Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Nuclear Plants of South Africa

South Africa signed a partnership agreement (Sept 2014) with Russia’s state-owned nuclear company, Rosatom Corp. to build reactors in Africa’s second-biggest economy.  “The agreement lays the foundation for the large-scale nuclear power plants procurement and development program” using Russian VVER reactors with installed capacity of about 9,600 megawatts, or as many as eight nuclear units, Rosatom and the South African government said in an e-mailed statement. The country also has a draft nuclear cooperation pact with China.

South Africa’s integrated resources plan envisions 9,600 megawatts of nuclear energy being added to the national grid to help reduce reliance on coal, which utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. uses to generate 80 percent of the country’s electricity. The state-owned company is struggling to meet power demand,The National Treasury said in February 2013 that a 300 billion-rand ($27 billion) nuclear program was in the final stages of study…

The collaboration will result in orders worth at least $10 billion to local industrial companies, Rosatom Director General Sergei Kirienko said in the statement.In addition to building the nuclear units, the agreement provides for partnerships including the construction of a Russian technology-based research reactor, assistance in the development of South African nuclear infrastructure and education of specialists at Russian universities, the parties said in the statement.  Rosatom currently holds projects for the construction of 29 nuclear power plants, including 19 foreign commissions in countries including India, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Finland and Hungary.

Excerpts from Paul Burkhardt , South Africa Signs Agreement With Russia for Nuclear Power, Bloomberg,  Sep 22, 2014

Bitcoin and US Military

The global policy counsel of the Bitcoin Foundation flew to Florida to meet with officials from U.S. Special Operations Command for a daylong discussion  on the role of so-called cryptocurrencies—of which bitcoin is the best known—in illicit finance… The military’s interest in virtual currency is part of an overall effort by special operations forces to understand how their enemies finance themselves, and what intelligence special operators can glean by following the illicit money…Defense officials said ISIS is part of a global dark network on the Internet that is involved in the use of virtual currency—although ISIS itself is “principally funded through means other than virtual currency.”

The invitation-only event, called simply the “Virtual Currency Workshop,” was held at an office building in downtown Tampa near MacDill Air Force Base where Special Operations Command is based,…It was organized by a little-known but highly influential group called Business Executives for National Security, which facilitates connections between American business leaders and the U.S. military.The group’s members include a who’s who of America’s corporate and financial elite, according to its website, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg and David Koch of Koch Industries.,,,

A key question for the officers in the room: Can the U.S. military trace bitcoin? “That’s a difficult question,”…  For the Bitcoin Foundation, which represents a broad array of libertarian technologists who can be skeptical of the U.S. government, meeting face-to-face with the national security establishment carries certain risks.  “This is the first time I’ve talked in an organized way with the U.S. military,” said Jim Harper, global policy counsel of the Bitcoin Foundation. For their part, the special operations officers said it’s their job to dive into and understand new communities. ” … The military officials said they are mindful of the civil liberties concerns involved in monitoring private financial transactions on the Internet. “Anytime we come across information about a U.S. citizen, that information is to be disposed of if it is discovered,” the official said. “Our purpose is never to disrupt legitimate businesses.”

Participants in the event said they agreed to hold it under “Chatham House rules” that barred them from identifying other attendees or revealing what was said.

Excerpts, Eamon Javers , Special Ops grill bitcoin for its terror fight, CNBC, Sept. 27, 2014

Nuclear Waste Politics, Secrecy – Canada

Ontario Power Generation is proposing to build a massive underground nuclear waste site at the Bruce nuclear power plant near Kincardine, Ontario (Canada) near lake Huron,a plan that has drawn opposition from environmentalists, aboriginal groups and legislators in Michigan.  At issue were numerous meetings of the “community consultation” advisory group, comprising the mayors who sit on county council and representatives of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and Ontario Power Generation, that began in 2005.

The citizen groups alleged the discussions were kept secret because the politicians feared damaging their electoral fortunes and pointed to informal notes from one meeting in February 2010 that showed a mayor fretting about “a negative backlash at the polls.”The probe by Amberley Gavel — a company based in London, Ont., that helps municipalities with closed-meeting procedure investigations — concluded the public never knew about any of the meetings.

It also found the discussions had a marked influence on the mayors’ decisions regarding the radioactive waste project despite their contention the meetings were simply information sessions at which they passed no motions.  The citizen groups said the province should be reviewing the conduct of Ontario Power Generation.  They also said the county response — to ask staff to provide annual reminders about the law requiring open meetings — was “appallingly weak.”  Council members have “thus far show defiance with no hint of remorse,” the statement said.

Save our Saugeen Shores and the Southampton Residents Association  called on Ontario’s ombudsman to review the circumstances that led to a report critical of Bruce County council for meeting nuclear waste representatives without telling anyone or documenting the discussions.  “This was a major error of provincewide importance in light of the evidence of an 8.5-year egregious disregard of the law and the public’s right to open and transparent government,” Rod McLeod, the group’s lawyer, said in a statement.

Colin Perkel,  Nuclear waste opponents call for penalties against ‘secret meetings’, The Canadian Press, Sept. 18, 2014

Electronic Waste: 100 million tonnes 2020

Exports of electronic waste or e-waste are banned in Europe, but remain legal in America. The United States is the only developed country that has refused to ratify the 1989 Basel Convention, an international treaty controlling the export of hazardous waste from wealthy countries to poorer ones. America has also refused, along with Canada and Japan, to accept the Basel Convention’s 1995 amendment that imposes an outright ban on such trade.

There have been repeated attempts in Congress to pass legislation that would make it illegal to send toxic waste to other countries. The Responsible Electronics Recycling Act of 2013 failed to gain a consensus. A similar act, introduced in March 2014, remains stuck in the Senate.

Not that the Europeans behave all that ethically. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found nearly half the e-waste destined for export was actually illegal. Shippers use various tricks to circumvent the Basel ban. For instance, waste labelled as goods for refurbishing or reuse can pass muster, even if it gets incinerated or dumped in landfills on arrival.

Chinese authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to put a stop to such false labeling back in 2000, by banning all imports of e-waste, whatever their intended use. Today, Guiyu, a city in Guangdong province, is the e-waste capital of the world. There, glass-to-glass recycling of computer monitors and television sets costs a tenth of what it does in America. Cathode-ray tubes, with their high concentrations of lead and chemically hazardous phosphors, are the most difficult of all e-waste to process. With an abundance of recycled glass from CRTs, China has become a leading exporter of bottles and jars.

The e-waste industry in Guiyu is said to employ 150,000 people, including large numbers of children, disassembling old computers, phones and other devices by hand to recover whatever metals and parts that can be resold. Circuit boards are soaked in acid to dissolve out the lead, cadmium and other metals. Plastic cases are ground into pellets, and copper wiring is stripped of its plastic coating. Anything not salvageable is burned.

The air pollution and contamination of the local water supply in Guiyu are said to be horrendous. A medical researcher from nearby Shantou University found concentrations of lead in the blood of local children to be on average 49% over the maximum safe level. The highest concentrations were in children living in homes with workshops for recycling circuit boards on the premises.

India is fast becoming another big dumping ground for Western e-waste. Greenpeace reckons there are 25,000 workers employed in recycling computers, phones and other hardware in Delhi alone, where up to 20,000 tonnes of e-waste are processed a year. The preferred method for recycling circuit boards is to toss them into an open fire—to melt the plastics and burn away everything but the gold and copper. Similar recycling dumps have been found in Mumbai, Bangalore and several other cities.

With the global mountain of e-waste growing bigger by 8% a year, the 20m-50m tonnes the EPA reckoned was produced globally in 2009 could easily reach 100m tonnes by 2020.

Excerpts from Where Gadgets Go to Die, Economist, Sept. 6, 2014, at 9

Deforestation: mixed picture

In a new study of the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a Washington think-tank, Jonah Busch and Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon look at 117 cases of deforestation round the world. They find that two of the influences most closely correlated with the loss of forests are population and proximity to cities (the third is proximity to roads). Dramatic falls in fertility in Brazil, China and other well-forested nations therefore help explain why (after a lag) deforestation is slowing, too. Demography even helps account for what is happening in Congo, where fertility is high. Its people are flocking to cities, notably Kinshasa, with the result that the population in more distant, forested areas is thinning out.

Two of the countries that have done most to slow forest decline also have impressive agricultural records: Brazil, which became the biggest food exporter of all tropical countries over the past 20 years; and India, home of the green revolution. Brazil’s agricultural boom took place in the cerrado, the savannah-like region south and east of the Amazon (there is farming in the Amazon, too, but little by comparison). The green revolution took place mostly in India’s north-west and south, whereas its biggest forests are in the east and north.

But if population and agricultural prowess were the whole story, Indonesia, where fertility has fallen and farm output risen, would not be one of the worst failures. Figures published inNature Climate Change in June show that in the past decade it destroyed around 60,000 sq km of primary forests; its deforestation rate overtook Brazil’s in 2011. Policies matter, too—and the political will to implement them.

The central problem facing policymakers is that trees are usually worth more dead than alive; that is, land is worth more as pasture or cropland than as virgin forest. The benefits from forests, such as capturing carbon emissions, cleaning up water supplies and embodying biodiversity, are hard to price….The most successful policies therefore tend to be top-down bans, rather than incentives (though these have been tried, too). India’s national forest policy of 1988 explicitly rejects the idea of trying to make money from stewardship. “The derivation of direct economic benefit”, it says, “must be subordinated to this principal aim” (maintaining the health of the forest). In Brazil 44% of the Amazon is now national park, wildlife reserve or indigenous reserve, where farming is banned; much of that area was added recently. In Costa Rica half the forests are similarly protected. In India a third are managed jointly by local groups and state governments.

Top-down bans require more than just writing a law. Brazil’s regime developed over 15 years and involved tightening up its code on economic activity in forested areas, moratoriums on sales of food grown on cleared land, a new land registry, withholding government-subsidised credit from areas with the worst deforestation and strengthening law enforcement through the public prosecutor’s office. (The most draconian restriction, requiring 80% of any farm in the Amazon to be set aside as a wildlife reserve, is rarely enforced.)

Two developments make bans easier to impose. Cheaper, more detailed satellite imagery shows in real time where the violations are and who may be responsible. Brazil put the data from its system online, enabling green activists to help police the frontier between forest and farmland. Its moratoriums on soyabeans and beef from the Amazon, which require tracing where food is coming from, would not have worked without satellites…

The Forestry Ministry of Indonesia, [on the other hand] is rated the most corrupt among 20 government institutions by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission in 2012. Some within government are hostile to anti-deforestation schemes, which they see as “foreign”, says Ade Wahyudi of Katadata, an Indonesian firm of analysts. Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a single, unified map including all information on land tenure and forest licensing: efforts to create one have been slowed by unco-operative government ministries and difficulties created by overlapping land claims.

Excerpts from Tropical Forests: A Clearing in the Trees, Economist,  Aug. 23, 2014, at 56

The Space Belongs to Drones

Zephyr– high-altitude “pseudo-satellite” ( HAPS) —  is actually an unmanned, ultra-light, solar-powered, propeller-driven aircraft. But it is designed, just as some satellites are, to hover indefinitely over the same part of the world. With a 23-metre wingspan and a weight of only 50kg, it is fragile and must remain above the ravages of the weather and the jet stream both by day and by night. It therefore flies at an altitude of around 21km (70,000 feet) during daylight hours, and then glides slowly down to around 15km when the sun is unavailable to keep it aloft….

The main uses for satellites are observation and communication. Both are appealing markets for HAPS. Hovering drones could act as relays for telephone calls and internet traffic in places that do not have good enough infrastructure on the ground. And there is never a shortage of customers who would like to snoop on various parts of the Earth’s surface, whether for commercial or military reasons.

By satellite, such snooping is done from an altitude of about 800km. Zephyr flies at one-fortieth of that, so the optics its needs to take pictures are far less demanding. (Just as well, of course, for it is unlikely to be able to carry a huge payload.)

Airbus is not alone in the HAPS game. Google and Facebook are involved as well—and with similar customers in mind—though Google will also be its own customer, since keeping its Google Earth imagery up to date is a demanding task. Paul Brooks, spokesman for Airbus’s HAPS programme, says he does not see these firms as competitors, but rather as collaborators in proving the idea of endurance flight and promoting the changes in regulations needed to permit its safe use. Once this has happened, and the world’s aviation authorities have agreed common operating standards, HAPS should prove a cheap and reliable alternative to blasting things into orbit.

Excerpts, Pseudo-satellites: The west wind blows afresh, Economist, Aug. 30, 2014

Making Nuclear Power in Vietnam

American firms have urged the US Congress to ratify the Vietnam-US cooperation agreement in the nuclear sector in order to create more jobs, and Russia and Japan have signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Vietnam….  [T]he Vietnamese and US representatives signed a Vietnam-US nuclear cooperation agreement in Hanoi on May 6, 2014 (Agreement 123)….

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the US nuclear energy firms have unanimously urged the US Congress to ratify the agreement soon, emphasizing that the strengthened cooperation with Vietnam in the sector would help boost exports and create more jobs.  The US firms can expect to earn $10-20 billion from the deals with Vietnam.

Vietnam plans to produce 10,000 MW  of nuclear electricity by 2030. It is believed to be the second largest nuclear power market in East Asia following to China, while market value is expected to reach $50 billion in the next two decades.  According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), rapid modernization in Vietnam has led to a sharp increase in the demand for electricity, estimated to increase by 10-15 percent per annum.  David Durham from GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GHE) has warned that if the US Congress does not ratify the agreement, US firms will lose the lucrative market of Vietnam.

Excerpts from Vietnam nuclear power market eyed by three major countries, VietNamNet Bridge, Sept. 7, 2014

Abuse of Peacekeeping by Peacekeepers

African Union (AU) peacekeepers in Somalia rape women seeking medicine on their bases and routinely pay teenage girls for sex, [according to] Human Rights Watch (HRW)  HRW documented 10 incidents of rape and sexual assault, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl, by African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops in 2013 and 2014.  The rights group said most of the incidents took place on AMISOM bases in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where women come for medical care and to beg for food.  “Where this case is particularly shocking is the direct use of humanitarian assistance to lure these women in,” said Laetitia Bader, one of the report’s authors….

One woman, known as Ayanna, told HRW she was gang raped at gunpoint by six Burundian soldiers after going to their outpatient clinic to get medicine for her sick baby.  One of the three other women who were also raped at the same time was badly hurt.  “We carried the injured woman home,” she told HRW. “Three of us walked out of the base carrying her… She couldn’t stand.”  The soldiers threw packets of porridge, cookies and $5 at the women as they left, she said.  Rape is rarely punished in Somalia, particularly of vulnerable women living in overcrowded Mogadishu camps housing some 350,000 people displaced by war and famine.

HRW also interviewed 14 displaced women and girls selling sex to AMISOM soldiers for around $5 a day. Sexual exploitation – the abuse of power or trust for sexual purposes – is in violation of their code of conduct.  The sex trade on AMISOM bases appears “routine and organised”, HRW said.  Women who visited the bases regularly were not checked on their way in and HRW was told that some lived there, ostensibly employed as interpreters.

The African Union force deployed to Somalia in 2007 to help restore order and defeat the Islamist militant group al Shabaab. It is credited with pushing al Shabaab out of many towns in south-central Somalia, strengthening the hold of the two-year-old Somali federal government.,,,AMISOM’s 22,000 troops come from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Djibouti. They are immune from prosecution by the Somali government, with responsibility falling on their own governments.

Only two out of the 21 women and girls interviewed filed a complaint, for fear of reprisals, HRW said, while those having sex for money did not want to lose their main source of income.

Excerpts from Peacekeepers in Somalia use aid to rape women and buy sex – HRW, Reuters, Sept. 8,  2014

 

Deaths of Rhinos in National Parks

In cold statistics the number of rhinos poached a day in South Africa has now reached three with 769 of these Big Five animals killed to… (Sept 2014).  That equates to 3.027 animals a day and the country’s (South Africa’s) internationally renowned Kruger National Park remains the preferred hunting ground for rhino poachers. Bordering on both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the park, increased security and patrol activities notwithstanding, offers poachers fairly easy access and egress with their bounty. So far this year Kruger’s rhino population has been decimated by 489 – well over half the national loss.

Statistics released by the Department of Environmental Affairs this week show all nine of South Africa’s provinces, including mostly urban Gauteng, have now been hit by rhino poachers.  The latest kill figures come ahead of next week’s United States-South Africa: Border Surveillance Technology Co-operation Symposium at the CSIR International Convention Centre.  All eyes will be on retired SA Army general Johan Jooste, now Commanding Officer: Special Projects for SANParks based in Kruger. The title of his keynote address is “Turning the tide – borders, poaching, technology”…

US Ambassador to South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, is also carded as a speaker alongside senior representatives (unnamed at the time of publication) from Armscor; the CSIR’s Defence, Peace, Safety and Security section; SA Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association (AMD); the US Army Research Office and the US Corps of Engineers.

Excerpts from Kim Helfrich, Three rhinos shot every day in South Africa, Defence Web, Sept. 12, 2014

Weather Modification in India

State governments, tea estate owners, politicians and even some insurance companies are exploring cloud-seeding options. The process involves seeding clouds with chemicals that will lead them to promote precipitation or rain. (The process is also used to boost snowfall and curb hailstones and fog.)  [Indian] companies involved in cloud seeding such as Myavani, Kyathi Climate Modification Consultants [affiliated  with US based Weather Modification Inc.]and Agni Aero Sports expect business to grow as much as a fourth this year over 2012, when the country last saw weak rains.

Bangalore-based Agni Aero Academy, which has been involved in cloud seeding in India since 2003 and undertook cloud-seeding projects for MCGM [Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai]  in 2009 and the Karnataka government in 2012, expects a pickup in business.

Girish Odugoudar, 33, of Myavani, which has jointly bid for the Mumbai project along with US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, is aiming to establish his business. “We have the infrastructure and capability and success in one project should open many doors,” he said.

Excerpts, Madhvi Sally, Artificial rainfall: Cloud seeding companies may play rainmakers
Madhvi Sally, the Economic Times of India, July 23, 2014,

On-Demand Germs: Bioengineering for the Military

From the DARPA website:

The development of increasingly sophisticated techniques and tools to sequence, synthesize and manipulate genetic material has led to the rapidly maturing discipline of synthetic biology. …[But] The costs of maintaining required environmental controls and detecting and compensating for genetic alterations are substantial and severely limit the widespread application of synthetic biology to U.S. national security missions.

To help address these challenges, DARPA has created the Biological Robustness in Complex Settings (BRICS)  BRICS seeks to develop the fundamental understanding and component technologies needed to increase the biological robustness and stability of engineered organisms while maintaining or enhancing the safe application of those organisms in complex biological environments. The goal is to create the technical foundation for future engineered biological systems to achieve greater biomedical, industrial and strategic potential.

“By making these systems more robust, stable and safe, BRICS seeks to harness the full range of capabilities at the intersection of engineering and biology,” said Justin Gallivan, DARPA program manager. “These capabilities could include efficient on-demand bio-production of novel drugs, fuels, sensors and coatings; or engineered microbes able to optimize human health by treating or preventing disease.”

Excerpt from BUILDING THE FOUNDATION FOR FUTURE SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY APPLICATIONS WITH BRICS, July 29, 2014

Predator Bacteria for War

The  Pathogen Predators Program of DARPA would represent a significant departure from conventional antibacterial therapies that rely on small molecule antibiotics. While antibiotics have been remarkably effective in the past, their widespread use has led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections that are difficult or impossible to treat. In vitro studies have shown that predators such as Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus and Micavibrio aeruginosavorus can prey upon more than one hundred different human pathogens and will also prey on multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The Pathogen Predators program will answer three fundamental questions about bacterial predators:

1) Are predators toxic to recipient (host) organisms?
2) Against what pathogens (prey) are predators effective?
3) Can pathogens develop resistance to predation?

This list [of bacteria that could be killed by predator bacteria] includes NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Category A and B threats to national security:

NIAID Category A and B
Yersinia pestis (i.e. plague)
Francisella tularensis (i.e. tularemia)
Brucella species
Coxiella burnetii (i.e. Q fever)
Rickettsia prowazekii (i.e.  typhus)
Burkholderia mallei (i.e. glanders)
Burkholderia pseudomallei (i.e. melioidosis)

Source DARRA (pdf)

Manipulation of Wireless Networks -Military

From the DARPA website and DARPA-BAA-14-44 WND Phases 2 and 3

The majority of work to develop and mature military wireless networks to date has focused on efficiency and stability in benign conditions…As the use of wireless systems expands, the likelihood of network compromise (whether maliciously or by unwitting misconfiguration) will increase. Beyond the conventional node-by-node security in use today, a set of network-based checks are needed to ensure that misinformation inserted into the control protocols does not disable the network functionality.

The Wireless Network Defense (WND) program is developing and demonstrating new technology to protect the control protocols of wireless networks from the effects of advanced attacks or other forms of compromise. The program focuses on the protocols at the network and medium access control (MAC) layers of the network stack with the goal of protecting those protocols that coordinate among the distributed devices’ management of resources such as spectrum, time, and power, and delivery of information.

The development of this technology will both improve the robustness of the class of wireless networks that are being procured and fielded in the near future, and also provide a reliable foundation on which to build the next generation of wireless systems. These new defenses will minimize the impact of attacks on network control and will force attacks to be observable and attributable in order to be effective.

Ideally…[one] should anticipate both passive listeners and active attackers; colluding attackers; dynamic attacks; and informed adversaries…[One]should assume that passive listeners and  active attackers will be able to collude. That is, the threat model is a real-world adversary.  Systems should be designed to mitigate attacks under all combinations of attackers and attacks…. [One]should further design mitigations and enhancements such that these mitigations and enhancements cannot themselves be leveraged by a knowledgeable adversary to attack the network.

See DARPA-BAA-14-44 WND Phases 2 and 3

Fukushima Mess – Radioactive Water

The [Japanese] government picked three overseas companies to participate in a subsidized project to determine the best available technology for separating radioactive tritium from the toxic water building up at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.  Tokyo Electric Power Co. is currently test-running a system it says is capable of removing 62 types of radioactive substances from the contaminated water, but not tritium.  Thus tritium-laced water is expected to accumulate at the plant in the absence of any method to remove the isotope.

The three firms chosen from 29 applicants are U.S. firm Kurion Inc., which offers technologies to treat nuclear and hazardous waste; GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Canada Inc., a joint venture of Hitachi Ltd. and U.S. firm General Electric Co.; and Federal State Unitary Enterprise RosRAO, a Russian radioactive waste management firm.

The government will provide up to ¥1 billion for each examination of the technologies and running costs, and consider whether any of them can be applied to treat the water at Fukushima No. 1, the industry ministry said.  The three companies are to conclude their experiments by the end of March 2016, a ministry official said.  The official cautioned there is no guarantee that any of the technologies will be put to practical use.

Three firms picked to help tackle toxic water at Fukushima No. 1, Japan Times, Aug. 26, 2014

In January 2014 it was made public that a total of 875 terabecquerels (2.45 g) of tritium are on the site of Fukushima Daiichi,and the amount of tritium contained in the contaminated water is increasing by approximately 230 terabecquerel (0.64 g) per year. According to a report by Tepco “Tritium could be separated theoretically, but there is no practical separation technology on an industrial scale.”  See Wikipedia

$10 Billion Illegal Market for Wildlife

At $10 billion a year, illegal wildlife makes up the world’s fifth-largest illicit market behind drugs, counterfeit products, trafficked people and smuggled oil. An intergovernmental conference in Geneva from July 7th-11th, 2014 revealed the special worries about ivory smuggling in Thailand, rhino-horn trafficking through Mozambique and trade in tiger parts across South and South-East Asia.

According to TRAFFIC, a lobby group, the street value of rhino horn is $60,000 per kilo—more than the price of gold. Gram for gram, bear-bile flakes or powder sell in Japan [slightly less] than cocaine in Asia. Booming demand from Asia’s growing middle classes is pushing some species close to extinction. As supply dwindles, prices rocket, which tempts criminal gangs to sink their claws in even further.

Elephant ivory is valued for aesthetic reasons. Demand for rhinoceros horns, the paws and bile of Asiatic black bears and sun bears, tiger bones and penises, and deer musk, is stimulated by the healing powers ascribed to them in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino-horn shavings boiled in water are said to cool and to cure headaches; the brew is akin to fingernail clippings in water (both are mainly keratin, an indigestible protein). Bear bile does help with gallbladder and liver problems—but no more than the synthetic version of ursodeoxycholic acid, its main component.

In February 42 countries, including China and Japan, and the European Union signed a declaration against trade in illegal wildlife products. Chinese law punishes the purchase or consumption of endangered species with up to ten years in jail. But in May, when Philippine forces seized a Chinese vessel carrying sea turtles, giant clamshells and live sharks off the disputed Half Moon Shoal, China expressed outrage at the “provocative action”—not the illegal cargo.

The illegal trade in wild-animal products: Bitter pills, Economist, July 19, 2014, at 54

US Technology Firms and War

[N]imbler Silicon Valley outfits are beginning to invade the defence industry’s territory. “Warfare is going digital,” observes Tom Captain of Deloitte, a consulting firm. Tech firms have shown that they can supply robots, drones and intelligence software. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, a tech entrepreneur, is taking America’s air force to court to reopen bidding for a satellite-launch contract awarded to Boeing and Lockheed.

Excerpt, Weapons-makers: The case for defence, Economist, July 19, 2014, at 55

China in the North Pole

China is interested in the Arctic. On July 11th, 2014 its icebreaker, Xue Long (“Snow Dragon”), embarked on the country’s sixth Arctic expedition, with 65 scientists on board. A new 1.3 billion yuan ($210m) icebreaker will soon be launched, and last December  [2013] a China-Nordic research centre was opened in Shanghai.

New freight opportunities interest China along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as ice recedes. In 2010 four ships took the route. Last summer 71 vessels did so. Each ship that takes the route must, at certain points, be accompanied by an ice-breaker, so it is unclear how soon the NSR will be suitable for mass transit, if at all.

Some climate models predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by the middle of this century. The route cuts the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by 22% and Yang Huigen of the Polar Research Institute of China has predicted that 5-15% of China’s international trade will use the NSR by 2020. But Linda Jakobson, of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, says that is a “rather optimistic assessment” and that talk of the NSR as a new Suez Canal is overblown. Weather conditions and environmental sensitivities will make the route a difficult one.

As for energy, China is one of the biggest investors in mining in Greenland. A deal with Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian company, will explore offshore Arctic fields for oil. But the undersea resources in the Arctic are largely within the Exclusive Economic Zones of the littoral states (notably Russia), so if China wants to look for energy it will have to do so jointly…

But the new Chinese presence is not without concerns. Huang Nubo, a tycoon, recently bought 100 hectares (250 acres) of land in northern Norway and has bid for a plot on the island of Svalbard, where China has a research station. He aims to develop a resort for Chinese tourists. Mr Huang had similar plans in Iceland in 2011, but local protests quashed them. A Norwegian newspaper has called him a “suspected imperialist”.

China and the Arctic: Polar bearings, Economist, July 12, 2014, at 39

 

Pirates and Free Trade

Ships navigating the lawless seas of the Gulf of Aden must keep a constant lookout for Somali pirates. The roots of Somalia’s maritime banditry lie in its desperately poor coastal villages, where the choice between fishing and piracy is an easy one for many.

Anja Shortland and Federico Varese mapped the locations of hijacked ships between 2005 and 2012. They found that hijacked vessels were always anchored far away from regional trading routes, and that big ports were not prone to piracy. There is a reason for that. Somali clans control local trade by issuing licences and charging informal taxes. The researchers reckon that communities which can tax imports and exports refuse to protect pirates because trade is a safer and more lucrative source of revenue than pirate earnings. Only clans that have no other income offer the pirates protection, in return for a share of their loot…..A… solution [to piracy] would be to build new roads and ports, which would allow remote areas to start trading. With alternative sources of income, fewer communities would be willing to harbour pirates….

A former president of Puntland repeatedly requested a road be built to Eyl, a rough-and-ready coastal town, as a quid pro quo for giving up piracy. His request was turned down, and piracy continued. Time for donors to rethink where they spend their pieces of eight.

Crime in Somalia: Pirates v economist, Economist, July 12, 2014, at 42