Monthly Archives: December 2014

Crimes under the Rug: UN in Sudan

The United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has proved more controversial than most…UNAMID was imposed on a reluctant Sudanese government in 2007, after the worst of the fighting between Darfuri rebels and government forces was over. The conflict has claimed some 300,000 lives and led to charges of genocide against Sudan’s president.  Matters have come to a head over reports of an attack by Sudanese soldiers in the village of Tabit on October 31st and November 1st. The troops are reported to have gone on a rampage, apparently in revenge for the disappearance of one of their own. They allegedly raped some 200 women. UNAMID eventually negotiated permission from the Sudanese authorities to investigate Tabit on November 9th. Thereafter it declared that it found no evidence of such crimes and that villagers “coexist peacefully” with the army.

This sunny conclusion was greeted with astonishment by many Darfuris, for social media were by now carrying eyewitness accounts of the violence. It also prompted a leak of UNAMID’s internal report, which is gravely at odds with the official statement. This report explained how uniformed and plain-clothes Sudanese military officials had infested Tabit while the UN team was there, ensuring that “an environment of fear and silence prevailed”. People were warned not to talk.

UNAMID’s apparent doublespeak over Tabit will have come as no surprise to the mission’s former spokeswoman, Aicha Elbasri. She resigned last year in protest against UNAMID’s ignoble history of such discrepancies, which, in her view, amounts to an organised “cover-up” of the violence in Darfur. The UN’s conduct over Tabit, she says, has been entirely consistent with her own experience of the “huge gap between the reports that we got from the field and the reports that go to the public.”

The cause of such a cover-up, argues the Moroccan-born Ms Elbasri, is the hybrid nature of the mission. The African element of UNAMID, controlled by the African Union (AU), “is completely against justice” for ordinary people and is mainly concerned with defending one of its own, President Omar al-Bashir. For the same reason the AU has been a fierce critic of the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Mr al-Bashir for war crimes.

As if to confirm Ms Elbasri’s conspiracy, Mr Bashir is redoubling his efforts to get rid of the mission now that UNAMID’s tendency to self-censorship has been sabotaged. A supine UNAMID was one thing, it seems; a mission containing a few people who might do their jobs properly quite another. He has already closed the mission’s human rights office.

The UN will have to decide whether to infuriate Mr al-Bashir further by renewing the mission’s mandate beyond next June. It is still dealing with claims of a cover-up, which the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has called “very troubling”. That might be an apt description of UNAMID’s entire, sorry history.

Sudan and the UN: Mission in trouble, Economist, Dec. 6, 2014, at 62

Indigenization of Nuclear Energy: China

China General Nuclear Power (CGN), a state-owned enterprise (SOE) that is the country’s largest nuclear firm, is planning to float shares on the Hong Kong stock exchange on December 10th. Market rumours suggest it will raise well over $3 billion. Dealogic, a research firm, reckons this is likely to be the biggest listing in Hong Kong as well as the largest utility IPO globally so far this year.

Some see in the flotation a harbinger of a nuclear renaissance. If true, this would bring cheer to a gloomy industry. The shale-gas revolution has undercut the economics of building new nuclear reactors in North America. And since the deadly tsunami and nuclear fiasco at the Fukushima site in Japan nearly four years ago, confidence in this technology has waned in many places. Germany, for example, is getting out of nuclear power (see article).

China put a moratorium on new plants after that accident too, but the boosters have now prevailed over the doubters. The State Council, the country’s ruling body, wants a big expansion of nuclear power along the country’s coast to triple capacity by 2020 (see map). This plan is not as ambitious as before Fukushima, but Moody’s, a credit-ratings agency, nevertheless calls it an “aggressive nuclear expansion”. Some analysts look beyond 2020 and predict an even bigger wave of nuclear power plants will be built in inland provinces, giving a boost to this type of energy worldwide….One factor that could slow growth is cost. In the past Chinese governments were happy to throw endless pots of money at favoured state firms in industries deemed “strategic”. Times are changing, however. Economic growth is slowing, and the government must now deal with massive debts left over from previous investment binges. Since the export-oriented and investment-led model of growth is sputtering, officials may soon be keen to boost domestic consumption rather than merely shovel subsidised capital at big investment projects.

And it is not just that China may—and should—be starting to pay attention to the true cost of infrastructure projects. Rapid technological advances are also making low-carbon alternatives to nuclear power appear more attractive. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an industry publisher, forecasts that onshore wind will be the cheapest way to make electricity in the country by 2030. Though coal will remain China’s leading fuel for some time, Bloomberg’s analysts think that renewables could produce three times as much power as nuclear in the country by that year.

What is more, as a latecomer, China had the chance to standardise designs of new nuclear plants to gain economies of scale and minimise risk. But rather than build copies of safe and proven designs from Westinghouse of America or Areva of France, it is insisting on “indigenisation”. This approach is in line with China’s desire to create national champions in key industries, as it has in high-speed rail.

Excerpts from Nuclear power in China Promethean perils, Economist, Dec. 6, 2014, at 75

Who is Afraid of China? the Silk Road

Xi Jinping, China’s president, is leading the new charge. In September 2013 he outlined plans to reinvigorate the ancient Silk Road with a modern network of high-speed rail, motorways, pipelines, ports and fibre-optic cables stretching across the region. The economic highway he envisages follows three routes: one running from central China through Central Asia and the Middle East; a maritime route extending from the southern coast; and a third branching out from Yunna…

Countries bordering on China are wary of its ambitions. They are concerned partly about China’s economic clout, fretting that it will derive disproportionate benefits from the links. (Many of the goods, such as drugs and guns, which Laos and Myanmar have to trade are illegal.) Chinese goods, they worry, may flood their markets and drown their own nascent industries. China enjoys the electricity generated by dams that raise the risk of flash floods downstream. Neighbours grumble that China’s emphasis is on laying tarmac and iron rather than sharing technical know-how, and that it often uses Chinese workers rather than their own citizens.

Stretching the Threads: The New Silk Road, Economist,  Nov. 29, 2014, at 41

Feudal System of Piracy in Africa

Just a few years ago the most dangerous waters in the world were off the coast of Somalia. But piracy there has fallen dramatically. It is more than two years since Somali pirates last successfully boarded a ship. At their peak in 2011, attacks were taking place almost daily. The number of attempts has fallen to a handful every month. Now it is the Gulf of Guinea that is the worst piracy hotspot, accounting for 19% of attacks worldwide, as recorded by the International Maritime Bureau. It registers an attack nearly every week  The numbers are probably underestimates. America’s Office of Naval Intelligence reckons the real figure is more than twice as large—and growing.

The nature of piracy is quite different on the two sides of the continent. Around the Horn of Africa in the east, Somali pirates seek to seize ships and crews for ransom, and have ventured deep into the Indian Ocean. In the Gulf of Guinea in the west, attackers are more intent on stealing cash and cargoes of fuel, such as diesel, from ships coming in to port. Crews are sometimes kidnapped.

It is a quicker hit than the Somali hostage-taking. It also tends to be more violent because the attackers have little incentive to keep the crews safe. Armed resistance is often met with heavy machine guns and military tactics, says Haakon Svane, of the Norwegian shipowners’ association. Ships are seized for a few days, anchored quietly and cargoes are siphoned off into smaller vessels. The gangs also appear to have good intelligence, security sources say: they often know which ships to attack and they recruit the skilled crewmen needed to operate the equipment.

Frequently the targets are themselves involved in regional smuggling, so they switch off transponders or assume false identities, making it hard for rudimentary anti-piracy forces to keep track of them. Moreover, they do not report attacks.

Incidents have stretched all the way from the Ivory Coast to Angola, but the root of the problem lies in Nigeria. Most acts of piracy are committed in Nigerian seas, by Nigerian criminals. The trouble at sea is ultimately tied to the country’s dysfunctional oil industry and the violent politics of the Niger Delta, where most of the oil is produced. Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer; nevertheless, it suffers from shortages of refined fuels.

Widespread “bunkering” (the term Nigerians use for the theft of oil) and a violent insurgency created the conditions for piracy to flourish. Analysts say there tend to be spikes in both bunkering and maritime criminality before elections, which may mean that politicians are using illicit means to finance themselves. If so, expect pilfering to rise as Nigeria’s presidential vote nears in February. “The ransoms are used for the elections,” says Hans Tino Hansen, managing director of the Risk Intelligence consultancy. He points to a “feudal system” in which politicians protect pirates in return for a cut of their profits. An added problem is that elections may divert the attention of the security agencies…Te worry is that piracy, itself, is becoming enmeshed with drugs- and arms-smuggling networks linked to violent jihadist groups in the Sahel.

Piracy in Africa: The ungoverned seas, Economist, Nov 29, 2014, at 44

Who Slaughters the Elephants?

Across Africa the illegal slaughter of elephants is accelerating at such a pace—recent estimates put the number killed at 100,000 in just three years—that it threatens to exterminate whole populations. The worst of this butchery takes place in Tanzania, the biggest source of illegal ivory.

Every third poached elephant in Africa dies on the watch of Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete…One contributing factor may be the government’s failure to investigate and if necessary prosecute high-level offenders. Some of these are said to be closely connected to the ruling Party of the Revolution (CCM), which has dominated the politics of Tanzania since the country’s mainland became independent.  State corruption runs through Tanzania’s illegal ivory trade from savannah to sea. At the bottom of the poaching networks are hired helpers who are often recruited from the armed forces. If caught, officers are transferred to new posts rather than fired. Some allege that soldiers rent out guns to poachers….

Police have even been known to escort convoys of illicit ivory….Other armed forces and governments are also said to be involved. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-profit group in London, documents involvement in the illegal ivory trade by Chinese government and military officials. Yet it is allegations of corruption closer to the top of the Tanzanian ruling party that are of the greatest concern

Tanzania’s dwindling elephants: Big game poachers, Economist, Nov. 8, 2014, at 53

Marshall Islands against 9 Nuclear States

On April 24, 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) filed applications in the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear-armed states, United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.  The RMI also filed a companion case against the United States in U.S. federal court in San Francisco….

Three of the nine states possessing nuclear arsenals, the UK, India, and Pakistan, have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court when the opposing state has done so, as the Marshall Islands has. The cases are proceeding as to those states, and developments can be followed on the ICJ website, http://www.icj-cij.org.  As to the other six states, RMI is calling on them to accept the jurisdiction of the Court in these cases and to explain to the Court their positions regarding the nuclear disarmament obligations. However, China has already notified the Court that it declines to accept the Court’s jurisdiction in this matter.

The claims in the ICJ cases are for:

1)      breach of the obligation to pursue in good faith negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament, by refusing to commence multilateral negotiations to that end and/or by implementing policies contrary to the objective of nuclear disarmament;

2)      breach of the obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith on cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date;

3)      breach of the obligation to perform the above obligations in good faith, by planning for retention of nuclear forces for decades into the future;

4)      failure to perform obligations relating to nuclear disarmament and cessation of the nuclear arms race in good faith by effectively preventing the great majority of non-nuclear weapon states from fulfilling their part of those obligations.

For the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states, the U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China, the claims are made under both the NPT and customary international law. For the four states possessing nuclear arsenals outside the NPT, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, the claims are made under customary international law only. The customary obligations are based on widespread and representative participation of states in the NPT and the long history of United Nations resolutions on nuclear disarmament, and reflect as well the incompatibility of use of nuclear weapons with international law.

Hearings on preliminary issues – whether the cases are suitable for decision by the Court – probably will take place by late 2015 or early 2016. Proceedings on the merits could take another two or three years.

Excepts from The Marshall Islands’ Nuclear Zero Cases in the World Court:. Background and Current Status, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy/November 2014

How to Manipulate People in War

“We have, in my view, exquisite capabilities to kill people,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “We need exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.”  Psychological subtlety and the US military don’t always go hand-in-hand. Worldwide, we’ve become better known for drone strikes and Special Operations raids to kill High Value Targets. But that wasn’t enough for the last 13 years of war, according to a RAND study …“We’ve built a great apparatus for terrorism and to some degree we’ve got to be careful that doesn’t create blind spots,” Cleveland said… during a panel discussion at RAND. “There’s a cottage industry that’s built up around it [counter-terrorism]. You run the risk of basically taking on an entrenched infrastructure” whenever you try to broaden the focus killing and capturing the bad guys, he said, but we have to try.

“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we’re in,” Cleveland said. …In the US, though, “we’re horrible at ‘influence operations,’” said Cleveland. The US approach is “fractured” among multiple specialties and organizations, he said. Some key elements are in Cleveland’s USASOC — civil affairs, for example, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO), formerly known as psychological operations — while others lie entirely outside — such as cyber and electronic warfare.

To the extent US forces address psychology, propaganda, and politics at all, we tend to do it as an afterthought. “We routinely write a plan for kinetic action, and buried in there is the information operations annex,” said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism. “Many times, it should be the opposite…. When you’re dealing with these types of adversaries [e.g. ISIL], that is often the decisive line of operations.”

That’s just one example of how the US ties its own hands with organizations, processes, even laws — indeed, an entire national security culture — designed for a very different kind of warfare. All warfare is a clash of wills, Clausewitz famously said, but Americans tend to fixate on technology and targets, not winning — or intimidating — hearts and minds….” Even when unconditional surrender is the goal, victory always means convincing the enemy to stop fighting….

Likewise, local partners are rarely reliable allies, but they aren’t the enemy either. Commanders need to understand the good, bad, and ugly of partners who may be corrupt, inept, or grinding their own political axes on the heads of rival ethnic groups. US intelligence, however, is still geared to figuring out “the enemy,” defined as a clear-cut foe. “…Where combat advisors are allowed, their roles must be negotiated between the host government and the US country by country, case by case, and there are usually strict restrictions — often imposed by American political leaders fearful of putting US troops in harm’s way.  “Putting people on the ground to do this kind of work is inherently more risky than flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and dropping a Hellfire, but we have to learn how to accept that risk, because this at the end of the day is much more often the decisive line of operation,” said Wechsler….

“We are shooting behind the target in almost every case,” said Hix, because we have to grind through our methodical, outdated planning process while adversaries innovate. A new Joint Concept does away with the traditional “Phase 0″ through “Phase 5″ system, which conceives the world in terms of before, during, and after major conflicts, Hix told me after the panel. In the new world disorder, “we need those resources and authorities in what we consider to be ‘peace,”” he said. If you don’t have them, he warned, “your enemy’s playing chess while you’re playing checkers.”

By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR., Killing Is Not Enough: Special Operators, Breaking Defense, Dec. 16, 2014

DARPA for Transparent Computing

From the DARPA website
Modern computing systems act as black boxes in that they accept inputs and generate outputs but provide little to no visibility of their internal workings. This greatly limits the potential to understand...advanced persistent threats (APTs). APT adversaries act slowly and deliberately over a long period of time to expand their presence in an enterprise network and achieve their mission goals (e.g., information exfiltration, interference with decision making and denial of capability). Because modern computing systems are opaque, APTs can remain undetected for years if their individual activities can blend with the background “noise” inherent in any large, complex environment. ..

The Transparent Computing (TC) program aims to make currently opaque computing systems transparent by providing high-fidelity visibility into component interactions during system operation across all layers of software abstraction, while imposing minimal performance overhead. The program will develop technologies to record and preserve the provenance of all system elements/components (inputs, software modules, processes, etc.); dynamically track the interactions and causal dependencies among cyber system components; assemble these dependencies into end-to-end system behaviors; and reason over these behaviors, both forensically and in real-time. By automatically or semi-automatically “connecting the dots” across multiple activities that are individually legitimate but collectively indicate malice or abnormal behavior, TC has the potential to enable the prompt detection of APTs and other cyber threats, and allow complete root cause analysis and damage assessment once adversary activity is identified. In addition, the TC program will integrate its basic cyber reasoning functions in an enterprise-scale cyber monitoring and control construct that enforces security policies at key ingress/exit points, e.g., the firewall.

Excerpt from http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/I2O/Programs/Transparent_Computing.aspx

Space Conquest: DARPA Phoenix

The traditional process of designing, developing, building and deploying space systems is long and expensive. Satellites today cannot follow the terrestrial paradigm of “assemble, repair, upgrade, reuse,” and must be designed to operate without any upgrades or repairs for their entire lifespan—a methodology that drives size, complexity and ultimately cost. These difficulties apply especially to the increasing number of expensive, mission-critical satellites launched every year into geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth. Unlike objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), such as the Hubble Space Telescope, satellites in GEO are essentially unreachable with current technology.

Advanced GEO space robotics: DARPA is developing a variety of robotics technologies to address key on-orbit mission needs, including assembly, repair, asset life extension, refueling, etc., in the harsh environment of geosynchronous orbit. Development activities include the maturation of robotic arms and multiple generic and mission-specific tools. …

Satlets: A new low-cost, modular satellite architecture that can scale almost infinitely. Satlets are small independent modules (roughly 15 pounds/7 kg) that incorporate essential satellite functionality (power supplies, movement controls, sensors, etc.). Satlets share data, power and thermal management capabilities. They also physically aggregate (attach together) in different combinations that would provide capabilities to accomplish a range of diverse space missions with any type, size or shape payload. Because they are modular, they can be produced on an assembly line at low cost and integrated very quickly with different payloads. DARPA is presently focused on validating the technical concept of satlets in LEO.

Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) system: The POD is a standardized mechanism designed to safely carry a wide variety of separable mass elements to orbit—including payloads, satlets and electronics—aboard commercial communications satellites.

Data Hunger: Google

[Some] worry that Google could prove to be the ultimate digital monopoly. They do not think that its reason for being is primarily online search or the advertising business; they see it as being in the business of mining any and all data it can accumulate for new profit streams. The data hunger such a goal demands is the main reason, they argue, why Google is entering markets as diverse as self-driving cars, smart homes, robotics and health care. “Google is trying to leverage the advantage it has in one area into many others,” says Nathan Newman, a lawyer and technology activist. The idea is that Google could use its assets—its data, its unparalleled ability to exploit those data, its brilliant employees and knack for managing them—to take control of other industries.

For such a data-centric conglomerate to get ever more dominant seems against the flow of history and intuitively unlikely. But intuitive views of the direction of internet competition have been wrong before, as the existence of giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook bears witness. And should it show signs of coming to pass, the current antitrust skirmishes will give way to an epic battle on the scale of the one against Standard Oil. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” said John Sherman, the senator who gave his name to America’s original antitrust law, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” Even one that makes things very, very easy.

Excerpt from Internet monopolies: Everybody wants to rule the world, Economist, Nov. 29, 2014. at 19

UN as a Lost Cause in Darfur

[V]illagers in Darfur say their lives can scarcely get any worse if Sudan insists on international peacekeepers leaving their region.  UNAMID, the joint United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, was deployed seven years ago to stem violence against civilians during a civil war in which the Sudanese government was accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.  With fighting still dragging on, UNAMID’s shortcomings have drawn criticism from the very people it was deployed to protect and Sudan has told it to devise an exit strategy.

Khartoum’s move elicited indifference rather than opposition in northern Darfur, where much of the violence now rages.  “We won’t be affected if UNAMID leaves because it doesn’t play a significant role in protecting civilians,” said Mohamed Abdullah, a local civilian. “We only hear about UNAMID submitting reports. We don’t know what they do for us….

“Our lives are very difficult since the war began. We cannot grow crops except in a very small area because rebels and gangs come and loot our fields,” said Mohamed Ismail, a resident.Pointing to nearby mountains, Ismail added: “Just six kilometres from here, rebels and bandits dominate the region.”

The Darfur conflict, which erupted in 2003 when mainly African tribes took up arms against the Arab-led government in Khartoum, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced over two million, according to the United Nations.

Tabit was under rebel control for eight years of the war, with the government reasserting its authority in 2010.  But much of that authority is nominal, with gunmen stalking dirt roads to attack military and civilian vehicles alike, preventing villagers from travelling even for healthcare….  With officials standing by during the government-organised press trip, it was difficult to speak freely about the alleged rape of 200 women and girls by Sudan’s forces in Tabit, highlighting the hurdles faced by UNAMID investigators.  UNAMID’s conclusion that there was “no evidence” of the rapes triggered an outcry from rights activists. Khartoum had delayed UNAMID’s first visit to the area in early November and denied it permission to visit a second time…

Last month, an internal U.N. review said UNAMID had failed to provide U.N. headquarters with full reports on attacks against civilians and peacekeepers.The review was ordered after media reports alleged that UNAMID had covered up details of deadly attacks to avoid provoking the government.  “UNAMID is something of a lost cause,” said a Sudan analyst with a conflict-monitoring organisation, asking not to be named.

Excerpts, War-weary Darfuris see grim future with or without UN peacekeepers, Reuters, Nov.25. 2014

Nuclear Waste Mismanagement: Los Alamos to WIPP

The Timeline

June 2011: Las Conchas Fire threatens transuranic nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos.

Jan. 5, 2012: New Mexico Environment Department and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) prioritize cleanup of above-ground legacy waste and agree on a June 30, 2014, deadline to ship all Cold War-era nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

June 26, 2012: Gov. Susana Martinez visits Los Alamos to celebrate the 1,000th shipment of waste to WIPP.

Aug. 1, 2012: LANL changes policy, requiring organic kitty litter instead of the clay-based variety to absorb liquids in packaging of nuclear waste.

September 2012: The lab begins using organic kitty litter exclusively as an absorbent in waste.

August 2013: LANL officials authorize waste packaging contractor EnergySolutions to add neutralizer to acidic waste, despite manufacturer’s warnings about incompatibility.

Dec. 4, 2013: Waste Drum 68660 is packaged at Los Alamos for shipment to WIPP.

Feb. 5, 2014: An underground truck fire forces evacuation at WIPP.

Feb. 14, 2014: A chemical reaction causes the drum to rupture, triggering a radiation leak that exposed more than 20 workers to contamination and indefinitely shut down WIPP.

May 2014: The first public reports emerge that organic kitty litter may have been a factor in the radiation leak at WIPP, and WIPP officials learn details about the waste from LANL that indicate the lab hid certain truths about its contents and their volatility.

June 17, 2014: LANL scientists conclude heat from the ruptured drum at WIPP could have made up to 55 more drums stored nearby more volatile.

July 23, 2014: LANL officials acknowledge a lead-contaminated glove in the waste drum that burst at WIPP has been added to the factors being investigated as the possible cause.

Sept. 30, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy announces full resumption of activities at WIPP could be five years away and estimates the recovery cost at $500 million.

Oct. 1, 2014: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Inspector General issues a report condemning LANL for failing to follow its own internal safety procedures and warnings against mixing volatile components in the drum that ruptured at WIPP.

In the summer of 2012, Gov. Susana Martinez visited the hilltop facilities of Los Alamos National Laboratory to commemorate a milestone. The lab, under an agreement with the state, had just shipped its 1,000th truckload of Cold War-era nuclear waste from the grounds of Los Alamos to a salt cavern deep under the Southern New Mexico desert.  The achievement meant the lab was well on its way to meeting a June 30, 2014, deadline imposed by Martinez to remove radioactive gloves, machinery and other equipment left over from decades of nuclear weapons research.

For Los Alamos National Security LLC, the private consortium that operates the lab, the stakes were high. Meeting the deadline would help it secure an extension of its $2.2 billion annual contract from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But the following summer, workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline.
Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid. The combination turned the waste into a potential bomb that one lab chemist later characterized as akin to plastic explosives, according to a six-month investigation by The New Mexican.

The lab then shipped a 55-gallon drum of the volatile material 330 miles to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, southeast of Carlsbad. Documents accompanying the drum, which were supposed to include a detailed description of its contents, were deeply flawed. They made no mention of the acidity or the neutralizer, and they mischaracterized the kitty litter as a clay-based material — not the more combustible organic variety that most chemists would have recognized as hazardous if mixed with waste laden with nitrate salts, according to interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents and internal emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In Feb. 14, with the campaign to clear the waste from Los Alamos more than 90 percent complete, the drum’s lid cracked open. Radiation leaked into the air. Temperatures in the underground chamber soared to 1,600 degrees, threatening dozens of nearby drums. At least 20 workers were contaminated with what federal officials have described as low levels of radiation.

The facility, meanwhile, remains shut down as an estimated $500 million recovery effort expected to last several years gets underway, leaving thousands of containers of nuclear waste destined for WIPP stranded at national laboratories across the country.

Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste — even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence — and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak. Internal emails, harshly worded at times, convey a tone of exasperation with LANL from WIPP personnel, primarily employees of the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the repository.

Taken together, the documents provide a window into a culture of oversight at the lab that, in the race to clean up the waste, had so broken down that small missteps sometimes led to systemic problems….

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Accident Investigation Board, an arm of the Energy Department, is expected to soon release findings of its investigation on the cause of the radiation leak. And the New Mexico Environment Department is set to begin levying fines against LANL that some lab officials expect could total $10 million or more.  As its report takes shape, the federal board is exploring what role LANL contractors’ profit motive and the rush to meet the deadline imposed by the state Environment Department — a key objective necessary to fully extend its lucrative contract — played in the missteps that caused the leak.,,,

More than three months after the leak, LANL chemist Steve Clemmons compared the ingredients of the drum, labeled Waste Drum 68660, to a database of federal patents and found that together, the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives, according to a memo.  “All of the required components included in the patent claims would be present,” Clemmons wrote in the May 21 memo.
Personnel at WIPP were oblivious to Clemmons’ discovery….

Frustrations over LANL’s reluctance to share what it knew about Waste Drum 68660 had been percolating at WIPP long before the discovery of the memo that suggested the drum contained all the ingredients of a patented plastic explosive.  A May 5 email between WIPP employee James Willison and federal contractor Fran Williams suggested LANL was reluctant to acknowledge the most basic details about what Waste Drum 68660 held. “LANL used a wheat-based kitty litter rather than clay-based kitty litter as a stabilizer,” Willison wrote. “They fessed up after we nailed down the general area.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, LANL officials downplayed waste’s dangers even after leak, The New Mexican, Dec. 9, 2014

States Captured by their Energy Companies – Canada

Few governments have aligned their interests so closely to those of their country’s energy and mining firms as Canada’s Conservative administration. The prime minister, Stephen Harper, has boasted of Canada as an “emerging energy superpower”. Under the banner of “responsible resource development”, his government has done its best to ease the way for minerals firms, at home and abroad, including directing some foreign aid to countries where Canadian firms wanted to drill. Ministers point with pride to the C$174 billion ($169 billion) in export revenues from sales of minerals, oil and gas in 2013 and to the fact that Canada is home to more than half of the world’s publicly listed exploration and mining companies.

But the downside of seeming so cosy with extractive firms is that whenever one of them gets in trouble—an inevitable occurrence with 1,500 firms active in more than 100 countries—the country’s image is tarnished too. So the government has recently begun to reduce that vulnerability by taking a stricter line on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and bribery by Canadian firms operating abroad. Protecting the national brand is “a huge part of it,” says Andrew Bauer of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, a group that monitors the industry and lobbies for openness.

Ed Fast, the international trade minister, admitted as much on November 14th, as he introduced new rules that require Canadian resources firms involved in disputes with local communities to take part in a resolution process. If any firms refuse, the government will withdraw its economic diplomacy on their behalf…[In the meantime there are ] protests against Canadian firms’ projects, from Romania where environmentalists are objecting to plans for an opencast gold mine, to Guatemala, where guards at a nickel mine have been accused of gang rape…

A new Canadian law  was introduced in October 2014 to curb bribery by mining and energy firms by demanding more transparency from them. The law, which still must be fleshed out in detailed regulations, requires them to disclose all payments made to domestic and foreign governments…It helped that the law was backed by an unusual coalition of non-government organisations and mining companies themselves. T  It seems that the miners’ experience in dealing with local communities is making them more sensitive to their concerns about corruption and other ills. In contrast, the oil and gas firms are lobbying for the transparency law to be weakened. They want to be given exemptions in countries whose local laws conveniently prohibit the disclosure of such payments. They also want to avoid having to give a project-by-project breakdown of their payments, without which the information would be of little use.

Excerpt Canada’s natural-resources companies: Reputation management, Economist, Nov. 22, 2014

Keystone XL: 2014 Update

Keystone XL makes environmentalists livid… Oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands produces about 17% more carbon dioxide than conventionally-pumped supplies do—largely thanks to the energy needed to get it out of the ground. The process uproots forests and leaves toxic lakes behind. A pipeline carrying Canadian oil to Gulf coast refineries would lower the cost of getting such oil to market, so it might encourage energy firms to extract more…

Canadian oil is already getting to market, points out Charles Ebinger of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank—just mostly by barge and train. A new pipeline would ease the strain on Canada’s railways and increase the profitability of extracting the oil. But compared with swings in global oil prices, the effect will be small. Nor will many jobs be created. Most of those 42,000 are temporary posts; just 35 full-time permanent employees will be needed to run the pipeline.  Oddly, the project may not matter much in Louisiana. If completed, Keystone XL will deliver oil to Texas…

Excerpt from: Keystone XL: Back in the Pipeline, Economist, Nov. 22, 2014, at 26

Old and New Colonialists in Africa

External [states]…often come with predefined programmes and they tend to interfere when things do not develop as they would like to see it….Analysis of the security activities of seven major actors in Africa—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations—shows an increasing use of multilateral approaches, support for the ‘Africanization’ of African security, and the privatization of external security support. These are the main findings of a new SIPRI monograph edited by Olawale Ismail and Elisabeth Sköns and supported by the Open Society Foundation.

Data on Chinese security activities in Africa are difficult to obtain. UN data on peace operations show a strong growth in Chinese contributions to UN peace operations in Africa since 2000. SIPRI data on transfers of major weapons show that China’s arms transfers have focused on a few large deliveries to 2–3 countries at a time (e.g. Namibia, Sudan and Zimbabwe in 2004-2008; and Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana in 2009–13) and have increased significantly since the early 2000s…. China’s arms sales to some  countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan and Zimbabwe, have come under scrutiny from human rights advocacy groups and Western governments…

France has a long-term engagement in African security affairs, especially in the countries it previously colonized….  France still retains significant military capacities in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a major contributor of troops and logistical support for military operations in Africa and a trainer of African military and security forces. Rather than renouncing its role as a key actor in Africa’s security, France has found alternative and more cost-effective ways to remain influential.

Russian security-related activities in sub-Saharan Africa seem to have intensified in recent years. These include arms transfers, military training, peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations, and are primarily undertaken in areas that developed strong links with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s (i.e. the Horn of Africa and southern Africa). However, there are also signs of intensified security relations with states across subSaharan Africa that have relations with Russian firms involved in mineral exploration and exploitation.  Russia is the largest supplier of major weapons to sub-Saharan Africa apart from South Africa, accounting for 30 per cent of the total in 2009-2013.

British security activities in Africa have been placed within a security and development framework and pursued at arms length: the UK has provided training for African forces and support for security sector reform (SSR) and peacebuilding efforts, while committing few troops to peace operations.  The main exception to direct British military involvement in Africa during the 2000s is the UK’s bilateral intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, which involved a total of 2500 British troops, backed by a naval force. The UK has also participated in EU NAVFOR, the multilateral anti-piracy operation that was launched under the auspices of the EU in 2008. While the SSR agenda is relatively new, British involvement in training African armed forces has been ongoing since the colonial era.

US policies  have included the initiation of counter-terrorism programmes in east Africa and the Sahel in 2001 and of maritime security programmes in east and west Africa during the 2000s; the establishment of a military base in Djibouti in 2002 and the gradual implementation since the early 2000s of a basing system providing access to African military facilities.  The increased US strategic view of Africa is reflected in the establishment in 2008 of AFRICOM, a separate unified military command for Africa,…

Excerpts from SECURITY ACTIVITIES OF EXTERNAL ACTORS IN AFRICA, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Nov. 25, 2014

U.S. Sanctions: Abusing SWIFT

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) provides a network that enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information about financial transactions in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.  SWIFT is not an international organization.  It is instead a cooperative society under Belgian law and it is owned by its member financial institutions…

But the network’s very usefulness means it is increasingly being cast in a new role, as a tool of international sanctions. In 2012 it was obliged, under European law, to cut off access for Iranian banks that had been subjected to sanctions by the European Union. Now there are calls for Russian banks to be banned from SWIFT in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A group of American senators is arguing for the measure, which could be inserted into a broader bill on sanctions against Russia that has a good chance of being passed in the next session of Congress. The European Parliament passed a resolution in September calling on the EU to consider mandating a cut-off…European governments are divided, with Britain and Poland among the keenest.

The earlier SWIFT ban is widely seen as having helped persuade Iran’s government to negotiate over its nuclear programme. The ban was one of the first sanctions Tehran asked to be lifted, points out Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington-based think-tank. Though some of the banks blocked from SWIFT managed to keep moving money by leasing telephone and fax lines from peers in Dubai, Turkey and China, or (according to a Turkish prosecutor’s report) by using non-expelled Iranian banks as conduits, such workarounds are a slow and expensive pain. And the sanctions prompted Western banks to stop conducting other business with the targeted banks.

The impact of a reprise on Russia’s already fragile economy would be huge. Its banks are more connected to international trade and capital markets than Iran’s were. They are heavy users not only of SWIFT itself but also of other payment systems to which it connects them, such as America’s Fedwire and the European Central Bank’s Target2. Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, has reported that more than 90% of transactions involving Russian banks cross borders.

Foreign firms that do business in Russia would suffer, too. Countries that trade heavily with Russia, such as Germany and Italy, are therefore none too keen…

SWIFT’s own rules allow it to cut off banks involved in illegal activity, and it has occasionally done so. But if it ends up being used frequently for sanctions, it could come to be seen as an instrument of foreign policy…Already there are calls for it to be used in other conflicts: pro-Palestinian groups have recently sought for Israel’s banks to be shut out, for instance. And as China’s economic clout grows, might it want Taiwanese banks excluded?

Another risk is that using SWIFT in this way could lead to the creation of a rival. Russia’s central bank is pre-emptively working to develop an alternative network; China has also shown interest in shifting the world’s financial centre of gravity eastward. Earlier this year it co-founded a BRICS development bank with Russia, India, China and South Africa, and its UnionPay service, set up in 2002, has loosened the stranglehold of MasterCard and Visa on card payments. If China and other countries that feared being subjected to future Western sanctions joined the Russian venture, it might become an alternative to SWIFT—and one less concerned with preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism…

America’s current crop of senior Treasury officials are similarly cautious, despite being vocal proponents of sanctions in general. SWIFT is a “global utility”, says one, and using it for sanctions should be “an extraordinary step, to be used in only the most extraordinary situations”. Blocking access to SWIFT, he frets, could mean that traffic shifts to networks that are less secure and easier to disrupt—and thus make life easier for criminals and cyberterrorists, including those in rogue governments. Against those who threaten global security, a SWIFT ban is a powerful and proven weapon. But it is also a risky one.

Financial Sanctions: The Pros and Cons of a SWIFT Response, Economist,  Nov. 22, 2014

The Division of Libya

Libya’s self-proclaimed prime minister [Omar al-Hassi] has warned that attempts by a rival government in the east to assert control over the oil industry could escalate the political conflict dividing the OPEC member state and force it to break in two.  Libya has had two governments competing for power since August 2014 when a group called Operation Libya Dawn, which opponents say is backed by Islamists, seized Tripoli and forced the elected Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to flee 1,000 km to a small city near the border with Egypt.

The warning by Omar al-Hassi, prime minister of the rival government, came after Thinni’s government claimed air strikes on Tripoli’s Mitigate airport this week, escalating a confrontation that started with an attack by Libya Dawn on a rival force in Tripoli in July.  The new rulers in the capital are not recognised by the United Nations and world powers but have taken over ministries, oil facilities, airports and much of western and central Libya.

In a step to assert control over the oil industry, Thinni’s government said it had appointed a new chairman of the National Oil Corp. Thinni had initially retained the state oil firm’s previous head, Mustafa Sanallah, but he remains in Tripoli.  The conflict gripping Libya three years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi poses a legal dilemma for oil traders, who are left wondering who owns Libya’s oil exports, worth more that $10 billion a year. The country sits on Africa’s largest oil reserves…

“There are attempts (by Thinni) to set up an eastern Supreme Court, there are attempts to launch a central bank in the east, there are attempts to establish a separate oil ministry in the east,” said Hassi, who said he was against partition.

Thinni’s government has sought to move heads of state-run institutions to the east as he is recognised by the international community, but he too denies any plans for secession.

But Hassi said Thinni’s government had shown it intended to control oil facilities in the eastern rump state by picking al-Mabrook Bou Seif as new NOC Chairman, since he was from the same tribe as Ibrahim Jathran, a former rebel leader who seized eastern ports for a year to press for regional autonomy.

Struggle over Libya’s oil risks breaking up country -rival PM, Reuters,  Nov. 28, 2014