Category Archives: Environment

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

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,  

When Logging Works: “Every Part of the Tree”

The rapacious industrialisation of the Finnish forest, which covers three-quarters of the country’s landscape, looks the antithesis of tree-hugging environmentalism. The forest is home to wolves, bears, deer and many other species of wildlife, and its trees lock away carbon that would otherwise be in the air, warming the atmosphere. Yet Metsä Group, which operates the Äänekoski pulp mill, claims the very opposite.  Metsä is ultimately controlled by a co-operative belonging to more than 100,000 families who have each owned large chunks of the forest for generations. For every tree harvested, four saplings are planted. These are allowed to grow for a few years and are then thinned to encourage the best specimens to develop vigorously. The thinnings, however, are not wasted. They are sent to the mill. The mature trees, meanwhile, are harvested when they are between six and ten decades old. The consequence of this husbandry, according to Finland’s Natural Resources Institute, is that the annual growth of trees in Finland exceeds the volume of felling and natural loss by over 20m cubic metres, despite the increasing demand for wood.

As for the mill itself, Metsä’s stated aim is to make best use of every part of a tree, both to maximise the value of its wood and, where possible, to continue to lock up its carbon. To this end, besides the bread-and-butter business of turning out planks and plywood, the firm has come up with several new ideas. Three are of particular interest. One is a better way of converting wood pulp into fibre that can be turned into textiles. A second is to produce plastic-free cardboard cartons which can be used as food containers and then recycled. The third is to find employment for lignin, a by-product of the pulping process which is, at the moment, usually burned…

Metsä has also teamed up with Itochu, a Japanese trading company with a large clothing business, to make fabric that will compete with oil-based synthetic fibres and provide an alternative to cotton, the growing of which requires a lot of land, irrigation and pesticides. Some fabrics—rayon, for example—can be made from wood….

The complex processes involved in processing wood result in several “sidestreams”. These are wastes that become raw materials for other processes. They include sulphuric acid, which is re-used by the mill, and biogas, tall oil (a byproduct of papermaking) and lignin—carbon-rich materials burnt to produce electricity. This powers the mill, and yields a surplus which is exported to the national grid. As a consequence, unlike some wood mills, the Äänekoski plant uses no fossil fuels.

Excerpts from Sustainable Forestry: If you go down to the woods today, Economist, Oct. 19, at 75

Scrubbing Sulfur Pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevron oil platform

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

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

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

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

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