Monthly Archives: June 2021

How to Remove Carbon from 30 Million Cars Every Single Year

Gabon is the first country in Africa to receive results-based payments for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The first payment is part of the breakthrough agreement between Gabon and the multi-donor UN-hosted Central African Forest Initiative’s (CAFI) in 2019 for a total of $150 million over ten years.

At a high-level event organised on Tuesday, Sveinung Rotevatn, Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment said on behalf of CAFI: “This is the first time an African country has been rewarded for reducing forest-related emissions at the national level.  It is extremely important that Gabon has taken this first step. The country has demonstrated that with strong vision, dedication and drive, emissions reductions can be achieved in the Congo Basin forest.” Gabon is leading the way in maintaining its status of High Forest Cover Low Deforestation (HFLD) country. ..

Gabon has preserved much of its pristine rainforest since the early 2000s in creating 13 national parks, one of which is listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its forests absorb a total of 140 million tons of CO2 every year, the equivalent of removing 30 million cars from the road globally.

Gabon has also made significant advances in sustainable management of its timber resources outside the parks, with an ambition to ensure that all forest concessions are FSC-certified. Forest spans over 88% of its territory, and deforestation rates have been consistently low (less than 0.08%) since 1990. Gabon’s forests house pristine wildlife and megafauna including 60% of the remaining forest elephants, sometimes called the “architects” or “gardeners” of the forest for their roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems and recently listed as critically endangered.

Excerpt from Gabon receives first payment for reducing CO2 emissions under historic CAFI agreement, Central African Forest Initiative, June 22, 2021

Do It 100 Trillion Times Faster! Race Quantum Supremacy

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative is looking in a full picture of how quantum computing will shape the next 30 years of computing.  In April 2021, the agency embarked on a new initiative to support the development of quantum computers. Called the Quantum Benchmarking program, the effort aims to establish key quantum-computing metrics and then make those metrics testable.

“It’s really about developing quantum computing yardsticks that can accurately measure what’s important to focus on in the race toward large, fault-tolerant quantum computers,” Joe Altepeter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in an agency announcement. Historically, the U.S. has invested heavily in quantum science research, but it has not had a full national strategy to coordinate those efforts. The December 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act kickstarted the federal approach to accelerate quantum research and development for an initial five-year period.

Developing metrics would also help quantify and understand how transformative large quantum computers could be. ..The 2018 legislation also established various research centers and partnerships for quantum computing, such as the Quantum Economic Development Consortium comprising government, private and public entities. Under these partnerships, researchers have explored how quantum computing interacts with other technologies, like artificial intelligence, to impact health care. “One of the applications we’re excited about is enabling drug discovery. We want to investigate if we can help the pharmaceuticals industry,” said Altepeter…

“[Quantum computers] could be transformative and the most important technology we’ve ever seen, or they can be totally useless and these gigantic paperweights that are sitting in labs across the country. That window of potential surprise is the key. That’s the kind of surprise that DARPA cannot allow to exist,” said Altepeter. “It’s our job to make sure that we eliminate those kinds of surprises — hence why we wanted to do this program.”

Excerpts from Sarah Sybert, DARPA Aims for Quantum-Computing Benchmarks in New Program, https://governmentciomedia.com/, June 21, 2021

A team of Chinese scientists has developed the most powerful quantum computer in the world, capable of performing at least one task 100 trillion times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputers…In 2019, Google said it had built the first machine to achieve “quantum supremacy,” the first to outperform the world’s best supercomputers at quantum calculation. In December 2020, a Chinese team, based at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, reported their quantum computer, named Jiuzhang, is 10 billion times faster than Google’s. Assuming both claims hold up, Jiuzhang would be the second quantum computer to achieve quantum supremacy anywhere in the world.

The Reckless Gambles that Changed the World: darpa

Using messenger RNA to make vaccines was an unproven idea. But if it worked, the technique would revolutionize medicine, not least by providing protection against infectious diseases and biological weapons. So in 2013 America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gambled. It awarded a small, new firm called Moderna $25m to develop the idea. Eight years, and more than 175m doses later, Moderna’s covid-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit.

It is the agency that shaped the modern world, and this success has spurred imitators. In America there are ARPAS for homeland security, intelligence and energy, as well as the original defense one…Germany has recently established two such agencies: one civilian (the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, or SPRIN-d) and another military (the Cybersecurity Innovation Agency). Japan’s interpretation is called Moonshot R&D. 

As governments across the rich world begin, after a four-decade lull, to spend more on research and development, the idea of an agency to invent the future (and, in so doing, generate vast industries) is alluring and, the success of DARPA suggests, no mere fantasy. In many countries there is displeasure with the web of bureaucracy that entangles funding systems, and hope that the DARPA model can provide a way of getting around it. But as some have discovered, and others soon will, copying DARPA requires more than just copying the name. It also needs commitment to the principles which made the original agency so successful—principles that are often uncomfortable for politicians.

On paper, the approach is straightforward. Take enormous, reckless gambles on things so beneficial that only a handful need work to make the whole venture a success. As Arun Majumdar, founding director of ARPA-e, America’s energy agency, puts it: “If every project is succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough.” Current (unclassified) DAROA projects include mimicking insects’ nervous systems in order to reduce the computation required for artificial intelligence and working out how to protect soldiers from the enemy’s use of genome-editing technologies.

The result is a mirror image of normal R&D agencies. Whereas most focus on basic research, DARPA builds things. Whereas most use peer review and carefully selected measurements of progress, DARPA strips bureaucracy to the bones (the conversation in 1965 which led the agency to give out $1m for the first cross-country computer network, a forerunner to the internet, took just 15 minutes). All work is contracted out. DARPA has a boss, a small number of office directors and fewer than 100 program managers, hired on fixed short-term contracts, who act in a manner akin to venture capitalists, albeit with the aim of generating specific outcomes rather than private returns.

Excerpt from Inventing the future: A growing number of governments hope to clone America’s DARPA, Economist, June 5, 2021

Can the Switzerland of Chips Crush the Global Economy?

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) has emerged over the past several years as the world’s most important semiconductor company, with enormous influence over the global economy. With a market cap of around $550 billion, it ranks as the world’s 11th most valuable company. Its dominance leaves the world in a vulnerable position, however. As more technologies require chips of mind-boggling complexity, more are coming from this one company, on an island that’s a focal point of tensions between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own.

The situation is similar in some ways to the world’s past reliance on Middle Eastern oil, with any instability on the island threatening to echo across industries….Being dependent on Taiwanese chips “poses a threat to the global economy,” research firm Capital Economics recently wrote. Its technology is so advanced, Capital Economics said, that it now makes around 92% of the world’s most sophisticated chips, which have transistors that are less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. Samsung Electronics Co. makes the rest. 

The U.S., Europe and China are scrambling to cut their reliance on Taiwanese chips. While the U.S. still leads the world in chip design and intellectual property with homegrown giants like Intel Corp. , Nvidia Corp. and Qualcomm, it now accounts for only 12% of the world’s chip manufacturing, down from 37% in 1990, according to Boston Consulting Group. President Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to help boost domestic chip production. China has made semiconductor independence a major tenet of its national strategic plan. The European Union aims to produce at least 20% of the world’s next-generation chips in 2030 as part of a $150 billion digital industries scheme.

The Taiwanese maker has also faced calls from the U.S. and Germany to expand supply due to factory closures and lost revenues in the auto industry, which was the first to get hit by the current chip shortage.

Semiconductors have become so complex and capital-intensive that once a producer falls behind, it’s hard to catch up. Companies can spend billions of dollars and years trying, only to see the technological horizon recede further. A single semiconductor factory can cost as much as $20 billion. One key manufacturing tool for advanced chip-making that imprints intricate circuit patterns on silicon costs upward of $100 million, requiring multiple planes to deliver

Taiwanese leaders refer to the local chip industry as Taiwan’s “silicon shield,” helping protect it from such conflict. Taiwan’s government has showered subsidies on the local chip industry over the years, analysts say.

Excerpts from Yang Jie et al., The World Relies on One Chip Maker in Taiwan, Leaving Everyone Vulnerable, WSJ, June 19, 2021

Tesla as Catfish: When China Carps-Tech CEOs Fall in Line

Many countries are wrestling with how to regulate digital records. Some economies, including in Europe, emphasize the need for data privacy, while others, such as China and Russia, put greater focus on government control. The U.S. currently doesn’t have a single federal-level law on data protection or security; instead, the Federal Trade Commission is broadly empowered to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive data practices.

Behind China’s moves is a growing sense among leaders that data accumulated by the private sector should in essence be considered a national asset, which can be tapped or restricted according to the state’s needs, according to the people involved in policy-making. Those needs include managing financial risks, tracking virus outbreaks, supporting state economic priorities or conducting surveillance of criminals and political opponents. Officials also worry companies could share data with foreign business partners, undermining national security.


Beijing’s latest economic blueprint for the next five years, released in March 2021, emphasized the need to strengthen government sway over private firms’ data—the first time a five-year plan has done so. A key element of Beijing’s push is a pair of laws, one passed in June 2021, the Data Security Law,  and the other a proposal updated by China’s legislature in Apr0il 2021. Together, they will subject almost all data-related activities to government oversight, including their collection, storage, use and transmission. The legislation builds on the 2017 Cybersecurity Law that started tightening control of data flows.

The law will “clearly implement a more stringent management system for data related to national security, the lifeline of the national economy, people’s livelihood and major public interests,” said a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, the legislature. The proposed Personal Information Protection Law, modeled on the European Union’s data-protection regulation, seeks to limit the types of data that private-sector firms can collect. Unlike the EU rules, the Chinese version lacks restrictions on government entities when it comes to gathering information on people’s call logs, contact lists, location and other data.

In late May 2021, citing concerns over user privacy, the Cyberspace Administration of China singled out 105 apps—including ByteDance’s video-sharing service Douyin and Microsoft Corp.’s Bing search engine and LinkedIn service—for excessively collecting and illegally accessing users’ personal information. The government gave the companies named 15 days to fix the problems or face legal consequences….

Beijing’s pressure on foreign firms to fall in line picked up with the 2017 Cybersecurity Law, which included a provision calling for companies to store their data on Chinese soil. That requirement, at least initially, was largely limited to companies deemed “critical infrastructure providers,” a loosely defined category that has included foreign banks and tech firms….Since 2021, Chinese regulators have formally made the data-localization requirement a prerequisite for foreign financial institutions trying to get a foothold in China. Citigroup Inc. and BlackRock Inc. are among the U.S. firms that have so far agreed to the rule and won licenses to start wholly-owned businesses in China…

Senior officials have publicly likened Tesla to a “catfish” rather than a “shark,” saying the company could uplift the auto sector the way working with Apple and Motorola Mobility LLC helped elevate China’s smartphone and telecommunications industries. To ensure Tesla doesn’t become a security risk, China’s Cyberspace Administration recently issued a draft rule that would forbid electric-car makers from transferring outside China any information collected from users on China’s roads and highways. It also restricted the use of Tesla cars by military personnel and staff of some state-owned companies amid concerns that the vehicles’ cameras could send information about government facilities to the U.S. In late May 2021, Tesla confirmed it had set up a data center in China and would domestically store data from cars it sold in the country. It said it joined other Chinese companies, including Alibaba and Baidu Inc., in the discussion of the draft rules arranged by the CyberSecurity Association of China, which reports to the Cyberspace Administration…

Increasingly, China’s president, Mr. Xi, leaned toward voices advocating greater digital control. He now labels big data as another essential element of China’s economy, on par with land, labor and capital.  “From the point of view of the state, anti-data monopoly must be strengthened,” said Li Lihui, a former president of state-owned Bank of China Ltd. and now a member of China’s legislature. He said he expects China to establish a “centralized and unified public database” to underpin its digital economy.

Excerpts from China’s New Power Play: More Control of Tech Companies’ Troves of Data, WSJ, June 12, 2021

The Giant Nuclear Graveyard in the Arctic

The Nuclear Waste in Saida Bay, Russia, is financed by Germany as part of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Italy has paid for the floating dock that brings the nuclear reactor-compartments from the waters to the site. Reactor compartments from submarines and icebreakers will have to be stored for onshore for many decades before the radioactivity have come down to levels acceptable for cutting the reactors’ metal up and pack it for final geological disposal.

These giant containers contain parts of nuclear reactors in order to avoid leakages to the Arctic environment. Image Thomas Nilsen

The process of scrapping the 120 nuclear-powered submarines that sailed out from bases on the Kola Peninsula during the Cold War started in the early 1990 and has technically and economically been supported by a wide range of countries, including Norway and the European Union. Ballistic missile submarines scrapped at yards in Severodvinsk in the 1990s were paid by the United States Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program.

Excerpts from Kola Peninsula to get radioactive waste from southern Russia, The Barents Observer, May 2021

Fossil-Free in 2026

Norrland (in Sweden) abounds in hydropower. Power that is cheap and—crucially—green, along with bargain land and proximity to iron ore, is sparking an improbable industrial revolution, based on hydrogen, “green” steel and batteries. SSAB, a steelmaker, is poised to deliver its first consignment of “eco-steel” from a hydrogen-fuelled pilot plant in Lulea, a northern city. 

Traditionally, to make steel, iron ore must be melted at high temperatures and reduced from iron oxide to iron, a process that typically involves burning fossil fuels, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Replacing them with hydrogen eliminates more than 98% of the carbon dioxide normally released. The hydrogen is made by electrolysing water, using electricity produced by hydro-power. This approach involves almost no carbon-dioxide emissions at all…..

Northern Sweden’s steelmaking leaps are being emulated elsewhere in Europe, in response to similar environmental pressures which will only increase if, as looks very likely, Germany’s Greens enter government after the election in September 2021. Europe produces a still significant 16% of the world’s steel. Big producers in Germany and Poland, where the industry is mostly coal-based and very dirty, are nervy. Even neighbouring Norway is in danger of losing out. It too has the gift of rich renewable-energy resources, but underinvestment means there may soon not be enough of this green electricity to meet the demands of both households and industry.

Excerpts from Green steel: Plentiful renewable energy is opening up a new industrial frontier, Economist, May 15, 2021

Resurrecting Used Materials: the Battle against E-Waste

Electric vehicles (EVs) continue to grow in popularity. According to IHS Markit, a research firm, almost 2.5m battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid cars were sold around the world in 2020—and the company expects that number to grow by 70% in 2021…. And, when all of these machines come to the ends of their useful lives, they will need to be recycled.

This coming avalanche of e-waste will be hard to deal with. When a petrol or diesel car is dismantled and crushed, as much as 95% of it is likely to be used again. Ways to do that are well-developed, straightforward and helped by the fact that, on average, almost 70% of such a vehicle consists of readily recyclable ferrous metals. EVs, by contrast, contain a far greater variety of materials. Separating and sorting these is tricky, especially as many of them are locked up inside complex electrical components.

For those who can manage to do so, though, there is good business to be had here. EVs contain lots of valuable stuff. The magnets in their motors are full of rare-earth metals, and their batteries of lithium and cobalt…Li-Cycle, a Canadian company founded in 2016 that is already the biggest recycler of lithium-ion batteries in North America, is one outfit betting on hydrometallurgy. Li-Cycle is not alone, though, in its hydrometallurgical ambitions. One rival is Redwood Materials of Carson City, Nevada…Northvolt… makes lithium-ion batteries for European carmakers. It is adding a recycling plant to its factory in Sweden, to process the batteries it produces there when they reach the ends of their lives. led. Similar “closed-loop” systems are being developed in other parts of the battery supply chain. For example, American Battery Technology, a firm in Nevada that mines and processes lithium, is adding a recycling plant intended to recover lithium and other metals from expired batteries. It will use the lithium in its own production processes and sell the other materials on.

The biggest battery-recycling operations of all, though, are not Western, but Chinese—not surprising, perhaps, given that China is the world’s largest market for EVs, and the country’s government has been promoting the recycling of lithium-ion batteries for some time. Brunp Reycling , a subsidiary of CATL, the world’s biggest EV-battery-maker, has half-a-dozen hydrometallurgical recycling operations around the country. Brunp says it can recycle 120,000 tonnes of old batteries a year, which it claims represents about half of China’s current annual battery-recycling capacity. …

Tesla itself also has trans-Pacific ambitions. It is setting up a battery-recycling facility at its  EV factory in Shanghai, to complement one it is developing at its battery factory in Nevada. Nor is Tesla the only vehicle-maker involving itself in the industry. In January, Volkswagen opened a pilot battery-recycling plant in Salzgitter. Salzgitter is close to the company’s battery factory in Braunschweig, which is being expanded to produce more than 600,000 EV battery packs a year. The idea is the firm’s battery experts will work with its recyclers to make battery packs easier to dismantle.

Designing recyclability in from the beginning will, in the long run, be crucial to the effective recycling of electric vehicles—and especially their batteries. Shredding lots of different types of e-waste at the same time inevitably results in contamination. Separating components before doing so would yield greater levels of purity.

Excerpts from Old electric cars are a raw material of the future, Economist, May 15, 2021

The Killing Fad: Agile Drones

Drones built in Turkey with affordable digital technology wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air-defense systems, of Russian protégés in battles waged in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. These drones point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology. China, too, has become a leading war drone exporter to the Middle East and Africa. Iran-linked groups in Iraq and Yemen used drones to attack Saudi Arabia. At least 10 countries, from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates, have used drones purchased from China to kill adversaries, defense analysts say.

Flying alone or in a group, these drones can surprise troops and disable poorly concealed or lightly defended armored vehicles, a job often assigned to expensive warplanes. The drones can stay quietly aloft for 24 hours, finding gaps in air-defense systems and helping target strikes by warplanes and artillery, as well as firing their own missiles. Militaries, including the U.S., are upgrading air-defense systems to catch up with the advances, seeking methods to eliminate low-budget drones without firing missiles that cost more than their targets. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is also developing Skyborg and Valkyrie, lower-cost autonomous aircraft that are part of an innovation program

Israel and the U.S. have long used high-end drones in counterterrorism operations to target prominent enemies. But the countries have hesitated to sell their top models, even to allies, for fear of proliferation…Technological advances and global competitors have produced inexpensive alternatives.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2. Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover. Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable—qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9…

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2. The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions. …Turkey’s drone sales have riled Moscow. …

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel, and the country’s desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK, a Kurdish militant group….Azerbaijan, geographically and culturally close to Turkey, procured a set of TB2 drones last year. The country had lost control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia in a war that ended in a 1994 cease-fire. Rising petroleum wealth had bolstered Azerbaijan’s military in the years since. The TB2s, as well as Israeli-made drones, helped Azerbaijan overwhelm Armenian forces. Attacks were recorded for videos and posted online by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry….

The Azerbaijan victory caught the attention of Turkey’s suppliers. Some companies and countries, including Canada, halted export of components used in the TB2. [Too little too late?]

Excerpt from James Marson and Brett Forrest, Armed Low-Cost Drones, Made by Turkey, Reshape Battlefields and Geopolitics, WSJ, June 4, 2021

UFOs: Aliens or Just Enemies?

A forthcoming U.S. intelligence report contains no evidence that unexplained objects moving through the skies and witnessed by U.S. Navy pilots are alien spacecraft, but offers no conclusive explanation for the mysterious sightings, according to people familiar with its contents. The report, due to be delivered to Congress on June 25, 2021, appears unlikely to quell a debate over what the Pentagon calls “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” which pilots have observed moving at hypersonic speeds and conducting maneuvers that would be impossible using known technology.

Former President Barack Obama acknowledged in May 2021 that the U.S. government has no explanation for the strange objects. “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” Mr. Obama told CBS. “We can’t explain how they move, their trajectory,” he said. The draft report, the people familiar with it said, finds no evidence that the objects are alien spacecraft, but also no firm proof that they are not.

The New York Times, which first reported the study’s contents, said that it concludes that the most of the incidents didn’t originate from any advanced U.S. technology programs that might have been unknown to the pilots who witnessed them. One possibility officials have debated is that the craft are the result of secret research programs by a foreign adversary, such as Russia or China, both of which are believed to have experimented with hypersonic craft, which can travel more than five times the speed of sound.  The Pentagon last summer revived a small, secretive unit, called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, to study the encounters.

Excerpts from Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef, U.S. UFO Report Doesn’t Explain Mystery Sightings but Finds No Sign of Aliens, WSJ, June 5, 2021

Smart Weapons Who Make Many Mistakes: AI in War

Autonomous weapon systems rely on artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn relies on data collected from those systems’ surroundings. When these data are good—plentiful, reliable and similar to the data on which the system’s algorithm was trained—AI can excel. But in many circumstances data are incomplete, ambiguous or overwhelming. Consider the difference between radiology, in which algorithms outperform human beings in analysing x-ray images, and self-driving cars, which still struggle to make sense of a cacophonous stream of disparate inputs from the outside world. On the battlefield, that problem is multiplied.

“Conflict environments are harsh, dynamic and adversarial,” says UNDIR. Dust, smoke and vibration can obscure or damage the cameras, radars and other sensors that capture data in the first place. Even a speck of dust on a sensor might, in a particular light, mislead an algorithm into classifying a civilian object as a military one, says Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author. Moreover, enemies constantly attempt to fool those sensors through camouflage, concealment and trickery. Pedestrians have no reason to bamboozle self-driving cars, whereas soldiers work hard to blend into foliage. And a mixture of civilian and military objects—evident on the ground in Gaza in recent weeks—could produce a flood of confusing data.

The biggest problem is that algorithms trained on limited data samples would encounter a much wider range of inputs in a war zone. In the same way that recognition software trained largely on white faces struggles to recognise black ones, an autonomous weapon fed with examples of Russian military uniforms will be less reliable against Chinese ones. 

Despite these limitations, the technology is already trickling onto the battlefield. In its war with Armenia last year, Azerbaijan unleashed Israeli-made loitering munitions theoretically capable of choosing their own targets. Ziyan, a Chinese company, boasts that its Blowfish a3, a gun-toting helicopter drone, “autonomously performs…complex combat missions” including “targeted precision strikes”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that many of today’s remote-controlled weapons could be turned into autonomous ones with little more than a software upgrade or a change of doctrine….

On May 12th, 2021, the ICRD published a new and nuanced position on the matter, recommending new rules to regulate autonomous weapons, including a prohibition on those that are “unpredictable”, and also a blanket ban on any such weapon that has human beings as its targets. These things will be debated in December 2021 at the five-yearly review conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, originally established in 1980 to ban landmines and other “inhumane” arms. Government experts will meet thrice over the summer and autumn, under un auspices, to lay the groundwork. 

Yet powerful states remain wary of ceding an advantage to rivals. In March, 2021 a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence established by America’s Congress predicted that autonomous weapons would eventually be “capable of levels of performance, speed and discrimination that exceed human capabilities”. A worldwide prohibition on their development and use would be “neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” it concluded—in part, it argued, because Russia and China would probably cheat. 

Excerpt from Autonomous weapons: The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves, Economist, May 29, 2021

Unthinkable: What Happens When Water Floods a Nuclear Plant

As the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Japanese shore, the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant shut down automatically to control the nuclear fission. The electrical lines collapsed, but the plant responded as designed, and the earthquake itself did not cause any other problems. The tsunami it triggered, however, did.

“The reactors were robust, seismically speaking,” said Gustavo Caruso, Director of the IAEA’s Office of Safety and Security Coordination. “But they were vulnerable to the high tsunami waves.” When the flooding hit, the ‘tsunami walls’ made to protect the plant from such events were too low to prevent the sea water from entering the plant. The water’s strength destroyed some of the structures, and entered the diesel generator room — which was built lower and at a closer distance to sea level than other plants in Japan — affecting Units 1, 2 and 3. “The diesel generators are essential for maintaining the plant’s electrical supplies in emergency situations,” said Pal Vincze, Head of the Nuclear Power Engineering Section at the IAEA. “They were drowned.”

If the diesel generator is affected, special batteries can be used to generate electricity, but these have a limited capacity, and, in the case of Fukushima Daiichi, some were also flooded. “In Japan, they put up a heroic fight to get the electrical systems up and running again, but it wasn’t enough,” Vincze added.

Without functioning instrumentation and control systems, or electrical power or cooling capabilities, the overheated fuel melted, sank to the bottom of the reactors, and breached the reactor vessels, leading to three meltdowns. In addition, data logs and vital systems operated by safety parameters were also flooded, which meant that there was no way for the operator to monitor what was going on inside the reactors.

As stated in the IAEA report on the Fukushima Daiichi accident, “a major factor that contributed to the accident was the widespread assumption in Japan that its nuclear power plants were so safe that an accident of this magnitude was simply unthinkable. But…When planning, designing and constructing the plant, experts did not properly take into consideration past tsunami experiences… “It must be noted that the combination of an earthquake of this magnitude and a tsunami is extremely rare, but unfortunately this is what happened.”…

Excerpt from Laura Gil Fukushima Daiichi: The Accident, IAEA Bulletin, Mar. 2021

When Others Do our Dirty Work: the Costs of Overdependence

China is tightening its grip on the global supply of processed manganese, rattling a range of companies world-wide that depend on the versatile metal—including the planet’s biggest electric-vehicle makers.

China produces more than 90% of the world’s manganese products, ranging from steel-strengthening additives to battery-grade compounds. Since October 2020, dozens of Chinese manganese processors accounting for most of global capacity have joined a state-backed campaign to establish a “manganese innovation alliance,” led by Ningxia Tianyuan Manganese Industry Group, setting out in planning documents goals and moves that others in the industry say are akin to a production cartel. They include centralizing control over supply of key products, coordinating prices, stockpiling and networks for mutual financial assistance.

The squeeze sent prices soaring in metal markets world-wide, snagging steelmakers and sharpening concern among car makers. China’s metal industries already dominate the global processing of most raw materials for rechargeable batteries, including cobalt and nickel. Three-quarters of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and half of its electric vehicles are made in China.  High-purity forms of manganese have increasingly become crucial for battery-powered automobiles, touted by Volkswagen AG and Tesla Inc. in recent months as a viable replacement for other, more-expensive battery ingredients….

While manganese ore is relatively abundant around the world, it is almost solely refined in China. Battery-grade manganese is traded mostly privately, and pricing can be opaque. Miners say a metric ton of the purified metal could cost up to $4,000—barely a 10th of the cost of cobalt, a widely used battery metal. By replacing cobalt, manganese could help auto makers produce 30% more cars with the same amount of nickel, analysts say.

Rival manganese projects outside China view the cartel-like activities as an opportunity to gain momentum for their own battery-grade developments…Still, analysts say such projects outside China might take years to start and heavy cost investments to develop. Viable bases of manganese ore are often located in remote regions, which require expensive infrastructure to ferry and process extracted ores.

Excerpt from Chuin-Wei Yap, China Hones Control Over Manganese, a Rising Star in Battery Metals, WSH, May 21, 2021

The Most Radioactive Sea on Earth and How to Save it

No other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19, and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted from the seafloor and secured. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas and increased shipping.

The submarine reactors dumped in shallow bays east of the closed-off military archipelago of Novaya Zemlya… had experienced accidents and posed a radiation threat at the navy yards where people were working.  Dumping the reactors in shallow waters, someplace at only 50 meters, meant they could be lifted one day when technology allowed.

A worst-case scenario would be a failed lifting attempt, causing criticality in the uranium fuel, again triggering an explosion with following radiation contamination of Arctic waters.  

A Russian-Norwegian expedition to the K-27 submarine in Stepovogo bay in 2012 took samples for studying possible radioactive leakages. Now, the Bellona group, an environmental NGOs, calls  an expedition in 2021  to thoroughly study the strength of the hull and look for technical options on how to lift the heavy submarine and reactor compartments. A previous study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission roughly estimated 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 is €278 million, of which the K-159 in the Barents Sea is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 million. 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.

Excerpt from Tackling dumped nuclear waste gets priority in Russia’s Arctic Council leadership in 2021, BarentsObserver, May 23, 2021