Monthly Archives: October 2019

Scrubbing Sulfur Pollution

From January 2020, the United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) will ban ships from using fuels with a sulphur content above 0.5%, compared with 3.5% now.The rules herald the biggest leap in how ships are powered since they switched from burning coal to oil over a century ago, but vessels will still be allowed to use higher-sulphur fuel if fitted with cleaning devices called scrubbers.  Closed-loop scrubbers keep most of the water used for sulphur removal onboard for disposal at port. Open-loop systems, however, remove sulphur coming through a ship’s smokestack with water that can then be pumped overboard.

Years of studies have examined whether open-loop scrubbers introduce into waterways acidic sulphur harmful to marine life, cancer-causing hydrocarbons, nitrates leading to algal blooms and metals that impair organ function and cause birth defects.  The results have largely been inconclusive and the IMO itself has encouraged further study into the environmental impact of scrubbers.

The stated aim of the new IMO measures is to improve human health..  A study in the journal Nature last year found ship emissions with current sulphur levels caused about 400,000 premature deaths from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as around 14 million childhood asthma cases every year.

Singapore and Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates have banned the use of open-loop scrubbers from the start of next year. China is also set to extend a ban on scrubber discharge to more coastal regions. 

Excerpts from Noah Browning, Going overboard? Shipping rules seen shifting pollution from air to sea, Reuters, Oct. 21, 2019

Gambling with the Environment: Shell’s Decommissioning Plans in the North Sea

Giant oil firms have spent more than four decades pumping billions of pounds worth of oil from the seabed. But now decommissioned rigs in the North Sea are at the centre of an environmental storm with an oil giant under intense pressure to rethink plans to leave some of the platforms in the sea.

Several hundred oil drilling platforms in the waters off Scotland are due to be decommissioned over the next three decades as they approach the end of their operational lifetime.  Due to the cost and difficulty of dismantling the structures – each of which can be as tall as the Eiffel Tower – Shell proposed removing only the topside of its four Brent platforms, leaving the huge concrete legs in place.

A natural gas platform in Norway. Almost all of the 600KT structure will be submerged.

That resulted in the controversial suggestion that oil mixed with sediment in 42 out of 64 concrete storage cells – each up to 66 feet in diameter and 200 feet high, around the height of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh – should remain on the seabed. These could remain for up to 500 years after the platforms have been decommissioned.

Chevron oil platform

The plans have raised alarm in some quarters over the impact of leaks from the estimated 11,000 tonnes of raw oil and toxins remaining in the base of the four Brent installations – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta, all put up in the East Shetland basin in the 1970s.  It has emerged that a report of an expert evaluation group commissioned by the Dutch government has provided a critical analysis of the position and recommends a clean-up be carried out as agreed more than 20 years ago in international treaties.   See Brent Decommissioning Derogation: An evaluation. The special treaty known as Ospar, which was adopted in 1992, states that rigs, including their contents and pipelines, must be removed from the sea after decommissioning.

The experts said that removing all contaminated materials “presents the most certain solution”.  They say staying true to Ospar “not only avoids passing on potential problems to future generations” but also prevents “large amounts of negative public attention as was the case in the decommissioning of Brent Spar in the 1990s”.  When Shell proposed sinking the Spar oil storage buoy in 1995, it prompted protests by Greenpeace, petrol boycotts in Germany and a falling share price. The company was eventually forced to back down and find a more environmentally friendly plan.

In October 2019, Greenpeace activists from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark boarded two oil platforms in Shell’s Brent field in a protest against the plans. They scaled Brent Bravo and hung banners saying “Shell, clean up your mess!” and “Stop Ocean Pollution”.

The 2019 report revealed that an earlier independent review group(that took place in 2017)said that a “leave in place” solution with appropriate navigational markers and safety zones gave “a risk in relation to shipping impact that Shell regarded as acceptable”.  The report added: “However, although the estimated probabilities of a collision may be low on a per annum basis, the consequences could be catastrophic and result in major injury and loss of life or serious marine pollution.”

Excerpts from North Sea oil decommissioning: pressure grows on Shell to back down, the Herald, Oct. 20, 2019
 

Rivers of Crude Oil: the poisoned land of Iraq

A biological remediation pilot project seeking to enhance nature’s own ability to clear up oil spills in Iraq’s conflict-affected areas has been launched in Kirkuk, Iraq…This UNEP initiative seeks to harness naturally occurring soil bacteria as a powerful natural ally to decontaminate poisoned land.  Over three years ago in summer 2016, the residents of Qayyarah—a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul—were caught in the line of fire as so-called Islamic State fighters torched nineteen nearby oil wells. So thick were the clouds of smoke, that people could not distinguish day from night for weeks in what infamously came to be known as the “Daesh winter”.  Rivers of crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into seasonal wadis as oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil relentlessly for months. The specter of an even worse environmental catastrophe was heightened as the oil slick migrated to less than three kilometers from the Tigris River, Iraq’s water lifeline.

Following an epic battle to control the oil fires that took nearly a year, North Oil Company, which manages the oil fields of northern Iraq, is currently collecting an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste in Qayyarah into around a dozen large pits.  Progress, however, has been slow and pools of heavy viscous oil remain on the doorsteps of entire neighborhoods and households, who complain about the impacts of noxious fumes on their children’s health.

“In some places, the layer of heavy oil is two to three meters thick, and long stretches of wadi channels are now effectively tarmac roads on which cars can be driven,” observed Mohammed Dawood, head of Qayarrah oil refinery’s environmental unit. Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials expressed concern that exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods of the 2018/19 winter season washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris River.

While oil production restarted in Qayyarah immediately after the conflict ended in June 2017, reaching currently an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, little has been done to clean up the conflict’s toxic aftermath… The UN Environment Programme in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day hands-on training workshop on remediation of oil spills by the use of bacteria  in September 2019. “By adding nutrients from manure, bulking agents like wood chips and water, we are simply creating the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and speeding up the natural process of breaking down the oil,”

Excerpts from  Microbes offer hope of cleaning up Iraq conflict’s pollution legacy, UNEP Press Release, Oct. 23, 2019

Greening the Mining Industry

An Australian regulator recently told Peabody Energy Glencore they couldn’t export coal from a new mine to countries that haven’t signed the Paris climate agreement. Two other Australian coal projects were scuttled in 2019, partly out of concern about greenhouse-gas emissions overseas.  Investors, too, are growing inquisitive about miners’ records on their customer emissions—partly out of fear about potential liability. Miners are responding by increasing carbon-impact disclosure, forming alliances with buyers and investing in technology to cut emissions from steel mills and power plants.  BHP  has said its scope 3 emissions—pollution mostly created when customers transport and use the commodities it produces—are almost 40 times greater than those generated at its own operations.

In the oil industry, facing similar pressures, there is friction among large companies over whether to commit to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from products such as gasoline—in big part because emissions vary hugely depending on the vehicle…

Threats to miners’ business go beyond pushback on new projects. Consumer brands could stop buying commodities they consider too dirty, experts say. Many are already innovating with recycled materials.

In July 2019, BHP pledged to spend $400 million over five years to develop technologies that can reduce emissions both from its operations and its customers’.  “We won’t stop at the mine gate,” BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie said. …Rio Tinto is also drawing up scenarios for decarbonizing the steel industry. Success could materially affect the value of its core iron-ore business, it said.  Meantime, miners are touting their role in the shift to a low-carbon economy by producing commodities such as copper and nickel for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Excerpts from Rhiannon Hoyle, Miners’ New Worry: Other People’s Pollution, WSJ, Oct. 9, 2019

Sunlight Can Make Plastics Disappear

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene, a sort of plastic  persists in the environment for millennia. 

Styrofoam Cup

In their research paper published in the Journal of  Environmental Science and Technology Letters, scientists show the  that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. 

Excerpt from Collin P. Ward et al, Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon, Journal of Environmental Science and Technology Letters, October 10, 2019

The Diversity of Submarine Mountains

There are about 30 000 mountains under the sea, the so-called “seamounts.”  One of them the Tropic Seamount started as a volcano, 120 million years ago. It lies at the southern tail of a chain that includes submerged peaks as well as the Canary Islands off the coast of Western Sahara. The seamount rises 3 kilometers from the ocean floor and is topped by a plateau 50 kilometers wide, 1 kilometer below the sea surface. Above ground, it would rank among the world’s 100 tallest mountains…. Much of its surface is encrusted with minerals that precipitated out of the seawater over eons, coating the lava at the excruciatingly slow rate of 1 centimeter or less every 1 million years.

That coating has caught the eye of prospectors. Called ferromanganese crust, it can contain high concentrations of cobalt, tellurium, and rare-earth elements used in electronics such as wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. By one estimate, seamounts in just one chunk of the North Pacific Ocean could hold 50 million tons of cobalt—seven times the worldwide total that’s economical to dig up on land. Such estimates arrive at a time when the International Energy Agency in Vienna is warning of a possible cobalt supply crunch by 2030, caused in part by the growing production of battery-powered cars.

Companies hoping to extract those metals from the seabed are focusing first on abyssal plains. Those flat expanses of the deep ocean floor can be littered with potatolike nodules rich in nickel, copper, and cobalt. They are also looking at hydrothermal vents that spew mineral-laden water, creating thick crusts and fantastical rock chimneys. Seventeen companies have permits to explore for minerals in one abyssal region, the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Mexico. And in 2017, Japan became the first nation to conduct large-scale experimental mining of a dead hydrothermal vent off the coast of Okinawa, inside Japan’s national waters. But the crusts on seamounts have particularly high concentrations of sought-after metals, making them a tempting target…

[Scientists are worried] that what they have learned from the the Tropic Seamount puts mining and conservation on a collision course. “The conditions that seem to favor the growth of the crusts,” he says, “also seem to favor the colonization by a lot of corals and sponges.”

Seamounts cover roughtly the same area as Russia and Europe combined, by one estimate, making them one of the planet’s largest habitats. The peaks have long been known as oases for sea life….Schools of fish—brick-red orange roughy, silvery pelagic armorheads, and goggle-eyed black oreos—often congregate at seamounts, as do sharks and tuna. Some migratory humpback whales appear to use them as navigational markers, spawning grounds, and resting spots. Seabirds gather above them, and myriad corals and sponges cling to their rocky surfaces, creating ample cover for other creatures.

Interest in seamounts is particularly high in countries that either host companies interested in deep-sea mining or are considering allowing mining in their national waters. In 2018, the Chinese research ship Kexue (meaning “science”) spent about 1 month surveying the Magellan Seamounts near the Mariana Trench, which several nations see as a potential source of industrial minerals. Brazilian researchers teamed up with Murton’s MarineE-tech project to examine an area in international waters where the country has a preliminary mining claim. Japanese scientists sent robots to survey seamounts that might be ripe for mining. In late July, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, a part of the United Nations that governs deep-sea mining in international waters, released 18 years of environmental data gathered by companies pursuing mining claims, including on seamounts….

The design of seamount mining equipment is closely guarded by competing countries and companies. But it could work much like equipment being tested for hydrothermal vents: enormous, remote-controlled machines that resemble bulldozers, equipped with toothed wheels designed to grind the crust into bits that can be carried to the ocean surface for processing.

Although no seamount has been mined yet, scientists point to the damage from deep-sea fishing to underscore why they worry this heavy machinery would do irreparable damage. In the late 1990s, Australian scientists documented devastation from nets dragged across seamounts near Tasmania to catch orange roughy. Hard corals had been wiped out, and the sheer mass of life on the mountains was half that on nearby ones too deep to be fished. Fifteen years after trawling was halted on some New Zealand seamounts, Clark and other researchers found little evidence of recovery.

Excerpts from Warren Cornwall, Sunken Summits, Science, Sept 13, 2019

Saving the Giraffe from Trophy Hunting and Meat Production

In August 2019, countries agreed to monitor trade in giraffes and their body parts to help conserve the species, now deemed vulnerable to extinction. From 1985 to 2015, the wild giraffe population shrank by about 40% to approximately 68,000 adults. The declines were especially sharp in eastern and Central Africa where giraffes’ savanna and forest habitat has been turned into farms and the animals are poached for meat; most trophy hunting of giraffes happens in southern Africa, where populations have been increasing… The only figures on trade in giraffe parts show that about 40,000—including hides, carved bones, and hunting trophies such as mounted heads—were brought into the United States from 2006 to 2015.

Excerpt from Giraffe Trade to Be Tracked, Science, Aug. 30, 2019

Bio-Energy and Food Security

In the effort to keep the planet from reaching dangerous temperatures, a hybrid approach called BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) has a seductive appeal. Crops suck carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, power plants burn the biomass to generate electricity, and the emissions are captured in a smokestack and pumped underground for long-term storage. Energy is generated even as CO2 is removed: an irresistible win-win. But, the United Nations’s climate panel sounded a warning about creating vast bioenergy plantations, which could jeopardize food production, water supplies, and land rights for poor farmers.

In an earlier special report in October 2018, IPCC called for holding the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 1.5°C above preindustrial conditions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It emphasized that cutting emissions won’t be enough to reach that goal. Replacing coal with renewable energy, and significantly cutting oil and natural gas, would still leave gigatons of excess carbon in the atmosphere. BECCS could remove it, computer models suggested, if several million square kilometers—an area the size of India—were devoted to energy crops.

But the 2019 IPCC report examines the consequences of deploying BECCS on that vast scale and concludes it could “greatly increase” the demand for agricultural land. The pressure on conventional crops could compromise food security, as happened in 2007 when rising U.S. corn ethanol production contributed to a spike in food prices. (In Mexico, the price of tortillas, a staple for the poor, rose 69% between 2005 and 2011.) The bioenergy plantations could also take a toll on biodiversity—as is happening in Southeast Asia, where plantations producing palm oil for biodiesel as well as food are displacing diverse tropical forest. And they could suck up scarce water, especially in drylands, where irrigation of crops might deplete local supplies, the IPCC report says.

Industrial bioenergy crops can lead to the same kinds of problems as intensive food production, such as the contamination of water from excess fertilizer. Scaling up bioenergy in developing countries can also exacerbate social problems like the loss of land by small farmers.

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Bioenergy plantations could fight climate change—but threaten food crops, U.N. panel warns, Science, Aug. 8, 2019

How to Fool your Enemy: Artificial Intelligence in Conflict

The contest between China and America, the world’s two superpowers, has many dimensions… One of the most alarming and least understood is the race towards artificial-intelligence-enabled warfare. Both countries are investing large sums in militarised artificial intelligence  (AI), from autonomous robots to software that gives generals rapid tactical advice in the heat of battle….As Jack Shanahan, a general who is the Pentagon’s point man for AI, put it last month, “What I don’t want to see is a future where our potential adversaries have a fully ai-enabled force and we do not.”

AI-enabled weapons may offer superhuman speed and precision.  In order to gain a military advantage, the temptation for armies will be to allow them not only to recommend decisions but also to give orders. That could have worrying consequences. Able to think faster than humans, an AI-enabled command system might cue up missile strikes on aircraft carriers and airbases at a pace that leaves no time for diplomacy and in ways that are not fully understood by its operators. On top of that, ai systems can be hacked, and tricked with manipulated data.

AI in war might aid surprise attacks or confound them, and the death toll could range from none to millions.  Unlike missile silos, software cannot be spied on from satellites. And whereas warheads can be inspected by enemies without reducing their potency, showing the outside world an algorithm could compromise its effectiveness. The incentive may be for both sides to mislead the other. “Adversaries’ ignorance of AI-developed configurations will become a strategic advantage,” suggests Henry Kissinger, who led America’s cold-war arms-control efforts with the Soviet Union…Amid a confrontation between the world’s two big powers, the temptation will be to cut corners for temporary advantage. 

Excerpts from Mind control: Artificial intelligence and war, Economist,  Sept. 7, 2019

Example of the Use of AI in Warfare: The Real-time Adversarial Intelligence and Decision-making (RAID) program under the auspices of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Information Exploitation Office (IXO)  focuses on the challenge of anticipating enemy actions in a military operation. In the US Air Force community, the term, predictive battlespace awareness, refers to capabilities that would help the commander and staff to characterize and predict likely enemy courses of action…Today’s practices of military intelligence and decision-making do include a number of processes specifically aimed at predicting enemy actions. Currently, these processes are largely manual as well as mental, and do not involve any significant use of technical means. Even when computerized wargaming is used (albeit rarely in field conditions), it relies either on human guidance of the simulated enemy units or on simple reactive behaviors of such simulated units; in neither case is there a computerized prediction of intelligent and forward-looking enemy actions….

[The deception reasoning of the adversary is very important in this context.]  Deception reasoning refers to an important aspect of predicting enemy actions: the fact that military operations are historically, crucially dependent on the ability to use various forms of concealment and deception for friendly purposes while detecting and counteracting the enemy’s concealment and deception. Therefore, adversarial reasoning must include deception reasoning.

The RAID Program will develop a real-time adversarial predictive analysis tool that operates as an automated enemy predictor providing a continuously updated picture of probable enemy actions in tactical ground operations. The RAID Program will strive to: prove that adversarial reasoning can be automated; prove that automated adversarial reasoning can include deception….

Excerpts from Real-time Adversarial Intelligence and Decision-making (RAID), US Federal Grants

The Disappearing Birds

North America’s birds are disappearing from the skies at a rate that’s shocking even to ornithologists. Since the 1970s, the continent has lost 3 billion birds, nearly 30% of the total, and even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline, U.S. and Canadian researchers reported in the September 2019 Issue of Science Magazine…  Five  years ago, PM Rosenberg a conservation biologist decided to take a broader look at what is happening in North America’s skies.

“I frankly thought it was going to be kind of a wash,” Rosenberg says. He expected rarer species would be disappearing but common species would be on the rise, compensating for the losses, because they tend to be generalists, and more resilient. Indeed, waterfowl and raptors are thriving, thanks to habitat restoration and other conservation efforts. But the declines in many other species, particularly those living along shorelines and in grasslands, far exceeded those gains, Rosenberg and his colleagues report. Grassland birds have declined by 53% since 1970—a loss of 700 million adults in the 31 species studied, including meadowlarks and northern bobwhites. Shorebirds such as sanderlings and plovers are down by about one-third, the team says. Habitat loss may be to blame.

The familiar birds that flock by the thousands in suburbs were not exempt. “There’s an erosion of the numbers of common birds,” Rosenberg says. His team determined that 19 common species have each lost more than 50 million birds since 1970. Twelve groups, including sparrows, warblers, finches, and blackbirds, were particularly hard hit. Even introduced species that have thrived in North America, such as starlings and house sparrows, are losing ground.  “When you lose a common species, the impact will be much more massive on the ecosystem and ecosystem services,” says Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservation biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “It’s showing the magnitude of the problem.”

Some of the causes may be subtle. Last week, toxicologists described how low doses of neonicotinoids—a common pesticide—made migrating sparrows lose weight and delay their migration, which hurts their chances of surviving and reproducing. Climate change, habitat loss, shifts in food webs, and even cats may all be adding to the problem, and not just for birds. 

Weather radar data revealed similarly steep declines. Radar detects not just rain, but also insect swarms and flocks of birds, which stand out at night, when birds usually migrate. “We don’t see individual birds, it’s more like a big blob moving through airspace,” explains Cornell migration ecologist Adriaan Dokter. He converted “blobs” from 143 radar stations into biomass. Between 2007 and 2017, that biomass declined 13%, the Science paper reports. The greatest decline was in birds migrating up the eastern United States….

Excerpts from Elizabeth Pennisi, Billions of North American Birds Have Vanished,  Science, Sept. 20, 2019

A Cure Worse than the Disease? Biofuels in Planes

The 2019 report by the Rainforest Foundation Norway RFN is called ‘Destination Deforestation’ and reviewed the role of the aviation industry in contributing to the climate crisis, concluding that there’s a high risk that increased use of palm and soy-based biofuel in planes will lead to increased deforestation.

Finland, the world’s largest producers of renewable diesel and the only EU country that gives additional incentives for the use of palm oil products to manufacture biofuel, could spearhead the race towards deforestation, as areas of rainforest in countries like Indonesia or in South America are cleared to plant crops that will later be used to produce the fuel.  RFN says that meeting the aviation industry’s own climate-change targets to reduce emissions could result in 3.2 million hectares of tropical forest lost, an area larger than Belgium.

Researchers at Rainforest Foundation Norway believe the Finnish incentives for (Palm Fatty Acid Distillate) PFAD-based biofuels are likely to contribute to this deforestation, since Finland’s state-owned oil company Neste produces half of the world’s renewable diesel.  “Finland continues to treat the palm oil by-product PFAD as a waste, eligible for additional incentives. In addition, Finland is home to Neste, the world’s largest producer of hydrotreated biodiesel, and uses PFAD as a raw material. Therefore, Finland’s program could contribute to the massive deforestation discussed in our report” he explains.

With Finland left isolated as the only EU country to pay producers to use waste-classified PFAD in biofuel production, Rainforest Foundation Norway cautions that the country risks becoming a dumping ground for unsustainable raw material….“As long as PFAD is classified as ‘waste’, it enjoys huge incentives from the state. Biofuels made out of PFAD are completely exempt from carbon dioxide tax in Finland. Additionally, PFAD’s emissions can be discounted, and it is not subject to the same sustainability criteria as other raw materials.

With ‘flight shame’ gaining more momentum across the world, the aviation industry is desperate to find ways to make flying compatible with climate goals. While replacing fossil fuels with renewables sounds like a great idea, the sustainability of biofuels is highly dependent on the raw materials used to produce them…The most common aviation biofuels, Hydrogenated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) fuels are produced from vegetable oils and animal fats. While the use of waste oils and other recycled materials is possible, the most viable raw materials for HEFA jet fuels are food crops.  “The cheapest and most readily available raw materials for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, which are closely linked to tropical deforestation” Ranum says.  The experts suggest that aiming to reduce emissions by increasing demand for palm and soy oil is a cure worse than the disease.

Elias Huuhtan, Report: Finland’s push to use biofuel could cause ‘massive deforestation, https://newsnowfinland.fi/ , Oct. 7, 2019

A Huge Headache: the Radioactive Water at Fukushima

What to do with the enormous amount of radioactive  water, which grows by around 150 tons a day at Fukushima, is a thorny question, with controversy surrounding a long-standing proposal to discharge it into the sea, after extensive decontamination.  The water comes from several different sources: Some is used for cooling at the plant, which suffered a meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in March 2011.  Groundwater that seeps into the plant daily, along with rainwater, add to the problem.

A thousand, towering tanks have now replaced many of the cherry trees that once dotted the plant’s ground. Each can hold 1,200 tons, and most of them are already full.  “We will build more on the site until the end of 2020, and we think all the tanks will be full by around the summer of 2022,” said Junichi Matsumoto, an official with the unit of plant operator TEPCO in charge of dismantling the site.

TEPCO has been struggling with the problem for years, taking various measures to limit the amount of groundwater entering the site.  There is also an extensive pumping and filtration system, that each day brings up tons of newly contaminated water and filters out as many of the radioactive elements as possible.

The hangar where the decontamination system runs is designated “Zone Y” — a danger zone requiring special protections.  All those entering must wear elaborate protection: a full body suit, three layers of socks, three layers of gloves, a double cap topped by a helmet, a vest with a pocket carrying a dosimeter, a full-face respirator mask and special shoes.  Most of the outfit has to burned after use.

“The machinery filters contain radionuclides, so you have to be very protected here, just like with the buildings where the reactors are,” explained TEPCO risk communicator Katsutoshi Oyama.  TEPCO has been filtering newly contaminated water for years, but much of it needs to go through the process again because early versions of the filtration process did not fully remove some dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium 90.

The current process is more effective, removing or reducing around 60 radionuclides to levels accepted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for water being discharged.  But there is one that remains, which cannot be removed with the current technology: tritium.

Tritium is naturally present in the environment, and has also been discharged in its artificial form into the environment by the nuclear industry around the world.  There is little evidence that it causes harm to humans except in very high concentrations and the IAEA argues that properly filtered Fukushima water could be diluted with seawater and then safely released into the ocean without causing environmental problems.

But those assurances are of little comfort to many in the region, particularly Fukushima’s fishing industry which, like local farmers, has suffered from the outside perception that food from the region is unsafe.

Karyn Nishimura, At Fukushima plant, a million-ton headache: radioactive water, Japan Times, Oct. 7, 2019
 

The Traffic Congested Space: Collision Avoidance

On September 3, 2019, it was the first time that European Space Agence (ESA) performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its spacecraft from colliding with a satellite in a large constellation,  a SpaceX satellite in the Starlink constellation.  Constellations are fleets of hundreds up to thousands of spacecraft working together in orbit. They are expected to become a defining part of Earth’s space environment in the next few years.  As the number of satellites in space dramatically increases, close approaches between two operated spacecraft will occur more frequently. Compared with such ‘conjunctions’ with space debris – non-functional objects including dead satellites and fragments from past collisions – these require coordination efforts, to avoid conflicting actions. 

Today, the avoidance process between two operational satellites is largely manual and ad hoc – and will no longer be practical as the number of alerts rises with the increase in spaceflight.
 “This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved,” explains Holger Krag, Head of Space Safety at ESA.   “Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic.”

ESA is proposing an automated risk estimation and mitigation initiative as part of its space safety activities. This will provide and demonstrate the types of technology needed to automate the collision avoidance process, allowing machine generated, coordinated and conflict-free manoeuvre decisions to speed up the entire process – something desperately needed to protect vital space infrastructure in the years to come.

Data is constantly being issued by the 18th Space Control Squadron of the US Air Force, who monitor objects orbiting in Earth’s skies, providing information to operators about any potential close approach.  With this data, ESA and others are able to calculate the probability of collision between their spacecraft and all other artificial objects in orbit. 

In August 2019, the US data suggested a potential ‘conjunction’ [collision] at 11:02 UTC on Monday, 2 September, between ESA’s Aeolus satellite and Starlink44 – one of the first 60 satellites recently launched in SpaceX’s mega constellation, planned to be a 12 000 strong fleet by mid-2020.  As days passed, the probability of collision continued to increase, and by Wednesday 28 August the team decided to reach out to Starlink to discuss their options. Within a day, the Starlink team informed ESA that they had no plan to take action at this point.**  ESA’s threshold for conducting an avoidance manoeuvre is a collision probability of more than 1 in 10 000, which was reached for the first time on August 29, 2019 evening.  An avoidance manoeuvre was prepared which would increase Aeolus’ altitude by 350 m, ensuring it would comfortably pass over the other satellite, and the team continued to monitor the situation.

On September 2, 2019, the commands triggered a series of thruster burns at 10:14, 10:17 and 10:18 UTC, half an orbit before the potential collision.  About half an hour after the conjunction was predicted, Aeolus contacted home as expected. This was the first reassurance that the manoeuvre was correctly executed and the satellite was OK.

Since the first satellite launch in 1957, more than 5500 launches have lifted over 9000 satellites into space. Of these, only about 2000 are currently functioning, which explains why 90% of ESA’s avoidance manoeuvres are the result of derelict and uncontrollable ‘space debris’.    In the years to come, constellations of thousands of satellites are set to change the space environment, vastly increasing the number of active, operational spacecraft in orbit.  This new technology brings enormous benefits to people on Earth, including global internet access and precise location services, but constellations also bring with them challenges in creating a safe and sustainable space environment.

This example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation,” explains Holger.  “This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated manoeuvre coordination.”  As the number of satellites in orbit rapidly increases, today’s ‘manual’ collision avoidance process will become impossible, and automated systems are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure.

**On August28th, 2019, SpaceX informed ESA via email that the company did not intend to move the Starlink probe.   At that time, the probability of collision was about 1 in 50,000, according to SpaceX, which is too low to require any preventive action.  The ESA contacted SpaceX daily about its evolving calculations, but the agency did not receive any additional replies after the original email response. SpaceX acknowledges that it failed to communicate due to a bug in its communication system and missed the emails about a higher probability of collision.

Excerpts from ESA Spacecraft Dodges Satellite Constellation, ESA, Sept. 3, 2019 &

A bug in SpaceX’s communication system kept the company in the dark about potential satellite collision, The Verge, Sept. 4, 2019

Can Nuclear Power Beat Climate Change?

The 2019 World Nuclear Industry Status Report (WNISR2019) assesses the status and trends of the international nuclear industry and analyzes the potential role of nuclear power as an option to combat climate change. Eight interdisciplinary experts from six countries, including four university professors and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s co-founder and chairman emeritus, have contributed to the report.

While the number of operating reactors has increased over the past year by four to 417 as of mid-2019, it remains significantly below historic peak of 438 in 2002.  Nuclear construction has been shrinking over the past five years with 46 units underway as of mid-2019, compared to 68 reactors in 2013 and 234 in 1979. The number of annual construction starts have fallen from 15 in the pre-Fukushima year (2010) to five in 2018 and, so far, one in 2019. The historic peak was in 1976 with 44 construction starts, more than the total in the past seven years.

WNISR project coordinator and publisher Mycle Schneider stated: “There can be no doubt: the renewal rate of nuclear power plants is too slow to guarantee the survival of the technology. The world is experiencing an undeclared ‘organic’ nuclear phaseout.”  Consequently, as of mid-2019, for the first time the average age of the world nuclear reactor fleet exceeds 30 years.

However, renewables continue to outpace nuclear power in virtually all categories. A record 165 gigawatts (GW) of renewables were added to the world’s power grids in 2018; the nuclear operating capacity increased by 9 GW. Globally, wind power output grew by 29% in 2018, solar by 13%, nuclear by 2.4%. Compared to a decade ago, nonhydro renewables generated over 1,900 TWh more power, exceeding coal and natural gas, while nuclear produced less.

What does all this mean for the potential role of nuclear power to combat climate change? WNISR2019 provides a new focus chapter on the question. Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, Professor at the Central European University and Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III, notes in her Foreword to WNISR2019 that several IPCC scenarios that reach the 1.5°C temperature target rely heavily on nuclear power and that “these scenarios raise the question whether the nuclear industry will actually be able to deliver the magnitude of new power that is required in these scenarios in a cost-effective and timely manner.”

Over the past decade, levelized cost estimates for utility-scale solar dropped by 88%, wind by 69%, while nuclear increased by 23%. New solar plants can compete with existing coal fired plants in India, wind turbines alone generate more electricity than nuclear reactors in India and China. But new nuclear plants are also much slower to build than all other options, e.g. the nine reactors started up in 2018 took an average of 10.9 years to be completed. In other words, nuclear power is an option that is more expensive and slower to implement than alternatives and therefore is not effective in the effort to battle the climate emergency, rather it is counterproductive, as the funds are then not available for more effective options.

Excerpts from WNISR2019 Assesses Climate Change and the Nuclear Power Option, Sept. 24, 2019

The Impact of Oil Spills on the Deep Sea: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The Louisiana University Marine Consortium (LUMCON) published in September 2019 a study on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Royal Society Open Science.  The BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, killing 11 workers.  The subsequent cleanup and restoration had cost nearly $65 billion..but while while we can burn off and disperse oil on the surface, but we don’t have the technology to get rid of oil on the seafloor. So approximately 10 million gallons of it settled there….In 2017 , the The LUMCON surveyed the site surrounding the wreck of the rig, and another one 1,640 feet north. There were no giant isopods, glass sponges, or whip corals that would have jumped (metaphorically) at the chance to colonize the hard substrate of the rig, such as discarded sections of pipe…..But]  crabs were just about everywhere. The researchers were shocked by the sheer number of crustaceans and other arthropods that had colonized the spill site. According to rough estimates, Atlantic deep sea red crabs, red shrimp, and white caridean shrimp were nearly eight times more populous at the Deepwater site than at other spots in the Gulf. “Everywhere there were crabs just kicking up black plumes of mud, laden with oil,” Nunnally says. But abundance does not mean the site was recovering, or even friendly to life. Particularly eerie was the crab’s achingly slow movement. “Normally, they scatter when they see the ROV lights,” he says. But these crabs seemed unbothered, or unaware of the robot’s presence.

Crabs on the seabed of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

The researchers hypothesize that degrading hydrocarbons are what’s luring unwitting crabs from the surrounding seafloor to the deep-sea equivalent of a toxic dump. “The chemical makeup of oil is similar to the oils naturally present on crustaceans,” Nunnally says. “They’re attracted to the oil site, but everything goes downhill for them once they’re in the area.” A similar kind of chemical confusion occurred at an oil spill in Buzzards Bay in New England in 2003, which attracted hordes of American lobsters. The researchers liken the death trap to the La Brea Tar Pits: Once lured in, the crabs lose their ability to leave. With no other species able to thrive in the area, the crabs have no food source—except each other. And as one might imagine, consuming the flesh of a toxin-riddled crab or starving to death in a deep-sea tar pit is sort of a lose/lose situation.

The crabs also looked anything but normal: some claws shrunken, some swollen, shriveled legs, a dusting of parasites. “There were deformities, but mostly things were missing,” Nunnally says. “You come in with eight legs and try to get away on four or five.” The researchers have yet to ascertain what specific toxins led to these maladies. The shrimp looked just as awful as the crabs. “They didn’t look like shrimp from other sites,” Nunnally says, adding that many of the small crustaceans had humps in their backs—tumors, perhaps.

Excerpts from SABRINA IMBLERS, A Decade Later, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Has Left an Abyssal Wasteland, Atlas Obscura, Sept. 18, 2019