Monthly Archives: March 2020

The Nuclear Reactors Buried in the Deep Sea

The Soviet Union used the waters east of Novaya Zemlya to dump reactors, spent nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste from both the navy and the fleet of nuclear-powered civilian icebreakers. About 17,000 objects were dumped in the period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Most of the objects are metal containers with low- and medium level radioactive waste. The challenge today, though, are the reactors with high-level waste and spent uranium fuel, objects that will pose a serious threat to the marine environment for tens of thousands of years if nothing is done to secure them.

The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 (in the Kara Sea) and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted and secured. Also, the submarine K-159 (in the Barents Sea) that sank north of Murmansk while being towed for decommissioning in 2003 have to be lifted from the seafloor, the experts conclude. A study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission has evaluated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning and securing the reactors for long-term storage. The estimated price-tag for all six will €278 millions, of which the K-159 is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 millions. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Lifting Russia’s accident reactors from the Arctic seafloor will cost nearly €300 million, Mar. 8, 2020

Survivable Nuclear Weapons: Count on Them

The U.S. Defense Department said on February 4, 2020 the Navy had fielded a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, something the Pentagon believes is needed to deter adversaries like Russia but which critics say lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons.  Low-yield nuclear weapons, while still devastating, have a strength of less than 20 kilotons. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had about the same explosive power.

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement.  “(It) supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Rood added….

“The administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 warhead remains a misguided and dangerous one. The deployment of this warhead does nothing to make Americans safer,” Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.  The United States already has air-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons and critics say that should be sufficient….

Excerpts from Idrees Ali U.S. deploys ‘more survivable’ submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon, Reuters, Feb. 4, 2020

How to Create a National Park? Beat Up and Intimidate Indigenous Peoples

Armed ecoguards partly funded by the conservation group WWF to protect wildlife in the Republic of the Congo beat up and intimidated hundreds of Baka pygmies living deep in the rainforests, according to a UNDP investigation. A team of investigators sent to northern Congo by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to assess allegations of human rights abuses gathered “credible” evidence from different sources that hunter-gatherer Baka tribespeople living close to a proposed national park had been subjected to violence and physical abuse from the guards over years, according to a leaked draft of the report obtain by the Guardian in February 2020.

The allegations, reported to the UN in 2019, included Baka tribespeople being beaten by the ecoguards, the criminalisation and illegal imprisonment of Baka men, summary evictions from the forest, the burning and destruction of property, and the confiscation of food.  In addition, the UNDP’s social and environmental compliance unit heard how the ecoguards allegedly treated the Baka men as “sub-human” and humiliated some Baka women by forcing them to take off their clothes and “be like naked children”.

The report says: “These beatings occur when the Baka are in their camps along the road as well as when they are in the forest. They affect men, women and children. Other reports refer to ecoguards pointing a gun at one Baka to force him to beat another and guards taking away the machetes of the Baka, then beating them with those machetes.

“There are reports of Baka men having been taken to prison and of torture and rape inside prison. The widow of one Baka man spoke about her husband being so ill-treated in prison that he died shortly after his release. He had been transported to the prison in a WWF-marked vehicle.”

The draft report, dated 6 January 2020, adds: “The violence and threats are leading to trauma and suffering in the Baka communities. It is also preventing the Baka from pursuing their customary livelihoods, which in turn is contributing to their further marginalisation and impoverishment.”

The $21.4m (£16.6m) flagship Tridom 11 project in northern Congo set up in 2017 with money from the WWF, UNDP, the European commission, US and Congolese governments and the Global Environment Facility, as well as logging and palm oil conglomerates, includes as its centrepiece a 1,456 sq km area of forest known as Messok Dja.

This global biodiversity hotspot is rich in wildlife, including elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, and has been lived in and used for the hunting of small game by the semi-nomadic Baka tribes for millennia. The WWF has pressed for it to be designated a protected area, or national park, for 10 years, on the grounds that it will reduce wildlife crime and act as an ecological corridor linking national parks in neighbouring Cameroon.

The WWF says the ecoguards were employed by the Congolese government, but admits contributing to their training and wages along with other funders through the Tridom interzone project (ETIC), a Congo government collaboration with WWF. It adds that there are no legal restrictions preventing Baka using the forests….The investigators also identified multiple failures of the UNDP to adhere to human rights policies and standards, and said little consideration had been given to the impact of the project on the Baka peoples….Investigators also said they found no evidence that the UNDP had taken into account the risk of co-financing the project with palm oil and logging companies whose work by its nature threatens large-scale biodiversity loss.

The report strongly criticises the way conservation is practised in central Africa. “The goal of establishing Messok Dja as a protected area was pursued by following the established patterns of conservation projects in the Congo Basin, which largely exclude indigenous peoples and treat them as threats rather than partners,” it says.

Excerpts from John Vidal, Armed ecoguards funded by WWF ‘beat up Congo tribespeople’, Guardian, Feb, 3, 2020

Hunting Down Polluters from Space

When scanning for emissions from a mud volcano in western Turkmenistan in January 2019, a satellite called Claire came across a large plume of methane drifting across the landscape. … The company operating the satellite, GHGSAT passed details via diplomats to officials in Turkmenistan, and after a few months the leaks stopped. This largely unknown incident illustrates two things: that satellites can play an important role in spotting leaks of greenhouse gases and, rather worryingly, that the extent of such leaks is often greatly underestimated. The data from Claire suggested the leak in Turkmenistan had been a big one…142,000 tonnes of methane. This made the Turkmenistani leak far bigger than the 97,000 tonnes of methane discharged over four months by a notorious blowout at a natural-gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon, California, in 2015, which is reckoned to have been the worst natural-gas leak yet recorded in America. There have been other big leaks, too…

The reason for concern is that although methane, the main constituent of natural gas, does not linger in the atmosphere for anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide does, it is a far more potent heat-trapping agent. About a quarter of man-made global warming is thought to be caused by methane. And between a fifth and a third of the methane involved is contributed by the oil and gas industry. Methane can be detected spectroscopically. Like other gases, it absorbs light at characteristic frequencies. With a spectrometer mounted on a satellite it is possible to analyse light reflected from Earth for signs of the gas. As with the satellites that carry them, spectrometers come in many shapes and sizes. Tropomi can also detect the spectral signs of other polluting gases, such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Other methane-hunting satellites are coming. These include one due for launch in 2022 by Methanesat, an affiliate of the Environmental Defence Fund, an American non-profit organisation. The 350kg satellite will cost $88m to build and put into orbit. It will scan an area of land 200km wide with a resolution of 1km by 1km. According to Methanesat, it will be the most sensitive to emission levels yet, being able to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts-per-billion. Data collected by the satellite will be publicly available.

Excerpts from The Methane Hunters, Economist, Feb. 1 2020

Ethical Killing: Landmines

During the Gulf war of 1991, no fewer than 117,000 landmines were showered over Kuwait and Iraq by American planes. This barely dented the Pentagon’s vast stockpile of 19m. Just under a quarter of the devices scattered in the path of Saddam Hussein’s army were anti-personnel landmines (APLs), the sort that would soon be banned by the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention of 1997, widely known as the Ottawa treaty. The Ottawa treaty has 164 parties, all of which ban the production and use of APL (anti-vehicle mines, among others, are still allowed). America is not among them. When the treaty was finalised, America declined to join (other holdouts include China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Syria).

Landmines have a number of military uses. They are typically used to channel opposing armies away from particular areas and into others. A minefield can force an enemy to turn, which exposes their flank and makes them especially vulnerable, says Vincent Brooks, a retired general who commanded American forces in South Korea in 2016-18. They can also be used to “canalise” the enemy, channelling attackers into unfavourable terrain, where they may be more exposed to concentrated artillery fire. …But landmines are reviled weapons, and not without good reason. “They’re indiscriminate,”… Landmine casualties have fallen sharply over the years, but at least 2,000 people were killed or wounded by manufactured or improvised APLS in 2018, according to data collected by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a research group. Laying a mine can cost a few dollars; clearing one can require $1,000.

The Pentagon has an answer to this. It says that it only possesses, would only produce and would only use “non-persistent” landmines with the capacity to self-destruct or, failing that, to self-deactivate, with a battery losing its charge, within 30 days (some models can blow themselves up in as little as a few hours). It claims that such features are remarkably reliable. …“When the technology is brought into the battlefield, we see that the actual data doesn’t match with the promises,” says Erik Tollefsen, head of Weapons Contamination for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He says that impressive reliability rates are usually derived from tests in sterile conditions, and prove wildly exaggerated in practice. In 2002 a report by the Government Accountability Office, an agency that audits the federal government, noted that during the Gulf war one in 10,000 mines were expected to remain active, which would have produced 12 duds. The actual figure was almost 2,000.

Others argue that there are perfectly viable alternatives to APLs….In particular, remotely activated mines (rather than victim-activated ones) are allowed under the treaty if the person triggering the device has the would-be victim in sight, although this makes them harder to use at range and hostage to a breakdown of communications. In 2018 Finland—a late and reluctant signatory to Ottawa, given its long border with Russia—said it was developing a new, remote-controlled variety of anti-personnel “bounding” mine that leaps into the air and fires metal bullets downward.

Excerpts from Ethical Landmines: Watch Your Step, Economist, Feb. 15, 2020

Breath and Sweat: the Biometrics of All Private Things

It is not just DNA that people scatter to the wind as they go about their business. They shed a whole range of other chemicals as well, in their breath, their urine, their faeces and their sweat. Collectively, these molecules are referred to as metabolites….

The most common way of analysing metabolite content is gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. This technique sorts molecules by their weight, producing a pattern of peaks that correspond to different substances….There are, however, a lot of information sources out there, in the form of publicly available metabolite databases. The databases themselves are getting better, too…. A study just published by Feliciano Priego-Capote at University of Cordoba, in Spain, for example, shows it is possible to extract much meaningful information from even a dried-up drop of sweat. “The day is coming soon”, observes Cecil Lewis, a molecular anthropologist at University of Oklahoma, who is studying the matter, “when it will be possible to swab a person’s desk, steering wheel or phone and determine a wide range of incredibly private things about them….


The police may be tempted to push the boundaries as well. The fourth amendment to America’s constitution protects against unwarranted searches and seizure of evidence. This means it is hard to force someone to give a sample. But if obtaining such merely requires taking a swab of a surface in a public place—perhaps a keyboard someone has just used—the 4th amendment is unlikely to apply.

That is not necessarily wrong, if it means more criminals are caught and convicted. But it needs to be thought about carefully, because many metabolites are sticky. Cocaine is a case in point. Studies have shown that as many as two-thirds of the dollar bills in circulation in America carry traces of this substance, which might thus end up on the fingertips of the innocent, as well as the guilty.

Excerpts from Metabolites and You, Economist, Feb. 15, 2019

What Shrimp and Beef Have in Common? carbon footprint

Shrimp farms tend to occupy coastal land that used to be covered in mangroves. Draining mangrove swamps to make way for aquaculture is even more harmful to the atmosphere than felling rainforest to provide pasture for cattle. A study conducted in 2017 by cifor, a research institute, found that in both these instances, by far the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint of the resulting beef or shrimp came from the clearing of the land. As a result, CIFOR concluded, a kilo of farmed shrimp was responsible for almost four times the greenhouse-gas emissions of a kilo of beef

Eating wild shrimp is not much better: catches are declining around the world as a result of overfishing. Trawlers can pull as much as 20kg of by-catch from the sea for every kilo of shrimp. And reports abound of the appalling treatment of workers on shrimp-fishing vessels, including human-trafficking and child labour. When UN investigators interviewed a sample of Cambodians who had escaped virtual slavery on Thai fishing boats, 59% of them reported seeing fellow crew-members murdered by the captain.


Most of the world’s shrimp and prawns come from Asia. The continent accounts for 85% of the farmed sort and 74% of the wild catch. Global sales were around $45bn in 2018 and are thought to be growing by about 5% a year. But the industry is controversial, not just because of its part in global warming. Razing mangroves also leaves coastal regions vulnerable to flooding. Many shrimp farms are unsanitary; ponds often have to be abandoned after a few years because of problems with disease and pollution.

All this has given one Singaporean company a brain wave. “Farmed shrimps are often bred in overcrowded conditions and literally swimming in sewage water. We want to disrupt that—to empower farmers with technology that is cleaner and more efficient,” says Sandhya Sriram, one of the founders of Shiok Meats. The firm aims to grow artificial shrimp, much as some Western firms are seeking to create beef without cows. The process involves propagating shrimp cells in a nutrient-rich solution. Ms Sriram likens it to a brewery, disdaining the phrase “lab-grown”….The hitch is that producing shrimp in this way currently costs $5,000 a kilo.

Excerpts from How artificial shrimps could change the world, Economist, Feb. 28, 2020