Monthly Archives: November 2018

Under Greenland’s Ice: Nuclear Waste

In 1959 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century beneath the surface of the northwestern Greenland Ice Sheet. There they studied the feasibility of deploying ballistic missiles within the ice sheet. The base and its wastes were abandoned with minimal decommissioning in 1967, under the assumption they would be preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snowfall.

In 2016 scientists showed that global warming could release the radioactive waste stored in the ice if Greenland’s ice continues to melt…

The general existence of Camp Century was understood by both the Danish and U.S. governments, which together signed the 1951 Defense of Greenland Agreement under the auspices of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)….Reports, for example, suggest Danish permission for the operational disposal of radiological waste in the ice sheet. However, it is unclear whether Denmark was sufficiently consulted regarding the specific decommissioning of Camp Century, and thus whether the abandoned wastes there remain U.S. property. Article XI of the 1951 treaty states that “All property provided by the Government of the United States of America and located in Greenland shall remain the property of the Government of the United States of America. … [it] may be removed from Greenland free of any restriction, or disposed of in Greenland by the Government of the United States of America after consultation with the Danish authorities…”

Given the multinational origin and multigenerational legacy of Camp Century, there appears to be substantial ambiguity surrounding the political and legal liability associated with mitigating the potential remobilization of its pollutants. Interests likely differ across NATO members, particularly Denmark, the U.S. and Canada, partly because of their distinct levels of historical participation and their future potential for pollutant exposure.

Excerpts from  William Colgan et al, The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate, , Aug. 4, 2016

A Case for Nuclear Energy: Taiwan

Taiwanese voters have rejected the island’s policy to phase out nuclear energy. In a referendum held on Saturday, 59% of voters supported overturning legislation enacted last year that would end all use of nuclear power by 2025.

Taiwan’s three nuclear reactors provided 8.3% of its electricity in 2017, according to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which controls both the presidency and the legislature, had hoped to take nuclear power out of the mix by increasing the share of renewable sources in power generation to 20% by 2025; 50% would come from liquefied natural gas (LNG) and 30% from coal. But pro-nuclear advocates gathered more than 290,000 valid signatures in favor of a referendum on removing the nuclear phaseout clause from the books—enough for the referendum to proceed.  Science spoke with Min Lee, a nuclear engineering professor at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and one of the referendum’s co-organizers.

Q: Why do you think Taiwan cannot make it without nuclear power?

A: The government says we are going to have 20% renewable energy. I don’t think we can make it, because Taiwan is a highly populated island, and for renewable energy you need large pieces of land. But even if we succeed, what are you going to use for the remaining 80%? Coal is considered a highly polluted fuel; people don’t like coal at all. That leaves only LNG. But Taiwan is an island, so we have to rely on ships, LNG terminals, and a big tank to store LNG. It’s not safe. If anything happened, we could easily be left without gas and we could face the problem of power shortages. And the price of LNG is not stable—it fluctuates a lot—so the price of electricity is not going to be stable.

Q: Hundreds of academics wrote a letter urging the public to vote “no” on your referendum. They argued nuclear power is unsafe and there is no long-term solution to nuclear waste. How would you respond?

A: I think nuclear power is safe, even after the Three Mile Island accident, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The Three Mile Island accident happened 40 years ago [in Pennsylvania]; the nuclear industry really made a lot of changes since then. The Chernobyl reactor [in what is now Ukraine] used a different design than the light-water reactor designs we use in Taiwan; what happened in Chernobyl will not happen here. As to the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, [Japan,] it was not damaged by the earthquake, it was the tsunami. The Tokyo Electric Power Company really did not pay enough attention to plant safety related to the tsunami. And we don’t think nuclear power plants in Taiwan could be hit by a tsunami of the same magnitude because the height of a tsunami is maximal if seismic faults are parallel to the coast, as they were in Fukushima. Faults near Taiwan are instead at an angle to the coast.

Talking about nuclear waste, there is low-level and high-level waste. We really do not have much high-level nuclear waste, we only have spent fuel, but it is all on-site. We can have interim storage for spent fuel in a dry cask. So, it’s not a problem either.

Excerpts from Andrew Silver , Meet the engineering professor who got Taiwanese voters to support nuclear power, Sience Magazine, Nov. 27, 2018

Crabs in Radioactive Seas: Kara Sea

The Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s dumped several hundred containers with solid radioactive waste in the Blagopoluchie Bay in Novaya Zemlya. Back then, these waters were covered with ice overwhelming parts of the year.  Today, that is quickly changing. The bay located in the northern part of the Russian Arctic archipelago is now ice-free increasing parts of the year. With the retreating ice follow new species.

Researchers from the Russian Shirshov Institute of Oceanology have comprehensively studied the eco system of the bay for several years. Among their key findings is a quickly growing number of snow crabs. In this year’s research expedition to the remote waters, the researchers were overwhelmed by the numbers. According to the institute, the crab invasion can be described «as avalanche».

The number of crabs in the area is now estimated to almost 14,000 per hectare, the institute informs. With the help of underwater photo and video footage, the researchers have studied how the crab expansion is leading to a other reduction in other marine life on the sea bottom.    A further spread in the other parts of the Kara Sea is imminent, and the Russian Fisheries Agency (Rosrybolovstvo) believe that the Kara Sea will ultimately become an area with commercial crab fishing.

But Kara seas is a major nuclear waste dump…No major leakage from the radioactive materials have so far been registered.  Soviet authorities are believed to have dumped about 17,000 containers with solid radioactive wastes in Arctic waters and primarily in the Kara Sea. More than 900 containers are located on the bottom of the Blagopoluchie Bay. Also a number of reactor compartments were dumped, as well as three nuclear subs and other nuclear materials.

Exceprts from Atle Staalesen, Arctic crab invasion comes to nuclear waste graveyard, the Barents Observer, Nov. 26, 2018

Sniffing the Earth for Nuclear Exposions

Australia’s infrasound station “IS03” in Davis Base, Antarctica, is one of nearly 300 certified stations of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization monitoring system, feeling and sniffing the Earth for any signs of a nuclear explosion. The global system will comprise 337 facilities when complete.  “The monitoring stations in Australia cover a large expanse of the Southern hemisphere. They are strategically positioned to contribute significantly to the International Monitoring System (IMS) detection and location capability. All six nuclear tests by North Korea were clearly detected by Australia’s IMS seismic stations,” Zerbo said.

“Australia ranks third among countries hosting the largest number of monitoring facilities.  It covers all four technologies used for nuclear test detection. Some of the stations are located in particularly remote and inaccessible areas of the Earth, such as Antarctica. This has been a 20 year-long joint effort by CTBTO and Australia and is truly an extraordinary achievement,” Zerbo said.

The CTBTO’s global monitoring network captures four types of data: vibrations through the ground and in water – seismic and hydroacoustic; sound beyond the range of the human ear and detection of radioactive particles – infrasound and radionuclide.

The network guards against violations of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) banning nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere: in the atmosphere, underwater and underground.  The global network detects nuclear tests with high reliability. For example, on 3 September 2017, over 100 stations in the network detected and alerted Member States to North Korea’s last announced nuclear test.

Excerpts from Comprehensive Nuclear Test  Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), Australia Completes Its Monitoring Stations in the Global Network to Detect Nuclear Tests, Nov 18, 2018, 15:45 ET

Future of Green Life Depends on a Toilet

Innovator Cranfield University, U.K.: Putting down the toilet lid activates a dry flush. The motion turns a set of gears that drop feces and urine into a pan, where they are separated and either combusted into ash that can be thrown away or filtered into clean water that could be used to water plants, for instance, though not drinking. It was one of the few completely standalone toilets at the expo, able to function without links to water, sewer or electric lines.

The Innovator: Helbling Group, Switzerland: Helbling’s self-contained toilet system
Similar to other models, this toilet is a mostly self-contained system that transforms waste into clean water and a form of charcoal. But its makers, who were contracted by the Gates Foundation to develop this model, also had modern design in mind: A sleek, black-and-white prototype includes a touchpad for the flush and a container that can be detached to dump out excess water. While it doesn’t have to connect to water or sewer lines, one limit is that the model still needs electricity from an outside source

Sedron Technologies makes the Janicki Omni Processor, a small-scale waste-treatment plant that can filter wet fecal matter so thoroughly that the resulting water is not only free of bacteria and viruses but also safe for drinking. At its highest capacity the plant can manage waste for up to 500,000 people, the same range as two other plants featured at the expo. A trial has been running in Dakar, Senegal, over the past three years to identify and fix technical problems.

Excerpts  from Flush With Ideas: Bill Gates Pursues the Toilet of the Future, WSJ, Nov. 9, 2018

 

Nuclear Priesthood: the future of nuclear waste

As  the world increasingly buries its nuclear waste, a growing number of experts are trying to come up with a way to warn future generations of what, exactly, will be lying under their feet.    Deciding where to create nuclear waste storage sites, demarcating them clearly and then writing it all down seems like the obvious solution. After all, mankind started writing down its history 5,500 years ago and the likelihood of us stopping to do so seems slim.   But the question then becomes: what should we write this crucial piece of information on?  Stone and paper deteriorate. USB sticks and servers do, too.  Some government entities, like ANDRA, the French National Agency in charge of managing radioactive waste, have started to record their archive on permanent paper.  Also known as acid-free paper due to its composition, it can remain chemically and physically stable for a long period of time — unlike traditional paper, which starts to yellow and decay over time when exposed to light or heat.

The agency has also built sapphire discs, made out of sapphire and etched with platinum on one side. These can contain up to 40,000 pages of pictures and text and could, theoretically, last for some two million years.   Language, after all, is a living, changing entity. That’s why it took us decades to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs and why you might have gotten a headache reading Shakespeare’s Old English masterpieces in class. So who’s to say that French scientists 1,000 years from now will be able to understand la langue de Moliere’s current form?  The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has since created a working group whose task it is to set the best practices on Radioactive Waste Repository Metadata Management so that all the information is not only stored properly but is also easily accessible as national nuclear waste programmes evolve…

In a report, the researchers led by Thomas Sebeok of the University of Indiana recommended the creation of a nuclear priesthood, inspired by the Catholic Church, which would relay information down the generations through “a mixture of iconic, indexical and symbolic elements” and “a high degree of redundancy of messages.”..

The problem with art, explained Peter Galison, professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and author of the Containment documentary, is that if a message is too artistic, then it might not be properly understood as different people may have different interpretations of it….For instance, you know for sure what the skull pictogram means. If you’re thinking death, you’re right. Yet this symbol, Blanquer said, “comes from alchemists.”  “The skull represents Adam and the crossing bones the promise of resurrection,” he revealed. So in the span of just a few centuries this particular pictogram has evolved from meaning resurrection to meaning death.

As waste can be buried either near or deep under the surface, the signal should be seen both above but also under the ground. The researchers employed by the US Department of Energy in the mid-1980s (who came up with the nuclear priesthood, remember!), had also envisioned different monuments to get the point across: fields of pikes, threatening statues of thunderbolts, or enormous blocs of granite positioned into a tight grid….
The Finnish project of Onkalo took the problem completely differently: what if we came up with a way that would allow us to simply not tell future generations?  Its solution? Digging a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel.  “The entire concept of Posiva (the company which manages the project), is that 100 to 120 years after it’s been closed, the site will not be signalled. The 500 meters to the storage site in the geological layer will be filled with rock and the entire thing will be isolated and invisible in the natural landscape.”

Excerpts from What will a nuclear waste warning look like in 100,000 years’ time?, Euronews, Nov. 16, 2018

Restoring Species: ocean iron fertilization

Thought-Provoking Article by Randall S. Abate, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University,Ocean iron fertilization (OIF) is a new and controversial climate change mitigation strategy that seeks to increase the carbon-absorbing capacity of ocean waters by depositing significant quantities of iron dust into the marine environment to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton blooms. The photosynthetic processes of these blooms absorb carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it to the ocean floor. OIF has been criticized on several grounds. including the foreseeable and unforeseeable adverse consequences it may cause to the marine environment….

Notwithstanding these challenges, OIF recently has produced a valuable benefit unrelated to its carbon sequestration purpose. In 2012, the Haida indigenous community in Canada conducted an OIF experiment that sought to restore its decimated supply of Pacific Northwest salmon stocks, upon which the Haida community relies for subsistence and self- determination. The experiment significantly increased salmon stocks within the span of one year. This Article addresses whether indigenous communities like the Haida in the U.S. Pacific Northwest region could assert a legal right to employ such a strategy in the future to help restore and maintain a cultural food source that has been depleted in part due to climate change impacts. 

Recommended Citation
Randall S. Abate, Ocean Iron Fertilization and Indigenous Peoples’ Right to Food: Leveraging International and Domestic Law Protections to Enhance Access to Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, 20 UCLA J. Int’l L. & For. Aff. 45 (2016).

See also the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation