Monthly Archives: August 2021

Imagining Failure: Nuclear Waste on the Beach, California

But for all the good vibes and stellar sunsets of  San Onofre state beach in California, beneath the surface hides a potential threat: 3.6m lb of nuclear waste from a group of nuclear reactors shut down nearly a decade ago. Decades of political gridlock have left it indefinitely stranded, susceptible to threats including corrosion, earthquakes and sea level rise. The San Onofre reactors are among dozens across the United States phasing out, but experts say they best represent the uncertain future of nuclear energy.

“It’s a combination of failures, really,” said Gregory Jaczko, who chaired the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the top federal enforcer, between 2009 and 2012, of the situation at San Onofre. That waste is the byproduct of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (Songs), three nuclear reactors primarily owned by the utility Southern California Edison (SCE) that has shut down….

Since there is not central repository for the final disposition of nuclear wasted in the United States,  the California Coastal Commission approved in 2015 the construction of an installation at San Onofre to store it until 2035. In August 2020, workers concluded the multi-year burial process, loading the last of 73 canisters of waste into a concrete enclosure. San Onofre is not the only place where waste is left stranded. As more nuclear sites shut down, communities across the country are stuck with the waste left behind. Spent fuel is stored at 76 reactor sites in 34 states….

At San Onofre, the waste is buried about 100ft from the shoreline, along the I-5 highway, one of the nation’s busiest thoroughfares, and not far from a pair of faults that experts say could generate a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Another potential problem is corrosion. In its 2015 approval, the Coastal Commission noted the site could have a serious impact on the environment in case of coastal flooding and erosion hazards beyond its design capacity, 

Concerns have also been raised about government oversight of the site. Just after San Onofre closed, SCE began seeking exemptions from the NRC’s operating rules for nuclear plants. The utility asked and received permission to loosen rules on-site, including those dealing with record-keeping, radiological emergency plans for reactors, emergency planning zones and on-site staffing.

San Onofre isn’t the only closed reactor to receive exemptions to its operating licence. The NRC’s regulations historically focused on operating reactors and assumed that, when a reactor shut down, the waste would be removed quickly.

It’s true that the risk of accidents decreases when a plant isn’t operating, said Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But adapting regulations through exemptions greatly reduces public transparency, he argued. “Exemptions are wink-wink, nudge-nudge deals with the NRC,” he said. “In general, it’s not really a great practice,” former NRC chair Jaczko said about the exemptions. “If the NRC is regulating by exemption, it means that there’s something wrong with the rules … either the NRC believes the rules are not effective, and they’re not really useful, or the NRC is not holding the line where the NRC should be holding line,” he said…

It’s worth considering how things fail, though, argued Rod Ewing, nuclear security professor at Stanford University’s center for international security and cooperation, and author of a 2021 report about spent nuclear waste that focuses on San Onofre. “The problem with our safety analysis approach is we spend a lot of time proving things are safe. We don’t spend much time imagining how systems will fail,” he said. “And I think the latter is what’s most important.”

Excerpts from Kate Mishkin, ‘A combination of failures:’ why 3.6m pounds of nuclear waste is buried on a popular California beach, Guardian, Aug. 

To Know the Truth Even if it Harms You

Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, an NGO, had been a thorn in the side of secretive governments, corrupt corporations, and powerful law firms since its founding in late 2018. In June 2020, in a release known as BlueLeaks, the group published 269 gigabytes of law enforcement data, which exposed police malfeasance and surveillance overreach across the United States.

DDoSecrets also published incriminating records from overseas tax shelters, from the social media site Gab, and from a Christian crowdfunding site often used by the far right. The group has affected autocrats as well, exposing the Russian government’s plans in Ukraine and mapping out the Myanmar junta’s business dealings. These revelations have spawned numerous news stories in the public interest, making DDoSecrets a valuable source for journalists, but also rendering it a target: In July 2020, German authorities seized one of the organization’s servers. August of 2020 brought ominous news of a Department of Homeland Security bulletin labeling DDoSecrets a “criminal hacker group.” ..

Avowedly nonpartisan, DDoSecrets nonetheless exhibits an ethos that seems to fuse anarchist politics, a hacker’s curiosity about forbidden knowledge, and a general sympathy for the oppressed. Its barbed Latin slogan, Veritatem cognoscere ruat caelum et pereat mundus, roughly translates to, “To know the truth, even if the heavens fall and the world perishes.” Call it a bolder, more transformative version of “information wants to be free.”

Emma Best…launched DDoSecrets in December 2018 with someone known only by the pseudonym “The Architect.” Together, they set out to distinguish their group from WikiLeaks, which they felt had morphed into a vehicle for Julian Assange’s ego…”Truth has an impact, regardless of the respectability politics some people choose to engage in when it comes to the alleged sources,” Best wrote after Swiss law enforcement, at the request of U.S. authorities, arrested Tillie Kottmann, a hacker who alerted journalists to security vulnerabilities in a vast commercial network of surveillance cameras. “The world can no longer be rid of hacktivists or leaktivists. Not as long as people are willing.”

Excerpts from Jacob Silverman, The New WikiLeaks, The New Republic, Aug. 18, 2021

Who Owns your Cells? the case of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a young mother of five named Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of vaginal bleeding….As medical records show, Mrs. Lacks began undergoing radium treatments for her cervical cancer…. A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent, without her knowledge or consent, to Dr. George Gey’s nearby tissue lab. For years, Dr. Gey, a prominent cancer and virus researcher, had been collecting cells from all patients who came to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each sample quickly died in Dr. Gey’s lab. What he would soon discover was that Mrs. Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Today, these incredible cells— nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names — are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine.

In July 2021, the family of Henrietta Lacks has hired a prominent civil rights attorney, who says he plans to seek compensation for them from big pharmaceutical companies across the country that made fortunes off medical research with her famous cancer cells…The legal team is investigating lawsuits against as many as 100 defendants, mostly pharmaceutical companies, but they haven’t ruled out a case against the Johns Hopkins Hospital.’

Excerpts from Family of Henrietta Lacks hires civil rights attorney to seek funds over famous cells, Washington Post, July 31, 2021, and https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/

Decoding Brain Signals with a Credit Card

A man unable to speak after a stroke has produced sentences through a system that reads electrical signals from speech production areas of his brain, researchers reported in July 2021…The participant had a stroke more than a decade ago that left him with anarthria—an inability to control the muscles involved in speech. Because his limbs are also paralyzed, he communicates by selecting letters on a screen using small movements of his head, producing roughly five words per minute.

To enable faster, more natural communication, neurosurgeon Edward Chang of the University of California, San Francisco, tested an approach that uses a computational model known as a deep-learning algorithm to interpret patterns of brain activity in the sensorimotor cortex, a brain region involved in producing speech . The approach has so far been tested in volunteers who have electrodes surgically implanted for non-research reasons such as to monitor epileptic seizures.

In the new study, Chang’s team temporarily removed a portion of the participant’s skull and laid a thin sheet of electrodes smaller than a credit card directly over his sensorimotor cortex. To “train” a computer algorithm to associate brain activity patterns with the onset of speech and with particular words, the team needed reliable information about what the man intended to say and when….So the researchers repeatedly presented one of 50 words on a screen and asked the man to attempt to say it on cue. Once the algorithm was trained with data from the individual word task, the man tried to read sentences built from the same set of 50 words, such as “Bring my glasses, please.” 


With the new approach, the man could produce sentences at a rate of up to 18 words per minute, Chang says…The system isn’t ready for use in everyday life, Chang notes. Future improvements will include expanding its repertoire of words and making it wireless, so the user isn’t tethered to a computer roughly the size of a minifridge.

Excerpts from Kelly Servick, Brain signals ‘speak’ for person with paralysis, Science, July 16, 2021

The Uses and Abuses of Alexa

Excerpts from the Interview with Robert Lewis Shayon author of “The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet” published  at the Pennsylvania Gazette July 2021

There is  emerging industry that is deploying immense resources and breakthrough technologies based on the idea that voice is biometric—a part of your body that those in the industry believe can be used to identify and evaluate you instantly and permanently. Most of the focus in voice profiling technology today is on emotion, sentiment, and personality. But experts tell me it is scientifically possible to tell the height of a person, the weight, the race, and even some diseases. There are actually companies now trying to assess, for example, whether you have Alzheimer’s based upon your voice…

The issue is that this new voice intelligence industry—run by companies you know, such as Amazon and Google, and some you don’t, such as NICE and Verint—is sweeping across society, yet there is little public discussion about the implications. The need for this conversation becomes especially urgent when we consider the long-term harms that could result if voice profiling and surveillance technologies are used not only for commercial marketing purposes, but also by political marketers and governments, to say nothing of hackers stealing data.

There are hundreds of millions of smart speakers out there, and far more phones with assistants, listening to you and capturing your voice. Voice technology already permeates virtually every important area of personal interaction—as assistants on your phone and in your car, in smart speakers at home, in hotels, schools, even stores instead of salespeople. 

Amazon and Google have several patents centering around voice profiling that describe a rich future for the practice…But consider the downside: we could be denied loans, have to pay much more for insurance, or be turned away from jobs, all on the basis of physiological characteristics and linguistic patterns that may not reflect what marketers believe they reflect.

The first thing to realize is that voice assistants are not our friends no matter how friendly they sound. I argue, in fact, that voice profiling marks a red line for society that shouldn’t be crossed.

The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy

Solar panel installations are surging in the U.S. and Europe as Western countries seek to cut their reliance on fossil fuels. But the West faces a conundrum…: Most of them are produced with energy from carbon-dioxide-belching, coal-burning plants in China.

Concerns are mounting in the U.S. and Europe that the solar industry’s reliance on Chinese coal will create a big increase in emissions in the coming years as manufacturers rapidly scale up production of solar panels to meet demand. That would make the solar industry one of the world’s most prolific polluters, analysts say, undermining some of the emissions reductions achieved from widespread adoption. For years, China’s low-cost, coal-fired electricity has given the country’s solar-panel manufacturers a competitive advantage, allowing them to dominate global markets.

Chinese factories supply more than three-quarters of the world’s polysilicon, an essential component in most solar panels, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter…Producing a solar panel in China creates around twice as much carbon dioxide as making it in Europe, said Fengqi You, professor of energy systems engineering at Cornell University.

Some Western governments and corporations are attempting to shift the solar industry away from coal…These policies would also help rebuild the West’s solar industry, which has withered under competition from higher-polluting Chinese producers, Western executives say…China has pushed down the price of panels so sharply that solar power is now less expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels in many markets around the world. Imports of the solar cells that make up the panels are also flooding into the U.S. and Europe. Those shipments are either coming directly from China or contain key components made in China. “If China didn’t have access to coal, then solar power wouldn’t be cheap now,” said Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo. “Is it OK that we’ve had this huge bulge of carbon emissions from China because it allowed them to develop all these technologies really cheaply? We might not know that for another 30 to 40 years.”

Excerpts from Matthew Dalton, Behind the Rise of U.S. Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal, July 31, 2021

From Pegasus to Pariah: Israeli Spying is Not Sexy

When international news organizations revealed that at least ten governments had used Pegasus, a powerful software tool created by Israel’s NSO Group, to hack into the smartphones of thousands of people around the world, including politicians, human-rights activists and journalists, the Israeli government shrugged. None of its ministers has publicly commented….Israeli defence exporters privately expressed ridicule. “Arms companies can’t keep track of every rifle and bullet they sell to legitimate customers,” said one. “Why should we have higher expectations when it comes to software?…Israeli spying is a sexy subject and these reports are the price for doing business.”

Countries that have received Pegasus software include Brazil, Hungary and India, along with Sunni Arab regimes with whom Israel recently established diplomatic relations: Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia, a fellow enemy of Iran, is listed, too. “Deals on cyber-surveillance are the kind of sweetener you can throw into a diplomatic package with a foreign leader,” says a former NSO consultant.

Excerpts from Let Pegasus fly: Israel is loth to regulate its spyware exports, Economist, July 31, 2021

Sponsors of War: Captagon at $25 Better than Alcohol

In Saudi Arabial party-goers prefer Captagon pills (to alcohol), nowadays the Gulf’s favorite drug, at $25 a pop. Part of the amphetamine family, it can have a similar effect to Viagra—and conquers sleep. “With one pill,” says a raver, “we can dance all weekend.”

For Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, the drug has become a boon—at least in the short run. His country has become the world’s prime pusher of Captagon. As the formal economy collapses under the burden of war, sanctions and the predatory rule of the Assads, the drug has become Syria’s main export and source of hard currency. The Centre for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), a Cyprus-based consultancy, reckons that last year authorities elsewhere seized Syrian drugs with a street value of no less than $3.4bn. That compares with Syria’s largest legal export, olive oil, which is worth some $122m a year. The drug is financing the central government, says Ian Larson, who wrote a recent report on the subject for COAR…

Chemical plants in the cities of Aleppo and Homs have been converted into pill factories. In the Gulf the mark-up for pills can be 50 times their cost in Syria. Smugglers hide them in shipments of paper rolls, parquet flooring and even pomegranates. Saudi princes use private jets to bring the stuff in

For the Syrians left behind, drugs may destroy what remains of society after a decade of civil war. “Young men who haven’t been killed, exiled or jailed are addicts,” says a social worker in Sweida, a city held by the Assads in the south. 

Excerpt from Pop a pill, save a dictator: Syria has become a narco-state, Economist, July 19, 2021

The Necessity of the Evil: Breeding Monkeys to Experiment with their Brains

In 2014 a German animal-rights group called soko Tierschutz planted a caretaker in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis, a neuroscientist working at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. The infiltrator secretly filmed around 100 hours of lab work over six months, some of which was later broadcast on German television. The footage showed monkeys with metal plugs grafted into their skulls—ports which researchers used to probe and study their brains. One vomits on camera, apparently as a result of damage done to blood vessels in its brain while electrodes were inserted.

The impact was immediate and lasting. Around 800 people massed outside Dr Logothetis’s lab, demanding an end to his work with monkeys. He was called a monster and a murderer. He and his family received death threats. He faced charges (which were dismissed) of breaking German animal-welfare laws. So in 2020 he announced that his laboratory would move to China. He is building a new research facility in Shanghai, working with Mu-ming Poo of the Institute of Neuroscience, one of China’s leading brain researchers, who was on the team responsible for first cloning a genetically modified primate in 2018. 

In East Asia, particularly China and Japan, the volume of research carried out on monkeys is growing. Most of this has been driven by creating and expanding domestic primate-research programmes. Leading institutions such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience focus on breeding monkeys whose genomes have been modified in order to make their physiology more like humans’ and so more useful for studying human diseases.

The social nature of monkeys and their intelligence—which is why they are so useful for research—also help explain why such experiments are so troubling. Research which relies on them is simultaneously more valuable and more ethically fraught than research on other creatures. Neuroscientists in particular consider monkeys irreplaceable. The brain is so poorly understood that looking at its activity in living creatures is the only way to fathom how it works, says Dr Treue. Dissecting dead brains produces only limited information. Brains only really make sense when active. Few humans would volunteer to have electrodes implanted in their brains. The consent of any who did would be suspect….

The list of medical advances which rest on animal experimentation is long, but Dr Bennett points to one in particular that could not have happened without monkeys: prosthetic limbs which “talk” to the brain, known as neural prosthetics. The brains of non-human primates are sufficiently similar to ours to allow for a prosthetic developed on monkeys to be used by humans. They are still rare, but prototypes have restored the power to interact with the physical world to people who have lost the use of their own limbs.

China is becoming the global centre for the kind of neuroscience that uses monkeys. And the stakes are getting higher. Neurological disorders are the world’s second-leading cause of death after heart disease. Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia are becoming more burdensome as the world gets greyer. Meanwhile technology companies hope that an understanding of the brain can help them build cleverer software. Generals think advances in neuroscience can help them build better weapons.

The pandemic has bolstered China’s position. In February 2020 China’s government banned the export of all wild animals in an effort to tamp down the wildlife trade that is thought to be a vector for the zoonotic spillover of pathogens such as sars-cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19. Exceptions for research are subject to the government’s approval. Until recently the majority of monkeys used in America were imported from farms in China. But export controls have created shortages. China has decided that research primates are a strategic resource. Exports are unlikely to revert to their previous levels…America and Europe may find themselves outsourcing the creation of knowledge that relies on research methods they consider unethical. In future they may have to choose between relying on the fruits of that knowledge, such as treatments for neurological disorders, and rejecting them in principle….

Excerpt from Money Business: Attitudes towards experimenting on monkeys are diverging, Economist, July 24, 2021