and prevent sows from turning around, maximizing use of available space. Some producers say it also prevents the pigs from harming one another. Breeding pigs can produce seven or more piglets per litter, totaling well over 60 piglets in consecutive pregnancies over a few years. Widespread use of gestation crates began in the 1970s as pork producers gave priority to efficiency. A 1978 article in the industry publication National Hog Farmer suggested producers consider the sow “a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.”

“Under that mind-set, the industry went, no pun intended, hog wild into moving pigs into gestation crates,” says Matthew Prescott, senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society, who has been focused on eliminating the crates since 2002.

Excerpt from Cara Lombardo, Relentless Wall Street Billionaire Has a Secret Cause, WSJ, Feb. 8, 2021

Treating People Like Roaches-no longer legal

Since its adoption in 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention has banned the development, possession, and use of weaponized toxic chemicals.  However, whether this prohibition also applied to law enforcement use of certain agents that act on the central nervous system (CNS) remained the subject of debate. In December 2021,  Chemical Weapons Convention adopted a landmark Decision to effectively outlaw the aerosolized use of CNS-acting chemical agents for law enforcement purposes.  

Although 85 countries supported the Decision, including Australia, Switzerland, and the United States, the vote was opposed by 10 countries, which may not feel constrained by its prohibitions. Notable among the opponents was Russia, whose security forces used aerosolized fentanyl derivatives to end the 2002 Moscow theater siege, causing the deaths of more than 120 hostages from poisoning and asphyxiation. Subsequent dual-use research into CNS-acting chemicals has been reported by Russian scientists as well as scientists from China and Iran, who also opposed this Decision.

Furthermore, the Decision is limited in scope. It explicitly prohibits only aerosolized CNS weapons, excluding other delivery mechanisms such as law enforcement dart guns…
 
Excerpt from MICHAEL CROWLEY AND MALCOLM DANDO, Central nervous system weapons dealt a blow, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Alas! Computers that Really Get You

 Artificial intelligence (AI) software can already identify people by their voices or handwriting. Now, an AI has shown it can tag people based on their chess-playing behavior, an advance in the field of “stylometrics” that could help computers be better chess teachers or more humanlike in their game play. Alarmingly, the system could also be used to help identify and track people who think their online behavior is anonymous

The researchers are aware of the privacy risks posed by the system, which could be used to unmask anonymous chess players online…In theory, given the right data sets, such systems could identify people based on the quirks of their driving or the timing and location of their cellphone use.

Excerpt from  Matthew Hutson, AI unmasks anonymous chess players, posing privacy risks, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

The Most Fantastic Thing in the World: Icefish

The most extensive and densely populated breeding colony of fish anywhere lurks deep underneath the ice of the Weddell Sea.. The 240 square kilometers of regularly spaced icefish nests, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, has astonished marine ecologists. “We had no idea that it would be just on this scale, and I think that’s the most fantastic thing,” says Mark Belchier, a fish biologist…

In February 2021, the RV Polarstern—a large German research ship–came upon thousands of 75-centimeter-wide nests, each occupied by a single adult icefish—and up to 2100 eggs…High-resolution video and cameras captured more than 12,000 adult icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah)….The  team on the RV Polarstern saw 16,160 closely packed fish nests, 76% of which were guarded by solitary males. Assuming a similar density of nests in the areas between the ship’s transects, the researchers estimate that about 60 million nests cover roughly 240 square kilometers.

The vast colony, the researchers say, is a new reason to create a marine protected area in the Weddell Sea…The Weddell Sea—a unique and largely undisturbed ecosystem—is already protected from a destructive fishing practice called bottom trawling…

Excerpt from Huge Icefish Colony Found, Science, Jan. 14, 2022

Nuclear Power Invades Space

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is testing a technology known as “nuclear thermal propulsion”… DARPA spacecraft will carry a small nuclear reactor. Inside, uranium atoms will be split to generate tremendous heat…to produce thrust. Such a spacecraft could climb to a geostationary orbit above the Earth, nearly 36,000km up, in mere hours. Satellites that burn normal rocket fuel need several days for the same trip. Nuclear-powered satellites with abundant power would also be hard to destroy—their trajectories could be changed often enough to become unpredictable. DARPA  wants to test its spacecraft, dubbed DRACO  (Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations), in orbit in 2025.

Other proposals are for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs). These kinds of “nuclear batteries” have long been used to power probes sent into deep space, where solar power is especially feeble. Instead of building a nuclear reactor, an RTG uses devices called thermocouples to produce a modest wattage from heat released by the decay of radioactive isotopes. Plutonium-238, which is a by-product of weapons development, has been used by NASA to power both the Voyager probes, launched in the 1970s and still functioning, as well as the Curiosity rover currently trundling around Mars. Plutonium-238, however, is heavily regulated and in short suppl..Cobalt-60, with a half-life of 5.3 years, is a promising alternative and available commercially.

DARPA Draco Image https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3ubR9F55nk

How safe is it, however, to send nuclear devices, especially reactors, into space?…A danger is accidental atmospheric re-entry. The Soviet Union flew at least 33 spy satellites with nuclear reactors for onboard power (but not propulsion). In one accident, the reactor in a satellite named Kosmos 954 failed to ascend into a high-enough “disposal orbit” at the end of its mission. In 1978 it ended up spraying radioactive debris over a swathe of Canada’s Northwest Territories…The fuel for the Soviet Kosmos 954…was 90% uranium-235, similar to the material used in the atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima in 1945…

America is not alone in its nuclear quest. China and Russia are also developing nuclear power for space. China’s wish list includes a fleet of nuclear-powered space shuttles. Russia is designing an electric-propulsion cargo spacecraft called Zeus, which will be powered by a nuclear reactor. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, hopes to launch it in 2030. The prospect of more capable satellites will, no doubt, raise suspicions among spacefaring nations. Nuclear spacecraft with abundant electrical energy could be used to jam satellite communications…..

And not all of the interest in nuclear power comes from the armed forces. NASA…wants a nuclear plant to power a base on the Moon

Excerpt from Faster, higher, stronger: Why space is about to enter its nuclear age, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

The Super Polluters: methane

Methane is a colorless, odorless greenhouse gas that makes up the bulk of the natural gas burned to heat homes, cook food and generate electricity. It is also the second largest driver of global warming after carbon dioxide, responsible for at least one-quarter of the rise in global average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. Once emitted, methane molecules degrade in around a decade so they do not pile up in the atmosphere in the same way as carbon dioxide, which can persist for hundreds of years.

Slashing methane emissions, therefore, could help reduce the overall atmospheric volume of greenhouse gases and slow the pace of global warming in the near term. Patching up leaky oil-and-gas infrastructure, responsible for 22% of all man-made methane emissions, would help meet those goals. This has led to efforts to quantify methane leaks…

Two-thirds of the ultra-emitting events of methane were co-located with oil and gas production sites and pipelines; the rest came from coal production, agricultural or waste-management facilities. Accounting for 1.3m tonnes of methane per year, Turkmenistan is a ultra emitter of methane…followed by Russia, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan and Algeria…

At the United Nations COP26 climate negotiations, held in November 2021 in Glasgow, leaders of more than 100 countries made a pact to reduce global emissions of methane by 30% by 2030. The cheapest, most cost-effective way of doing this will be to patch up oil-and-gas infrastructure, starting with the ultra-emitters…

Excerpts from Climate Change: Methane Mission, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

Rapes and Razor Blades: Raping Children to Death in War Zones

Sexual abuse of young children happens all around the world. But children living in war-torn countries are at much higher risk. Those in countries recovering from conflict, such as Liberia, may also face greater dangers. The UN has recorded 15,000 cases of rape and sexual violence against children in conflict zones over the past 15 years. This, it warns, is probably a fraction of the true number. Around 72m children live in war zones in which fighters sexually attack children, according to research by Ragnhild Nordås of the University of Michigan and co-authors. That is almost ten times the number in 1990. In 2021, Liberia recorded 1,275 sexual assaults or rapes of people of all ages, according to official figures. Fully 10% of the victims were younger than six and 36% were younger than 13.

At a sexual-violence clinic in Monrovia, the capital, a nurse recounts how an eight-month-old baby was raped by her step father. A soft toy to comfort children perches on the examination table next to a large doll which young victims, often unable to speak, can point at to show what happened to them… In 2020,  another three-year-old was lured away from a water pump by a 15-year-old who used a razor blade to cut open her genital area to penetrate her. That attack caused large protests in Monrovia, which prompted President George Weah to declare rape a “national emergency”.

Why so many men rape young children in war and its aftermath is not well understood. Some experts think that war warps not just morality but also common sense. Between 2013 and 2016 in Kavumu, a village in eastern Congo, at least 11 men kidnapped and raped about 40 girls under the age of ten. Some were as young as 18 months. After each rape the men would take some blood from the victim’s hymen, believing this would protect them from bullets in battle. In 2017 a court convicted the 11 men of murder and rape.

Many of their victims were treated at Panzi Hospital, which was founded by Denis Mukwege, who was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2018 for his efforts to end sexual violence in war. The number of babies and infants treated for rape at the hospital dipped in the year after the trial, says Sylvain Mwambali, a doctor who works there. But it soon shot up again, to a higher level than in the three years before the convictions. In the past three years the hospital has treated 103 raped children aged five or younger, or about one every ten days. In 2020 Dr Mwambali treated a baby just a few months old whose vagina and intestines were mutilated by rape. “I could not sleep for weeks,” she says. “How can someone carry on, creating a wound like that? She would have been suffering, crying, they destroyed her vulva, up until the anus, yet they continued.”

Sometimes rebels may rape children to terrorise and control the population. Other men may copy them, perhaps because it makes them feel powerful. A breakdown in law and order may allow rapists to escape any punishment. “There is a social deterioration,” says Dr Mwambali. “People can rape your mother in front of you…there are rapes in churches.” In Liberia, warped beliefs of a different kind are a common explanation for why men rape young children. Some traditional healers tell people, “If you have intercourse with a young girl, you will become rich,” says Margaret Taylor of Women Empowerment Network, an NGO. “The younger the person is, the more riches they get.”

Excerpt from: The Sexual Abuse of Children: Child rape is far too common in some war-torn African countries, Economist, Feb. 5, 2022

The Heavy Toll of Nuclear Waste Inheritance

After decades of prevarication, Sweden decided on a final storage plan for its nuclear waste, becoming only the second country in the world after Finland to take such a step. Permission was granted in January 2022 to build a facility to package and store spent nuclear fuel at a coastal site near the Forsmark nuclear power plant, about an hour’s drive north of the capital. 

The decision is significant because it confirms Sweden’s position as a global leader in the storage of nuclear waste. Finland is the only other country to decide on such a plan and is building a storage facility at Olkiluoto, across the Gulf of Bothnia from Forsmark. Like the Forsmark project, the Finnish plan was based on a process developed by Swedish researchers. 

The method — referred to as KBS3 — will see the spent nuclear fuel stored in copper containers surrounded by bentonite clay and placed in 500 tunnels that will be 500 meters under the ground. The aim is to keep the radioactive waste isolated for at least 100,000 years….But there has been criticism of the KBS3 method over recent years, including by researchers who have suggested that copper may not be as resistant to corrosion as the method assumes, meaning the risk of leaks could be higher than expected. 

The approval of the Forsmark site is a big step forward in a long-running saga.  Since the 1970s, Swedish authorities — like their counterparts in nuclear-power-dependent states the world over — have been seeking a solution for the final storage of nuclear waste, scouring the country for suitable sites while also tasking researchers to develop safe methods.  But it took until 2011 for an application to be made by the company SKB — a nuclear waste manager owned by Swedish nuclear power producers — for planning permission at Forsmark. Since then, lengthy consultations have been held with interested parties, from scientists to residents in Östhammar municipality where Forsmark is located. The process became more politically divisive as the Green Party, which quit the government in November 2021, said the process was being rushed and more time was needed for research. 

According to the Environmental Minister Strandhäll:  “Today we have the knowledge and technology which means we don’t need to pass this responsibility onto our children and grandchildren,” she said. “This is a responsibility the government needs to take now.” 

Excerpts from  CHARLIE DUXBUR, Sweden approves nuclear waste storage site, http://www.politico.eu, Jan. 27, 2021

The Nuclear Middle East Kingdom

Russia’s state nuclear energy producer Rosatom is in talks with “several” countries in the Middle East and North Africa to explore development of nuclear power… Saudi Arabia is one of the countries that Rosatom is ready to work with when the kingdom puts out tenders, including to provide the fuel or build the plants…Rosatom was selected to help provide the enriched uranium for the UAE‘s first nuclear power plant, and is building the first nuclear power plants in both Turkey and Egypt.

Egypt’s El-Dabaa project is expected to start production in 2028…The Akkuyu project in Turkey will supply 35 TWh of electricity annually for 60 years, or 10% of Turkey’s consumption. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the plant’s first unit would come online in May 2023.

Excerpt from Claudia Carpenter, Rosatom in talks with ‘several’ Middle East countries about starting nuclear power plants, S&P Global, Jan. 19, 2022

The Secret Nuclear Weapons Capabilities of States

South Korea, like the United States, has long relied on nuclear power as a major source of electric power. As a result, it has amassed large stores of spent nuclear fuel and, as in the United States, has experienced political pushback from populations around proposed central sites for the spent fuel.

South Korea also has a history of interest in nuclear weapons to deter North Korean attack. South Korea’s interest in spent fuel disposal and in a nuclear-weapon option account for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute’s dogged interest in the separation of plutonium from its spent fuel. Plutonium separated from spent fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Two US Energy Department nuclear laboratories, Argonne National Laboratory  and the Idaho National Laboratory have encouraged South Korea’s interest in plutonium separation because of their own interests in the process. Now, a secret, leaked, joint South Korean-US report shows deliberate blindness to the economic and proliferation concerns associated with plutonium separation and lays the basis for policies that would put South Korea on the threshold of being a nuclear-weapon state. 

Japan is the only non-nuclear-armed state that separates plutonium. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute has domestic political support, however, for its demand that South Korea have the same right to separate plutonium as Japan. 

In 2001 Argonne and Idaho National Laboratories (INL) persuaded an energy-policy task force led by then-Vice President Dick Cheney that pyroprocessing is “proliferation resistant” because the extracted plutonium is impure and unsuitable for nuclear weapons. On that basis, Argonne and INL were allowed to launch a collaboration on pyroprocessing research and development with Korea. The Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute was enthusiastic. It had been blocked from pursuing reprocessing R&D since it had been discovered in 1974 that the institute was part of a nuclear-weapon program.

At the end of the Bush administration, however, nonproliferation experts from six US national laboratories, including Argonne and INL, concluded that pyroprocessing is not significantly more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because it would be relatively easy to remove the weakly radioactive impurities from the plutonium separated by pyroprocessing. The finding that pyroprocessing is not proliferation resistant precipitated a struggle between the Obama administration and South Korea’s government during their negotiations for a new US-Republic of Korea Agreement of Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The new agreement was required to replace the existing agreement, which was due to expire in 2014. But the negotiations stalemated when South Korea demanded the same right to reprocess the Reagan administration had granted Japan in 1987. 

At the beginning of September 2021, INL and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute submitted a 10-year report on their joint fuel cycle study. Instead of making a policy recommendation on the future of pyroprocessing, however, the Korea-US Joint Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research Steering Committee decided to continue the joint research. A senior US official with knowledge of the situation, told that “at least three or four more years will be necessary for the two governments to be in a position to draw any actual conclusions related to the technical and economic feasibility and nonproliferation acceptability of pyroprocessing on the Korean Peninsula.”

Excerpts from  Frank N. von Hippel, Jungmin Kang, Why joint US-South Korean research on plutonium separation raises nuclear proliferation danger, January 13, 2022

Are We Transgressing the Planetary Boundaries?

There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. These include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals….The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems..

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization. These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability, and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries have been breached. But the boundary for chemicals was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified.

This new research takes this a step further. The researchers say there are many ways that chemicals and plastics have negative effects on planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and waste management.

Some of these pollutants can be found globally, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent…Global production and consumption of novel entities is set to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice the mass of all living mammals, and roughly 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Plastics contain over 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental hazards. Production of plastics is set to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will rise too, despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

Excerpt from Safe planetary boundary for pollutants, including plastics, exceeded, say researchers, Stockholm Resilience Center Press Release, Jan. 18, 2022

For an alternative view on planetary boundaries see NY Times Article, 2015

Who Owns the Real Information System

In January 2022, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned that Russia submarine activity is threatening underwater cables that are crucial to communication systems around the world. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said undersea cables that transmit internet data are ‘the world’s real information system,’ and added that any attempt to damage then could be considered an act of war.

The internet seems like a post- physical environment where things like viral posts, virtual goods and metaverse concerts just sort of happen. But creating that illusion requires a truly gargantuan—and quickly-growing—web of physical connections. Fiber-optic cable, which carries 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, links up pretty much all of the world’s data centers…

Where those fiber-optic connections link up countries across the oceans, they consist almost entirely of cables running underwater—some 1.3 million kilometers (or more than 800,000 miles) of bundled glass threads that make up the actual, physical international internet. And until recently, the overwhelming majority of the undersea fiber-optic cable being installed was controlled and used by telecommunications companies and governments. Today, that’s no longer the case.

In less than a decade, four tech giants— Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon —have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.  In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S. Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors….Undersea cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. Installing and maintaining them requires a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to specialized cable-laying ships that deploy all manner of rugged undersea technology to bury cables beneath the seabed. At times they must lay the relatively fragile cable—at some points as thin as a garden hose—at depths of up to 4 miles.

All of this must be done while maintaining the right amount of tension in the cables, and avoiding hazards as varied as undersea mountains, oil-and-gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines for offshore wind farms, and even shipwrecks and unexploded bombs…In the past, trans-oceanic cable-laying often required the resources of governments and their national telecom companies. That’s all but pocket change to today’s tech titans. Combined, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon poured more than $90 billion into capital expenditures in 2020 alone…

Most of these Big Tech-funded cables are collaborations among rivals. The Marea cable, for example, which stretches approximately 4,100 miles between Virginia Beach in the U.S. and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica, the Spanish telecom.  Sharing bandwidth among competitors helps ensure that each company has capacity on more cables, redundancy that is essential for keeping the world’s internet humming when a cable is severed or damaged. That happens around 200 times a year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, a nonprofit group. 

There is an exception to big tech companies collaborating with rivals on the underwater infrastructure of the internet. Google, alone among big tech companies, is already the sole owner of three different undersea cables

Excerpts from Christopher Mims, Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft Weave a Fiber-Optic Web of Power, WSJ, Jan. 15, 2022

The Curious Case of Larry Fink, BlackRock: He Stays, They Go

Few private citizens wield more power in America today than Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock in pushing companies to embrace climate-friendly policies, that has made him a lightning rod. The firm he runs manages some $10 trillion for pension funds, endowments, governments, companies and individuals, equal to more than 10% of the world’s gross domestic product in 2020. As steward for millions of investors, BlackRock wields vast shareholder voting power, which it uses either to back managements or to prod them in new directions.

Today, Mr. Fink is telling CEOs that companies must prepare for a scale back of fossil fuels, and that the private sector should work with governments to do so. He warns of the disruption climate change could cause both the economy and financial markets, but sees historic investment opportunity in the energy shift. It’s a point he has made to conferences in Davos, Venice, Riyadh and Glasgow over the past year. Mr. Fink’s power, combined with his advocacy on a hot-button issue, has made him a flashpoint for activists, politicians and unions, both those who think BlackRock isn’t doing enough and others who say it’s doing too much…

U.S. government officials have called on Mr. Fink to help them cope with crises—the pandemic-rattled financial markets in March 2020, and, during the 2008 financial meltdown. “Treasury Secretaries and finance ministers come and go,” said David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the private-equity firm Carlyle Group Inc. “They work for someone else who can fire them tomorrow and have to build what others want them to. When you are the CEO of the biggest asset manager, you don’t have to do that.”

Excerpts from Dawn Lim Follow, Larry Fink Wants to Save the World (and Make Money Doing It), Jan. 6, 2022

After We Vacuum the Earth, We Vacuum the Moon

Chinese nuclear scientists are studying samples carried back by China’s mission to the the moon in 2019. One of those under the microscope at the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology is a 50-milligram rock—approximately the size of a lentil—believed to contain an isotope called helium-3. The isotope… is thought by scientists to have the potential to one day provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, as it isn’t radioactive. Rare on earth, helium-3 is thought to be abundant on the moon.

While researchers in the U.S. and other nations have studied the isotope, China’s renewed pursuit is part of a decadeslong plan to establish itself as a leading space power, mirroring the country’s rising economic and strategic influence on Earth. Since being shut out of working with the U.S. space agency by law a decade ago, the country has invested heavily in its own program. China is still playing catch-up technologically but is seeking to gain an edge through its moon missions…

China now building the Silk Road to space,” said James Head, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University who has lectured at universities across China in the past few years. 

The theory that the moon might have abundant reserves of helium-3 goes back several decades. In 1986, scientists at the University of Wisconsin estimated that lunar soil could contain a million tons of the isotope, also known as He3. A byproduct of the sun’s intense heat, it is carried through the solar system by solar winds…

In the future, there could be machines that vacuum up the top layer of the moon’s surface, which could then be used to address Earth’s energy needs or to power moon bases for future missions…

Excerpts from Natasha Khan, Moon Dust Fuels China’s Pursuit of Space Power, WSJ, Dec. 14, 2021

How to Microwave People

An international studies professor in Beijing has claimed China used microwave weapons against Indian soldiers during a standoff along the disputed Himalayan border. Jin Canrong, professor of international relations at Renmin University, told his students Chinese forces forced the Indian soldiers to retreat by turning “the mountain tops into a microwave oven”, according to The Times. Microwave weapons work much the same as regular microwaves. The device heats the water in the human target’s skin, causing immense pain and nausea. The weapon is meant to incapacitate enemies through severe pain but isn’t meant to cause lasting damage. Professor Jin claimed the weapon worked “beautifully” on the Indian soldiers, without violating the “no gunfire” agreement between the parties.

“In 15 minutes, those occupying the hilltops all began to vomit,”reportedly told his students during a lecture. “They couldn’t stand up, so they fled. This was how we retook the ground.” Professor Jin said the reason China didn’t publicize the event was because it was so successful, adding that India also kept the incident under wraps because “they lost so miserably”..

Similar microwave technology aimed at incapacitating but not killing targets have been developed by other militaries. The US used the same technology to develop the Active Denial System, which was designed to be used for area denial, perimeter security and crowd control…Recently, Russia was accused of using its own secret microwave weapon to attack two CIA agents in Australia. It comes after American officials in Cuba fell in with what was dubbed “Havana Syndrome”, with victims often hearing strange sounds, before becoming dizzy, suffering headaches, experiencing memory loss and hearing loss.

Excerpts from Ally Foster,  China allegedly used a secret ‘microwave weapon’ on enemy troops, news.com.au, Nov. 19, 2021

Another Wave of Colonization? Africa

Most of Africa’s data are currently stored elsewhere, zipping down undersea cables that often make landfall in the French city of Marseille….An upheaval is overdue. Africa has more internet users than America, but only as much data-center space as Switzerland.  The boom is partly driven by regulation. Two dozen African countries have passed data-protection laws, or are planning to do so. They often require certain data, such as personal information, to be kept in the country. Another boost comes from competition, says Jan Hnizdo of Teraco, a leading data center in South Africa, where liberalization of the telecoms industry created space for such firms to flourish.

Capital is pouring in. Teraco is building Africa’s largest stand-alone data center in Johannesburg, with backing from foreign funds. Actis, a private-equity firm, is putting $250m into the industry, starting with a majority stake in a Nigerian company, Rack Centre. American investors founded Raxio with an eye on less fashionable markets, from Uganda to Mozambique.

Data centers need power, and lots of it. Keeping their equipment cool consumes almost as much energy as running it, which is why centers are usually in chilly places such as Scandinavia or America’s Pacific north-west. Most of Africa is hot and has a lot of power cuts…To keep servers running, many centers use polluting and expensive diesel generators. Yet the potential gains from offering better connectivity and faster internet services in Africa outweigh the difficulties. Microsoft and Amazon are bringing their cloud services to the region, and have opened data centres of their own in South Africa. Huawei has helped build one for the government of Senegal. Google and Facebook are both involved in projects to lay new cables around Africa’s coasts

Excerpts from Seeding the cloud: Data centers are Taking root in Africa, Economist, Dec. 4, 2021

Lunatics or Climate Fixers?

The ocean has already absorbed nearly one-third of the carbon emissions from human activities, and scientists hope it can shoulder even more of the burden. Ocean Iron fertilization is among the cheapest options. Ocean fertilization is a form of geoengineering  that involves adding iron to the upper layers of the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton activity  in an attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere and, thus, abate global warming.

Photosynthetic plankton act like tropical rainforests, sucking CO2 from the atmosphere. Their populations are often limited by a scarcity of iron, which sifts into the ocean in windblown dust from deserts, in volcanic ash, and even from underwater hydrothermal vents. Extra iron would stimulate a bloom, the thinking goes, causing plankton to take up extra carbon. The carbon would sink into the depths in the form of dead plankton, or the feces or bodies of organisms that eat them. In theory, the carbon would be entombed for centuries.

Ocean scientists contended in 2021 that ocean fertilization  experiments were a priority and called for the United States to spend up to $290 million on even larger ones that would spread 100 tons of iron across 1000 square kilometers of ocean. Already, researchers next year plan to pour iron across a patch of the Arabian Sea (Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge.)

But skeptics note that a recent survey of 13 past fertilization experiments found only one that increased carbon levels deep in the ocean. That track record is one reason why making iron fertilization a research priority is “barking mad,” says Wil Burns, an ocean law expert at Northwestern University. Stephanie Henson, a marine biogeochemist at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre, also worries about surprise consequences of the approach, likening it to the catastrophic introduction of rabbits to Australia ecology. “You could just imagine something like that happening in the oceans completely by accident.”

Excerpts from Warren Cornwall, To Draw Carbon, Ocean Fertilization Gets Another Look, Science, Dec. 17, 2021

The Other Middle East Crisis: Rivers are Drying

Protests in the Iranian city of Isfahan erupted in November 2021 due to a severe shortage of water, as the region continues to suffer from a year of low rainfall and drought. Thousands of farmers and others who supported them took to the streets in Isfahan in central Iran, expressing their dissatisfaction at the water shortages and urging the government to solve the crisis. They shouted “let Isfahan breathe again, revive Zayandeh Rud,” referring to the dried river which supplies their crops with water.

The drying up of the Zayandeh Rud river has not only been caused by drought, however, but also by the government’s diversion of water from the river to supply other areas and with a pipeline supplying water to Yazd province also having been damaged. Those incidences have contributed to the farms being left dry and the famers’ livelihoods being threatened.

The water shortages and the drying of the river come at a time when the region is suffering from a similar shortage, as rainfall has been low and temperatures have increased to make it one of the hottest and driest years recorded. ..Neighboring Iraq and Syria have also been expressed concern over the shortage of water this year… In November 201, a major reservoir in Syria also dried up completely, and was similarly due to a combination of climatic and structural causes.

Excerpts from Protests over water shortages erupt in Iran, as river dries up, Middle East Monitor, Nov. 21, 2021

The Space Internet: Space Bacon-DARPA

DARPA’s  Space-Based Adaptive Communications Node (Space-BACN) would allow seamless communication between various constellations of satellites that currently cannot talk to each other.

“There could be tens of thousands of small satellites launched into Low Earth Orbit over the next decade as the demand around the world for affordable space-based capabilities grows,” said Greg Kuperman, Space-BACN program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office. “The problem with this growth is that optical communications links are currently engineered to only connect satellites within a given constellation – they can’t dynamically adapt waveforms to communicate with satellites in other constellations. This lack of standardization results in a fragmented, stove-piped ‘Wild West’ space domain with new satellite constellations that can’t interoperate, government satellites that can’t communicate between one another, and government satellites unable to take advantage of emerging commercial communications capabilities.”

Space-BACN envisions an adaptable communications terminal that could be reconfigured on-orbit to talk across different standards, presenting a leap in technology from the current state of the art. Space-BACN will involve inter alia a novel cross-constellation command and control approach to automate interactions between government and commercial satellites

Space-BACN has significant military and civilian uses.

Excerpts from Adaptable Optical Communications to Facilitate Future Low-Earth Orbit Networks

See also DARPA solicitation Nov. 2021a

Companies and institutions that are working on this are: Analog Photonics, Arizona State University; CACI; II-VI Aerospace & Defense; Intel Federal; L3 Harris and Northrop Grumman.

Genocide in the Empire of Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook failed to quickly stop the spread of hate speech and misinformation against the Rohingya people, in turn contributing to the persecution and alleged genocide of the minority community in Myanmar, according to a lawsuit filed in December 2021 in a California court that asks for more than $150 billion in compensation.
 
The class-action lawsuit against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, was brought by a Rohingya woman in Illinois on behalf of the 10,000-plus Rohingya refugees who have resettled in the United States since 2012. It alleges that Facebook’s algorithm amplified hate speech and that the company neglected to remove inflammatory content despite repeated warnings that such posts could foment ethnic violence.
A similar complaint against the tech giant is expected to be filed in a British court.

Myanmar’s military launched a “scorched-earth campaign” in 2017 to push Rohingya residents, who are mostly Muslim, out of Rakhine state. Some 750,000 Muslim men, women and children were driven out in a campaign of rape, murder and razed villages that a top United Nations official called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” That year, Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya people had been killed as a result of the attacks. Around the same time, influential figures such as nationalist monks and top government officials posted or recirculated slurs against the Rohingya, while spreading falsehoods and doctored images that suggested some Rohingya burned their own villages and then blamed it on Myanmar security forces. Myanmar has denied the genocide accusations and has justified some actions on counterterrorism grounds.
 
In 2018, a U.N. report connected Facebook to the atrocities against the Rohingya people. According to the report:

“Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where, for most users, Facebook is the Internet. Although improved in recent months, the response of Facebook has been slow and ineffective. The extent to which Facebook posts and messages have led to real-world discrimination and violence must be independently and thoroughly examined.” 

After the publication of the UN Report, the region became a priority for the company, which began flooding it with resources in 2018… The platform said that it removed some 64,000 pieces of content in Myanmar that violated its policies against hate speech…“Not until 2018 — after the damage had been done — did Facebook executives … meekly admit that Facebook should and could have done more,” the lawsuit alleges. “Facebook is like a robot programed with a singular mission: to grow. And the undeniable reality is that Facebook’s growth, fueled by hate, division, and misinformation, has left hundreds of thousands of devastated Rohingya lives in its wake.”….

Backed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Gambia asked a U.S. court to force Facebook to turn over data related to accounts it deleted in 2018 that fueled atrocities in Myanmar. After some legal wrangling, a federal judge in D.C. shot down the request  on December 3, 2021.

Excerpt from Amy Cheng, Rohingya refugees sue Facebook for $150 billion, alleging it helped perpetuate genocide in Myanmar, Washington Post, Dec. 7, 2021

The New Alliance: SaudiChina

Saudi Arabia has imported sensitive missile technology from the Chinese military and is manufacturing its own ballistic missiles…The Saudi government has sought help from the missile branch of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force…Ballistic missiles are powered by rockets that propel them in an arch-shaped trajectory upward before descending toward their target on the surface of the earth. They can be used to deploy both conventional and nuclear weapons.

The U.S. has long refused to sell ballistic missiles to Riyadh over proliferation concerns. The kingdom obtained Dong Feng-3 missiles in the 1980s from China and displayed them publicly in 2014. The Chinese military has also transferred multiple batches of finished Dong Feng-series missiles since around 2018 up to as recently as the spring of 2021….China also has helped Saudi Arabia construct a facility to fabricate uranium yellowcake, an early step along the path to a civil nuclear energy program or a nuclear arms capability, the Journal reported last year.

Excerpt from Jared Malsin et al, Saudis Begin Making Ballistic Missiles With Chinese Help, WSJ, Dec. 24, 2021

The Stealth Burial of Nuclear Waste

The U.S. government’s underground nuclear waste repository received more than 200 shipments from federal laboratories and other sites around the nation in 2021.
Officials with the U.S. Energy Department announced the number in December 2021, noting that total shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have topped 13 000 since opening in 1999. Over more than 20 years, tons of Cold War-era waste have been stashed deep in the salt caverns that make up the repository. The shipments have included special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.

The majority of shipments come from the decommissioning of legacy nuclear waste sites at the Idaho National Laboratory. More nuclear waste will be heading to the WIPP as the Biden Administration has approved a Trump rule that has redefined high-level nuclear waste. According to the new rule, what constitutes high-level radioactive waste  will be based on the waste’s radioactivity rather than how it was produced.

U.S. nuclear repository marks more than 200 shipments of waste in 2021, Associated Press, Dec. 30, 2021

The Forced Migration of Endangered Species

Rhino translocations have become a critical tool in the arsenal for the protection of these endangered animals. Recently, 30 white rhinos were flown into Rwanda from South Africa and introduced into the Akagera National Park, in what is the single largest translocation. 

In the late 19th century, southern white rhinos were almost on the brink of extinction. This was due to poaching and hunting. But in 1895 a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. After more than a century of protection and good management, there are now around 17,600 white rhinos (as of 2018) living in protected areas and private game reserves…However, this success story is being threatened by the illegal trade in horn. Between 2006 and 2020, 10,600 rhinos across the continent have been lost. With the exception of a few areas, rhinos are surviving in well protected, smaller national parks and reserves.

Why were rhinos translocated to Rwanda? Having a population in a Rwanda could create a secure new breeding stronghold in East Africa and help ensure the long-term survival of the species in the wild…

Any international translocation requires political support from national governments and conservation authorities and should be in full compliance with international agreements, such as CITES…Sourcing the animals is also an important aspect… South Africa has a vibrant wildlife industry based upon the buying and selling of wildlife. 

Catching and Translocating the Animals: A lot of time is spent on planning for this and ensuring the animals are treated as well as possible. Moving animals over thousands of kilometers is a serious endeavor. With 30 animals, chartered jumbo jets are the best way. This requires considerable veterinary and logistical coordination to capture the animals, load into crates, transport to the aircraft, load as quickly as possible, unload similarly, transport to the site and release into well-sited and secure bomas. 

Upon arrival, animals are put into holding bomas to get them adjusted to the local different foods that they’ll encounter…Once they’re in the new habitat, the next concern is security and making sure people can take care of them and monitor them.

Excerpts from Mike Knight, Africa: Moving African Rhinos – What It Takes to Translocate an Endangered Species, AllAfrica.com, Dec. 14, 2021

Global Microbiome Living on Plastics

The number of microbial enzymes with the ability to degrade plastic is growing, in correlation with local levels of plastic pollution. That is the finding of a study from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, that measured samples of environmental DNA from around the globe. The results illustrate the impact plastic pollution is having on the environment, and hint at potential new solutions for managing the problem.

The study analyzed samples of environmental DNA from hundreds of locations around the world. The researchers used computer modelling to search for microbial enzymes with plastic-degrading potential, which was then cross-referenced with the official numbers for plastic waste pollution across countries and oceans. “Using our models, we found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution – a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” says Aleksej Zelezniak, Associate Professor in Systems Biology at Chalmers University of Technology. 

More enzymes in the most polluted areas: In other words, the quantity and diversity of plastic-degrading enzymes is increasing, in direct response to local levels of plastic pollution. In total, over 30,000 enzyme ‘homologues’ were found with the potential to degrade 10 different types of commonly used plastic. Homologues are members of protein sequences sharing similar properties. Some of the locations that contained the highest amounts were notoriously highly polluted areas, for example samples from the Mediterranean Sea and South Pacific Ocean…

The researchers believe that their results could potentially be used to discover and adapt enzymes for novel recycling processes…“The next step would be to test the most promising enzyme candidates in the lab to closely investigate their properties and the rate of plastic degradation they can achieve. From there you could engineer microbial communities with targeted degrading functions for specific polymer types,” explains Aleksej Zelezniak.

Plastic-degrading enzymes increasing in correlation with pollution, Chalmers University of Technology Press Release, Dec. 14, 2021

Detoxing the Fish of Our Lakes and Rivers

Fish populations appear to recover rapidly from mercury pollution once humans stop adding it to their environment. A 15-year study of a lake in Canada found that eight years after the metal’s supply ceased, concentrations of methylmercury – a highly toxic substance made from mercury by bacteria in aquatic ecosystems – fell by 76 per cent… 

“I can’t imagine a much faster recovery,” says Paul Blanchfield at government agency Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who led the research. The team are not suggesting the fish excrete the mercury quickly – the experiment in fact shows they hang on to it for a long time – but that quick turnover of generations sees concentrations fall fast when new pollution stops.

Mercury pollution is still a major global environmental problem, with small-scale gold mining and coal burning being the two biggest sources. Transported in the atmosphere and rained down on lakes and oceans, the metal’s accumulation in freshwater and marine species has raised concerns over the human health impact of eating fish.

Excerpts from Adam Vaughan, Freshwater fish can recover from mercury pollution in just a few years, New Scientist, Dec. 15, 2021

Israel’s Preemptive Attacks on Chemical Weapons, Syria

Israel twice struck chemical weapons facilities in Syria between 2020 and 2021 in a campaign to prevent Syria from renewing chemical weapons production…Syria’s government denies using chemical arms. In 2013 it promised to surrender its chemical weapons, which it says it has done.

On June 8, 2021, Israeli jets hit three military targets near the cities of Damascus and Homs, all linked to Syria’s former chemical weapons program. In March 2020, Israel targeted a villa and compound tied with the procurement of a chemical that can be used in nerve agents. Whether Israel’s attacks were fully successful in disrupting Syria’s plans is unclear. Israeli officials intended the strikes to be preemptive, knocking out the country’s production capabilities before actual weapons could be made…

Excerpts from Israel hit chemical weapons facilities in Syria over past two years, Reuters, Dec. 13, 2021

To Save the Congo Rainforest, We Must Save the People First

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the Democratic Republic of the Congo told the Security Council in December 2021  that “a lasting solution” to the violence” in Congo requires a broader political commitment to address the root causes of conflict.”  Bintou Keita argued that, for stability to return to eastern Congo, “the State must succeed in restoring and maintaining the confidence of the people in state’s ability to protect, administer, deliver justice and meet their basic needs.” 

Starting on November 30, 2021  the Congolese Armed Forces initiated joint military operations with the Ugandan army against the rebel Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the east.  In May 2021, the Congolese authorities declared a state of siege in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu, whose duration has just been extended for the 13th time

But the challenges facing the Government in implementing the state of siege highlight “the limits of a strictly military approach to the protection of civilians and the neutralization of armed groups.”  In fact, the period of the state of siege saw a 10 per cent increase in the number of violations and abuses of human rights in the country.  


According to the Special Representative, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate in the restive east, due to insecurity, epidemics, and limited access to basic services.  The number of internally displaced people stands at nearly 6 million, of which 51 per cent are women. This is the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa.  

The Special Representative pointed out the illegal exploitation of natural resources as “a major driver of conflict”, saying it must be addressed, and commended President Tshisekedi’s intervention at the COP26 Summit, where he committed to combat deforestation in the Congo Basin rainforest and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21 per cent, by 2030….  

Excerpts from DR Congo: Limitations to ‘strictly military approach’ to stem violence, mission chief warns, UN News, Dec. 6, 2021

Nowhere to Go: Nuclear Waste Germany

Germany is to shut down its last nuclear reactors in 2022. However, the country still has no place to store the 27,000 cubic meters of highly radioactive material it has already produced, with the amount set to grow as power stations are decommissioned and dismantled. German authorities have set a deadline of 2031 to find a permanent storage location – but for now, the waste is being stored in temporary locations, much to the anger of local residents.

See Youtube video France24

Re-Growing Our Lost Tropical Forests

Scientists have concluded that tropical forests demonstrate high resilience, even after they are cut down, due to agriculture or pasture use, if they are left alone for 20 years.  According to the study published in December 2021. 

“Tropical forests are converted at alarming rates to other land uses yet they also have the potential to regrow naturally on abandoned agricultural fields and pastures. Widespread land abandonment because of fertility loss, migration, or alternative livelihood options has led to a rapid increase in the extent of regrowing forests. Currently, regrowth covers as much as 28% (2.4 million km2) of the neotropics alone. Regrowing secondary forests form a large and important component of human-modified tropical landscapes and have the potential to play a key role in biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation, and landscape restoration. 

See Multidimensional tropical forest recovery, SCIENCE VOL. 374, NO. 6573, Dec. 9, 2021

The Neck and Neck Race in Africa

Classified American intelligence reports suggest China intends to establish its first permanent military presence on the Atlantic Ocean in the tiny Central African country of Equatorial Guinea. The officials…said the reports raise the prospect that Chinese warships would be able to rearm and refit opposite the East Coast of the U.S.—a threat that is setting off alarm bells at the White House and Pentagon. Principal deputy U.S. national security adviser Jon Finer visited Equatorial Guinea in October 2021 on a mission to persuade President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his son and heir apparent, Vice President Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, to reject China’s overtures…

In Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese likely have an eye on Bata, according to a U.S. official. Bata already has a Chinese-built deep-water commercial port on the Gulf of Guinea, and excellent highways link the city to Gabon and the interior of Central Africa….

Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony with a population of 1.4 million, secured independence in 1968. The capital, Malabo, is on the island of Bioko, while Bata is the largest city on the mainland section of the country, which is wedged between Gabon and Cameroon. Mr. Obiang has ruled the country since 1979. The discovery of huge offshore gas and oil reserves in 1996 allegedly allowed members of his family to spend lavishly on exotic cars, mansions and other luxuries…The State Department has accused the Obiang regime of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and other abuses. A U.S. Senate committee issued a report in 2004 criticizing Washington-based Riggs Bank for turning “a blind eye to evidence suggesting the bank was handling the proceeds of foreign corruption” in accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits controlled by Mr. Obiang, his wife and other relatives……

Equatorial Guinea relies on American oil companies to extract offshore resources that have made the country the richest on the sub-Saharan mainland, as measured by per capita annual gross domestic product….Chinese state-owned companies have built 100 commercial ports around Africa in the past two decades, according to Chinese government data….

The State Department recently raised Equatorial Guinea’s ranking in the annual assessment of how diligently countries combat human trafficking. The upgrade could allow the Biden administration to offer maritime-security assistance to help win Equatorial Guinea’s cooperation.

Excerpts from MICHAEL M. PHILLIPS, China Seeks First Military Base on Africa’s Atlantic Coast, U.S. Intelligence Finds, WSJ, Dec. 5, 2021

What’s in that Suitcase? Endangered Turtles

Live animals, python skins and slimming pills made from crocodile blood are just a few of the items seized at world borders recently. In the space of a month, 29 big cats, 531 turtles, 336 reptiles, 1.4 million plant-derived products and 75,320kg of timber were found in luggage. 300 arrests were made. Many of the items are part of the world’s fourth biggest illegal market – the illegal wildlife trade. Despite decades of lawmakers’ crackdowns, it is still worth an estimated €17 billion annually.

The smuggled items were found as part of Operation Thunder 2021, which spanned 118 countries and the work of customs, police and wildlife enforcement agencies. The operation, coordinated by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and INTERPOL, involved searching cars, boats and lorries with sniffer dogs and X-ray scanners. Law enforcement found that online platforms are being used to arrange trafficking, and illegal money transfers are used to enable money laundering.

Excerpt from Nichola Daunton, These are all the endangered species criminals tried to smuggle in just one month, Euronews, Dec. 1, 2021

See also Press Release of UNODC World Wildlife Crime

Why Crabs and Mussels Love Plastic Pollution

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is considered the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic. It’s so massive, in fact, that researchers found it has been colonized by species — hundreds of miles away from their natural home. The research, published in the journal Nature, found that species usually confined to coastal areas — including crabs, mussels and barnacles — have latched onto, and unexpectedly survived on, massive patches of ocean plastic.  As suitable habitat made of plastics now exists in the open ocean, coastal organisms can both survive at sea for years and reproduce, leading to self-sustaining coastal communities on the high seas!

But the mingling of the neuston and coastal species is “likely recent,” researchers said, and was caused largely because of the accumulation of “long-lived plastic rafts” that have been growing since the middle of the 20th century. Just by itself, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawai’i, is estimated to have at least 79,000 tons of plastic within a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area. There are at least four other similar patches throughout the world’s oceans. Researchers expect that plastic waste is going to “exponentially increase,” and by 2050, there will be 25,000 million metric tons of plastic waste.  

For lead author Linsey Haram, the research shows that physical harm to larger marine species should not be the only concern when it comes to pollution and plastic waste. “The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Haram said in a statement. “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.” 

But that expansion could come at a cost. “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters,” Haram said. “They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.” There is also a possibility that expansions of these plastic communities could cause problems with invasive species. A lot of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, which carried organisms from Japan to North America. Over time, researchers believe, these communities could act as reservoirs that will provide opportunities for coastal species to invade new ecosystems. 

There are still many questions researchers say need to be answered about these new plastic-living communities — like how common they are and if they can exist outside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but the discovery could change ocean ecosystems on a global scale, especially as climate change exacerbates the situation. 

Excerpts from LI COHEN, There’s so much plastic floating on the ocean surface, it’s spawning new marine communities, CBS News, Dec. 2, 2021
BY LI COHEN

Battle for Storing Medical Nuclear Waste: Australia

Napandee, a 211 hectare property near the town of Kimba, has been acquired by the Australian  government and will be used to store low and medium-level nuclear waste. “This is still the right decision at the right site,” Resources Minister Keith Pitt said.  “It’s certainly got all of the right geological requirements, we have majority support from the local community and we should never forget that this has taken 40 years and I understand some 16 ministers,” he said.  “Fundamentally, for the local community of Kimba it’s been over six years of consultation.” The consultation culminated in a ballot which showed just over 60 per cent of Kimba residents supported the project.

However, the Barngarla traditional owners opposed the project and said they were not included in the consultation. “There have been significant and repeated grave problems with the government’s conduct regarding the site selection process,” a spokesperson for the Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement. “We remain confident that, once assessed by the Court, the declaration to locate the facility at Napandee on our Country will likely be overturned.”

According to the Australian minister, every Australian would need to use nuclear medicine at some point in their life. “If we are going to use this technology, it produces low-level radioactive waste and we have to deal with it and store it. This is the best option on the table.” “This is a facility that will last more than 100 years and it’s important for the country.” The Australian Radioactive Waste Agency, created to establish the Napandee facility, will start work on detailed designs.

Excerpts from Declan Gooch and Emma Pedler, Napandee chosen as nuclear waste storage site after ‘six years of consultation’, ABC, Nov. 29, 2021

Solar and Chemicals Are Not Enough: Nuclear Reactors in Space

Chinese scientists are currently building a powerful nuclear reactor for their moon and Mars expeditions. Beijing claims its reactor will be 100 times more powerful than the device US space agency NASA wants to set up on the moon’s surface by 2030. ..One Chinese expert claims that to satisfy the objectives of human space exploration, chemical fuel and solar panels will no longer suffice; the hunger for more energy sources is likely to grow dramatically if there are human settlements on the moon or Mars in the future.

In November 2021, NASA has issued a request for proposals for the development of a 10-kilowatt nuclear fission device capable of supporting a long-term human presence on the moon within a decade…The plan is to deploy a fission surface power system by 2026, with a flying system, lander, and reactor in place. The facility will be completely built and integrated on Earth, then thoroughly tested for safety and functionality…In addition, Russia has also indicated its intention to launch a massive spaceship powered by TEM, a megawatt-sized nuclear reactor, before 2030. The spaceship would be able to function in Earth’s lower orbit for more than a decade while conducting more missions to the moon or beyond owing to the nuclear energy.

Democritos, a parallel project led by the European Space Agency, will test a 200kW nuclear space reactor on the ground by 2023. Additionally, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg says that the alliance will not put weapons in space, but it will be required to safeguard its assets, which include 2,000 satellites in orbit. Space is becoming an “operational domain” for NATO as well…

Excerpts from  Ashish Dangwal, 100 Times More Powerful Than US Tech, China Claims Its Nuclear Reactor For Space Missions Will Outdo NASA Device, Eurasiantimes.com, Nov. 26, 2021

The Limits of Green Energy: Wind Blades of Wood and Plastic

What does the deforestation of balsa wood in Ecuador’s Amazon region have to do with wind power generation in Europe? There is a perverse link between the two: a drive for renewable energy has boosted global demand for a prized species of wood that grows in the world’s largest rainforest. As Europe and China increase the construction of blades for wind turbines, balsa trees are being felled to accelerate an energy transition driven by the need to decarbonize the global economy.

In the indigenous territories of the Ecuadorian Amazon, people began to notice an uptick in international demand for balsa wood from 2018 onwards. Balsa is very flexible but tough at the same time, and offers a light yet durable option for long-term wind power production. The typical blades of a wind turbine are currently around 80 meters long, and the new generation of blades can extend up to 100 meters. That means about 150 cubic meters of wood are required to build a single unit, according to calculations by the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ecuador is the world’s main exporter of balsa wood, holding 75% of the global market. Major players include Plantabal S.A. in Guayaquil, which has around 10,000 hectares dedicated to the cultivation of balsa wood destined for export. With the boom in demand starting in 2018, this company and many others struggled to cope with the quantity of international orders. This increase has led directly to the deforestation of the Amazon. Irregular and illegal logging has proliferated by those who have reacted to the scarcity of wood grown for timber by chopping down the virgin balsa that grows on the islands and riverbanks of the Amazon

The impact on the indigenous people who live in the area has been as devastating as mining, oil and rubber were in their day…The Amazon’s defenders are calling for the wind turbine industry to implement strict measures to determine the origin of the wood used in turbine blades, and to prevent market pressure leading to deforestation. Ultimately, they say, balsa wood should be replaced by other materials…

In 2019, Ecuador’s balsa exports were worth almost €195 million, 30% more than the previous record from 2015. In the first 11 months of 2020, this jumped to €696 million.

Wind turbine blades are mainly made from polymethacrylamide (PMI) foam, balsa wood and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) foam…But The Spanish-German company Siemens-Gamesa..has  introduced blade designs using PET only, other competitors soon followed. Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy firm, forecasts that this “will increase from 20% in 2018 to more than 55% in 2023, while demand for balsa will remain stable…”

Today’s blades also present a problem for recycling. The first generation of wind turbines are reaching the end of their lives, and thousands will need to be dismantled… “But the blades represent a challenge due to their composite materials, as their recycling requires very specific processes…

Excerpts from How the wind power boom is driving deforestation in the Amazon, ElPais, Nov. 26, 2021

How to Lift Nuclear Submarines from Arctic Seabed

Projects aimed to improve nuclear safety are some of the few successful arenas for cooperation still going strong between the European Union and Russia…especially wiht regard to the two old Soviet submarines K-159 and K-27, both rusting on the Arctic seabed with highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel elements in their reactors…

“The sunken submarines K-27 and K-159 are the potential source of contamination of the Arctic, the riskiest ones,” Ambassador Jari Vilén of Filand explains. “Assessments made by the European Union together with Rosatom show that in 20-30 years’ time the metals will start corroding and there is a genuine risk of leakage. Therefore, lifting them in the coming decade is extremely important.”

“I’m very happy we are making progress and that a decision to make a technical review has been decided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) through the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership. Hopefully, when these technical reviews are done, we will come to a phase where we can make decisions on a lifting operation,” Vilén says with enthusiasm.

Lifting a nuclear submarine from the seabed is nothing new. It is difficult, but doable. In 2002, the Dutch salvage company Mammoet managed to raise the ill-fated “Kursk” submarine from the Barents Sea. A special barge was built with wires attached underneath. The wreak of “Kursk” was safely brought in and placed in a dry-dock where the decommissioning took place.

K-159 is a November-class that sank in late August 2003 while being towed in bad weather from the closed naval base of Gremikha on the eastern shores of the Kola Peninsula towards the Nerpa shipyard north of Murmansk. The two onboard reactors contain about 800 kilograms of spent nuclear fuel, with an estimated 5,3 GBq of radionuclides. A modeling study by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research said that a pulse discharge of the entire Cesium-137 inventory from the two reactors could increase concentrations in cod in the eastern part of the Barents Sea up to 100 times current levels for a two-year period after the discharge. While a Cs-137 increase of 100 times in cod sounds dramatic, the levels would still be below international guidelines. But that increase could still make it difficult to market the affected fish.

K-27, the other submarine in urgency to lift, was on purpose dumped in the Kara Sea in 1982….

Lifting the dumped reactors from the Kara Sea, a price tag of nearly €300 million has been mentioned. The sum includes K-27 and K-159, but also the other dumped reactors from K-11, K-19 and K-140, as well as spent nuclear fuel from an older reactor serving icebreaker “Lenin”. “The value of the fishing stocks in the area is ruffly €1.4 billion annually,” he says.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, EU willing to co-fund lifting of sunken nuclear subs from Arctic seabed, The Barents Observer, Nov. 22, 2021

Exchanging Nature for Crushing Debt

In 2020 tourism in Belized dried up, growth contracted sharply and public debt jumped from just under 100% GDO in 2019 to over 125%. That forced Belize,  into a debt restructuring…As part of the deal, concluded on November 5th, 2021 Belize bought back its only international bond, a $553m, at 55 cents on the dollar. It funded that with $364m of fresh money, arranged by The Nature Conservancy, an NGO, which is insured by the International Development Finance Corp, an American agency. The transaction is backed by the proceeds of a “blue bond” arranged by Credit Suisse, a bank. The payback is due over 19 years. It is called a blue bond because Belize has pledged to invest a large chunk of the savings into looking after the ocean. That includes funding a $23m endowment to support future marine-conservation projects and promising to protect 30% of its waters by 2026…

Debt-for-nature swaps are nothing new. Lenders have been offering highly indebted countries concessions in return for environmental commitments for decades. But these transactions have historically involved debt owed to rich countries, not commercial bondholders. As Lee Buchheit, a lawyer who specialises in sovereign-debt restructurings, points out, they were “negligible in size”. In total, the value of debt-for-climate and nature-swap agreements between 1985 and 2015 came to just $2.6bn, according to the United Nations Development Programme. Of the 39 debtor nations that benefited from the swaps, only 12 negotiated debts of over $30m. “It was really an exercise in public relations,” Mr Buchheit says….

Other poor countries are trying to move in the same direction. At the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow Ecuador’s president Guillermo Lasso proposed enlarging the country’s Galapagos nature reserve through a debt-for-nature swap…Yet no amount of creative dealmaking can distract from the grim truth: many emerging markets still suffer from crushing debts.

Excerpts from Debt-for Nature Swaps: Reef relief, Economist, Nov. 13, 2021

No Matter What they Say-Nobody Likes Nuclear Waste

The first stage of the process has been under way since November 2020 for the town of Suttsu and the village of Kamoenai assessing two municipalities in Hokkaido for their suitability to host a final disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.  Under the government’s plan, the first-stage surveys take two years and will be followed by the second phase… which will include geophysical exploration, geological reconnaissance surveys and drilling surveys. Already stories about divisions and conflict over the surveys are emerging from the local communities.

The mayoral election of Suttsu in October 2021, for example, turned into a bitter and divisive political battle over the issue between the incumbent who decided to apply for the first-phase survey and a challenger who ran on opposition to the project. Some of the neighboring municipalities have enacted an ordinance to ban the entry of radioactive materials. Both the Hokkaido prefectural government and most of the local administrations around the two municipalities have declined to accept state subsidies related to the surveys. These actions have been driven by the fear that accepting the surveys will set in motion an unstoppable process leading to a permanent repository for nuclear waste.

The NUMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Japan) and the METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry)  have jointly held more than 100 meetings to explain the plan to local communities across the nation. Even though they have continued calling for localities to volunteer, no local governments except for the two in Hokkaido have responded.

Excerpts from Entire nation should share in disposal of spent nuke fuel, Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 22, 2021

Nobody Can Escape the Nuclear Rat Race

When America and the Soviet Union raced each other to build ever-larger nuclear arsenals during the cold war, China ambled disdainfully. It did not detonate its first nuclear weapon until 1964, kept only a few hundred warheads compared with the tens of thousands piled up by the superpowers, and to this day maintains it will never be the first to use nukes in a war. Now China is sprinting to catch up.

In its 2021 annual assessment, the Pentagon says China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads, which last year it reckoned to be in the “low-200s”, could triple to about 700 by 2027 and will probably quintuple to about 1,000 or more by 2030… Even so, it would still be smaller than America’s or Russia’s. Those countries each have about 4,000 warheads. The Pentagon believes China is building fast-breeder reactors to make the necessary plutonium; may already have created a full “triad”, ie, the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the land, sea and air; and is expanding its early-warning systems, with help from Russia.

All told, China is shifting to a “launch on warning” doctrine. Rather than rely on a minimal nuclear deterrent to retaliate after an initial nuclear attack, China would henceforth fire at the first sign of an incoming nuclear strike, even before the enemy warheads have landed. This posture is akin to that of America and Russia… Why is China building up its nukes at a time when America and Russia have extended the New START treaty, which limits their arsenals…? One reason is China’s worry that its arsenal is too small to survive an American first strike…

Excerpt from Military Strategy: An Unpacific Contest, Economist, Nov. 6, 2021

The Mining Curse

Two poor, fragile, post-Soviet democracies, two spectacular holes in the ground. Mongolia’s Oyu Tolgoi, or “Turquoise Hill”, is a vast mine in the southern Gobi desert, just 80km from the Chinese border. Kumtor in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, operating since 1997, is if anything even more remote. Located beside a series of glaciers at 13,000 feet above sea level, it is the world’s second-highest gold mine.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these two mines to their respective economies. Once completed, Oyu Tolgoi will be the world’s fourth-biggest copper mine. When the contract with Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian mining giant, was first signed in 2009, Oyu Tolgoi was predicted to add five percentage points to Mongolia’s annual economic growth, which, for a while, it did. The mine has created 15,000 jobs directly and another 45,000 indirectly, for a Mongolian population of 3.3m. As for Kumtor, its owner, Centerra, a Canadian exploration company, is the country’s largest private investor. In a good year the mine generates a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and is the biggest contributor to the state budget.

Both mines loom large in national life. Both foreign operators won sweet, initial deals when naïve young states opened their doors to foreign investment. Controversy surrounding the mines was thus inevitable. Oyu Tolgoi has long been controversial. Politicians often accuse Rio Tinto of fleecing the country…In Kyrgyzstan the goverment accuses Centerra of corruption, enriching politicians instead of the national budget. 

Accusations of being cheated are common in poor, resource-rich countries. With Oyu Tolgoi, the stand-off is more easily resolved….A recent independent review makes it hard for Rio to deny it bears some blame for delays and cost overruns in developing the mine…. In Kyrgyzstan the situation is bleaker. There, bribery and corruption are not incidental to business but central to it….Foreign investors too often blame “resource nationalism” for their woes in host countries. That is self-serving. After all, the resources usually belong to the state. It is reasonable for citizens to ask how best to benefit from them…. 

Excerpts from Banyan: Mine for the Taking, Economist, Nov. 6, 2021

A Humane Bombing Campaign? the Baghuz Strike

In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank. Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there. “Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. The details, reported by the New York Times on November 13, 2021, show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate,  a former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office….

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named. The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

But the Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”..

The United States portrayed the air war against the Islamic State as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability. The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force 9 repeatedly used other rules to skirt them. The military teams counting casualties rarely had the time, resources or incentive to do accurate work. And troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

On the ground, Task Force 9 coordinated offensives and airstrikes. The unit included soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and the Army’s elite commando team Delta Force, several officials said. Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths. The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict.  But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger….By late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes Task Force 9 was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes. The rules allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent,”… Under that definition, something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted…..

The aftermath of that approach was plain to see. A number of Syrian towns, including the regional capital, Raqqa, were reduced to little more than rubble. Human rights organizations reported that the coalition caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war. Hundreds of military assessment reports examined by The Times show the task force was implicated in nearly one in five coalition civilian casualty incidents in the region…Publicly, the coalition insisted the numbers were much lower. Privately, it became overwhelmed by the volume of civilian casualty claims reported by locals, humanitarian groups and the news media, and a backlog of civilian casualty assessment reports sat unexamined for months, two people who compiled the reports said…..

Excerpts from How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria, NY Times, Nov. 13, 2021

The Right to Know from Space

Rebuilding an entire planet’s energy system is a big job…The most basic problem is knowing what, exactly, you are trying to rebuild. Academic-research groups, think-tanks, charities and other concerned organizations try to keep track of the world’s wind turbines, solar-power plants, fossil-fueled power stations, cement factories and so on. To this end, they rely heavily on data from national governments and big companies, but these are often incomplete. The most comprehensive database covering American solar-power installations, for instance, is thought to miss around a fifth of the photovoltaic panels actually installed on the ground.

In a paper published in Nature, a team of researchers demonstrate another way to keep tabs on the green-energy revolution. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues have put together an inventory of almost 69,000 big solar-power stations (defined as those with a rated capacity of 10kw of electricity or more) all over the world—more than four times as many as were previously listed in public databases. This new inventory includes their locations, the date they entered service and a rough estimate of their generating capacity…

Pictures came from two sets of satellites, Sentinel-2 and SPOT, run by the European Space Agency and Airbus respectively. These peer down on the world, recording visible light and also the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. The images amounted to around 550 terabytes of data, spanning the period between 2016 and 2018. That is enough to fill more than a hundred desktop hard drives. Sifting through this many pictures by eye would have been impractical. That is where the second technological trend comes in. Dr Kruitwagen and his colleagues trained a machine-learning system to spot the solar panels for them.

More generally, Dr Kruitwagen hopes that his eye-in-the-sky approach—which, despite the planetary scale of the project, cost only around $15,000 in cloud-computing time—could presage more accurate estimates of other bits of climate-related infrastructure, such as fossil-fuel power stations, cement plants and terminals for ships carrying liquefied natural gas. The eventual result could be the assembly of a publicly available, computer-generated inventory of every significant bit of energy infrastructure on Earth. Quite apart from such a model’s commercial and academic value, he says, an informed public would be one better able to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. 

Excerpt from Solar-cell census: An accurate tally of the world’s solar-power stations, Economist, Oct. 30, 2021