Monthly Archives: January 2013

Arctic Oil Spills are Not Preventable

The Arctic Council Oil Spill Task Force, jointly led by the US, Norway and Russia, has finalized its work with drafting an agreement on oil pollution incidents in Arctic waters.  The agreement is to be presented and signed during the upcoming Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May. The agreement comes as a result of a decision made by ministers of the 8 Arctic Countries at their previous meeting, i.e., in May 2011 in Nuuk, Greenland, to develop an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response.

The agreement will cover Arctic marine areas of the 8 Arctic Countries and apply to all kind of possible pollution sources, oilrigs and ships, except ships operated by a state such as naval vessels. The oil spill agreement will stipulate that each Arctic country must have a system in place that takes into account activities or places that are particularly likely to give rise to or suffer from incidents as well as areas of special ecological significance. Among other things, the agreement will contain rules for notifying about, monitoring, and assisting in responses to oil pollution incidents. It also will have stipulations regarding information exchange, the carrying out of joint exercises and training, and meetings of the parties to the agreement.

While advocating a moratorium on Arctic marine oil and gas extraction, environmentalist groups that have been following the preparation of the agreement text are welcoming it as a step forward in fighting oil spills. According to environmentalists, given that resource exploration and extraction in Arctic waters is increasing, oil spill incidents will inevitably happen. These groups also praises the fact that the agreement will recognize the role of indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents in supporting oil spill preparedness and response. Yet, at the same time, they criticize the agreement for not facilitating the use of privately owned – i.e., by oil companies – response equipment. NGOs furthermore point out that while the agreement goes a good long way to maintain and harmonize national procedures, it fails to commit its parties to actually raise their preparedness and response standards.

From the website of Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat

The Evaporation of Andes Glaciers: a study

The glacier retreat in the tropical Andes over the last three decades is unprecedented since the maximum extension of the Little Ice Age (LIA, mid-17th–early 18th century). In terms of changes in mass balance, although there have been some sporadic gains on several glaciers, we show that the trend has been quite negative over the past 50 yr, with a mean mass balance deficit for glaciers in the tropical Andes that is slightly more negative than the one computed on a global scale. A break point in the trend appeared in the late 1970s with mean annual mass balance per year decreasing from −0.2 m w.e. in the period 1964–1975 to −0.76 m w.e. in the period 1976–2010.

In addition, even if glaciers are currently retreating everywhere in the tropical Andes, it should be noted that this is much more pronounced on small glaciers at low altitudes that do not have a permanent accumulation zone, and which could disappear in the coming years/decades. Monthly mass balance measurements performed in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia show that variability of the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean is the main factor governing variability of the mass balance at the decadal timescale. Precipitation did not display a significant trend in the tropical Andes in the 20th century, and consequently cannot explain the glacier recession. On the other hand, temperature increased at a significant rate of 0.10 °C decade−1 in the last 70 yr. The higher frequency of El Niño events and changes in its spatial and temporal occurrence since the late 1970s together with a warming troposphere over the tropical Andes may thus explain much of the recent dramatic shrinkage of glaciers in this part of the world.

A. Rabatel, et al.,Current state of glaciers in the tropical Andes: a multi-century perspective on glacier evolution and climate change. The Cryosphere: An Interactive Open Access Journal of the European Geosciences Union

Just Hit See-Me: the new military satellites

The Seeme Program from DARPA website:

DARPA’s SeeMe (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) program aims to give mobile individual US warfighters access to on-demand, space-based tactical information in remote and beyond- line-of-sight conditions. If successful, SeeMe will provide small squads and individual teams the ability to receive timely imagery of their specific overseas location directly from a small satellite with the press of a button — something that’s currently not possible from military or commercial satellites.

The program seeks to develop a constellation of small “disposable” satellites, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems, enabling deployed warfighters overseas to hit ‘see me’ on existing handheld devices to receive a satellite image of their precise location within 90 minutes. DARPA plans SeeMe to be an adjunct to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, which provides local and regional very-high resolution coverage but cannot cover extended areas without frequent refueling. SeeMe aims to support warfighters in multiple deployed overseas locations simultaneously with no logistics or maintenance costs beyond the warfighters’ handheld devices.

The SeeMe constellation may consist of some two-dozen satellites, each lasting 60-90 days in a very low-earth orbit before de-orbiting and completely burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard. The program may leverage DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program, which is developing an aircraft-based satellite launch platform for payloads on the order of 100 lbs. ALASA seeks to provide low-cost, rapid launch of small satellites into any required orbit, a capability not possible today from fixed ground launch sites.

Raytheon Company was awarded a $1.5 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contract for phase one of the agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) program. During the next nine months, the company will complete the design for small satellites to enhance warfighter situational awareness in the battlespace.  Raython News Release, Dec. 13, 2012

Torture in Afghanistan: following the master

The UN report (2013), titled “Treatment of Conflict-Related Detainees in Afghan Custody,” offered a grim tour of Afghanistan’s detention facilities, where even adolescents have reported abuse like beatings with hoses and pipes and threats of sodomy.

In the case of the intelligence service, the United Nations reported a lower incidence of torture. But it was not clear whether that finding reflected improved behavior as much as it did a decrease in the number of detainees handed over to the intelligence service by the international military coalition. And some detainees have alluded to new secret interrogation centers.

The Afghan government rejected the report’s specific allegations but said that there were some abuses, and that it had taken numerous steps to improve the treatment of detainees. The government gave United Nations officials access to those held in all but one detention facility.Among the questions raised by the report is whether the pervasiveness of torture will make it difficult for the American military to hand over those being held in the Parwan Detention Facility, also known as Bagram Prison, as required under the agreement reached last week in Washington between President Obama and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.  The United Nations did not look at the Parwan Detention Facility, in part because it is not yet wholly under Afghan control….

After a United Nations report on torture in 2011, the international coalition suspended transfers of battlefield detainees to 16 Afghan detention sites. ISAF resumed transfers to most of those centers after certifying that they were complying with human rights protocols. Then, in October 2012, the coalition received new reports of torture and abuse and halted some of the transfers that it had restarted only months before, the United Nations report said. The United Nations has briefed ISAF at several points in the course of its research, which included interviews with more than 600 detainees as well as employees of the Afghan intelligence service, the Afghan police, judges and prosecutors….The Afghan government’s 20-page response, which is included in the United Nations report, rejected all specific allegations, including “beating with rubber pipes or water pipes, forced confession, suspension, twisting of the detainees’ penises and wrenching of the detainees’ testicles, death threats, sexual abuse and child abuse.”

ALISSA J. RUBIN, Anti-Torture Efforts in Afghanistan Failed, U.N. Says, NY Times, Jan. 20, 2012

See also Convention against Torture

The Playbook of Targeted Killings

The Obama administration is nearing completion of a detailed counterterrorism manual that is designed to establish clear rules for targeted-killing operations but leaves open a major exemption for the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.  The carve-out would allow the CIA to continue pounding al-Qaeda and Taliban targets for a year or more before the agency is forced to comply with more stringent rules spelled out in a classified document that officials have described as a counterterrorism “playbook.”

The document, which is expected to be submitted to President Obama for final approval within weeks, marks the culmination of a year-long effort by the White House to codify its counterterrorism policies and create a guide for lethal operations through Obama’s second term.

A senior U.S. official involved in drafting the document said that a few issues remain unresolved but described them as minor. The senior U.S. official said the playbook “will be done shortly.”  The adoption of a formal guide to targeted killing marks a significant — and to some uncomfortable — milestone: the institutionalization of a practice that would have seemed anathema to many before the Sept. 11 , 2001, terrorist attacks.Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.

U.S. officials said the effort to draft the playbook was nearly derailed late last year by disagreements among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon on the criteria for lethal strikes and other issues. Granting the CIA a temporary exemption for its Pakistan operations was described as a compromise that allowed officials to move forward with other parts of the playbook.The decision to allow the CIA strikes to continue was driven in part by concern that the window for weakening al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan is beginning to close, with plans to pull most U.S. troops out of neighboring Afghanistan over the next two years. CIA drones are flown out of bases in Afghanistan.

Excerpt, Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung, CIA drone strikes will get pass in counterterrorism ‘playbook,’ officials say, Washington Post., Jan 19, 2012

The Desert at the Heart of the Amazon Rainforest

An area of the Amazon rainforest twice the size of California continues to suffer from the effects of a megadrought that began in 2005, finds a new NASA-led study. These results, together with observed recurrences of droughts every few years and associated damage to the forests in southern and western Amazonia in the past decade, suggest these rainforests may be showing the first signs of potential large-scale degradation due to climate change.

An international research team led by Sassan Saatchi of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., analyzed more than a decade of satellite microwave radar data collected between 2000 and 2009 over Amazonia. The observations included measurements of rainfall from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission and measurements of the moisture content and structure of the forest canopy (top layer) from the Seawinds scatterometer on NASA’s QuikScat spacecraft.

The scientists found that during the summer of 2005, more than 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers, or 70 million hectares) of pristine, old-growth forest in southwestern Amazonia experienced an extensive, severe drought. This megadrought caused widespread changes to the forest canopy that were detectable by satellite. The changes suggest dieback of branches and tree falls, especially among the older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees that blanket the forest.

While rainfall levels gradually recovered in subsequent years, the damage to the forest canopy persisted all the way to the next major drought, which began in 2010. About half the forest affected by the 2005 drought – an area the size of California – did not recover by the time QuikScat stopped gathering global data in November 2009 and before the start of a more extensive drought in 2010.

“The biggest surprise for us was that the effects appeared to persist for years after the 2005 drought,” said study co-author Yadvinder Malhi of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. “We had expected the forest canopy to bounce back after a year with a new flush of leaf growth, but the damage appeared to persist right up to the subsequent drought in 2010.”

Recent Amazonian droughts have drawn attention to the vulnerability of tropical forests to climate change. Satellite and ground data have shown an increase in wildfires during drought years and tree die-offs following severe droughts. Until now, there had been no satellite-based assessment of the multi-year impacts of these droughts across all of Amazonia. Large-scale droughts can lead to sustained releases of carbon dioxide from decaying wood, affecting ecosystems and Earth’s carbon cycle.

The researchers attribute the 2005 Amazonian drought to the long-term warming of tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures. “In effect, the same climate phenomenon that helped form hurricanes Katrina and Rita along U.S. southern coasts in 2005 also likely caused the severe drought in southwest Amazonia,” Saatchi said. “An extreme climate event caused the drought, which subsequently damaged the Amazonian trees.”

Saatchi said such megadroughts can have long-lasting effects on rainforest ecosystems. “Our results suggest that if droughts continue at five- to 10-year intervals or increase in frequency due to climate change, large areas of the Amazon forest are likely to be exposed to persistent effects of droughts and corresponding slow forest recovery,” he said. “This may alter the structure and function of Amazonian rainforest ecosystems.”

The team found that the area affected by the 2005 drought was much larger than scientists had previously predicted. About 30 percent (656,370 square miles, or 1.7 million square kilometers) of the Amazon basin’s total current forest area was affected, with more than five percent of the forest experiencing severe drought conditions. The 2010 drought affected nearly half of the entire Amazon forest, with nearly a fifth of it experiencing severe drought. More than 231,660 square miles (600,000 square kilometers) of the area affected by the 2005 drought were also affected by the 2010 drought. This “double whammy” by successive droughts suggests a potentially long-lasting and widespread effect on forests in southern and western Amazonia.

The drought rate in Amazonia during the past decade is unprecedented over the past century. In addition to the two major droughts in 2005 and 2010, the area has experienced several localized mini-droughts in recent years. Observations from ground stations show that rainfall over the southern Amazon rainforest declined by almost 3.2 percent per year in the period from 1970 to 1998. Climate analyses for the period from 1995 to 2005 show a steady decline in water availability for plants in the region. Together, these data suggest a decade of moderate water stress led up to the 2005 drought, helping trigger the large-scale forest damage seen following the 2005 drought…

Results of the study were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Other participating institutions included UCLA; University of Oxford, United Kingdom; University of Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom; National Institute for Space Research, Sao Jose dos Campos, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Boston University, Mass.; and NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

Study Finds Severe Climate Jeopardizing Amazon Forest, NASA Press Release, Jan. 17, 2013

Water in the Middle East: investment

Amidst a growing water crisis in the predominantly arid Middle East and North Africa (MENA), some of the world’s most influential water experts will meet Jan. 15-17 at the International Water Summit (IWS) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) to look for sustainable solutions.The World Bank has already warned that MENA is the world’s “most water-scarce region, home to 6.3 percent of the world’s population but with just 1.4 percent of renewable fresh water.”

The six countries that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE – are expected to spend a staggering 725 billion dollars over the next two decades on new water projects, desalination plants, infrastructure-building and high-tech innovations…

At the Abu Dhabi summit, Project Stream will offer a major opportunity for developers and investors to “connect and accelerate the building of sustainable water solutions”.  The summit, which is is part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week being hosted by Masdar, described as “a sustainable green energy city of the future”, will also bring together financiers and some of the world’s leading engineering, technology and service providers.

Peter McConnell, show director for IWS, says that GCC countries have been investing heavily in water sustainability over the last few years.  “And Project Stream will in essence become a networking platform that will connect solution providers from around the world to project developers from the region,” he added.  These projects, McConnell, said range from multi-billion-dollar government infrastructure ventures to high-tech innovations in areas such as low-energy desalination, water leakage prevention and water efficiency.  “These will contribute in a significant way to address the worldwide challenges surrounding clear water supply,” he added…

The industry think-tank Global Water Intelligence (GWI), which is collaborating with Project Stream in Abu Dhabi, has reported major planned investments by Gulf countries, amounting as much as 725 billion dollars over the next two decades.  Between 2013 and 2017, Qatar is planning to invest some 1.1 billion dollars in desalination capacity through independent water and power projects (IWPPs).  Kuwait has a combined municipal water/wastewater capital expenditure budget of 4.4 billion dollars from 2013 to 2016, while the UAE’s budget reaches 13.0 billion dollars.  Saudi Arabia is expected to spend about 53.9 billion dollars over the next two decades to build, operate and maintain water projects to meet the growing demand in the Kingdom, according to GWI estimates

Excerpts,  Thalif Deen, Water Summit to Focus on Resolving Scarcities in Mideast, IPS, Jan. 11, 2012

Reversing Deforestation in the Amazon

Brazilian policymakers can take some of the credit for a dramatic slowdown in the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon, say experts – but that’s not the whole story.  In November Brazil (2012) announced deforestation rates in the Amazon declined 27 percent from August 2011 to July 2012, reaching the lowest rates ever recorded for the fourth consecutive year.  According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), 4656 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest were cleared over the twelve months, compared with 27,772 square kilometres in 2004.

Brazil’s government says this represents a 76 percent reduction since 2004 – coming close to the country’s commitment to reduce deforestation in the Amazon region 80 percent by 2020.  It has attributed the dramatic results to a package of policies known as PPCDAm (The Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Legal Amazon Deforestation) that were first implemented in 2004.

PPCDAm comprises more than 200 initiatives across 14 ministries that together aim to reduce deforestation in the Amazon…Over the last decade, the country has established new protected areas, indigenous lands and sustainable use areas covering 709,000 square kilometres.  This has decreased both deforestation and the incidence of fires – and crucially, more of them than previously are located near particularly threatened areas, making them more effective.We know every day where deforestation is going on in the Amazon…from detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days….Brazil’s space agency, remote sensing centre, and law enforcement agencies collaborate to detect and precisely locate deforestation and forest degradation, and to apprehend perpetrators.  From detection to having people in the field stopping illegal loggers takes just five days….  Last year [Brazil]  confiscated 110 chainsaws, nine bulldozers, and 329 trucks…

Jorge Hargrave – who  worked with Wunder on the UNEP report (pdf) – and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of the PPPDAm policies.  They found that these policies were responsible for curbing deforestation – and that the command-and-control policies, particularly the issuance of environmental fines, had the most impact.  The government’s decision to focus on 36 specific municipalities where deforestation was most intense was also very effective, they found, as was the cross sector coordination and high-level political support for the program.

However, Hargrave also cautioned against over-confidence about the recent encouraging results. “It’s not clear that if the government changes or the policy changes, deforestation can’t go up again,” he said.  “In addition, the lack of land tenure security in the region was consistently identified as a key problem and the biggest bottleneck to further progress.”

In another recent study, Clarissa Costalonga e Gandour and colleagues from the Climate Policy Initiative showed that environmental policies are important – but are only part of the deforestation-reduction story.  The study found that agricultural prices – particularly meat and soybeans – had a significant impact on deforestation as well…The study makes special mention of a 2008 policy that made rural credit for agricultural activities in the Amazon conditional on proof of compliance with environmental regulations – with exceptions for smallholders.

Excerpts, KATE EVANS, How much credit can Brazil take for slowing Amazon deforestation – and how low can it go?, CIFOR, Jan. 15, 2013

Nuclear Waste from Britain to Japan on the Pacific Grebe

Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. said Thursday that 28 canisters of high-level radioactive waste produced through the reprocessing of spent Japanese nuclear fuel in Britain will arrive in Aomori Prefecture in the latter half of February.  The 28 canisters of vitrified radioactive waste include 14 for Kansai Electric Power Co. and seven each for Chubu Electric Power Co. and Chugoku Electric Power Co.

The freighter Pacific Grebe carrying the waste left the port of Barrow on Wednesday Jan, 9, 2013) and will travel to Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, via the Panama Canal, Japan Nuclear Fuel said.  It will be the third time that vitrified radioactive waste will be brought to Japan from Britain.

Japan has received 104 canisters of such waste from Britain and plans to receive around 800 more. The 104 canisters have been stored at a facility in the village of Rokkasho.

Reprocessed nuclear waste to arrive in Aomori from Britain in late February, The Japan Times, Jan. 11, 2012

How to Command the Deep Sea: deep sea capsules of DARPA

Distributed systems to hibernate in deep-sea capsules for years, wake up when commanded, and deploy to surface providing operational support and situational awareness.

Today, cost and complexity limit the Navy to fewer weapons systems and platforms, so resources are strained to operate over vast maritime areas. Unmanned systems and sensors are commonly envisioned to fill coverage gaps and deliver action at a distance. However, for all of the advances in sensing, autonomy, and unmanned platforms in recent years, the usefulness of such technology becomes academic when faced with the question, “How do you get the systems there?” DARPA’s Upward Falling Payloads program seeks to address that challenge.

The UFP concept centers on developing deployable, unmanned, distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes would then be woken up remotely when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they “fall upward.”

“The goal is to support the Navy with distributed technologies anywhere, anytime over large maritime areas. If we can do this rapidly, we can get close to the areas we need to affect, or become widely distributed without delay,” said Andy Coon, DARPA program manager. “To make this work, we need to address technical challenges like extended survival of nodes under extreme ocean pressure, communications to wake-up the nodes after years of sleep, and efficient launch of payloads to the surface.”

Source DARPA, Jan. 11, 2013

DARPA will host a Proposers’ Day Conference for the Upward Falling Payload (UFP) program on Friday, January 25, 2012 in Arlington, VA at the DARPA Conference Center, in support of the Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) DARPA-BAA-13-17

Cost and complexity limit the number of ships and weapon systems the Navy can support in forward operating areas. This concentration of force structure is magnified as areas of contested environments grow. A natural response is to develop lower-cost unmanned and distributed systems that can deliver effects and situation awareness at a distance. However, power and logistics to deliver these systems over vast ocean areas limit their utility. The Upward Falling Payload (UFP) program intends to overcome these barriers. The objective of the UFP program is to realize a new approach for enabling forward deployed unmanned distributed systems that can provide non-lethal effects or situation awareness over large maritime areas. The approach centers on pre-deploying deep-ocean nodes years in advance in forward areas which can be commanded from standoff to launch to the surface. The UFP system is envisioned to consist of three key subsystems: (1) The ‘payload’ which executes waterborne or airborne applications after being deployed to the surface, (2) The UFP ‘riser’ which provides pressure tolerant encapsulation and launch (ascent) of the payload, and (3) The UFP communications which triggers the UFP riser to launch. A multi-phase effort is envisioned to design, develop, and demonstrate UFP systems.

Source: Federal Business Opportunities

What Transocean Pays for the Gulf Oil Spill

Transocean Ltd. appeared in federal court in New Orleans after reaching a $1.4 billion settlement with the U.S. over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill….The company agreed last week to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Clean Water Act and to pay $400 million in criminal fines and $1 billion plus interest in civil penalties. Under the agreement, Transocean will undergo five years’ probation and establish a technology innovation group to focus on drilling safety, devoting a minimum of $10 million to this effort…..

The agreement doesn’t cover costs to Transocean for natural-resources damage under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the company said. That law requires responsible parties to reimburse governments for restoring natural resources to pre- incident conditions.  Transocean said last week that the company’s liability for these damages was limited by a 2012 court ruling that it wouldn’t be liable under the Oil Pollution Act for subsurface discharge from the well.

The blowout and explosion aboard Transocean’s drilling rig sent millions of barrels of crude leaking into the gulf. The accident prompted hundreds of lawsuits against Transocean, London-based BP, the well’s owner, and Houston-based Halliburton Co. (HAL), which provided cementing services. BP previously agreed to pay $4 billion to the Justice Department to resolve charges connected to the spill and $525 million to settle the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s claim that the company misled investors about the rate of oil flowing into the gulf.  BP announced Nov. 15 that it reached a deal with the Justice Department to plead guilty to 14 counts, including 11 for felony seaman’s manslaughter. U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance said last month that she would determine at a Jan. 29 hearing whether to accept BP’s plea.

The criminal case is U.S. v. Transocean Deepwater Inc., 13- cr-001, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans). (pdf)

Margaret Cronin Fisk & Allen Johnson Jr, Transocean Appears in Court After $1.4 Billion Spill Pact, Bloomberg, Jan. 9, 2013

Nuclear Energy and the Supplies of Uranium: 2013

Uranium is poised to rebound from a second annual decline as Japan considers restarting its atomic plants almost two years after the Fukushima disaster and China pushes ahead with the world’s biggest nuclear building program…A revival in demand from Japan is raising the prospect that supplies of the radioactive metal will shrink at the same time as China continues with a project to increase its nuclear power capacity at least fivefold by 2020. That’s a boost for uranium producers such as Perth, Australia-based Paladin (PDN) Energy Ltd. It’s also a blow for liquefied natural gas exporters including Qatar and Australia, which have helped plug Japan’s power shortage since the earthquake that led to the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011.,,,

The uranium forecasts for 2013 ranged from $45 to $62.60 a ton in the Bloomberg survey conducted Dec. 10 to Dec. 19. That compares with a three-year high of $73 in February 2011, according to data from Roswell, Georgia-based Ux Consulting, which advises the nuclear industry. The fuel averaged $56.80 in 2011 and was $43 a pound on Jan. 3.  The price plunged as low as $49.75 a ton in March 2011 after Japan’s biggest earthquake on record and a subsequent tsunami damaged reactors at the Fukushima site run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (9501), releasing radiation and causing the evacuation of 160,000 people. The government responded to the disaster by keeping all 54 of the nation’s then-functioning atomic plants shut after safety checks, while countries from China to France reviewed their nuclear policies and Germany said it would close its facilities….

Speculation that uranium demand will rebound has grown since Dec. 16, when Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party won a landslide election victory. The previous administration of the Democratic Party of Japan, which ordered the shutdowns, planned to phase out nuclear power by the end of the 2030s…

Stockmarket investors have been betting that the resumptions will occur and boost uranium demand just as China pushes on with plans to build at least 26 new reactors. At the same time, analysts are predicting a drop in the price of LNG as Japan’s utilities seek to reduce their electricity-generation costs by switching back to nuclear.

Paladin, which operates two uranium mines in Africa and has exploration assets in Australia, rose 22 percent in Sydney in the two days through Dec. 18. Energy Resources of Australia Ltd. (ERA), whose Ranger mine in the Northern Territory produces about 10 percent of the world’s mined uranium, advanced 13 percent over the same period. Australia has the world’s largest known deposits of the fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association.

The cost of Japan’s LNG imports almost doubled in the past three years, reaching a record $18.07 per million Btu in July, according to Finance Ministry data. Purchases for the first 11 months of last year increased 11.5 percent from the same period in 2011 to a record 79.5 million tons, according to data from the ministry….The country must restart reactors quickly because of the price of fossil fuels, LDP General Council Chairman Hiroyuki Hosoda said Nov. 27.

Ben Sharples. Uranium Rebound Seen as Japan Considers Nuclear: Energy Markets, Bloomberg, Jan. 4, 2012

Illegal Nuclear Waste Dumping, Japan

Cleanup crews in Fukushima Prefecture have dumped soil and leaves contaminated with radioactive fallout into rivers. Water sprayed on contaminated buildings has been allowed to drain back into the environment. And supervisors have instructed workers to ignore rules on proper collection and disposal of the radioactive waste.  Decontamination is considered a crucial process in enabling thousands of evacuees to return to their homes around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and resume their normal lives.  But the decontamination work witnessed by a team of Asahi Shimbun reporters shows that contractual rules with the Environment Ministry have been regularly and blatantly ignored, and in some cases, could violate environmental laws.  “If the reports are true, it would be extremely regrettable,” Fukushima Governor Yuhei Sato said at his first news conference of the year on Jan. 4. “I hope everyone involved will clearly understand how important decontamination is to the people of Fukushima.”

He called on the Environment Ministry to investigate and present a clear report to the prefectural government.  The shoddy practices may also raise questions about the decontamination program itself–and the huge amounts of money pumped into the program.  The central government initially set aside 650 billion yen ($7.4 billion) to decontaminate areas hit by radioactive substances from the March 11, 2011, accident at the Fukushima plant. Since last summer, the Environment Ministry has designated 11 municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture for special decontamination work.  Work has already begun in four municipalities to remove radioactive substances from areas within 20 meters of buildings, roads and farmland.  The Environment Ministry itself does not have the know-how to decontaminate such a large area, so it has given contracts to joint ventures led by major construction companies to do the work.

A contract worth 18.8 billion yen to decontaminate the municipality of Naraha was awarded to a group that includes Maeda Corp. and Dai Nippon Construction. A 7.7-billion-yen contract for Iitate was signed with a group that includes Taisei Corp., while a 4.3-billion-yen contract for Kawauchi was given to a group led by Obayashi Corp. A consortium that includes Kajima Corp. was awarded a 3.3-billion-yen contract to clean up Tamura.  In signing the contracts, the Environment Ministry established work rules requiring the companies to place all collected soil and leaves into bags to ensure the radioactive materials would not spread further. The roofs and walls of homes must be wiped by hand or brushes. The use of pressurized sprayers is limited to gutters to avoid the spread of contaminated water. The water used in such cleaning must be properly collected under the ministry’s rules.

A special measures law for dealing with radioactive contamination of the environment prohibits the dumping of such waste materials. Violators face a maximum prison sentence of five years or a 10-million-yen fine.  From Dec. 11 to 18, four Asahi reporters spent 130 hours observing work at various locations in Fukushima Prefecture.At 13 locations in Naraha, Iitate and Tamura, workers were seen simply dumping collected soil and leaves as well as water used for cleaning rather than securing them for proper disposal. Photographs were taken at 11 of those locations.

Excerpt, CROOKED CLEANUP (1): Radioactive waste dumped into rivers during decontamination work in Fukushima, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Jan. 4, 2012

Bank Secrecy: Wegelin

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, said on Thursday it would shut its doors permanently after more than 2 1/2 centuries, following its guilty plea to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts.  The plea, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, marks the death knell for one of Switzerland’s most storied banks, whose original European clients pre-date the American Revolution. It is also potentially a major turning point in a battle by U.S. authorities against Swiss bank secrecy.  A major question was left hanging by the plea: Has the bank turned over, or does it plan to disclose, names of American clients to U.S. authorities?.. Wegelin admitted to charges of conspiracy in helping Americans evade taxes on at least $1.2 billion for nearly a decade. Wegelin agreed to pay $57.8 million to the United States in restitution and fines. Otto Bruderer, a managing partner at the bank, said in court that “Wegelin was aware that this conduct was wrong.”  He said that “from about 2002 through about 2010, Wegelin agreed with certain U.S. taxpayers to evade the U.S. tax obligations of these U.S. taxpayer clients, who filed false tax returns with the IRS.”..

The surprise plea effectively ended the U.S. case against Wegelin, one of the most aggressive bank crackdowns in U.S. history.  “Once the matter is finally concluded, Wegelin will cease to operate as a bank,” Wegelin said in a statement on Thursday from its headquarters in the remote, small town of St. Gallen next to the Appenzell Alps near the German-Austrian border.  But the fate of three Wegelin bankers, indicted in January 2012 on charges later modified to include the bank, remains up in the air. Under criminal procedural rules, the cases of the three bankers – Michael Berlinka, Urs Frei and Roger Keller – are still pending.,

Although Wegelin had about a dozen branches, all in Switzerland, at the time of its indictment, it moved quickly to wind down its business, partly through a sale of its non-U.S. assets to regional Swiss bank Raiffeisen Gruppe.….Wegelin, a partnership of Swiss private bankers, was already a shadow of its former self – it effectively broke itself up following the indictment last year by selling the non-U.S. portion of its business.

Dozens of Swiss bankers and their clients have been indicted in recent years, following a 2009 agreement by UBS AG (UBSN.VX), the largest Swiss bank, to enter into a deferred-prosecution agreement, turn over 4,450 client names and pay a $780 million fine after admitting to criminal wrongdoing in selling tax-evasion services to wealthy Americans…Banks under U.S. criminal investigation in the wider probe include Credit Suisse, which disclosed last July it had received a target letter saying it was under a grand jury investigation…Zurich-based Julius Baer and some cantonal, or regional, banks are also under scrutiny, sources familiar with the probes previously told Reuters. So are UK-based HSBC Holdings (HSBA.L) and three Israeli banks, Hapoalim, Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank Ltd and Bank Leumi (LUMI.TA), sources also said previously.

Under its plea, Wegelin agreed to pay the $20 million in restitution to the IRS as well a civil forfeiture of $15.8 million, the Justice Department said.  Wegelin also agreed to pay an additional $22.05 million fine, the Justice Department said. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who must approve the monetary penalties, set a hearing in the case for March 4 for sentencing.  Last year, the U.S. government separately seized more than $16 million of Wegelin funds in a UBS AG account in Stamford, Connecticut, via a civil forfeiture complaint.  Since Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland, it used UBS for correspondent banking services, a standard industry practice, to handle money for U.S.-based clients.  n court papers, Bruderer said that Wegelin “believed it would not be prosecuted in the United States for this conduct because it had no branches or offices in the United States and because of its understanding that it acted in accordance with, and not in violation of, Swiss law and that such conduct was common in the Swiss banking industry.”

The case is U.S. v. Wegelin & Co et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-cr-00002.

Excerpts, Nate Raymond and Lynnley Browning, Swiss bank Wegelin to close after guilty plea, Reuters, Jan. 4, 2013

The Lack of Nuclear Waste Confidence

In documents filed Wednesday (Jan. 2, 2012)  with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a wide range of national and grassroots environmental groups said it would be impossible for the NRC to adequately conduct a court-ordered assessment of the environmental implications of long-term storage of spent nuclear reactor fuel in the two short years the federal agency envisions for the process.

In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the NRC’s 2010 Waste Confidence Decision and Temporary Storage Rule and remanded them to the agency for study of the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel indefinitely if no permanent nuclear waste repository is licensed or if licensing of a repository is substantially delayed. Spent nuclear fuel remains highly dangerous for prolonged periods. It has long-lived radioactive materials in it that can seriously contaminate the environment and harm public health if released. Additionally, spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium-239, a radiotoxic element that can be used to make nuclear weapons if separated from the other materials in the fuel. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years.

In their filings, the 24 groups said a full review of the three issues outlined in June 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – long-term storage risks for spent nuclear fuel, spent fuel pool fire risks, and spent fuel pool leakage risks – would take at least the seven years originally projected by the NRC staff, and likely considerably longer. Current federal law requires that the NRC conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) study before issuing a revised Waste Confidence Decision; the 24 groups submitted their comments about the appropriate “scoping” of the EIS.

In the absence of an adequate EIS review, the NRC has “no choice but to continue to suspend all licensing and re-licensing actions” for U.S. nuclear reactors, according to the 24 organizations. All licensing and re-licensing actions were previously suspended by the NRC until an EIS and revised Waste Confidence Decision have been issued.  The 24 groups jointly filing the comments today with the NRC are the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, Beyond Nuclear, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Citizens Environmental Alliance, Don’t Waste Michigan, Ecology Party of Florida, Friends of the Earth, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, New England Coalition, Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, NC WARN, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Riverkeeper, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The expert declarations were made by: Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Dr. Gordon Thompson, executive director for the Institute for Resource and Security Studies; and Phillip Musegaas, Esq., Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper, Inc.

Highlights of the 24-group filings include the following:

•The “hurry-up” two-year timeframe for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate of NRC’s own technical staff for data collecting and analysis on the impacts of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. The NRC currently lacks sufficient information to reach scientifically, well-founded conclusions about the impacts of such storage. The agency also lacks information regarding the impacts associated with the eventual disposal of spent nuclear fuel. According to Dr. Makhijani, the NRC will not be able to gather this information within its truncated, self-imposed two-year timeframe.

•The short timeframe provided for environmental review will also not permit post-Fukushima information about U.S. reactors to be fully collected and evaluated. Under the schedule established by the NRC staff in March 2012, reactor licensees are not due to supply post-Fukushima seismic information until September 2013 for reactor sites in the eastern and central U.S. and March 2015 for western reactor sites. According to the groups’ filing with the NRC today: “Given the significant role played by seismic events in accidents ranging from spent fuel pool leaks to pool fires and their potential effects on long-term storage sites, this information is crucial to the NRC’s ability to take a ‘hard look’ at all three topics remanded by the Court.”

•Despite the Court’s order to consider impacts associated with the failure to ever establish a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel, the NRC proposed only to consider the impacts associated with failing to secure a repository by the end of this century. Dr. Makhijani and Dr. Thompson argue that the NRC should consider the environmental impacts of failing to establish a repository until 2250, requiring approximately 300 years of onsite storage.

•The NRC should consider alternatives to minimize the risks of storage of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste, including placement below ground level, elimination of the current practice of high-density storage of spent fuel in pools, and more robust designs for storage casks.

•The environmental impact statement should assess the radiological risk arising from a range of conventional accidents or attacks, including those conducted by terrorists.

24 Groups: NRC Rushing Nuclear “Waste Confidence” Process, Not Satisfying Court-Ordered Requirements, PRNewswire, Jan. 3, 2013

Inside the CIA: the Scorpions

The rapid collapse of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya exposed the vulnerabilities of State Department facilities overseas. But the CIA’s ability to fend off a second attack that same night provided a glimpse of a key element in the agency’s defensive arsenal: a secret security force created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.  Two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were members of the CIA’s Global Response Staff, an innocuously named organization that has recruited hundreds of former U.S. Special Forces operatives to serve as armed guards for the agency’s spies.   The GRS, as it is known, is designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.  But a series of deadly scrapes over the past four years has illuminated the GRS’s expanding role, as well as its emerging status as one of the CIA’s most dangerous assignments.

Of the 14 CIA employees killed since 2009, five worked for the GRS, all as contractors. They include two killed at Benghazi, as well as three others who were within the blast radius on Dec. 31, 2009, when a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide bomb at a CIA compound in Khost, Afghanistan.  GRS contractors have also been involved in shootouts in which only foreign nationals were killed, including one that triggered a diplomatic crisis. While working for the CIA, Raymond Davis was jailed for weeks in Pakistan last year after killing two men in what he said was an armed robbery attempt in Lahore. (pdf from cryptome.org)

The increasingly conspicuous role of the GRS is part of a broader expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years. Beyond hiring former U.S. military commandos, the agency has collaborated with U.S. Special Operations teams on missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has killed thousands of Islamist militants and civilians with its fleet of armed drones.

CIA veterans said that GRS teams have become a critical component of conventional espionage, providing protection for case officers whose counterterrorism assignments carry a level of risk that rarely accompanied the cloak-and-dagger encounters of the Cold War.  Spywork used to require slipping solo through cities in Eastern Europe. Now, “clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through,” said a former CIA officer who worked closely with the security group overseas.  Bodyguard details have become so essential to espionage that the CIA has overhauled its training program at the Farm — its case officer academy in southern Virginia — to teach spies the basics of working with GRS teams.

The security apparatus relies heavily on contractors who are drawn by relatively high pay and flexible schedules that give them several months off each year. In turn, they agree to high-risk assignments in places such as Benghazi and are largely left on their own to take basic precautions, such as finding health and life insurance.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the GRS has about 125 employees working abroad at any given time, with at least that many rotating through cycles of training and off-time in the United States.  At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.  The work is lucrative enough that recruiting is done largely by word of mouth, said one former U.S. intelligence official. Candidates tend to be members of U.S. Special Forces units who have recently retired, or veterans of police department SWAT teams.  Most GRS recruits arrive with skills in handling the weapons they will carry, including Glock handguns and M4 rifles. But they undergo additional training so they do not call attention to the presence or movements of the CIA officers they are in position to protect.

Although the agency created the GRS to protect officers in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been expanded to protect secret drone bases as well as CIA facilities and officers in locations including Yemen, Lebanon and Djibouti.  In some cases, elite GRS units provide security for personnel from other agencies, including National Security Agency teams deploying sensors or eavesdropping equipment in conflict zones, a former special operator said. The most skilled security operators are informally known as “scorpions.”  “They don’t learn languages, they’re not meeting foreign nationals and they’re not writing up intelligence reports,” a former U.S. intelligence official said. Their main tasks are to map escape routes from meeting places, pat down informants and provide an “envelope” of security, the former official said, all while knowing that “if push comes to shove, you’re going to have to shoot.”

The consequences in such cases can be severe. Former CIA officials who worked with the GRS still wince at the fallout from Davis’s inability to avoid capture as well as his decision to open fire in the middle of a busy street in Pakistan. The former security contractor, who did not respond to requests for comment, said he was doing basic “area familiarization” work, meaning learning his surroundings and possibly mapping routes of escape, when he was confronted by two Pakistanis traveling by motorcycle.  Davis became trapped at the scene, and his arrest provoked a diplomatic standoff between two tense allies in the fight against terrorism.  The CIA took heavy criticism for the clumsiness of the Davis episode, temporarily suspending the drone campaign in Pakistan before U.S. payments to the families of the men Davis had killed helped secure his release.

Excerpt, Greg Miller and Julie Tate, CIA’s Global Response Staff emerging from shadows after incidents in Libya and Pakistan, Washington Post. Dec. 26, 2012

Finland and Sweden go Ahead with Nuclear Waste Disposal

An application to build a Finnish repository for spent nuclear fuel was filed Friday (December 28, 2012), the government and the company planning to build the storage site said.  The planned location is at Olkiluoto in south-western Finland where two of the country‘s four reactors operate and a fifth is being built.  Company Posiva, owned by energy groups TVO and Fortum, said the envisaged site was to store 9,000 tonnes of spent uranium fuel.  “The construction licence application is based on more than 30 years of research and development work, carried out ever since the commissioning of the existing nuclear power plants,” said Reijo Sundell, president of Posiva.  The waste is to be stored in bedrock at a depth of 400-450 metres. The waste would be cached in canisters that would be able to withstand corrosion, the company said.

The Ministry of Employment and the Economy said it would invite other ministries, authorities and organizations to provide views on the plans, as well as private citizens and the municipality of Eurajoki where Olkiluoto is located.  The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority is to assess safety. The process is expected to run until the end of 2014 when the government is to consider the construction licence application.

A similar review is underway in neighbouring Sweden where the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) opted for the municipality of Osthammar, 150 kilometres north of Stockholm, for an envisaged repository to store Swedish waste for 100,000 years.  Osthammar, with some 23,000 inhabitants, is home to three reactors at the Forsmark plant and earlier applied to house the storage site.

Application filed for Finnish nuclear waste repository, Europe Online, Dec. 28, 2012

Nuclear Protesters and the Establishment: Japan

Eight million people signed an Internet petition demanding an end to nuclear power and hundreds of thousands joined public protests. Yet Japan handed an election landslide to the most pro-atomic option on offer.  Anti-nuclear activists have been left licking their wounds after the first national poll since the tsunami-sparked disaster at Fukushima saw an apparent melting away of public anger as the country welcomed back the establishment…

The Liberal Democratic Party bagged 294 of the 480 seats in the lower house, crushing their opponents, the biggest of which won only 57 seats.  Where smaller parties offered an end to nuclear power — immediately, over ten years, or within three decades — the LDP pledged only to “decide” on reactor restarts within three years.

Commentators say the pro-business party is likely to give the green light to power companies. Markets agree, with shares in Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power (TECPO) surging around 50 percent in two days after the win.  The problem, said the left-leaning Asahi Shimbun newspaper, was that other issues trumped nuclear; voters were frustrated with Japan’s economic malaise, huge public debts, fragile employment and diplomatic friction with China.  The public were looking for a way to punish the ruling Democratic Party of Japan for its policy failures…In fact, says the Asahi, the anti-nuclear vote was almost completely neutralised because of the fragmentation caused by this mushrooming of parties.

Excerpts from Hiroshi Hiyama, Japan anti-nuclear vote melts away, Agence France Presse, Dec. 23, 2012