Author Archives: Stoa

Assassinations and Top Secret Chemicals: the case of Novichok Nerve Agent

In 2018, one of the Novichok nerve agents was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting in December 2019.

The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments.   Chemical weapons experts had been whispering about Novichoks for decades.   Treaty nations have long resisted adding Novichoks to the CWC’s so-called Schedule 1 list of chemical weapons, which compels signatories to declare and destroy any stockpiles. “People were worried about a Pandora’s box,” fearing such a listing would force them to regulate ingredients of the weapons, Koblentz says. That could hamper the chemical industry and might clue in enemies on how to cook them up. (Who has the agents now is anyone’s guess.) Indeed, the U.S. government for years classified the Novichok agents as top secret. “There was a desire among Western countries to keep the information as limited as possible to avoid proliferation issues,” Koblentz says.

The 2018 assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., thrust the Novichok agents into the spotlight. The botched attack gravely sickened Skripal, his daughter Yulia, two police officers who investigated the crime scene, and a couple—Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess—who a few months later happened on a perfume bottle containing the agent. After long hospitalizations, the Skripals, the officers, and Rowley recovered; Sturgess died. The United Kingdom charged two Russian men, reportedly military intelligence officers, as the alleged assailants, and obtained a European warrant for their arrest; they remain at large in Russia.

Excerpts from Richard Stone, Obscure Cold War nerve agents set to be banned, Science, Oct. 25, 2019

Between Colonialism and the Abyss: the Desperate Search for a Nuclear Waste Disposal Site, United States

A proposal for New Mexico to house one of the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facilities has drawn opposition from nearly every indigenous nation in the state. Nuclear Issues Study Group co-founder and Diné organizer Leona Morgan told state legislators in November 2019 the project, if approved, would perpetuate a legacy of nuclear colonialism against New Mexico’s indigenous communities and people of color.

Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico. Holtec’s proposal would see the majority of high-level nuclear waste in the U.S. transported to a consolidated interim storage facility located in southeastern New Mexico. If licensed, the facility would house up to 100,000 metric tons of high-level waste at capacity — more nuclear waste than currently exists in the country — for up to 40 years, while the federal government either re-opens Yucca Mountain or establishes a new deep repository to permanently store the waste.

The proposal, which has been in the works since 2011, would see high-level waste generated at nuclear power plants across the country transported to New Mexico for storage at the proposed facility along the Lea-Eddy county line between Hobbs and Carlsbad. Holtec representatives say the facility would be a temporary solution to the nation’s growing nuclear waste problem, but currently there is no federal plan to build a permanent repository for the waste.

Legislators, activists and residents alike share concerns about the proposals. Some fear the “interim” storage facility could become a de facto permanent storage facility if no other repository is built; others question the site selection for a nuclear facility so close to oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin. Increased transport of high-level radioactive waste across the state could also lead to potentially dangerous nuclear releases, leaving impacted communities responsible for emergency responses.

“New Mexico doesn’t make the waste, why should we take the waste?” Morgan said. “What we’re advocating for is not a temporary, band-aid solution, but something more scientifically sound. The waste does have to go somewhere. However, storing it in New Mexico temporarily is not the right idea. It’s not safe; it’s not supported by the local communities; and New Mexico does not want it.”  “We see this as environmental racism and perpetuating nuclear colonialism that is going to result in a continuation of a slow genocide,” she said….

Meanwhile, nuclear power utilities across the country have sued the federal government over a breach of contract for failing to establish a permanent repository for the waste

Nuclear colonialism, a term first coined by environmentalist Winona LaDuke and activist Ward Churchill, describes a systematic dispossession of indigenous lands, the exploitation of cultural resources, and a history of subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples by a government to further nuclear production of energy and proliferation of weapons.  “All of the impacts from nuclear colonialism can be simplified by explaining it as environmental racism,” Morgan told state legislators last week. She pointed to the health and environmental consequences of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation during the last century.  “My family lives in areas where there was past uranium mining. We’re still dealing with the legacy of all of the mining that fuelled World War II and the Cold War,” Morgan said. “This legacy is still unaddressed — not just in New Mexico, but in the entire country. For that reason, my concern is the health of our people, our environment.”

Cleaning Abandoned Uranium Mines New Mexico

“We do not believe we are separate from the environment,” Morgan said. “We are not here to protect the environment as land and as mountains, but as living, breathing entities.”  Similar beliefs, sometimes referred to in policy discussions as “environmental personhood,” have gained recognition among regulators in countries across the world in recent years. 

Excerpts from Kendra Chamberlain, Nuclear Colonialism: Indigenous opposition grows against proposal for nation’s largest nuclear storage facility in NM, https://nmpoliticalreport.com/,  Nov. 14, 2019

Why Russia Loves Germany’s Toxic Waste

Environmental groups have voiced concern in November 2019 that Russia is again accepting shipments of uranium tails, a byproduct formed when uranium is enriched, from a German nuclear fuel firm, reigniting a debate over whether the substance meets the definition of nuclear waste.  The shipments of the toxic compound – also called uranium hexafluoride – were halted in 2009 over revelations that Russia was accepting it from foreign customers and storing it in the open. At that time, Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear corporation, bowed to environmental pressure and promised to no longer import the radioactive substance.

But German government documents revealed in November 2019 by Greenpeace and the Russian environmental group Ecodefense show that the German-based enrichment company Urenco resumed the uranium tail shipments as long ago as May 2019.  According to Urenco’s contract with the Russian nuclear-fuel giant Teksnabeksport (Tenex), a subsidiary of Rosatom, some 12,000 tons of uranium tails are set to be delivered to Novouralsk, near Yekaterinburg by 2022. Four thousands tons have been sent so far….

Urenco, Germany

Uranium hexafluoride, also called depleted uranium, is a colorless radioactive powder that is produced as a byproduct of enriching uranium for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. Urenco, which is a partnership involving German, British and Dutch energy firms, has operated an enrichment facility in Gronau, Germany since 1985.  This facility stores depleted uranium in the open air. In the early 1990s, Russian opened its doors to reprocessing depleted uranium from foreign customers. A previous contract between Tenex and Urenco envisioned the import of 100,000 tons of uranium tails between 1996 and 2009.

The issue of whether uranium tails in fact constitute nuclear waste depends on whom you ask. Both Rosatom and Germany’s nuclear industry classify uranium hexafluoride as a recyclable material. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, however, has long held that uranium tails should be classified as nuclear waste – a view that Bellona, Ecodefense and Greenpeace share.  But while Rosatom asserts that uranium tails are valuable raw material, the motive for importing them is unclear. By most estimates, Russia already holds nearly 1 million tons of uranium tails from its own fuel production – making the need for another 12,000 tons from abroad questionable.

Charles Digges, Russia resumes importing depleted uranium from Germany, breaching old promises, Bellona, Nov. 1, 2019

How to Engineer Bacteria to Search for Underground Chemical Weapons: DARPA

U.S. military researchers asked in 2019 two companies to develop new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried chemicals or weapons.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., are looking to Raytheon BBN Technologies, and Signature Science, for the BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program.  This project seeks to use indigenous and engineered organisms to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. Raytheon BBN and Signature Science won separate $1.6 million contracts for the Subterranean Surveillance progam.

The two companies will perform laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in well- controlled field tests that take advantage of recent advances in microbial science and synthetic biology to develop biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.  Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of 10 meters over the subsequent seven days.

DARPA researchers want Raytheon BBN and Signature Science experts to take advantage of the extensive biological networks that exist underground to monitor large areas to increase the military’s ability to detect subterranean events without the need for precise coordinates.

Excerpts from John Keller, Researchers eye new biological sensors to to detect underground objects like buried chemicals and weapons, https://www.militaryaerospace.com,  Nov. 6, 2019

In more detail  Signature Science and its partner, the Texas A&M University Center for Phage Technology, aim to leverage modern and synthetic phage biology and the straightforward molecular genetics of the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to generate a new platform to recognize and report on specific chemical threats underground. The Spore-Phage Amplified Detection (SPADe) method, potentially extensible to explosives, radiation or physical disturbance sensing, seeks to substantially advance currently used techniques which rely heavily on manual soil testing. 

Stopping GreenWashing

The EU wants to revolutionise the world of green finance. Brussels officials, MEPs and member states are currently trying to thrash out plans for a gold standard in green investment they hope will unleash tens of millions of euros of private money to fund the transition to a more sustainable world.   The project has a classically boring Brussels name — the “taxonomy” for sustainable activities — but the implications are potentially transformative. The EU wants to become the first supranational regulator to write rules that banks and funds will have to comply with when they claim to launch “green” products or investments.  As it stands, there is no global benchmark to judge just how green a financial product is. Funds and banks can sell and label sustainable finance products without an independent arbiter checking if reality meets the hype. The point of the EU’s work is to stamp out this so-called “greenwashing”…

Perhaps the most sensitive issue of all is how to handle nuclear energy. France — which has big nuclear business interests — doesn’t want the taxonomy to stigmatise nuclear as a “brown” technology. Other member states, led by Germany, want it excluded from being green, as do the MEPs. 

Excerpts from  Mehreen Khan, The Green Gold Standard, FT, Nov. 11, 2019

Cyber-Attacking Nuclear Plants: the 3 000 cyber bugs

In the first half of 2019 , no country endured more cyber-attacks on its Internet of Things—the web of internet-connected devices and infrastructure—than India did. So asserts Subex, an Indian telecommunications firm, which produces regular reports on cyber-security. Between April and June of 2019, it said, recorded cyber-attacks jumped by 22%, with 2,550 unique samples of malware discovered. Some of that malicious code is turning up in hair-raising places.

On October 28, 2019 reports indicated that malware had been found on the computer systems of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the newest and largest such power station in India. Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity researcher who formerly worked for the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s signals-intelligence agency, says he was informed of the malware by an undisclosed third party in September, and notified the government.The attackers, he said, had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets”…. On October 30, 2019 the body that operates nuclear power plants acknowledged, sheepishly, that a computer had indeed been infected, but it was only an “administrative” one.

Sensitive sites such as power plants typically isolate the industrial-control systems (those that control the workings of a plant) from those connected to the wider internet. They do so using air-gaps (which involve disconnecting the system from the wider world), firewalls (which monitor data-flows for suspicious traffic) or data diodes (which allow information to flow out but not in).

But breaching a computer on the outside of these digital moats is nevertheless troubling. It could have given the attackers access to sensitive emails, personnel records and other details which would, in turn, make it easier to gain access to the more isolated operational part of the plant. America and Israel are thought to have sneaked the devastating Stuxnet virus into Iran’s air-gapped uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz around 2007 by planting a USB stick on a worker, who carried it inside and plugged it in.

The culprit behind the Kudankulam attack is unknown, but left some clues. The malware in question is from a family known as DTrack, which gives attackers an intimate look at what victims are doing—down to their keystrokes. It is typically used to monitor a target, making it easier to deliver further malware. DTrack was originally developed by a group of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, who are widely assumed to be controlled or directed by North Korea.

Excerpts from On the DTrack: A cyber-attack on an Indian nuclear plant raises worrying questions, Economist, Nov. 1, 2019

The Ocean-Based Internet: Data Mining the Ocean

The U.S. Defense Department could one day place thousands of low-cost, floating sensors into the ocean to collect environmental data, such as water temperature, as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft and even fish or maritime mammals moving through the area. But others also are dropping similar sensors in the world’s oceans, and defense researchers suggest many of those systems could be integrated into an even more comprehensive ocean-based Internet of Things.

The growing Internet of Things is mostly a land-based phenomenon, frequently in large cities with loads of sensors. But researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foresee a wide range of military and civil benefits from extending the Internet of Things out to sea.  The agency announced its Ocean of Things program in 2017. John Waterston, a program manager within DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, says the sensors will float along the surface for at least one year, transmitting short messages via the Iridium satellite constellation back to a central location for analysis. “It’s a 280-byte in and 340-byte out message, so it’s a little bit more than a tweet. I like to say these things tweet about their environment,” he says.

The goal is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way. Using existing systems to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean would be cost prohibitive…. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, the agency intends to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

Waterston says one of the most interesting missions for the sensor might be to simply determine whether GPS signals are available in an area of interest for military operations. …The program also could help improve ocean modeling, which is important for forecasting weather, finding people who have fallen overboard or locating debris from a crashed aircraft. …The agency has yet to determine how many sensors it might eventually deploy, but they could number in the tens of thousands. To put that into perspective, DARPA officials compare the final density to placing a penny on the national mall, which Wikipedia says covers about 309 acres between the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial….

In addition, Argo, an international program, uses several thousand battery-powered, robotic floating devices to measure temperature, salinity and current for climate and oceanographic research. The floats mostly drift 10 days at a time below the ocean surface. After rising and transmitting their data to satellites, they return to depth to drift for another 10 days. The floats go as deep as 2,000 meters, according to the Argo website. 

Argo Floating Device

It is possible an ocean-based Internet could provide data on demand to a variety of customers inside and outside the Defense Department. If, for example, a government agency needs the water temperature in a given area reported every six hours, or a combatant command needs to know what’s happening in the Mediterranean, or NATO officials want information between Gibraltar and Sicily, or commercial fishermen need data on where the shrimp or tuna are, they could simply request it. “It’s about serving the end users. If you can use that data, we can generate it for you,” he offers. “It’s a little bit like floats-as-a-service or data-as-a-service.”

Argo’s Ocean Sensors

Another option is that other organizations could purchase and deploy the DARPA-developed sensors. “I hope people want to come up with their own sensors or want to buy these. I imagine a marketplace where you get many commercial people buying these. Everyone could buy 500 and then take advantage of the service provided by the thousands that are out there. I could imagine this as that foundational community,” Waterston suggests.

DARPA currently is working with three teams led by the Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC***, Areté Associates and Numurus LLC to develop the floats. Leidos, Draper Laboratory, SoarTech and Geometric Data Analytics are providing software for data visualization, performance prediction, float command and control and detection. 

Excerpts from George Seffers, DARPA’s Ocean of Things Ripples Across Research Areas, AFCEA.org, Nov. 1, 2019

***See also DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. According to one scientist that works in the PARC’s disappearing electronics platform (called DUST) “Imagine being able to cover a large area, like the ocean floor, with billions of tiny sensors to ‘hear’ what is happening within the earth’s crust, and have them quickly disintegrate into, essentially, sand, leaving no trace and not harming the planet or sea life,