Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Nuclear Superpower: South Korea

North Korea’s weapons program is not the only nuclear headache for South Korea. The country’s radioactive waste storage is filling up as its nuclear power industry burgeons, but what South Korea sees as its best solution — reprocessing the spent fuel so it can be used again — faces stiff opposition from its U.S. ally.  South Korea fired up its first reactor in 1978 and since then the resource-poor nation’s reliance on atomic energy has steadily grown. It is now the world’s fifth-largest nuclear energy producer, operating 23 reactors. But unlike the rapid growth of its nuclear industry, its nuclear waste management plan has been moving at a snail’s pace.

A commission will be launched before this summer to start public discussion on the permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel rods, which must be locked away for tens of thousands of years. Temporary storage for used rods in spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants is more than 70 percent full.  Undeterred by the Fukushima nuclear disaster or recent local safety failings, South Korea plans to boost atomic power to 40 percent of its energy needs with the addition of 11 reactors by 2024.  South Korea also has big ambitions to export its nuclear knowhow, originally transferred from the U.S. under a 1973 treaty that governs how its East Asian ally uses nuclear technology and explicitly bars reprocessing. The treaty also prohibits enrichment of uranium, a process that uranium must undergo to become a viable nuclear fuel, so South Korea has to get countries such as the U.S. and France to do enrichment for it.

That treaty is at the heart of Seoul’s current dilemma. It wants reprocessing rights to reduce radioactive waste and the right to enrich uranium, which would reduce a hefty import bill and aid its reactor export business. The catch: The technologies that South Korea covets can also be used to develop nuclear weapons.  Accommodating Seoul’s agenda would run counter to the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and also potentially undermine its arguments against North Korea’s attempts to develop warheads and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. South Korea, with its history of dabbling in nuclear weapons development in the 1970s and in reprocessing in the early 1980s, might itself face renewed international suspicion.

“For the United States, this is a nonproliferation issue. For South Korea, this is the issue of high-level radioactive waste management and energy security,” said Song Myung Jae, chief executive officer of state-run Korea Radioactive Waste Management Corp. “For a small country like South Korea, reducing the quantity of waste even just a little is very important.”

Newly elected President Park Geun Hye made revision of the 38-year-old treaty one of her top election pledges in campaigning last year. The treaty expires in March 2014 and a new iteration has to be submitted to Congress before the summer. The two sides have not narrowed their differences on reprocessing and enrichment by much despite ongoing talks.  South Korea also argues that uranium enrichment rights will make it a more competitive exporter of nuclear reactors as the buyers of its reactors have to import enriched uranium separately while rivals such as France and Japan can provide it. It is already big business after a South Korean consortium in 2009 won a $20 billion contract to supply reactors to the United Arab Emirates. Former President Lee Myung Bak set a target of exporting one nuclear reactor a year, which would make South Korea one of the world’s biggest reactor exporters.

Doing South Korea a favor would be a huge exception for the U.S. Congress, which has never given such consent to non-nuclear weapon states that do not already have reprocessing or enrichment technology.  “It is not the case that we think Korea will divert the material. It’s not a question of trust or mistrust,” Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said on the sidelines of the Asian Nuclear Forum in Seoul last month. “It’s a question of global policies.”

Nuclear waste storage is highly contentious in densely populated South Korea, as no one welcomes a nuclear waste dump in their backyard. Temporary storage for spent nuclear fuel rods at South Korea’s nuclear plants was 71 percent full in June, with one site in Ulsan — the heartland of South Korea’s nuclear industry — set to hit full capacity in 2016.

To accommodate the 100,000 tons of nuclear waste that South Korea is expected to generate this century, it needs a disposal vault of 20 sq. km in rock caverns some 500 meters underground, according to a 2011 study by analyst Seongho Sheen published in the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis. “Finding such a space in South Korea, a country the size of the state of Virginia, and with a population of about 50 million, would be enormously difficult,” it said.

The country’s first permanent site to dump less-risky, low-level nuclear waste such as protective clothes and shoes worn by plant workers will be completed next year after the government pacified opposition from residents of Gyeongju city, South Korea’s ancient capital, with 300 billion won ($274 million) in cash, new jobs and other economic benefits for the World Heritage city. The 2.1 million sq. meter dump will eventually hold 800,000 drums of nuclear waste.  “Opponents were concerned that the nuclear dump would hurt the reputation of the ancient capital,” said Kim Ik Jung, a medical professor at the Dongguk University in Gyeongju.

To make its demands more palatable to the U.S., South Korea is emphasizing a fledgling technology called pyroprocessing that it hopes will douse concerns about proliferation because the fissile elements that are used in nuclear weapons remain mixed together rather than being separated.  South Korea’s Atomic Energy Research Institute said pyroprocessing technology could reduce waste by 95 percent compared with 20 to 50 percent from existing reprocessing technology.

The U.S. has agreed to conduct joint research with South Korea on managing spent nuclear fuel, including pyroprocessing, but some scientists say the focus on an emerging technology that may not be economically feasible is eclipsing the more urgent need to address permanent storage of spent nuclear fuel.  “Even under the most optimistic scenario, pyroprocessing and the associated fast reactors will not be available options for dealing with South Korea’s spent fuel on a large scale for several decades,” said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Miles Pomper and Stephanie Lieggi in a joint report for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monetary Institute of International Studies. “With or without pyroprocessing, South Korea will need additional storage capacity.”

But for South Korea, researching and developing the technology is a bet worth making.  “The U.S. does not need nuclear energy as desperately as South Korea,” said Sheen, a professor at Seoul National University.

YOUKYUNG LEE, Pact stifles South as nuke waste piles up, Japan Times, Mar. 27, 2013

Drone War Moves to West Africa

The newest outpost in the US government’s empire of drone bases sits behind a razor-wire-topped wall outside Niger’s capital Niamey.  The US air force began flying a handful of unarmed Predator drones from here last month (Feb. 2013). The drones emerge sporadically from a borrowed hangar and soar north in search of al-Qaida fighters and guerrillas from other groups hiding in the region’s deserts and hills.  The harsh terrain of north and west Africa is rapidly emerging as yet another front in the long-running US war against terrorist networks, a conflict that has fuelled a revolution in drone warfare.

Since taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has relied heavily on drones for operations, both declared and covert, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. US drones also fly from allied bases in Turkey, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines.  Now they are becoming a fixture in Africa. The US military has built a major drone hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, and flies unarmed Reaper drones from Ethiopia. Until recently, it conducted reconnaissance flights over east Africa from the island nation of Seychelles.  The Predator drones in Niger, a landlocked and dirt-poor country, give the Pentagon a strategic foothold in west Africa. Niger shares a long border with Mali, where an al-Qaida affiliate and other Islamist groups have taken root. Niger also borders Libya and Nigeria, which are also struggling to contain armed extremist movements.

Like other US drone bases, the Predator operations in Niger are shrouded in secrecy. The White House announced in February that Obama had deployed about 100 military personnel to Niger on an “intelligence collection” mission, but it did not make any explicit reference to drones. Since then, the defense department has publicly acknowledged the presence of drones here but has revealed little else. The Africa Command, which oversees US military missions on the continent, denied requests from a Washington Post reporter to interview American troops in Niger or to tour the military airfield where the drones are based, near Niamey’s international airport.

Government officials in Niger, a former French colony, were slightly more forthcoming. President Issoufou Mahamadou said his government invited Washington to send surveillance drones because he was worried that the country might not be able to defend its borders from Islamist fighters based in Mali, Libya or Nigeria.  “We welcome the drones,” Mahamadou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey. Citing the “feeble capability” of many west African militaries, he said Niger and its neighbors desperately needed foreign help to track the movements of guerrillas across the Sahara and Sahel, an arid territorial belt that covers much of the region.  “Our countries are like the blind leading the blind,” he said. “We rely on countries like France and the United States. We need co-operation to ensure our security.”  The Predator drones in Niger are unarmed, US officials said, though they have not ruled out equipping the aircraft with Hellfire missiles in the future. For now, the drones are conducting surveillance over Mali and Niger….

But the rules of engagement are blurry. Intelligence gathered by the Predators could indirectly help the French fix targets for airstrikes or prompt Nigerien security forces to take action on their territory.  Moreover, US officials have acknowledged that they could use lethal force under certain circumstances. Last month, army general Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the US military had designated “a handful of high-value individuals” in north Africa for their suspected connections to al-Qaida, making them potential targets for capture or killing.  The Pentagon declined to say exactly how many Predator aircraft it has sent to Niger or how long it intends to keep them there. But there are signs that the US military wants to establish a long-term presence in west Africa.  After years of negotiations, the Obama administration signed an agreement with Niger in January that provides judicial protection and other safeguards for US troops in the country.  Two US defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the Pentagon ultimately wants to move the Predators to the Saharan city of Agadez, in northern Niger.  Agadez is closer to parts of southern Algeria and southern Libya where fighters and arms traffickers allied with al-Qaida have taken refuge. The airfield in Agadez, however, is rudimentary and needs improvements before it can host drones, officials said.

Excerpts,Craig Whitlock, Drone warfare: Niger becomes latest frontline in US war on terror, Guardian, Mar. 26, 2013

Drone Warfare Goes Mainstream: like it

occupy drone warfare.  Image from https://www.facebook.com/OccupyDroneWarfare

Rand Paul’s filibuster (March 2012) drew renewed attention to the U.S. government’s program of drone warfare. Paul’s focus — whether Obama believed that he could legally authorize a drone strike on a U.S. citizen on American soil — ultimately earned a direct response from Attorney General Eric Holder.

But  the main targets of drones have been mostly foreigners living in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The irony, given all the attention and some plaudits given to Paul’s filibuster, is that most Americans support the use of drones to fight terrorists abroad. While Paul inveighed against a hypothetical killing, the actual killings that do happen are not that controversial in the minds of most Americans. An open question, however, is whether their minds could be changed.

Only last month, the Pew Center asked a random sample of Americans whether they supported “the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?” A majority, 56 percent, approved while 26 percent disapproved and 18 percent were not sure — numbers similar to two 2012 polls.

In fact, drone strikes attracted roughly similar amounts of support from across the partisan spectrum: 68 percent of Republicans approved, as did 58 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents. A pattern of relative bipartisanship is not all that common in public opinion today, but it is predictable in this case. When leaders in the two parties don’t really disagree on something, there is no reason for partisans in the public to disagree either. In John Zaller’s magisterial account of how public opinion is formed and evolves, he refers to a pattern of bipartisanship like this one as a “mainstream effect.” Like it or not, drone warfare has become so common that “mainstream” does not sound inapt.

Thus, there is little reason to expect public opinion about the drone program to change without concerted and prolonged dissent from political leaders. That does not seem to be forthcoming. Paul’s dissent — which didn’t even emphasize foreign targets of American drones — was met with harsh rebuttals from Lindsay Graham, John McCain and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Democrats were not exactly rushing to stand with Paul either.

Would dissent from Capitol Hill make any difference? Actually, it might. Some evidence suggests public support for drone warfare is soft. The Pew survey provides hints of that. The main concern about drones — one that 53 percent of the public was “very concerned” about — was civilian casualties, which occur with some regularity…

Excerpts from Ezra Klein, Most Americans approve of foreign drone strikes, Washington Post. Mar. 8, 2013

Rape is a Way of Life in Congo

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo has threatened to stop supporting two Congolese army battalions unless soldiers accused of raping scores of women in an eastern town are prosecuted, said a senior U.N. official.  The United Nations said 126 women were raped in Minova in November 2012 after Congolese troops fled to the town as so-called M23 rebels briefly captured the nearby provincial capital of Goma.

The senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two Congolese battalions had been told to start prosecuting soldiers accused of raping the women in Minova this month or they would lose the support of U.N. peacekeepers, Reuters reports.  “Many rapes were committed. We have investigated, we have identified a number of cases and we demand that the Congolese authorities take action legally against those people,” said the official. He did not say how many soldiers had been accused. “Since nothing sufficient has happened at this stage we have already put two units of the armed forces of Congo on notice that if they do not act promptly we shall cease supporting them,” he said. “They have to shape up.”

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in December that alleged human rights abuses were committed in and around Minova between November 20 and November 30, including the 126 rapes and the killing of two civilians. Nesirky said at the time that two soldiers were charged with rape, while seven more were charged with looting.  The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, has a mandate to protect civilians and supports operations by the Congolese army. There are more than 17,000 troops in Congo – a country the size of Western Europe.

Peacekeepers have been stretched thin by the M23 rebellion in the resource-rich east of Congo and the U.N. Security Council is considering creating a special intervention force, which one senior council diplomat has said would be able to “search and destroy” the M23 rebels and other armed groups in the country.  M23 began taking parts of eastern Congo early last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal. That deal ended a previous rebellion and led to the rebels’ integration into the army, but they have since deserted.

African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated accord late last month aimed at ending two decades of conflict in eastern Congo and paving the way for the intervention force

U.N. threatens to stop working with Congo army units accused of rape, Reuters, Mar. 8, 2013

 

Who is Cryptome?

Cryptome unfamiliar to the general public, is well-known in circles where intelligence tactics, government secrets and whistle-blowing are primary concerns. Since its creation in 1996, Cryptome has amassed more than 70,000 files — including lists of secret agents, high-resolution photos of nuclear power plants, and much more.

Its co-founder and webmaster, a feisty 77-year-old architect, doesn’t hesitate when asked why.  “I’m a fierce opponent of government secrets of all kinds,” says John Young. “The scale is tipped so far the other way that I’m willing to stick my neck out and say there should be none.”  Young describes several exchanges with federal agents over postings related to espionage and potential security breaches, though no charges have ever been filed. And he notes that corporate complaints of alleged copyright violations and efforts to shut Cryptome down have gone nowhere.

For Young, there’s a more persistent annoyance than these: the inevitable comparisons of Cryptome to WikiLeaks, the more famous online secret-sharing organization launched by Julian Assange and others in 2006.  Young briefly collaborated with WikiLeaks’ creators but says he was dropped from their network after questioning plans for multimillion-dollar fundraising. Cryptome operates on a minimal budget — less than $2,000 a year, according to Young, who also shuns WikiLeaks-style publicity campaigns.  “We like the scholarly approach — slow, almost boring,” says Young. He likens Cryptome to a “dusty, dimly lit library.”  That’s not quite the image that Reader’s Digest evoked in 2005, in an article titled “Let’s Shut Them Down.” Author Michael Crowley assailed Cryptome as an “invitation to terrorists,” notably because of its postings on potential security vulnerabilities.Cryptome’s admirers also don’t fully buy into Young’s minimalist self-description….

Young considers himself a freedom-of-information militant, saying he is unbothered by “the stigma of seeming to go too far.” Claims that Cryptome aids terrorists or endangers intelligence agents are “hokum,” he said. “We couldn’t possibly publish information to aid terrorists that they couldn’t get on their own,” he said, depicting his postings about security gaps as civic-minded.  “If you know a weakness, expose it, don’t hide it,” he said…

As a motto of sorts, the Cryptome home page offers a quote from psychiatrist Carl Jung: “The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community.”  The website says Cryptome welcomes classified and confidential documents from governments worldwide, “in particular material on freedom of expression, privacy, cryptology, dual-use technologies, national security, intelligence, and secret governance.”  Young attributes Cryptome’s longevity and stature to its legion of contributors, most of them anonymous, who provide a steady stream of material to post.  Among the most frequently downloaded of Cryptome’s recent postings were high-resolution photos of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan after it was badly damaged in the March 2011 tsunami/earthquake disaster.

Cryptome also was a pivotal outlet last year for amorous emails between national security expert Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon, which led McGurk to withdraw as the Obama administration’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq.  Other documents on the site list names of people purported to be CIA sources, officers of Britain’s MI6 spy agency, and spies with Japan’s Public Security Investigation Agency….

Another exchange with the FBI came in November 2003, according to Young, when two agents paid him a visit to discuss recent Cryptome postings intended to expose national security gaps. The postings included maps and photos of rail tunnels and gas lines leading toward New York’s Madison Square Garden, where the Republican National Convention was to be held the next year….Another confrontation occurred in 2010, when Cryptome posted Microsoft’s confidential Global Criminal Compliance Handbook, outlining its policies for conducting online surveillance on behalf of law enforcement agencies. Contending that the posting was a copyright violation, Microsoft asked that Cryptome be shut down by its host, Network Solutions. Criticism of Microsoft followed, from advocates of online free speech, and the complaint was withdrawn within a few days….

Moreover, Young urges Cryptome’s patrons to be skeptical of anything placed on the site, given that the motives of the contributors may not be known.  “Cryptome, aspiring to be a free public library, accepts that libraries are chock full of contaminated material, hoaxes, forgeries, propaganda,” Young has written on the site. “Astute readers, seeking relief from manufactured and branded information, will pick and choose…”

Excerpts from DAVID CRARY, Older, Quieter Than WikiLeaks, Cryptome Perseveres, Associated Press, Mar. 9, 2013

How to Divide a Lake: Malawi against Tanzania

Over two million families who solely depend on Lake Malawi for their livelihoods are anxiously putting their hopes into an upcoming mediation between Malawi and Tanzania intended to put an end to a longstanding ownership dispute.  The mediation will start March 2013 after both parties agreed in December 2012 to engage the assistance of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government, which is chaired by Mozambique’s former President Joachim Chissano.

According to authorities, about 1.5 million Malawians and 600,000 Tanzanians depend on Africa’s third-largest lake for food, transportation and other daily needs. When IPS visited Karonga District, on the shores of Lake Malawi, surrounding communities said they were worried about the increased tension and keen to see a resolution.

Known as Lake Nyasa in Tanzania and Lago Niassa in Mozambique, the disputed water mass is thought to sit over rich oil and gas reserves, according to recent Malawian government reports.  The mineral potential has rekindled a border dispute between Malawi and Tanzania, which has remained unresolved for almost half a century.

The conflict escalated last July when Malawi awarded oil exploration licenses to United Kingdom-based Surestream Petroleum.  And last December, Malawi awarded the second-largest license to SacOil Holdings Ltd. of South Africa, a move that deepened the crisis.  Twice, the two countries tried to resolve the dispute diplomatically, but to no avail.  Both countries are hoping for the best outcome that will settle the dispute, once and for all when mediation begins this month.

Malawi’s first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was the first to claim that Lake Malawi was part of the southern African nation. He based his claim on the 1890 Heligoland Agreement between Britain and Germany, which stipulated that the border between the countries lay along the Tanzanian side of the lake.  The treaty was reaffirmed at the 1963 Organisation of African Unity Summit in Ethiopia and was reluctantly accepted by Tanzania.  Malawi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ephraim Chiume told IPS that their position is based on the 1890 Treaty and that the African Union in 2002 and 2007 upheld the colonial agreement.  “The Heligoland Treaty gave the entire lake to us and this is what forms the basis of our position and proof that we own the entire lake,” said Chiume.

Tanzania’s position is that the treaty was flawed. Tanzania has remained resolute that it owns half of the lake – saying that the border runs through the middle of the lake excluding the section that lies in Mozambique.  Tanzania’s position is that a partition drawn in the middle of the lake, stressing that this is the practice among countries which share water bodies.  “Tanzania has sought recourse to international law, which indicates that borders are generally in the middle of a body of water… Tanzania should therefore own half the lake,” Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Benard Membe told IPS in a telephone interview.  Membe said that the treaty was flawed because it denied Tanzanian’s living on the shores of the lake their given right to utilise proximate water and marine resources to earn their daily living.

These are the positions that Chissano and his two colleagues; former South African President Thabo Mbeki and former Botswana President Ketumire Masire will have to consider.

Meanwhile, the dispute has also brought to the fore the impact oil drilling would have on a fresh water lake blessed with over 2,000 different fish species, which attracts scuba divers the world over. Local environmentalists fear that drilling in the lake will damage eco-tourism and the marine environment affecting the fishing region in the northern part of the country.  “It will endanger the social and economic lives of millions of people directly dependent on the lake for water, transport and most importantly fish for protein,” said Reginald Mumba of Rehabilitation of the Environment — a local environmental non-profit

Excerpts from By Mabvuto Banda,Two Million People Hold their Breath Over Lake Malawi Mediation, Inter Press Service,  Mar. 3, 2013

Water Shortages in the MIddle East: Tigris and Euphrates

According to a study in Water Resources Research, an American scientific journal, between 2003 and 2009 the region that stretches from eastern Turkey to western Iran lost 144 cubic kilometres of fresh water.  That figure is vast. It is equivalent in volume to the Dead Sea and, according to the study’s senior author, Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine, implies that the region is suffering the world’s second-fastest rate of water depletion after northern India. The water table sank by 0.3 metres (one foot) a year in 2006-09. At the point where the Euphrates crosses from Syria into Iraq, it now flows at only 70% of the rate it once did. All this in an area that already faces severe water shortages.

The study provides the first accurate estimate of all the water in the basin. National statistics are flawed and incomplete; some figures are even state secrets. But the study uses satellite data from America’s NASA which is not subject to these restrictions. These satellites not only measure surface water by photographs but, thanks to precise measurements of the effect of bodies of water on the atmosphere, can even calculate the amount of water in the aquifer below them.

The main reason for the depletion turns out to be that more water is being taken out of the underground aquifer, mainly by farmers. The rate of loss accelerated after drought hit the region in 2007. Between 2007 and 2009, in response to reduced flows of water in the rivers, Iraq’s government dug 1,000 new wells and abstracted four-fifths of all its groundwater reserves. The aquifer is not being replenished at anything like that rate, so this cannot continue for long.

The rapid depletion has implications for managing the basin, which is shared by Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. All the countries have extensive dams, reservoirs and other sorts of infrastructure on both rivers which control the water’s flow. But they have no international treaty governing when and by how much they can shut the flow down.

Over the years, this has not mattered much. The countries have rubbed along, sometimes amicably, sometimes not, with downstream ones (notably Syria and Iraq) assuming there would always be enough water in the upstream reservoirs of Turkey for them all. But if the new study is any guide, that assumption may not hold for much longer.

The Tigris and Euphrates: Less fertile crescent, Economist, Mar. 9, 2013, at 42

Anti-Nuclear Protests: Taiwan

In what organizers called the largest anti-nuclear protest in Taiwan, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets in several parts of the island on March 9, 2013 to call for the scrapping of nuclear power plants.  The protest was held simultaneously in northern, central, southern and eastern Taiwan just two days before the second anniversary of the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in the wake of the big earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

The march participants demanded that the government not allocate any more funding for the construction of Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant in New Taipei City. Construction of the plant has stretched over 14 years and has so far costed taxpayers US$10 billion. It is scheduled to be completed later this year.  But there are increasing concerns over safety, especially given several flooding incidents at the plant being built by the state-run Taipower. Protesters urged the government not to allow fuel rod filling at the new power plant.  More than 6.5 million people, including the residents of Taipei, live within just 80 kilometers of the plant.

Protesters also demanded the speedy decommissioning of Taiwan’s first, second and third nuclear power plants now under operation. All three plants are around three decades old.  In addition, protesters called for the removal of stored nuclear waste from Taiwan’s outlying Orchid Island immediately, as well as a review of the government’s policy to eventually phase out the use of nuclear power, and the government’s implementation of “zero growth for electricity demands.”

A spokeswoman for the Presidential Office said President Ma Ying-jeou was willing to have dialogues with anti-nuclear groups and listen to their suggestions on how Taiwan can find alternatives for nuclear power.Garfi Li cited Ma as saying that the government’s nuclear power policy is based on the premises of “no shortage of electricity, reasonable electricity prices, and honoring the promise to cutting carbon emission to the international community.”…

Previously, the economics ministry, which oversees Taiwan’s state-owned Taipower — the operator of the nuclear power plants — has said Taiwan needs nuclear power so as to avoid being overdependent on imported energy raw material and rising international prices for them. The economics minister has also warned of an energy shortage if the fourth plant is not put into operation….Most importantly, protesters argued that safety, rather than carbon emission reduction and cheap energy prices, should be top priority. They argue that Taiwan’s power plants are among the most dangerous in the world — they are located near fault lines and in densely populated areas, much more densely populated than Fukushima.said they were adamantly opposed to the increase of thermal power, adding that Taichung should increase the use of solar and wind power instead….

In Taitung, eastern Taiwan, the protesters called for nuclear waste to be removed from their area. More than 2,000 people took part in that protest, the largest mass movement in years in Taitung.”We have to take to the streets for the good of the next generation,” one organizer said.Following Orchid Island off the Taitung County, Nantien village in the county’s Dajen township has been slected as one of the possible nuclear waste storage site

200,000 TAKE PART IN TAIWAN’S ANTI-NUCLEAR PROTEST. Focus Taiwan News Channel, Mar. 9, 2013

 

Nowhere to Go? Nuclear Waste

Federal officials are looking to ship some 3 million gallons of radioactive waste from Washington state to New Mexico, giving the government more flexibility to deal with leaking tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation…The Department of Energy said its preferred plan would ultimately dispose of the waste in a massive repository – called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – near Carlsbad, N.M, where radioactive materials are buried in rooms excavated in vast salt beds nearly a half-mile underground.

The federal proposal was quickly met with criticism from a New Mexico environmental group that said the state permit allowing the government to bury waste at the plant would not allow for shipments from Hanford, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.  Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said WIPP specifically prohibits waste from Hanford and any proposal to modify permit language in this case would need “strong justification and public input.”  “WIPP has demonstrated success in its handling of defense TRU waste,” Udall said in a statement. “With regard to Hanford waste, I urge all parties involved to exhibit caution and scientific integrity to ensure that DOE is abiding by the law and that the waste classifications are justified.”  The waste near Carlsbad includes such things as clothing, tools and other debris.

The transfer from Washington would target so-called transuranic waste, which is less radioactive than some of the sludge at Hanford, and accounts for a fraction of the roughly 50 million gallons of waste there currently. Federal officials have identified six leaking tanks, and five of the leakers contain transuranic waste, said Tom Fletcher, assistant manager of the tank farms for the Energy Department.  Dave Huizenga, head of the Energy Department’s Environmental Management program, said the transfer would not impact the safe operations of the New Mexico facility.  “This alternative, if selected for implementation in a record of decision, could enable the Department to reduce potential health and environmental risk in Washington State,” said Huizenga.

Don Hancock, of the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information opposing the transfer to New Mexico, said this is not the first time DOE has proposed bringing more waste to the plant near Carlsbad.  “This is a bad, old idea that’s been uniformly rejected on a bipartisan basis by politicians when it came up in the past, and it’s been strongly opposed by citizen groups like mine and others,” Hancock said. “It’s also clear that it’s illegal.”

Disposal operations near Carlsbad began in March 1999. Since then, more than 85,000 cubic meters of waste have been shipped to WIPP from a dozen sites around the country.  Any additional waste from Hanford would have to be analyzed to ensure it could be stored at the site because a permit issued by the New Mexico Environment Department dictates what kinds of waste and the volumes that can be stored there…

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the proposal is a good start in the process of getting rid of Hanford’s waste… He also said a system is in place to treat the groundwater should contamination from the leaks reach it.  In the meantime, Inslee plans to push Congress to fully fund this proposal, saying “every single dollar of it is justified.”

South-central Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation is home to 177 underground tanks, which hold toxic and radioactive waste left from decades of plutonium production for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal…In a letter to Inslee, the Department of Energy estimated it will have to eliminate $92 million for its Office of River Protection, which oversees efforts to empty the tanks and build a plant to treat the waste. The cuts will result in furloughs or layoffs impacting about 2,800 contract workers, the agency said…. [Currently]The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on cleanup at Hanford – one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally….

Excerpts, Austin Reed Federal proposal for nuclear waste problem in Washington State, Associated Press, Mar. 8, 2013

Lack of Transparency – Drone Strikes

As scrutiny and debate over the use of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) [drones or UAVs] by the American military increased last month, the Air Force reversed a policy of sharing the number of airstrikes launched from RPAs in Afghanistan and quietly scrubbed those statistics from previous releases kept on their website.  In October 2012, Air Force Central Command started tallying weapons releases from RPAs, broken down into monthly updates.

The Air Force maintained that policy for the statistics reports for November, December and January. But the February numbers, released March 7, contained empty space where the box of RPA statistics had previously been. Additionally, monthly reports hosted on the Air Force website have had the RPA data removed.   Those files still contained the RPA data as of Feb. 16, according to archived web pages accessed via Archive.org. Metadata included in the new, RPA-less versions of the reports show the files were all created Feb. 22.

Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Bill Speaks said the department was not involved in the decision to remove the statistics. AFCENT did not respond to a request for comment by press time.The data removal coincided with increased scrutiny on RPA policy caused by President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan faced opposition in the Senate over the use of RPAs and his defense of their legality in his role as Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

On Feb. 20, two days before the metadata indicates the scrubbed files were created, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sent a letter to Brennan saying that he would filibuster the nomination over concerns about using RPA strikes inside the U.S., a threat he carried out for over 12 hours on March 6 (Brennan was confirmed the next day).  That same day, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., told a crowd in South Carolina that strikes by American RPAs have killed 4,700 people.  “Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida,” Graham was quoted by the Patch website as saying.

Excerpts, Brian Everstine and Aaron Mehta AF removes RPA airstrike number from summary, Air Force Times, Mar 8, 2013

 

Keep Talking, the State Listens

DARPA is funding a project that uses crowdsourcing to improve how machines analyze our speech. Even more radical: DARPA wants to make systems so accurate, you’ll be able to easily record, transcribe and recall all the conversations you ever have... But it’s not just about better recordings of what you say. It’ll lead to more recorded conversations, quickly transcribed and then stored in perpetuity — like a Twitter feed or e-mail archive for everyday speech. Imagine living in a world where every errant utterance you make is preserved forever.

University of Texas computer scientist Matt Lease… has attracted enough attention for Darpa to award him a $300,000 award over two years to study the new project, called “Blending Crowdsourcing with Automation for Fast, Cheap, and Accurate Analysis of Spontaneous Speech.” The project envisions a world that is both radically transparent and a little freaky.

The idea is that business meetings or even conversations with your friends and family could be stored in archives and easily searched. The stored recordings could be held in servers, owned either by individuals or their employers….

How? The answer, Lease says, is in widespread use of recording technologies like smartphones, cameras and audio recorders — a kind of “democratizing force of everyday people recording and sharing their daily lives and experiences through their conversations.” But the trick to making the concept functional and searchable, says Lease, is blending automated voice analysis machines with large numbers of human analysts through crowdsourcing. That could be through involving people “strategically,” to clean up transcripts where machines made a mistake. Darpa’s older EARS project relied entirely on automation, which has its drawbacks….

Crowdsourcing is all about harnessing distributed networks of people — crowds — to do tasks better and more efficiently than individuals or machines. Recently, that’s meant harnessing large numbers of people to build digital maps, raising funds for a film project at Kickstarter, or doing odd-jobs at Amazon Mechanical Turk — one system being studied as part of the project. Darpa has also taken an interest in crowdsourcing as a way to analyze vast volumes of intelligence data, and Darpa’s sibling in the intelligence community, IARPA, has researched crowdsourcing as a way to find the best intelligence predictions.

It also raises some thorny legal and social questions about privacy. For one, there is an issue with “respecting the privacy rights of multiple people involved,” Lease says. One solution, for a business conference that’s storing and transcribing everything said by the participants, could be a mutual agreement between all parties. He adds that technical issues when it comes to archiving recorded speech are still open questions, but people could potentially hold their cell phone conversations on remote servers; or on individual, privately-held servers.

The other problem is figuring out how to search massive amounts of transcribed speech, like how search engines such as Google use complex algorithms to match and optimize search queries with results that are likely to be relevant. Fast and cheap web analytics — judging what people type and matching it up to what they click — is one way to do it. Studying focus groups are more precise, but expensive. A third way, Lease suggests, is using more crowdsourcing as a sort of a “middle-ground” between the two methods.

But it’s unknown how the research will be applied to the military. Lease wouldn’t speculate, and it’s still very much a basic research project. Though if it’s similar to EARS at all, then it may not be too difficult to figure out. A 2003 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service described EARS as focusing on speech picked up from broadcasts and telephone conversations, “as well as extract clues about the identity of speakers” for “the military, intelligence and law enforcement communities.” Though Lease didn’t mention automatically recognizing voices. But the research may not have to go that far — if we’re going to be recording ourselves.

Excerpt, BY ROBERT BECKHUSEN, Darpa Wants You to Transcribe, and Instantly Recall, All of Your Conversations, Wired, Mar. 4, 2013

A Bag of Dollars: Afghan Militia,US Special Forces and the CIA

The decision by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, on February 24th to expel American special forces from the province of Wardak, south-west of the capital, Kabul, has thrown the NATO coalition into confusion. It has also turned attention to these elite but shadowy American units. The government has given the forces two weeks to leave the province, accusing them of complicity in murders and disappearances.

The order was announced at a hastily convened press conference, and the crimes were blamed especially on Afghan irregulars who had been recruited to work alongside the Americans. Mr Karzai, however, has made it clear that he holds America responsible. The government says residents of the province have long complained of the irregulars’ abuses and that it is taking action only after the NATO coalition failed to do so.

Mr Karzai’s expulsion of the special forces throws into question a principal element of the coalition’s strategy. These units increasingly play the lead role in fighting the Taliban, as other forces are shifted into training and advising Afghan troops ahead of the full withdrawal of American combat forces by the end of 2014. Both NATO and Afghan commanders credit raids by American special forces for weakening the Taliban.

Special forces are also training tens of thousands of civilians for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), a village-based defence force which has become a central part of the effort to shore up security in rural areas. However many American troops remain in Afghanistan for training after 2014, local commanders are expected to want plenty of special forces alongside them.

Both the raids by special forces and the recruiting of militiamen at the local level have always sat uneasily with Mr Karzai. It was only after much arm-twisting that he was persuaded to accept the idea of the ALP at all. As the deadline nears for the Afghan government to assume all responsibility for the country’s security, the president has wanted to be seen exerting Afghan sovereignty and clearly laying down what NATO can and cannot do in the provinces.

What rankles the government about the allegations in Wardak is the suggestion that the Americans are getting unaccountable Afghans to do their dirty work. Such proxy forces have long existed in Afghanistan and, this time around, date from the earliest stages of the American war, when bags of dollars were handed to local strongmen to buy the services of their militias. At the time, hostility towards the Taliban overrode any unsavoury behaviour. Both American special forces and the CIA have murky histories with such paramilitary groups.

Who stands accused of the crimes in Wardak, and whether there are such American-backed groups there at all, is central to the confusion today. “I genuinely don’t know who is operating there,” says one NATO official. The picture is further muddied because the main Kabul-to-Kandahar highway that runs through Wardak is partly secured by another armed force of Afghans known to be working for private-security companies. Whatever crimes were or were not committed in the province, Mr Karzai’s government blames the Americans for creating “parallel groups and structures” of Afghan forces outside the control of the government.

Local leaders from Wardak confirm the abuses took place, but do not know who committed them. The perpetrators sometimes wore uniforms and sometimes not, say locals, who say the men were not part of the Afghan army.Meanwhile America is holding drawn-out negotiations with Mr Karzai over the role and status of American troops who stay beyond 2014. The Afghan announcement about American special forces in Wardak may have something to do with these talks. In previous rounds of negotiations, NATO has sometimes surprised observers by backing down on points which had seemed non-negotiable only a few years earlier. Mr Karzai may now be pressing them to make similar choices about the use of special forces.

Afghanistan: Yankee beards go home, Economist, Mar. 2, 2013, at 42devgru-bodyguards-and-karzai.jpg

The Polar Bear: An Animal or Icon

The Inuit see the animal as a fierce predator, a cultural symbol and a valuable source of food, warmth and money in a part of the world where all three are in short supply.Yet to animal-welfare and green groups in warmer places the polar bears are both an icon in the fight against climate change and an animal under threat of extinction. The melting of the Arctic’s ice cap, which the bears use as a hunting platform, means the estimated population of between 20,000 and 25,000 will decline sharply, they say. They see hunting the bears as an anachronism and want international trade in bear pelts and parts, already severely restricted, completely banned.

These opposing views are set to clash at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an intergovernmental agreement, between March 3rd and 14th in Bangkok. Having failed at the previous meeting of CITES in 2010, the United States is again leading a move to switch the polar bear from Appendix II of the convention to Appendix I, which would ban trade in all but “exceptional” circumstances. The American proposal is backed by Russia but opposed by Canada, Norway, Denmark (which represents Greenland) and the CITES secretariat.

The debate promises to be emotional. What it lacks are facts. The Americans acknowledge that only eight of the 19 known groups of polar bears have been surveyed since 2000. Of the remaining 11, four have never been surveyed. The submission relies on a controversial forecast undertaken for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 that suggests the decline in sea ice will lead to the disappearance of two-thirds of the world’s polar bears by 2050.  Should the United States obtain the two-thirds majority needed to change the bear’s status, it will be a blow to the Inuit. Their trade in walrus tusks and narwhal horns has dried up because of curbs on sales of ivory designed largely to protect elephants. The trade in seal pelts and meat was curtailed by a 2009 import ban by the European Union, though this granted a limited exemption to indigenous peoples.

In Canada polar bears are hunted under annual quotas set by territorial governments. The Inuit trade bear pelts, claws and teeth, and sell some of the quota to trophy hunters, who employ local guides and buy local supplies…..

Countries which want to become observers at the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body, will be reluctant to vote against Canada, Norway and Denmark on the issue. Canada takes over as chairman of the council in May. Still, it will take resolve to stand up to the United States, also a council member, and the array of animal-welfare and environmental groups backing its position.

The Inuit also argue that if the problem is climate change, to ban trade in polar bears is to attack the symptom rather than the cause. That was the argument of the European Union’s environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, when the European Parliament debated the issue earlier this month. But the MEPs still voted in support of the American position.

Canada’s Inuit: Polar-bear politics, Economist, Feb. 23, at 36

The Super Military Helicopter: VTOL-X

From the DARPA website:

The versatility of helicopters and other vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft make them ideal for a host of military operations. Currently, only helicopters can maneuver in tight areas, land in unprepared areas, move in all directions, and hover in midair while holding a position. This versatility often VTOL aircraft the right aerial platform for transporting troops, surveillance operations, special operations and search-and-rescue missions.

Compared to fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters are slower-leaving them more vulnerable to damage from enemy weapons. Special operations that rely on lightning-quick strikes and medical units that transport patients to care facilities need enhanced speed to shorten mission times, increase mission range, reduce the number of refueling events and, most important, reduce exposure to the adversary.

By their very design, rotary-wing aircraft that take off and land vertically have a disadvantage achieving speeds comparable to fixed-wing aircraft.,,,”For the past 50 years, we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flat-lined and designs have become increasingly complex,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “To overcome this problem, DARPA has launched the VTOL X-Plane program to challenge industry and innovative engineers to concurrently push the envelope in four areas: speed, hover efficiency, cruise efficiency and useful load capacity.”  “We have not made this easy,” he continued. “Strapping rockets onto the back of a helicopter is not the type of approach we’re looking for…This time, rather than tweaking past designs, we are looking for true cross-pollinations of designs and technologies from the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds.

Excerpt from DARPA EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT PROGRAM TO DEVELOP THE NEXT GENERATION OF VERTICAL FLIGHT, February 25, 2013

See also https://www.fbo.gov/

Crying over Spilled Oil; BP Deepwater Horizon

After the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, killing 11 workers and spewing a lake of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, BP knew it would be punished severely. So far, the British oil firm has set aside $42 billion to pay fines, compensate victims and clean up the mess. Of this, some $36 billion has already been paid out or earmarked. America has also temporarily barred the company from bidding for federal contracts.

In all, BP has shelled out $14 billion to stop the spill and restore the coast to the way it was. It has paid out or earmarked $17.5 billion to compensate individuals and small businesses, plus another $4 billion to settle criminal charges with the Department of Justice. It has also set aside $3.5 billion to pay penalties for oil leaks under America’s Clean Water Act.  These have yet to be determined. A civil trial, set to begin on February 25th in New Orleans, will apportion blame for the accident, determine how much oil gushed out and apply financial penalties. The federal government is demanding $21 billion in compensation for spilt oil. To get that much, it must prove BP was “grossly negligent”. It must also persuade the court to accept its estimate of the size of the leak, rather than

As if that were not enough, BP’s annual results, released on February 5th, harboured another nasty surprise. Tucked away on page 42 were details of hefty new claims against the oil giant. Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana are demanding $34 billion for economic losses and property damage. These mainly relate to tax revenues allegedly lost as a result of disruptions to businesses, says BP.  The oil giant knew that a bill was in the post: a three-year statute of limitations will soon expire. However, it was not expecting the bill to be so big. BP disputes the way the sum has been calculated and is ready to fight the claims in court. It reckons that the states will have a tough job substantiating their calculations of forgone taxes.

Both claims seem likely to be settled out of court…BP would far rather end the matter quickly and get on with its business. The uncertainty over the final bill is weighing down its share price. And its sheer size is daunting. If all the claims against it are upheld, BP’s total bill will amount to $90 billion or so. By way of comparison, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was ordered to pay reparations of $52 billion ($88 billion in today’s money) for invading Kuwait.

One reason why a settlement has proved elusive is that the case is so complex. It involves three pieces of legislation and several layers of federal, state and local government with precious little co-ordination between them. For example, BP notes that 11 tiny Louisiana parishes have made a separate claim for damage to local wildlife. BP’s woes are not over.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster: Spills and bills, Economist, Feb. 9, 2013, at 66