Monthly Archives: October 2018

Skip Pakistan: new way into Afghanistan

A port being developed in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar underscores some of the dilemmas U.S. policy makers face in implementing sanctions against Tehran.  Strategically located on the Gulf of Oman and named for an Iranian revolutionary war hero, the Shahid Beheshti Port is exactly the sort of Iranian economic development the Trump administration wants to stop with sanctions that kick in on Nov. 5, 2018…

Once completed, the port—a small part of which started initial operations in December—could help Iran by strengthening economic ties with South and Central Asia, providing an export point for its oil beyond the Persian Gulf and functioning as a strategic military asset.   But it could also be a critical economic lifeline for Afghanistan, where the U.S. has tried for 16 years to strengthen and stabilize the government so thousands of U.S. troops can come home.

The port also could be a big boon to India, an increasingly close partner of the U.S. in Asia. India wants Chabahar port activities exempted from sanctions. Indian companies are mostly equipping and operating the facility. If the port is completed, they are expected to be among the biggest users of the port in order to participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan—something the Trump administration has asked India to get more involved in—and establish a stronger economic presence in Central Asia.

The Chabahar port has long been seen as a potential way around Pakistan, a sworn enemy of India that believes holding sway over Afghanistan is critical to its own security.  Pakistan has squelched trade between India and Afghanistan across its territory. It wants Afghanistan to eventually transport goods through a competing Pakistani port on the Gulf of Oman that is being developed with China…

“If you stop Chabahar, you make Afghanistan permanently dependent on Pakistan,” said Barnett Rubin, a New York University expert on South Asia who has advised Western governments on policy in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Exceprts from Iranian Port Project Poses a Dilemma for U.S., WSJ, Oct. 29, 2018

Nuclear Waste Above Sea Level: Pilgrim

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS) is the only nuclear power plant operating in Massachusetts. …On October 13, 2015, plant owners announced that it would close by June 1, 2019, citing “market conditions and increased costs,” which would have included tens of millions of dollars of necessary safety upgrades.

Up to 2015,all of the nuclear reactor fuel rods from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station were submerged in a deep pool of water, which was running out of space.  In 2015, the company started to use casks to store the waste. Cask storage is used at many nuclear plants in the United States to deal with excess nuclear reactor waste. The casks, 18 feet tall and 11 feet wide, are designed to withstand a truck bomb or a tornado-borne projectile moving at 360 miles per hour.

The plant in 2018 had 17 steel-reinforced concrete cylinders filled with the radioactive waste on a concrete pad about 25 feet above sea level and about 200 feet from shore.  It announced it was planning to move these 360,000-pound casks to a new pad on an existing parking lot that’s about 75 feet above mean sea level and 700 feet from shore to avoid risks associated with sea-level rise due to climate change.

Under-Sea Nuclear Deterrence: China

China for decades has struggled to develop nuclear ballistic-missile submarines . The country finally might be on the cusp of deploying reliable boomers.  An effective Chinese ballistic-missile submarine fleet over the long term could have a stabilizing influence on the world’s nuclear balance. But in the short term, it might heighten tensions. Especially if Beijing lets popular fervor drive its build-up.n n That’s the surprising conclusion of a new report from Tong Zhao. …Beijing began developing boomers as far back as 1958. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the country completed its first boat….A Type 094 apparently conducted China’s first undersea deterrence patrol in 2015. “China has obtained, for the first time, a demonstrably operational underwater nuclear capability. This represents the start of a new era for China’s sea-based nuclear forces.”  As of late 2018 there are four Type 094s in service. Beijing has not publicly released a detailed plan for its SSBN fleet expansion, but the U.S. military expects China to build between five and eight of the vessels, in total, according to Tong and various military reports and statements.

The U.S. military has responded to the China’s new boomers by boosting its own anti-submarine capabilities. “Between Chinese efforts to create a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent and U.S. endeavors to strengthen anti-submarine countermeasures, tensions are brewing under the surface of the South China Sea and the broader Pacific Ocean,” Tong explains.

Exceprts from David Axe China Is Building More Submarines That Carry Nuclear Weapons. And It Could Be a Good Thing, The National Interest, Oct. 27, 2018

Insect Biogeneering as a Biological Weapon: DARPA

According to Science Magazine, Agricultural genetic technologies typically achieve their agronomic aims by introducing laboratory-generated modifications into target species’ chromosomes. However, the speed and flexibility of this approach are limited, because modified chromosomes must be vertically inherited from one generation to the next. In an effort to remove this limitation, an ongoing research program funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to disperse infectious genetically modified viruses that have been engineered to edit crop chromosomes directly in fields [through insects]. This is genetic engineering through horizontal transfer, as opposed to vertical inheritance. The regulatory, biological, economic, and societal implications of dispersing such horizontal environmental genetic alteration agents (HEGAAs)[eg leafhoppers, whiteflies and aphids) into ecosystems are profound. Further, this program stipulates that the means of delivery of these viral HEGAAs into the environment should be insect-based dispersion (Insect Allies Program). In the context of the stated aims of the DARPA program, it is our opinion that the knowledge to be gained from this program appears very limited in its capacity to enhance U.S. agriculture or respond to national emergencies (in either the short or long term). Furthermore, there has been an absence of adequate discussion regarding the major practical and regulatory impediments toward realizing the projected agricultural benefits. As a result, the program may be widely perceived as an effort to develop biological agents for hostile purposes and their means of delivery, which—if true—would constitute a breach of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Stop it: Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing

Large ships are supposed, by international agreement, to be fitted with what is known as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), and to keep it on all the time. Arrangements for small ones vary from country to country, but most require some sort of beacon to be fitted to craft sailing in their waters.

The beacons’ main purpose is to avoid collisions. But monitoring them can also give away who is fishing nefariously, if you develop the software to sift through masses of location data looking for patterns. Beacon-watching has also helped identify hot spots for the transfer of catches at sea from IUU fishing boats to refrigerated cargo vessels, a practice which conceals the origin of a catch. Transshipment hotspots have been identified in this way off west Africa and Russia, and in the tropical Pacific. But beacons can be (and are) switched off.

Global Fishing Watch—a collaboration between Oceana, a conservation group, Google, a division of Alphabet, and Sky Truth, a charity that uses remote sensing to monitor environmental problems—has turned to America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for help. NOAA has long collected satellite data on clouds. These are available to outsiders at no cost. The agency’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite consists of two sensors, each mounted on a different satellite. Between them, these sensors photograph the entire planet every 24 hours. Though their target is cloud cover, they can also see small, bright sources of light. Some of these give away the activities of fishermen. Many marine species are attracted to light, so it is common practice to shine floodlights into the water.

To find those illegals who do not so conveniently illuminate their activities Global Fishing Watch turns to satellite radar data. These are gathered mainly by private companies for sale to customers who want to do things like monitor the logging of forests. Global Fishing Watch, too, has to pay for them. Radar data have proved themselves useful, though. In 2016, for example, radar turned up a fleet of ships off the coast of Chile that had their AIS turned off…. The European Union’s Sentinel satellites now provide radar data free of charge. Global Fishing Watch is working on an automated vessel-detection system that uses these data.

Better detection would certainly help limit IUU fishing. The Port State Measures Agreement, introduced in 2016 and now ratified by 55 countries, is supposed to stop vessels engaged in such fishing from landing their catches. But ports can act against a vessel only if they know what it has been up to. The technology being developed by Global Fishing Watch makes it possible to report offenders quickly, thus giving port authorities time to act.

The future, moreover, looks brighter still—or dimmer, if you are an illicit fisherman. CubeSats, satellites the size of a loaf of bread, are lowering the cost of Earth observation.  making it feasible to track all boats continuously.

Excerpts from Netting the Crooks: Curbing Illegal Fishing, Economist,  Sept. 8, 2018

What to Do with Radioactive Pools

More than 60,000 tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel is stored on the shores of four of the five Great Lakes at the Border between United States and Canada — in some cases, mere yards from the waterline — in still-growing stockpiles…It remains on the shorelines because there’s still nowhere else to put it…

The nuclear power industry and its federal regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, point to spent nuclear fuel’s safe on-site storage over decades. But the remote possibility of a worst-case scenario release — from a natural disaster, a major accident, or an act of terrorism — could cause unthinkable consequences for the Great Lakes region.   Scientific research has shown a radioactive cloud from a spent fuel pool fire would span hundreds of miles, and force the evacuation of millions of residents in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto or other population centers, depending on where the accident occurred and wind patterns.

For five years, Michigan residents, lawmakers, environmental groups and others around the Midwest have, loudly and nearly unanimously, opposed a planned Canadian underground repository for low-to-medium radioactive waste at Kincardine, Ontario, near the shores of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, spent nuclear fuel, vastly more radioactive, sits not far from the shores of  four Great Lakes — Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — at 15 currently operating or former nuclear power plant sites on the U.S. side. In Michigan, that includes Fermi 2; the Donald C. Cook nuclear plant in Berrien County; the Palisades nuclear plant in Van Buren County, and the former Big Rock Point nuclear plant in Charlevoix County, which ceased operation in 1997 and where now only casks of spent nuclear fuel remain.

Neither the U.S. nor the Canadian government has constructed a central collection site for the spent nuclear fuel. It’s not just a problem in the Great Lakes region — more than 88,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel, an amount that is rising, is stored at 121 U.S. locations across 39 states.

Spent nuclear fuel isn’t only radioactive, it continues to generate heat. It requires storage in pools with circulating water for typically five years before it can be moved into so-called dry-cask storage — concrete-and-steel obelisks where spent fuel rods receive continued cooling by circulating air.In practice, however, because of the high costs associated with transferring waste from wet pools to dry casks, nuclear plants have kept decades worth of spent fuel in wet storage. Plant officials instead “re-rack” the pools, reconfiguring them to add more and more spent fuel, well beyond the capacities for which the pools were originally designed.

Only in recent years have nuclear plants stepped up the transition to dry cask storage because there’s no room left in the wet pools. Still, about two-thirds of on-site spent nuclear fuel remains in wet pools in the U.S….That’s a safety concern, critics contend. A catastrophe or act of terrorism that drains a spent fuel pool could cause rising temperatures that could eventually cause zirconium cladding — special brackets that hold the spent fuel rods in bundles — to catch fire.  Such a disaster could be worse than a meltdown in a nuclear reactor, as spent nuclear fuel is typically stored with nowhere near the fortified containment of a reactor core.

At Fukushima…what almost happened — at the plant’s Unit 4 spent-fuel pool that gives nuclear watchdogs nightmares.  A hydrogen explosion four days into the disaster left the building housing the Unit 4 spent-fuel pool in ruins. The pool was seven stories up in a crumbling, inaccessible building.  It “was so radioactive, you couldn’t put people up there,” von Hippel said. “For about a month after Fukushima, people didn’t know how much water was in the pool. They were shooting water up there haphazardly with a hose, trying to drop it by helicopter.”  Two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission secretly conducted a worst-case scenario study of the ongoing disaster. The biggest fear that emerged: that a self-sustaining fire would start in the Unit 4 spent fuel pool, spreading to the nearby, damaged reactors. That, they found, would release radiation requiring evacuations as far away as 150 miles, to the outskirts of Tokyo and its more than 13.4 million residents. “That was the devil’s scenario that was on my mind,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said during a special commission’s 2014 investigation of the accident.“Common sense dictated that, if that came to pass, then it was the end of Tokyo.”   What kept the spent fuel rods covered with water in Unit 4 was a miraculous twist of fate: The explosion had jarred open a gate that typically separated the Unit 4 spent fuel pool from an adjacent reactor pool.  “Leakage through the gate seals was essential for keeping the fuel in the Unit 4 pool covered with water,” a 2016 report on the Fukushima accident by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded. “Had there been no water in the reactor well, there could well have been severe damage to the stored fuel and substantial releases of radioactive material to the environment.”

The U.S. nuclear industry sees Fukushima differently — in some ways as a success story.  “At Fukushima, you not only had a tsunami, you blew up the buildings … and you still did not drain the pool,” said Rod McCullum, senior director for fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association for nuclear utilities in the U.S.  “Those pools and those casks withstood explosions and earthquakes and tsunamis, all on the same day.”  A scenario where a fire can occur by the draining of water from a spent-fuel pool “has never been demonstrated,” McCullum said. He noted safety measures added in the U.S. since Fukushima include the ability to provide extra pumps and water supplies, in minutes or hours, should a spent fuel pool become breached and lose water — even if the disaster required that the resources be brought in by air from farther away….

Because nuclear power is much more widely used in Canada — the province of Ontario alone has 20 nuclear reactors at three plants — it also generates much more nuclear waste.  In Ontario, nearly 52,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored on-site at nuclear plants along Lakes Huron and Ontario.“There’s a huge amount of high-level, radioactive waste stored right along the water,” said Edwards, the president of the nonprofit Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility  Like the U.S., Canada is seeking a long-term storage solution that will involve a central underground repository. Unlike the U.S., the Canadian government is seeking willing hosts, promising jobs and economic activity. …Even if a central repository is one day approved, another complication arises — how to get two generations of the most dangerous industrial waste man has ever created from sites all over the country to one point….

Germany, in the 1980s, tried using an abandoned salt and potash mine to store barrels of nuclear waste over 30 years, the Asse II mine.  It’s now prompting a cleanup that may take 30 years and cost nearly $12 billion U.S. dollars. The government has disputed the contention of workers at the mine that they were exposed to excessive levels of radiation, causing an unusual number of cancers….Nuclear power is projected to drop as a percentage of the world’s power generation mix from 10 percent in 2017 to just 5.6 percent by 2050, a report issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency this summer found…

If central repository solutions aren’t found, within years, the re-licensing of some early dry-cask storage facilities will come into play, as they meet a lifespan they were never expected to reach. “The age of nuclear power is winding down, but the age of nuclear waste is just beginning,” Edwards said.

Excerpts from Keith Matheny, 60,000 tons of dangerous radioactive waste sits on Great Lakes shores, Detroit Free Press, Oct. 19, 2018

Dismantling Nuclear Reactors at Fukushima

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Naraha decided to oppose nuclear energy and call for the closure of the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant that it co-hosts on the coast of the prefecture.  Since the 1970s, the town has been home to the No. 2 plant, which first went into service in 1982.  For decades, Naraha has received central government grants and subsidies for hosting the No. 2 plant, as well as tax revenues from TEPCO and its affiliates operating in the town.The plant also employed 860 people, many of them from Naraha and its surrounding communities.

Naraha had a population of about 8,000 before the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami caused the triple meltdown at TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in March 2011. The crippled plant is located within 20 kilometers from Nahara.  The quake and tsunami also created a scare at the No. 2 plant by leaving the facility with only a limited power supply from external sources and emergency diesel generators to cool the reactors. But the plant brought the situation under control.

After long remaining silent about the fate of the No. 2 plant, TEPCO decided to retire all of its four reactors, which were approaching their legal operating limit of 40 years. If the power company wanted to continue operations at the plant, it would have to spend hundreds of billions of yen on upgrades to meet the more stringent safety standards that were set after the accident at the No. 1 plant…

Although Naraha and Tomioka officials share concerns about their municipalities’ financial futures, they see a silver lining in the situation at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.  Both towns have served as front-line bases for workers involved in decommissioning of the stricken plant.  About 5,000 workers a day who are involved in the decommissioning effort provide steady business for convenience stores and other shops in the two towns. Business hotels, dorms and apartment buildings have been built in the towns and neighboring communities to accommodate the workers. Work to dismantle the No. 1 plant is expected to take decades to complete. Local officials said the closure of the No. 2 plant could bring about a similar economic boon. “Decommissioning can become a major industry,” Naraha Mayor Matsumoto said.

Excerpts from  Nuclear plant closure brings hope, despair to Fukushima town
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, October 18, 2018