The Enormous Task of Nuclear Waste Storage

“The Koeberg spent fuel pool storage capacity in South Africa  is currently over 90% full. (These) pools will reach (their) capacity by April 2020,” Eskom, the South African utility, told Reuters in a statement on Nov. 25, 2019.  Koeberg produces about 32 tonnes of spent fuel a year. Fuel assemblies, which contain radioactive materials including uranium and plutonium that can remain dangerous for thousands of years, are cooled for a decade under water in spent fuel pools.

Fuel Pool at Koeberg, South Africa

In 2016,  Eskom paid an estimated 200 million rand ($13.60 million) for an initial batch of seven reinforced dry storage casks from U.S. energy company Holtec International to help keep Koeberg running beyond 2018.  Eskom now has nine new unused casks on site, each with an individual capacity of 32 spent fuel assemblies, with another five expected to be delivered soon.

Holtec Cask

The 14 casks should ensure there is sufficient storage in the spent fuel pool until 2024, Eskom said, ahead of a tender for an extra 30 casks….Anti-nuclear lobby group Earthlife Africa said South Africa could not afford the social, environmental and economic costs associated with nuclear waste.  “We have a ticking bomb with high-level waste and fuel rods at Koeberg,” said Makoma Lekalakala, Earthlife Africa’s director.

Wendell Roelf, Waste storage at Africa’s only nuclear plant brimming, Reuters, Nov. 25, 2019

Genetically Modified Crops May Become the Norm: the case of Golden Rice

Golden Rice is a genetically modified (GM) crop that could help prevent childhood blindness and deaths in the developing world. Ever since Golden Rice first made headlines nearly 20 years ago, it has been a flashpoint in debates over GM crops. Advocates touted it as an example of their potential benefit to humanity, while opponents of transgenic crops criticized it as a risky and unnecessary approach to improve health in the developing world.

Now, Bangladesh appears about to become the first country to approve Golden Rice for planting..Golden Rice was developed in the late 1990s by German plant scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer to combat vitamin A deficiency, the leading cause of childhood blindness. Low levels of vitamin A also contribute to deaths from infectious diseases such as measles. Spinach, sweet potato, and other vegetables supply ample amounts of the vitamin, but in some countries, particularly those where rice is a major part of the diet, vitamin A deficiency is still widespread; in Bangladesh it affects about 21% of children.

To create Golden Rice, Potrykus and Beyer collaborated with agrochemical giant Syngenta to equip the plant with beta-carotene genes from maize. They donated their transgenic plants to public-sector agricultural institutes, paving the way for other researchers to breed the Golden Rice genes into varieties that suit local tastes and growing conditions.

The Golden Rice under review in Bangladesh was created at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. Researchers bred the beta-carotene genes into a rice variety named dhan 29…Farmers in Bangladesh quickly adopted an eggplant variety engineered to kill certain insect pests after its 2014 introduction, but that crop offered an immediate benefit: Farmers need fewer insecticides. Golden Rice’s health benefits will emerge more slowly,

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad,  After 20 Years, Golden Rice Nears Approval, Science,  Nov. 22, 2019

Dirty Little Secrets: Farming Tigers for their Meat and Bones

The area around the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a swathe of north-western Laos..is famous for its tigers. Not wild ones, which have nearly all been killed in Laos, but captive animals, illegally trafficked and bred for their parts, which sell for thousands of dollars. 

A century ago, around 100,000 tigers roamed the world’s jungles. Because of habitat loss and poaching, there are fewer than 4,000 wild ones today. More than twice as many are being held in at least 200 farms across East and South-East Asia. These range from small backyard operations to enclosures breeding hundreds in “battery-farm style”, says the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an international NGO focusing on wildlife crime.  Breeding tigers and trading them and their parts is banned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but this treaty is widely flouted in Asia because of poor law-enforcement and high demand for tigers. Belief in their medicinal properties has deep roots, especially in China. Tiger-bone wine, skins and jewelry featuring claws and teeth are status symbols. In Laos, carcasses can sell for as much as $30,000, officials reckon.

Some criminals choose to operate in Laos because…the government of Laos is allegedly complicit. America’s State Department recently reported that Laos was one of three countries that had recently “actively engaged in or knowingly profited from the trafficking of endangered or threatened species”. In 2016 an investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper found the Lao government had licensed two tiger farms and cut lucrative deals with wildlife traffickers smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of endangered animals—including tigers—through Laos.

The government has a 20% stake in Golden Triangle SEZ, a resort complex run by Zhao Wei, a Chinese businessman whom America’s Treasury last year accused of engaging in illegal trade in wildlife, as well as trafficking drugs and people (he denies the allegations). With its flashy casino and hotels, the SEZ is designed to attract Chinese tourists (gambling is illegal in China). In 2014 and 2015, EIA investigators found that restaurants in the SEZ were advertising “sauté tiger meat” and tiger-bone wine; shops were selling tiger skins and ivory tusks. Near the casino, 26 tigers stalked the length of their enclosure, destined for the slaughterhouse. Their bones were to infuse rice wine. Since the EIA’’s report, these establishments have closed.

Excerpt from: Tiger Farms in Laos: Law of the Jungle, Economist, Nov, 30, 2019

How to Own a Foreign Country: the Strategy of Gulf States in Egypt and Sudan

Nile has become a battleground. Countries that sit upriver and wealthy Gulf states are starting to use the Nile more than ever for water and electricity. That means less water for the 250 million-plus small farmers, herders and city dwellers in the Nile basin.  Dams funded by foreign countries including China and oil-rich neighbors like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are tapping the river to irrigate industrial farms and generate electricity. Crops grown using Nile water are increasingly shipped out of Africa to the Middle East, often to feed livestock such as dairy cows

Exporting crops to feed foreign animals while borrowing money to import wheat is “almost insane,” Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said in an interview. “It’s exporting water, basically. We could be growing wheat and getting rid of half our import bill,” he said. Mr. Hamdok’s predecessor, dictator Omar al-Bashir, is in prison after an uprising sparked by rising prices for food….

The most dramatic change to the Nile in decades is rising in Ethiopia, where the Blue Nile originates. Ethiopia, which has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, turned to China to help finance the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to generate electricity. While the dam, located just miles from the Sudan border, won’t supply water for farms and cities, its massive reservoir will affect the flow of water.

Downstream, Egypt is worried that Ethiopia will try to quickly fill the reservoir beginning in 2020. The issue is “a matter of life and death for the nation,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi said in televised remarks in 2017. “No one can touch Egypt’s share of water.” A spokesman for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a September press conference that “any move that does not respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its right to use the Nile dam has no acceptance.”  Sharing of the Nile’s waters has long been governed by international treaties, with Egypt claiming the vast majority. Since Ethiopia wasn’t included in those treaties, it was never provided an allotment of water. Ethiopia’s massive dam has thrown a wrench into past agreements…

Sudan is stuck in the middle. Much of the water that flows through the country is already allocated. “Sudan actually doesn’t have that much free water available,” says Harry Verhoeven, author of “Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.”  By early 2015, Saudi Arabia doubled its investment in Sudan’s agriculture sector to $13 billion, equaling about one-third of all foreign investment in Sudanese industry….The contrast between verdant export crops watered by the Nile and parched villages was visible in the area where protests started in December 2019, during a nationwide wheat shortage.   The protesters were angry about food prices, poor job prospects, social strictures and Sudan’s moribund economy, Mr. Alsir says. “We’re surrounded by farms,” he says. “But we’re not getting any of it.

Past a rocky expanse next to the village flows a deep canal, green with weeds, dug a decade ago by a Saudi-owned company called Tala Investment Co. It runs from the Nile about 10 miles to Tala’s farm, which leases its land from the government.  Tala grows crops for export and maximizes profits using Sudan’s “cheap manpower,” the company’s website says….The alfalfa is shipped 400 miles overland to Port Sudan and then across a nearly 200-mile stretch of the Red Sea to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, then is used for animal feed….

The Aswan dam  In Egypt is primarily used to generate electricity. But a sprawling desert farm, the Toshka project to the west, taps the reservoir. That is where Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have made some of their biggest agricultural investments in Egypt in the past decade.  The strategy there is straightforward, says Turki Faisal Al Rasheed, founder of Saudi agriculture company Golden Grass Inc., which has explored purchasing farms in Egypt and Sudan. “When you talk about buying land, you’re not really buying land,” he says. “You’re buying water.”

Even with all that water dedicated to growing crops, Egypt  is rapidly outstripping its resources.  This is because he country’s population is forecast to grow 20% to 120 million by 2030, and to 150 million by 2050.  Access to water in Egypt is increasingly uncertain. The country’s annual per capita water use dipped below 24,000 cubic feet in recent years and is expected to fall below 18,000 cubic feet by 2030, a level defined as “absolute water scarcity,” according to the United Nations. The comparable figure in the U.S. is 100,000 cubic feet, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool.  Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. control about 383,000 acres of land in Egypt, an expanse nearly twice the size of New York City, according to Land Matrix. The main crops are corn, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, barley and fruit such as grapes that are exported back home.

Mr. Sisi is now looking for new places to grow food. In 2015 he launched a program to expand arable land by more than 1.5 million acres in the country, part of which will tap into the Nubian aquifer, an irreplaceable ancient store of water beneath the Sahara. Saudi and U.A.E. companies have bid for lands in the project, according to the New Egyptian Countryside Development Co., which is managing the project.  Mr. Al Rasheed, the Saudi farm owner in Egypt, says that for him and others from the Gulf, farming along the Nile is about building regional influence as much as ensuring food supplies. “Food is the ultimate power,” he says.


Excerpts from Justin Scheck &Scott Patterson, ‘Food Is the Ultimate Power’: Parched Countries Tap the Nile River Through Farms, WSJ, Nov. 25, 2019

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

How to Save the Rhino: Fake Rhino Horns Flood the Market

Rhinoceros horns are big business. Traditional Chinese medicine uses them to treat rheumatism and gout… And Yemeni craftsmen carve them into dagger handles. A kilogram can thus command as much as $60,000, so there is tremendous incentive for poachers to hunt the animals. Since almost all rhinoceros populations are endangered, several critically, this is a serious problem. Some conservationists therefore suggest that a way to reduce pressure on the animals might be to flood the market with fakes. This, they hope, would reduce the value of real horns and consequently the incentive to hunt rhinos.

That would require the fakes to be good. But Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at Oxford University, reckons his skills as a forger are up to the challenge. As he writes in Scientific Reports, he and his colleagues from Fudan University, in Shanghai, have come up with a cheap and easy-to-make knock-off that is strikingly similar to the real thing.  The main ingredient of Dr Vollrath’s forged horns is horsehair. Despite their differing appearances, horses and rhinos are reasonably closely related. Horses do not have horns, of course. But, technically, neither do rhinos. Unlike the structures that adorn cattle and bison, which have cores made of bone, the “horns” of rhinoceros are composed of hairs bound tightly together by a mixture of dead cells.  Examination under a microscope showed that hairs collected from horses’ tails had similar dimensions and symmetry to those found in the horns of rhinos. 

The next task they tackled was making a suitable glue. This is made from a fibrous protein-rich glue of the sort produced naturally by spiders and silkworms. They bundled the treated horse hairs as tightly as they could in a matrix of this glue, and then left the bundles in an oven to dry.  The result was a material that, with some polishing, looked like rhino horn….DNA analysis would certainly reveal fakes, but such analysis is complicated and therefore hard to do in the sorts of back rooms in which rhino-horn sales tend to take place. The forgeries passed other tests with flying colors, though…

Excerpts from How to forge rhinoceros horn, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

For more details see Creating artificial Rhino Horns from Horse Hair

A Way to Monetize African People: their DNA

Whistleblowers who formerly worked at the Cambridge-based Wellcome Sanger Institute claimed in October 2019 the institute wanted  to use the DNA samples it obtained from universities across Africa to make money.  They said staff there planned to build a medical research tool, gene chips , based on the DNA, which it could then have sold commercially.

As a result the Stellenbosch University in Western Cape has called for the Sanger Institute to return the DNA samples to the African universities it got them from.  Critics argued the people who donated the samples – members of indigenous communities such as the Nama people – did not consent to it being used this way.    The DNA samples were collected by various African universities and the Lebanese American University in Beirutl.  The samples were shared under so-called ‘material transfer arrangements.’   DNA donors included members of indigenous communities — such as the Nama people of Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, and South Africa.

Participants were reportedly told samples would only be used to study ‘population history and human evolution.’…  The Stellenbosch University in South Africa reportedly wrote that it had provided DNA samples from the Nama people ‘to be used solely for research purposes.’  ‘It was recently brought to [the university’s] attention that […] the Wellcome Sanger Institute intends to proceed with commercialisation of the research, data and Nama DNA,’ they continued.  ‘This conduct of the Wellcome Sanger Institute raises serious legal and ethical consequences.

South African scientists demand the return of hundreds of tribal DNA samples after a British institute was accused of trying to use them to make money, Daily Mail, Oct. 14, 2019