Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Forget Nevada! How America Buries its Nuclear Waste 1999-2019

Just before midnight on June 27, 2019, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), Carlsbad, New Mexico received its 12,500th transuranic (TRU) waste shipment since operations began there in 1999.

Nuclear Waste heading to WIPP from Idaho

The shipment originated from the EM program at Idaho National Laboratory, which has sent WIPP the most TRU waste shipments — 6,500 and counting — of all Departement of Energy (DOE) generator sites over the past 20 years…

Idaoho National Laboratory Nuclear Waste Management

WIPP drivers have safely traveled over 14.9 million loaded miles, transporting more than 178,500 waste containers for permanent disposal 2,150 feet underground.

Excerpts from WIPP Reaches 12,500-Shipment Milestone, Press Release US Department of Energy, July 2, 2019

Why a Dumb Internet is Best

Functional splintering [of the internet] is already happening. When tech companies build “walled gardens”, they decide the rules for what happens inside the walls, and users outside the network are excluded…

Governments are playing catch-up but they will eventually reclaim the regulatory power that has slipped from their grasp. Dictatorships such as China retained control from the start; others, including Russia, are following Beijing. With democracies, too, asserting their jurisdiction over the digital economy, a fragmentation of the internet along national lines is more likely. …The prospect of a “splinternet” has not been lost on governments. To avoid it, Japan’s G20 presidency has pushed for a shared approach to internet governance. In January 2019, prime minister Shinzo Abe called for “data free flow with trust”. The 2019 Osaka summit pledged international co-operation to “encourage the interoperability of different frameworks”.

But Europe is most in the crosshairs of those who warn against fragmentation…US tech giants have not appreciated EU authorities challenging their business model through privacy laws or competition rulings. But more objective commentators, too, fear the EU may cut itself off from the global digital economy. The critics fail to recognise that fragmentation can be the best outcome if values and tastes fundamentally differ…

If Europeans collectively do not want micro-targeted advertising, or artificial intelligence-powered behaviour manipulation, or excessive data collection, then the absence on a European internet of services using such techniques is a gain, not a loss. The price could be to miss out on some services available elsewhere… More probably, non-EU providers will eventually find a way to charge EU users in lieu of monetising their data…Some fear EU rules make it hard to collect the big data sets needed for AI training. But the same point applies. EU consumers may not want AI trained to do intrusive things. In any case, Europe is a big enough market to generate stripped, non-personal data needed for dumber but more tolerable AI, though this may require more harmonised within-EU digital governance. Indeed, even if stricter EU rules splinter the global internet, they also create incentives for more investment into EU-tailored digital products. In the absence of global regulatory agreements, that is a good second best for Europe to aim for.

Excerpts from Martin Sandbu,  Europe Should Not be Afraid of Splinternet,  FT, July 2, 2019

How to Prepare for Deadly Flu and Nuclear Fallout

Breakthroughs in the science of programmable gene expression inspired DARPA to establish the PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements (PREPARE) program with the goal of delivering powerful new defenses against public health and national security threats. DARPA has now selected five teams to develop a range of new medical interventions that temporarily and reversibly modulate the expression of protective genes to guard against acute threats from influenza and ionizing radiation, which could be encountered naturally, occupationally, or through a national security event.

The program builds from the understanding that the human body has innate defenses against many types of health threats, but that the body does not always activate these defenses quickly or robustly enough to block the worst damage. To augment existing physiological responses, PREPARE technologies would provide a programmable capability to up- or down-regulate gene expression on demand, providing timely, scalable defenses that are proportional to anticipated threats. Service members and first responders could administer these interventions prior to threat exposure or therapeutically after exposure to mitigate the risk of harm or death.

Influenza: “Researchers working within the PREPARE program seek to improve rates of survival and recovery in catastrophic scenarios for which reliable and scalable countermeasures don’t currently exist,” said Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the PREPARE program manager….Three PREPARE teams are pursuing multi-pronged approaches to influenza defense and treatment that use programmable gene modulators to boost the human body’s natural defenses against influenza and also weaken the virus’ ability to cause harm by directly neutralizing the viral genomes. If successful, their approaches would potentially protect against virtually all influenza strains — regardless of whether a virus is newly emergent or has developed drug resistance — and would provide near instantaneous immunity, in contrast to traditional vaccines. Additionally, the teams are designing their countermeasures so that they are simple to deliver — for example, as intranasal sprays — reducing the logistical challenge of protecting large numbers of people.A team led by DNARx LLC, under principal investigator Dr. Robert Debs, aims to develop a new DNA-encoded gene therapy that helps patients fight influenza by boosting the natural immune response and other protective functions of their nasal passages and lungs.

Radiation Hazard Symbol

Ionizing Gamma Radiation: Other PREPARE teams are pursuing treatments to protect the body from the effects of ionizing gamma radiation. In humans, radiation poisoning primarily affects stem cells in the blood and gut, yet existing treatments only help to regenerate blood cells, and only with limited effect. There is no possibility for prophylactic administration of these drugs, and most must be delivered immediately following radiation exposure to provide any benefit. There are no existing medical countermeasures for radiation damage to the gut
A team led by the University of California, San Francisco, under principal investigator Dr. Jonathan Weissman, also aims to develop gene therapies to enhance resilience against ionizing radiation. The team’s approach should result in an intravenous or orally available treatment that activates innate defenses in gut and blood stem cells for a period of several weeks.

A Dose of Inner Strength to Survive and Recover from Potentially Lethal Health Threats
New tools for programmable modulation of gene expression could yield enhanced resilience against influenza and ionizing radiation for service members and first responders, DARPA Press Release, June 27, 2019

Nuclear Submarines on Fire (2)

Vladimir Putin has confirmed  on July 4, 2019  that the top-secret submarine that suffered a deadly fire was nuclear-powered, but Russia’s defence minister said the nuclear unit had been sealed off and was in “working order.”  The incident, which left 14 Russian sailors dead,  The Russian government has been slow to reveal information about the incident because the submersible, thought to be a deep-diving vessel used for research and reconnaissance, is among Russia’s most secret military projects.  The fire aboard the “Losharik” AS-31 submersible began in the battery compartment and spread through the vessel…The vessel is thought to be made of a series of orb-like compartments, which increase the submersible’s resilience and allow it to dive to the ocean floor. Once there, it can perform topographical research and participate in rescue missions. It may even be able to tap and sever communications cables on the seabed.

Officials claim the submariners sealed themselves in one of the compartments to battle the blaze and toxic fumes…A Norwegian official told Reuters there had been no “formal communication” from Russia about an incident aboard a nuclear-powered vessel, but “we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents”….Accidents aboard submarines invariably evoke comparisons to Putin’s clumsy handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, which left 118 dead and families desperate for information about their loved ones.

Excerpt Putin confirms fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powerered, Guardian, July 4, 2019

Who Owns the Riches of the Melting North Pole

A competition for the North Pole heated up in May 2019, as Canada became the third country to claim—based on extensive scientific data—that it should have sovereignty over a large swath of the Arctic Ocean, including the pole. Canada’s bid, submitted to the United Nations’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), joins competing claims from Russia and Denmark. Like theirs, it is motivated by the prospect of mineral riches: the large oil reserves believed to lie under the Arctic Ocean, which will become more accessible as the polar ice retreats. And all three claims, along with dozens of similar claims in other oceans, rest on extensive seafloor mapping, which has proved to be a boon to science…

Coastal nations have sovereign rights over an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by definition 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) out from their coastline. But the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea opened up the possibility of expanding that zone if a country can convince CLCS that its continental shelf extends beyond the EEZ’s limits…..Most of the 84 submissions so far were driven by the prospect of oil and gas, although advances in deep-sea mining technology have added new reasons to apply. Brazil, for example, filed an application in December 2018 that included the Rio Grande Rise, a deep-ocean mountain range 1500 kilometers southeast of Rio De Janeiro that’s covered in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The Rio Grande Rise, Brazil

To make a claim, a country has to submit detailed data on the shape of the sea floor and on its sediment, which is thicker on the shelf than in the deep ocean. …CLCS, composed of 21 scientists in fields such as geology and hydrography who are elected by member states, has accepted 24 of the 28 claims it has finished evaluating, some partially or with caveats; in several cases, it has asked for follow-up submissions with more data. Australia was the first country to succeed, adding 2.5 million square kilometers to its territory in 2008. New Zealand gained undersea territory six times larger than its terrestrial area. But CLCS only judges the merit of each individual scientific claim; it has no authority to decide boundaries when claims overlap. To do that, countries have to turn to diplomatic channels once the science is settled.

The three claims on the North Pole revolve around the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain system that runs from Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Qikiqtaaluk region to the New Siberian Islands of Russia, passing the North Pole. Both countries claim the ridge is geologically connected to their continent, whereas Denmark says it is also tied to Greenland, a Danish territory. As the ridge is thought to be continental crust, the territorial extensions could be extensive)

Lomonosov Ridge, Amerasian Basin

Tensions flared when Russia planted a titanium flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole in 2007, after CLCS rejected its first claim, saying more data were needed. The Canadian foreign minister at the time likened the move to the land grabs of early European colonizers. Not that the North Pole has any material value: “The oil potential there is zip,” says geologist Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “The real fight is over the Amerasian Basin” where large amounts of oil are thought to be locked up…

There’s also a proposal to make the North Pole international, like Antarctica (South Pole), as a sign of peace, says Oran Young, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It seems a very sensible idea.”

Richard Kemeny, Fight for the Arctic Ocean is a boon for science, June 21, 2019

Black Operations are Getting Blacker: US Military

Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), as these drones will be known, would be dropped off by either a manned submarine or one of the navy’s big new Orca robot submersibles.

Logo for Orca Submarine by Lockheed Martin

They could be delivered individually, but will more often be part of a collective system called an encapsulated payload. Such a system will then release small underwater vehicles able to identify ships and submarines by their acoustic signatures, and also aerial drones similar to the BlackWing reconnaissance drones already flown from certain naval vessels.

BlackWing

Once the initial intelligence these drones collect has been analysed, a payload’s operators will be in a position to relay further orders. They could, for example, send aerial drones ashore to drop off solar-powered ground sensors at specified points. These sensors, typically disguised as rocks, will send back the data they collect via drones of the sort that dropped them off. Some will have cameras or microphones, others seismometers which detect the vibrations of ground vehicles, while others still intercept radio traffic or Wi-Fi.

Lockheed Martin Ground Sensor Disguised as Rock

HCUS will also be capable of what are described as “limited offensive effects”. Small drones like BlackWing can be fitted with warheads powerful enough to destroy an SUV or a pickup truck. Such drones are already used to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces. They might be deployed against fuel and ammunition stores, too.

Unmanned systems such as HCUS thus promise greatly to expand the scope of submarine-based spying and special operations. Drones are cheap, expendable and can be deployed with no risk of loss of personnel. They are also “deniable”. Even when a spy drone is captured it is hard to prove where it came from. Teams of robot spies and saboteurs launched from submarines, both manned and unmanned, could thus become an important feature of the black-ops of 21st-century warfare.

Excerpts from Submarine-launched drone platoons will soon be emerging from the sea: Clandestine Warfare, Economist, June 22, 2019

Taking Pride in Nuclear Waste: Finland and Sweden

The site for Posiva’s repository at Eurajoki for the disposal of Finland’s high-level radioactive waste (used nuclear fuel), near the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant, was selected in 2000. The Finnish parliament approved the the repository project the following year in 2001… The government granted a construction licence for the project in November 2015 and construction work on the repository started iin 2016.  Posiva’s plan is for used nuclear fuel to be packed inside copper-steel canisters at an above-ground encapsulation plant, from where they will be transferred into the underground tunnels of the repository, located at a depth of 400-450 meters, and further into deposition holes lined with a bentonite buffer. Operation of the repository is expected to begin in 2023. The cost estimate of this large-scale construction project totals about EUR500 million (USD570 million), the company said.

Posiva  announced on June 25, 2019  the start of construction of the used fuel encapsulation plant. Janne Mokka, Posiva’s President, noted, “In Finland, full lifecycle management of nuclear fuel is a precondition for the production of climate-friendly nuclear electricity. Posiva will execute the final disposal of the spent fuel of its owners’ Olkiluoto and Loviisa nuclear power plants responsibly.”

Sweden is planning a similar used fuel encapsulation and disposal facility using the same storage method. Under its current timetable, national radioactive waste management company Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB plans to start construction of the used fuel repository and the encapsulation plant sometime early in the 2020s and they will take about 10 years to complete.

Exceprts from Work starts on Finnish fuel encapsulation plant, World Nuclear News, June 25, 2019

See also documentary “Into Eternity” (YouTube)

Melted Plastic on the Shores: Madeira Island

‘Plasticrusts’ are see on the surface of rocks in Madeira island, Portugal. Researchers say they may have identified a new kind of plastic pollution in the sea, and they’re calling it “plasticrust.” Scientists working on Madeira, a volcanic Portuguese island off northwest Africa, have found small patches of what look like melted plastic encrusted on rocks along the shoreline. 

Excerpts from Scientists on Madeira see new ‘plasticrust’ sea pollution, Associated Press,
June 25, 2019

Poker and Blackjack: How to Make War in Space

In March 2018, India became only the fourth country in the world—after Russia, the US, and China—to successfully destroy a satellite in orbit. Mission Shakti, as it was called, was a demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT)—or in plain English, a missile launched from the ground. Typically this type of ASAT has a “kill vehicle,” essentially a chunk of metal with its own guidance system, mounted on top of a ballistic missile. Shortly after the missile leaves the atmosphere, the kill vehicle detaches from it and makes small course corrections as it approaches the target. No explosives are needed; at orbital speeds, kinetic energy does the damage…. China’s own first successful ASAT test was in 2007….

But going to war in space… doesn’t necessarily mean blowing up satellites. Less aggressive methods typically involve cyberattacks to interfere with the data flows between satellites and the ground stations.  Satellites are, after all, computers that happen to be in space, so they are vulnerable to attacks that disable or hijack them, just like their terrestrial peers.

For example, in 2008, a cyberattack on a ground station in Norway let someone cause 12 minutes of interference with NASA’s Landsat satellites. Later that year, hackers gained access to NASA’s Terra Earth observation satellite and did everything but issue commands. It’s not clear if they could have done so but chose not to. Nor is it clear who was behind the attack, although some commentators at the time pointed the finger at China. Experts warn that hackers could shut off a satellite’s communications, rendering it useless. Or they could permanently damage it by burning off all its propellant or pointing its imaging sensor at the sun to burn it out.

Another common mode of attack is to jam or spoof satellite signals. There is nothing fancy about this: it’s easier than hacking, and all the gear required is commercially available.  Jammers, often mounted on the back of trucks, operate at the same frequency as GPS or other satellite communication systems to block their signals. …There are strong suspicions that Russia has been jamming GPS signals during NATO exercises in Norway and Finland, and using similar tactics in other conflicts. “Russia is absolutely attacking space systems using jammers throughout the Ukraine,” says Weeden. Jamming is hard to distinguish from unintentional interference, making attribution difficult (the US military regularly jams its own communications satellites by accident). A recent report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) claims that China is now developing jammers that can target a wide range of frequencies, including military communication bands. North Korea is believed to have bought jammers from Russia, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have been known to use them too.

Spoofing, meanwhile, puts out a fake signal that tricks GPS or other satellite receivers on the ground…. Russia also seems to use spoofing as a way of protecting critical infrastructure,,,.As well as being hard to pin on anyone, jamming and spoofing can sow doubt in an enemy’s mind about whether they can trust their own equipment when needed. The processes can also be switched off at any time, which makes attribution even harder.

The 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report suggests that China will have a ground-based laser that can destroy a satellite’s optical sensors in low Earth orbit as early as next year (and that will, by the mid-2020s, be capable of damaging the structure of the satellite). Generally, the intention with lasers is not to blast a satellite out of the sky but to overwhelm its image sensor so it can’t photograph sensitive locations. The damage can be temporary, unless the laser is powerful enough to make it permanent…In 2006, US officials claimed that China was aiming lasers at US imaging satellites passing over Chinese territory.

“It’s happening all the time at this low level,” says Harrison. “It’s more gray-zone aggression. Countries are pushing the limits of accepted behavior and challenging norms. They’re staying below the threshold of conflict.”..

The suspicion is that China is practicing for something known as a co-orbital attack, in which an object is sent into orbit near a target satellite, maneuvers itself into position, and then waits for an order. Such exercises could have less aggressive purposes—inspecting other satellites or repairing or disposing of them, perhaps. But co-orbiting might also be used to jam or snoop on enemy satellites’ data, or even to attack them physically….Russia, too, has been playing about in geostationary orbit. One of its satellites, Olymp-K, began moving about regularly, at one point getting in between two Intelsat commercial satellites. Another time, it got so close to a French-Italian military satellite that the French government called it an act of “espionage.” The US, similarly, has tested a number of small satellites that can maneuver around in space.

As the dominant player in space for decades, the US now has the most to lose. The DIA report points out that both China and Russia reorganized their militaries to give space warfare a far more central role. In response, the US military is starting to make satellites tougher to find and attack. For instance, the NTS-3, a new experimental GPS satellite scheduled for launch in 2022, will have programmable, steerable antennas that can broadcast at higher power to counter jamming. It’s designed to remain accurate even if it loses its connection with ground controllers, and to detect efforts to jam its signal.

Another solution is not just to make single satellites more resilient, but to use constellations in which any one satellite is not that important. That’s the thinking behind Blackjack, a new DARPA program to create a cheap network of military communications satellites in low Earth orbit.

Excerpts from Niall Firth How to fight a war in space (and get away with it), MIT Technology Review, June 26, 2019

Keep it in Your Backyard Please! The Revolution against Recyclable Plastics

There is no point collecting recyclable waste unless someone is willing to buy it and actually do the recycling. Until late 2017 China was the world’s biggest importer of scrap by far.  All this came to a halt when the Chinese government banned the import of all but the purest scrap material in 2017, killing a trade worth $24bn a year. Waste dealers in the rich world had to scramble to find new buyers. South-East Asia soon emerged as the pre-eminent destination for foreign waste. Unfortunately, the region’s recycling industry is much smaller than China’s; its processing plants were quickly overwhelmed. Plastics from America and Europe have piled up in landfills. Lots of toxic rubbish has simply been torched.

South-East Asian governments are not pleased. They have begun to ban or crimp imports themselves, abruptly diminishing a booming business. On May 28th, 2919 Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, complaining that “garbage [was] being traded under the pretext of recycling”, announced that her government would be sending back 3,000 tonnes of foreign plastic. Much of it was of poor quality, she noted, and hence unrecyclable.  Thailand plans to ban plastic-waste imports by 2021. Vietnam’s government has similar ideas. Kate O’Neill of the University of California, Berkeley, reckons these bans are motivated not only by environmental concerns but also by pride: Asia does not want to be the world’s dumping ground.  Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, recently threatened to go to war with Canada if it did not take back a shipment of plastic scrap. Canada agreed to take it away…

Excerpts from South-East Asian countries are banning imports of waste for recycling, Economist, June 15, 2019

If You Control Space, You Control Everything: Space as War Domain

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is looking to classify space as a domain for warfare in an attempt to deter China’s growing military power.  If NATO’s proposal succeeds, the international alliance could move forward with the development and use of space weapons.  According to NATO diplomats, the international organization is preparing to release an agreement that will officially declare space as a war domain. This means that aside from land, air and sea, space could also be used for military operations during times of war.

Although NATO’s partner countries currently own 65% of the satellites in space, China is reportedly preparing to launch a massive project that involves releasing constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit.  China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC)  is planning to put in orbit 150 or more Hongyun satellites by 2023. Some of these satellites will provide commercial services like high-speed internet while others would be controlled by the Chinese military. These militarized satellites can be used to coordinate ground forces and to track approaching missiles.

“You can have warfare exclusively in space, but whoever controls space also controls what happens on land, on the sea and in the air,” according to Jamie Shea, a former NATO official. “If you don’t control space, you don’t control the other domains either.”

Excerpts from Inigo Monzon , NATO Prepares For Space Warfare By Militarizing Low Earth Orbit, International Business Times, June 24, 2019

The Real Nuclear Weapons Doctrine of the United States

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in mid-June 2019 briefly published the Pentagon’s official doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons. The joint chiefs quickly pulled the document — Joint Publication 3-72, Nuclear Operations from the public website. [But a public copy has been preserved] “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability,” the doctrine opines. “Specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.”

The joint chiefs published the nuclear document around the same time that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual 2019 report, detailing the world’s atomic arsenals.  At the start of 2019, Russia, the United States, and seven other countries possessed 13,865 nuclear weapons, SIPRI found. That represents “marked decline” from the 14,465 atomic weapons in world arsenals at the beginning of 2018, according to SIPRI….But the cuts could reverse. New START will expire in 2021 unless both parties agree to extend the treaty. “…

A senior U.S. intelligence official on May 29, 2019 accused Russia of secretly conducting nuclear tests in violation of an international treaty and the country’s own moratorium on such tests….But the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. was skeptical of the general’s claim. “Ashley would only say that Russia had the ‘capability’ to conduct very low-yield supercritical nuclear tests in contravention of the treaty, a capability which Russia, China and the United States have long had. He did not say that Russia has conducted or is conducting such tests.”  Ashley’s allegation is consistent with repeated attempts by Pres. Donald Trump, his administration and his allies in Congress to dismantle existing arms-control regimes by accusing Russia of violating them, thus justifying a U.S. withdrawal from the same regimes and clearing the way for a U.S. arms build-up.

The Trump administration echoed the administration of Pres. Barack Obama in accusing Russia of willfully violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, an accusation Russia has denied. The White House in February 2019 announced the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty, which bans land-based, medium-range missiles in Europe.

There’s irony in Ashley accusing Russia of violating the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which according to the Arms Control Association “prohibits any nuclear test explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction and creates a robust international verification regime.”  “The United States has signed but not ratified the treaty,” the association pointed out. “The most effective way for the United States to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is for the Trump administration and the U.S. Senate to support ratification of the treaty and help to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating.”

Davide Axe, Oops: The Pentagon Just Revealed Its Nuclear Doctrine, National Interest, June 20, 2019

How Venom from Spiders Kills Malaria Mosquitoes

In the 1980s, the village of Soumousso in Burkina Faso helped launch one of the most powerful weapons against malaria: insecticide-treated bed nets, which had early field trials there and went on to save millions of lives. But as mosquitoes developed resistance to widely used insecticides, the nets lost some of their power. Now, researchers are hoping the village can help make history again by testing a new countermeasure: a genetically modified (GM) fungus that kills malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In tests in a 600-square-meter structure in Soumousso called the MosquitoSphere—built like greenhouse but with mosquito netting instead of glass—the fungus eliminated 99% of the mosquitoes within a month, scientists report in the  magazine Science.

MosquitoSphere, Burkina Faso

The fungus also has clear advantages, however: It spares insects other than mosquitoes, and because it doesn’t survive long in sunlight, it’s unlikely to spread outside the building interiors where it would be applied.  Fungi naturally infect a variety of insects, consuming the host’s tissues in order to reproduce, and they have been used for decades to control a wide variety of crop pests….Researchers have tested dozens of different fungal strains against disease-carrying mosquitoes, but none was effective enough to pass muster. So researchers from the University of Maryland (UMD) in College Park and the Research Institute of Health Sciences & Centre Muraz in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, endowed a strain called M. pingshaense with a gene for a toxin isolated from spider venom that turns on when it contacts hemolymph, the insect version of blood. In the lab, the team showed its creation could kill mosquitoes faster and that just one or two spores could cause a lethal infection. 

Burkina Faso was a promising place for a field test: Unlike many countries in Africa, it has an established system to evaluate and approve the use of GM organisms. It also has one of the highest rates of malaria in the world, and insecticide-resistant mosquitoes are widespread. For those and other reasons, the U.S. National Institutes of Health funded the MosquitoSphere, which is specifically designed to test GM organisms.

Excerpts fromGretchen Vogel  Fungus with a venom gene could be new mosquito killer, Science, May 31, 2019

Another Resource Curse: Amber Fossils

In a bustling market in Tengchong, China, vendors hawk globs of amber, some the size of cantaloupes, with astonishingly pristine fossils inside. Mined across the border in Myanmar, the amber has yielded extraordinary finds—the hatchlings of primitive birds, the feathered tail of a dinosaur, frogs, snakes, a host of insects, and more—allowing scientists to build a detailed chronicle of life in a tropical forest 100 million years ago. 

In 2018, scientists reported 321 new species immaculately preserved in Burmese amber, bringing the cumulative total to 1195. One team recently argued that Burmese amber may boast more biodiversity than any other fossil deposit from the entire reign of the dinosaurs. “You think this can’t even be possible,” says Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, “but it’s happening.”

But as much as Burmese amber is a scientist’s dream, it’s also an ethical minefield. The fossils come from conflict-ridden Kachin state in Myanmar… In Kachin, rival political factions compete for the profit yielded by amber and other natural resources. The amber comes from mines near Tanai township in Kachin, where for decades Myanmar’s army and the local Kachin Independence Army, an ethnic insurgency, have battled over control of lucrative resources such as jade, timber, and, most recently, amber. “These commodities are fueling the conflict,” says Paul Donowitz, the Washington, D.C.–based campaign leader for Myanmar at Global Witness, a nongovernmental organization. “They are providing revenue for arms and conflict actors, and the government is launching attacks and killing people and committing human rights abuses to cut off those resources.”

 Visitors to the mines describe a lush terrain transformed into barren hillsides. Tents cover claustrophobic holes up to 100 meters deep but only wide enough for skinny workers, who say they are responsible for their own medical care after accidents. The miners dig down and, when they hit layers of amber, tunnel horizontally with hand tools to dig it out. They sort finds at night, to avoid publicizing valuable discoveries. Amber with fossil inclusions is the most precious, proof after weeks of uncertainty that a mine will be profitable. Reached by phone through an interpreter, miners say both warring sides demand bribes for the rights to an area and equipment—and then tax 10% of the profit.

The amber is then smuggled into China and sold to the highest bidder. Yet if scientists don’t engage in the amber trade, specimens are lost to science.

Exerpts from Joshua Sokol, Troubled Treasure, Science, May 24, 2019

Hunting Down Polluters: Repairing the Ozone Layer

CFC-11 is also known as trichlorofluoromethane, and is one of a number of chloroflurocarbon (CFC) chemicals that were initially developed as refrigerants during the 1930s. However, it took many decades for scientists to discover that when CFCs break down in the atmosphere, they release chlorine atoms that are able to rapidly destroy the ozone layer which protects us from ultraviolet light. A gaping hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered in the mid 1980s.  The international community agreed the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which banned most of the offending chemicals. Recent research suggests that the hole in the Northern Hemisphere could be fully fixed by the 2030s and Antarctica by the 2060s.

CFC-11 was the second most abundant CFCs and was initially seen to be declining as expected.However in 2018 a team of researchers monitoring the atmosphere found that the rate of decline had slowed by about 50% after 2012.  Further detective work in China by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2018 seemed to indicate that the country was indeed the source. They found that the illegal chemical was used in the majority of the polyurethane insulation produced by firms they contacted.One seller of CFC-11 estimated that 70% of China’s domestic sales used the illegal gas. The reason was quite simple – CFC-11 is better quality and much cheaper than the alternatives.

This new paper seems to confirm beyond any reasonable doubt that some 40-60% of the increase in emissions is coming from provinces in eastern China.  Using what are termed “top-down” measurements from air monitoring stations in South Korea and Japan, the researchers were able to show that since 2012 CFC-11 has increased from production sites in eastern China.They calculated that there was a 110% rise in emissions from these parts of China for the years 2014-2017 compared to the period between 2008-2012.

“If we look at these extra emissions that we’ve identified from eastern China, it equates to about 35 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere every year, that’s equivalent to about 10% of UK emissions, or similar to the whole of London.”  The Chinese say they have already started to clamp down on production by what they term “rogue manufacturers”. In  November 2018, several suspects were arrested in Henan province, in possession of 30 tonnes of CFC-11.

Excerpts from Matt McGrath,  Ozone layer: Banned CFCs traced to China say scientists, BBC, May 22, 2019

How Companies Buy Social License: the ExxonMobil Example

The Mobil Foundation sought to use its tax-exempt grants to shape American laws and regulations on issues ranging from the climate crisis to toxic chemicals – with the explicit goal of benefiting Mobil, documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper show.  Recipients of Mobil Foundation grants included Ivy League universities, branches of the National Academies and well-known civic organizations and environmental researchers.  Benefits for Mobil included – in the foundation’s words – funding “a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups”, helping Mobil obtain “early access” to scientific research, and offering the oil giant’s executives a forum to “challenge the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) behind-the-scenes”….

A third page reveals Mobil Foundation’s efforts to expand its audience inside environmental circles via a grant for the Environmental Law Institute, a half-century-old organization offering environmental law research and education to lawyers and judges.  “Institute publications are widely read in the environmental community and are helpful in communicating industry’s concerns to such organizations,” the entry says. “Mobil Foundation grants will enhance environmental organizations’ views of Mobil, enable us to reach through ELI activities many groups that we do not communicate with, and enable Mobil to participate in their dialogue groups.”

The documents also show Mobil Foundation closely examining the work of individual researchers at dozens of colleges and universities as they made their funding decisions, listing ways that foundation grants would help shape research interests to benefit Mobil, help the company recruit future employees, or help combat environmental and safety regulations that Mobil considered costly.  “It should be a wake-up call for university leaders, because what it says is that fossil fuel funding is not free,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard and MIT.  “When you take it, you pay with your university’s social license,” Supran said. “You pay by helping facilitate these companies’ political and public relations tactics.”

In some cases, the foundation described how volunteer-staffed not-for-profits had saved Mobil money by doing work that would have otherwise been performed by Mobil’s paid staff, like cleaning birds coated in oil following a Mobil spill.  In 1987, the International Bird Rescue Research Center’s “rapid response and assistance to Mobil’s West Coast pipeline at a spill in Lebec, CA not only defused a potential public relations problem”, Mobil Foundation said, “but saved substantial costs by not requiring our department to fly cross country to respond”.d of trustees at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (recipient of listed donations totalling over $200,000 from Mobil) and a part of UN efforts to study climate change.

Wise ultimately co-authored two UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, serving as a lead author on one. One report chapter Wise co-authored prominently recommended, among other things, burning natural gas (an ExxonMobil product) instead of coal as a way to combat climate change.

Excerpts from How Mobil pushed its oil agenda through ‘charitable giving’, Guardian, June 12, 2019

$400 Billion and Up: Cleaning Up Pollution from Nuclear Weapons

The cost of cleaning up pollution from nuclear weapons manufacturing is estimated to be  $377 billion.  This reflects cleanup cost estimates for 16 sites across the United States. Two of these, the Hanford site in Washington and Savannah River site in South Carolina, have most of  nuclear waste stored in tanks, which is particularly costly and complicated to treat.

family type bomb shelter (picture 1958)

These clean up costs  grew by $214 billion between 2011 and 2018 and they will continue to grow for several reasons including the lack of a program-wide cleanup strategy and reliance primarily on individual sites to locally negotiate cleanup activities and establish priorities. For example, the Hanford and Savannah River sites plan to treat similar radioactive tank waste differently, with Hanford’s efforts possibly costing tens of billions more than Savannah River’s. In addition, the government manages most of its cleanup work as operations activities, under less stringent requirements than other environmental remediation projects. For example, operations activities are not subject to independent oversight.

Excerpts adapted from GAO, Environmental Liability Continues to Grow, and Significant Management Challenges Remain for Cleanup Effort, May 1, 2019.

Your Typing Discloses Who You Are: Behavioral Biometrics

Behavioural biometrics make it possible to identify an individual’s “unique motion fingerprint”,… With the right software, data from a phone’s sensors can reveal details as personal as which part of someone’s foot strikes the pavement first, and how hard; the length of a walker’s stride; the number of strides per minute; and the swing and spring in the walker’s hips and step. It can also work out whether the phone in question is in a handbag, a pocket or held in a hand.

Using these variables, Unifyid, a private company, sorts gaits into about 50,000 distinct types. When coupled with information about a user’s finger pressure and speed on the touchscreen, as well as a device’s regular places of use—as revealed by its gps unit—that user’s identity can be pretty well determined, ction….Behavioural biometrics can, moreover, go beyond verifying a user’s identity. It can also detect circumstances in which it is likely that a fraud is being committed. On a device with a keyboard, for instance, a warning sign is when the typing takes on a staccato style, with a longer-than-usual finger “flight time” between keystrokes. This, according to Aleksander Kijek, head of product at Nethone, a firm in Warsaw that works out behavioural biometrics for companies that sell things online, is an indication that the device has been hijacked and is under the remote control of a computer program rather than a human typist…

Used wisely, behavioural biometrics could be a boon…Used unwisely, however, the system could become yet another electronic spy on people’s privacy, permitting complete strangers to monitor your every action, from the moment you reach for your phone in the morning, to when you fling it on the floor at night.

Excerpts from Behavioural biometrics: Online identification is getting more and more intrusive, Economist, May 23, 2019

Who to Save? Forests or Farmers

Agriculture continues to present the biggest threat to forests worldwide. Some experts predict that crop production needs to be doubled by 2050 to feed the world at the current pace of population growth and dietary changes toward higher meat and dairy consumption. Scientists generally agree that productivity increase alone is not going to do the trick. Cropland expansion will be needed, most likely at the expense of large swathes of tropical forests – as much as 200 million hectares by some estimates. 

Nowhere is this competition for land between forests and agriculture more acute than in Africa. Its deforestation rate has surpassed those of Latin America and Southeast Asia. Sadly, the pace shows no sign of slowing down. Africa’s agriculture sector needs to feed its burgeoning populations- the fastest growing in the world…. What’s more, for the millions of unemployed African youth, a vibrant agriculture sector will deliver jobs and spur structural transformation of the rural economy. Taken together, the pressures on forests are immense. Unless interventions are made urgently, a large portion of Africa’s forests will be lost in the coming decades – one farm plot at a time.

The difficult question is: what interventions can protect forests and support farmers at the same time? 

To tackle these complex challenges, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has launched a new initiative: The “Governing Multifunctional Landscapes (GML) in Sub-Saharan Africa: Managing Trade-Offs Between Social and Ecological Impacts”  Read more

Excerpts from XIAOXUE WENG et al Can forests and smallholders live in harmony in Africa?, CIFOR, June 3, 2019

How Un-American: Attacking Private Companies because they are Chinese

America is no fan of Huawei. Its officials have spent months warning that the Chinese giant’s smartphones and networking gear could be Trojan horses for Chinese spies (something Huawei has repeatedly denied). They have threatened to withhold intelligence from any ally that allows the firm in.

On May 15th, 2019  they raised the stakes. President Donald Trump barred American firms from using telecoms equipment made by firms posing a “risk to national security”. His order named no names. But its target was plain.  More significant was the announcement by the Commerce Department, on the same day, that it was adding Huawei to a list of firms with which American companies cannot do business without official permission. That amounts to a prohibition on exports of American technology to Huawei.  It is a seismic decision, for no technology firm is an island. Supply chains are highly specialised and globally connected. Cutting them off—“weaponising interdependence”, in the jargon—can cause serious disruption. When ZTE, another Chinese technology company, received the same treatment in 2018 for violating American sanctions on Iran, it was brought to the brink of ruin. It survived only because Mr Trump intervened, claiming it was a favour to Xi Jinping, China’s president.

By May 20th, 2019  the impact of the ban was becoming clear. Google said it had stopped supplying the proprietary components of its Android mobile operating system to Huawei. A string of American chipmakers, including Intel, Qualcomm and Micron, have also ceased sales. Later that day the Commerce Department softened its line slightly, saying that firms could continue to supply Huawei for 90 days, but for existing products—for instance, with software updates for Huawei phones already in use. New sales, on which Huawei’s future revenue depends, remain banned…

 Without Google’s co-operation, new Huawei phones will lack the latest versions of Android, and popular apps such as Gmail or Maps. That may not matter in China, where Google’s apps are forbidden. But it could be crippling in Europe, Huawei’s second-biggest market. Its telecoms business needs beefy server chips from Intel. The supply of software to manage those networks could dry up too. Huawei is developing replacements for all three, but they are far from ready….Accrording to Paul Triolo of Eurasia Group, the Huawei ban as “the logical end-game of the US campaign to take down Huawei”. A long-lasting ban would force the firm to look for alternative chips and software that Chinese suppliers would struggle to provide.

The second question concerns the reach of American power. The tangled nature of chip-industry supply chains means that many non-American companies make use of American parts or intellectual property. They may therefore consider themselves covered, wholly or partially, by the ban. Take Arm, a Britain-based firm whose technology powers chips in virtually every phone in the world, including those made by HiSilicon. Arm says that it will comply with the Commerce Department’s rules. That suggests that Arm will not grant Huawei new licences. It is unclear if Arm will offer support for existing licences, however. As Arm’s technology advances, Huawei risks being left behind.

Other non-American companies are as important. One industry insider with contacts in Taiwan says that American officials are pressing Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (tsmc), a big and cutting-edge chipmaker, to drop Huawei, which is its third-biggest customer. That would be a crushing blow, for Chinese chip factories are not up to the task of manufacturing HiSilicon’s sophisticated designs. tsmc’s only peer is Samsung—and South Korea is another of America’s allies. tsmc said on May 23rd that it would continue supplying Huawei for now.

Even if the optimists are right, and the ban is lifted in exchange for trade concessions, a return to business as usual seems unlikely. America has twice demonstrated a willingness to throttle big Chinese companies. Trust in American technology firms has been eroded, says Mr Triolo. China has already committed billions of dollars to efforts to boost its domestic capabilities in chipmaking and technology. For its rulers, America’s bans highlight the urgency of that policy. Catching up will not be easy, believes Mr Ernst, for chips and software are the most complicated products that humans make. But, he says, if you talk to people in China’s tech industry they all say the same thing: “We no longer have any other option.”

Excerpts from Huawei has been cut off from American technology, Economist, May 25,  2019.

How to Kill the Tsetse Fly: Use Nuclear Energy

The tsetse fly’s toxic bite kills an estimated 3 million livestock annually in sub-Saharan Africa.  Farmers here used to count on losing pounds of valuable beef to the fingernail-size pest. Then veterinarians in the West African country teamed up with researchers in Austria, who work on a little-known project funded entirely by the United States.  The United States has poured about $5 million into the effort of sterilizing the male tsetse files with gamma rays.   This has led to the eradication of 99 percent of those files

Cows, Senegale. (source IAEA)

Farmer income in Niayes, Senegale,  is expected to jump by 30 percent, officials say, as more cows survive at a healthy weight. Farms, meanwhile, can now afford to buy hundreds of European dairy cows, which produce 20 times as much milkthan native breeds.  The fortune reversal sprouts from a global collaboration at the intersection of agriculture and nuclear technology

Since 2010, America has funneled roughly $379 million to Senegal’s partner in the tsetse fly fight: the International Atomic Energy Agency,…The United States earmarked an additional $560,000 this month for upkeep of the group’s laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria.

Rather, Jeffrey Eberhardt, whom President Trump has nominated to serve as his special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said in a May statement that the United States has maintained its backing to “expand the benefits of peaceful nuclear uses” and expressed “a firm commitment to continuing this legacy.”

The peaceful use in Senegal is called nuclear insect sterilization.  First, scientists hatch thousands of tsetse flies in an artificial habitat about 870 miles away, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso.   Next, they send the bugs to the lab in Seibersdorf, where researchers place them in tiny ionization chambers and blast them with gamma rays, rendering the males unable to pass on a healthy seed.   Finally, they chill the flies to sleep — broken wings from panicked thrashing would sabotage the mission — before tucking them into biodegradable paper boxes and shipping them to Senegal.

Excerpts from A U.S.-funded nuclear project to zap a killer fly into extinction is saving West Africa’s cows, Washington Post, May 31, 2019
 

How to Make Money out of the Nuclear Waste Mess

Companies specializing in the handling of radioactive material are buying retired U.S. nuclear reactors from utilities and promising to clean them up and demolish them in dramatically less time than usual — eight years instead of 60, in some cases.  Turning nuclear plants over to outside companies and decommissioning them on such a fast track represents a completely new approach in the United States, never before carried to completion in this country, and involves new technology as well…

Once a reactor is shut down, the radioactive mess must be cleaned up, spent nuclear fuel packed for long-term storage and the plant itself dismantled. The most common approach can last decades, with the plant placed in a long period of dormancy while radioactive elements slowly decay.  Spent fuel rods that can no longer sustain a nuclear reaction remain radioactive and still generate substantial heat. They are typically placed in pools of water to cool, staying there for at least five years, with 10 years the industry norm, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After that, they are removed and placed in giant cylindrical casks, typically made of steel and encased in concrete.

But Holtec International, which in the past year has been buying up several retired or soon-to-be-retired nuclear plants in the U.S., has designed a cask it says can accept spent fuel after only two years of cooling.  Holtec struck a deal last year to buy Oyster Creek in Forked River, New Jersey, from its owner, Exelon Generation.  It also has deals in place to buy several plants owned by Entergy Corp., including: Pilgrim, in historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, closing May 31; Palisades, in Covert, Michigan, set to shut down in 2022 ; and two reactors expected to close within two years at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York….  NorthStar Group Services, a specialist in nuclear demolition, completed the purchase of Vermont Yankee from Entergy with plans for its accelerated decommissioning.

The companies jumping into the business believe they can make in profit….Holtec will inherit the multibillion-dollar decommissioning trust funds set up by the utilities for the plants’ eventual retirement. , The company would be able to keep anything left over in each fund after the plant’s cleanup. By Holtec’s accounting, for instance, the Pilgrim decommissioning will cost an estimated $1.13 billion, leaving $3.6 million in the fund.  Holtec and Northstar are also banking on the prospect of recouping money from the federal government for storing spent fuel during and after the decommissioning, because there is no national disposal site for high-level nuclear waste…

Holtec has come under scrutiny over its role in a mishap in August 2018 during the somewhat less aggressive decommissioning of the San Onofre plant in Southern California, where two reactors were retired in 2013 and the estimated completion date is 2030….Holtec contractors were lowering a 45-ton spent fuel cask into an underground storage vault at San Onofre when it became misaligned and nearly plunged 18 feet, investigators said. No radiation was released.  Federal regulators fined Southern California Edison, the plant’s owner, $116,000, and an investigation found that some Holtec procedures had been inadequate or not properly followed.

BOB SALSBERG , Speedy reactor cleanups may carry both risks and rewards, Associated Press, May 21, 2019

The Sad Mismanagement of Sand

With the global demand for sand and gravel standing at 40 to 50 billion tonnes per year, a new report by UN Environment reveals that aggregate extraction in rivers has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.

The report Sand and sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance of global sand resources presents how the demand for sand has increased  three-fold over the last two decades. Further to this, damming and extraction have reduced sediment delivery from rivers to many coastal areas, leading to reduced deposits in river deltas and accelerated beach erosion

Sand extraction is fast becoming a transboundary issue due to sand extraction bans, international sourcing of sand for land reclamation projects and impacts of uncontrolled sand extraction beyond national borders. International trade in sand and gravel is growing due to high demand in regions without local sand and gravel resources and is forecast to rise 5.5 per cent a year with urbanization and infrastructure development trends.

Unsustainable sand extraction does not only impact the environment but can also have far-reaching social implications. Sand removal from beaches can jeopardize the development of the local tourism industry, while removing sand from rivers and mangrove forests leads to a decrease of crab populations—negatively affecting women whose livelihood depends on the collection of crabs.

Excerpts from Rising demand for sand calls for resource governance, UNEP, May 7, 2019

Who is Afraid of the United States?

In 2018 America imposed sanctions on about 1,500 people, firms, vessels and other entities, nearly triple the number in 2016. The past six months of 2019 have been particularly eventful. America began imposing sanctions on Iran in November, and in January on Venezuela, another big oil exporter. On May 9th 2019, for the first time, it seized a ship accused of transporting banned North Korean coal.

Second, blackballed countries and unscrupulous middlemen are getting better at evasion. In March 2019advisers to the un, relying in part on Windward data, and American Treasury officials published separate reports that described common ways of doing it. Boats turn off their transmissions systems to avoid detection. Oil is transferred from one ship to another in the middle of the ocean—ships trading on behalf of North Korea find each other in the East China Sea using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. Captains disguise a ship’s identity by manipulating transponder data to transmit false locations and identity numbers of different vessels.

Such methods have helped Iran and Russia transport oil to Syria, American officials say. In 2018 North Korea managed to import refined petroleum far in excess of the level allowed by multilateral sanctions. The situation in Venezuela is different—technically, America’s sanctions still allow foreigners to do business with the country. But fear that sanctions will expand mean that traditional trading partners are scarce. Nicolás Maduro’s regime this month found a shipowner to transport crude to India, according to a shipbroker familiar with the deal, but Venezuela had to pay twice the going rate.

Businesses keen to understand such shenanigans can be roughly divided into two categories. The first includes those who can profit from grasping sanctions’ impact on energy markets, such as hedge funds, analysts and traders. A squadron of firms is ready to assist them, combing through ship transmission data, commercial satellite imagery and other public and semi-public information. They do not specialise in sanctions, but sanctions are boosting demand for their tracking and data-crunching expertise.

A main determinant of Venezuela’s output, for instance, is access to the diluent it needs to blend with its heavy crude. A firm called Clipper Data has noted Russian ships delivering diluent to vessels near Malta, which then transport it to Venezuela. Kpler, a French rival, uses satellite images of shadows on lids of storage tanks to help estimate the volume of oil inside. Using transmissions data, images, port records and more, Kpler produces estimates of Iran’s exports for customers such as the International Energy Agency and Bernstein, a research firm—including a recent uptick in Iranian exports without a specific destination (see chart).

The second category of companies are wary of violating sanctions themselves. They need assistance of a different sort. Latham & Watkins, a firm that advised the chairman of EN+, which controls a Russian aluminium giant, as he successfully removed the company from America’s sanctions list this year, has seen a surge in sanctions-related business. Refinitiv, a data company, offers software which permits clients to screen partners and customers against lists of embargoed entities. Windward uses machine learning to pore over data such as ships’ travel patterns, transmissions gaps (some of which may be legitimate) and name changes to help firms identify suspicious activity. Kharon, founded last year by former United States Treasury officials, offers detailed analysis of anyone or anything on sanctions lists.

HIde and Seek: Sanctions Inc, Economist, May 18, 2019

A Nuclear Leaking Grave

The Bravo test, the testiong of a nuclear bomb on March 1, 1954, in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands resulted in an explosion that was 2½ times larger than expected. Radioactive ash dropped more than 7,000 square miles from the bomb site, caking the nearby inhabited islands.  “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.”

The 1954 explosion was part of nuclear tests conducted as the American military lurched into the nuclear age. From 1946 o 1958, 67 U.S. nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall islands….From 1977 to 1980, loose waste and top soil debris scraped off from six different islands in the Enewetak Atoll was transported to Runit island and was mixed with concrete and buried in nuclear blast crater. 4,000 US servicemen were involved in the cleanup that took three years to complete. The waste-filled crater was finally entombed in concrete.  The Runit Dome, also called locally “The Tomb”, is a 46 cm (18 in) thick dome of concrete at sea level, encapsulating an estimated 73,000 m3 (95,000 cu yd) of radioactive debris, including some plutonium-239. …The structure, however, was never meant to last. Today, due to disrepair and rising sea tides, it is dangerously vulnerable. A strong storm could breach the dome, releasing the deadly legacy of America’s nuclear might….

Cracks have reportedly started to appear in the dome. Part of the threat is that the crater was never properly lined, meaning that rising seawater could breach the structural integrity. “The bottom of the dome is just what was left behind by the nuclear weapons explosion,” Michael Gerrard, the chair of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, told the ABC. “It’s permeable soil. There was no effort to line it. And therefore, the seawater is inside the dome. 

According to Guterres, UN Secretary General, who refers to Runit Dome as nuclear coffin: The Pacific was victimized in the past as we all know, The consequences of these have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas.”

Excerpts from Kyle Swenson , The U.S. put nuclear waste under a dome on a Pacific island. Now it’s cracking open, Washington Post, May 20, 2019 and Wikipedia

How Nuclear Explosions Affect the Deep Ocean

Radioactive carbon released into the atmosphere from 20th-century nuclear bomb tests has reached the deepest parts of the ocean, new research finds.  A new study in AGU’s journal Geophysical Research Letters finds the first evidence of radioactive carbon from nuclear bomb tests in muscle tissues of crustaceans that inhabit Earth’s ocean trenches, including the Mariana Trench, home to the deepest spot in the ocean.

Mariana Deep Ocean Trench

Organisms at the ocean surface have incorporated this “bomb carbon” into the molecules that make up their bodies since the late 1950s. Crustaceans in deep ocean trenches are feeding on organic matter from these organisms when it falls to the ocean floor. The results show human pollution can quickly enter the food web and make its way to the deep ocean, according to the study’s authors.



Crustacean

According to researchers, water containing carbon-14 can take centuries to circulate throughout the ocean, but the food web drastically accelerated the process. “There’s a very strong interaction between the surface and the bottom, in terms of biologic systems, and human activities can affect the biosystems even down to 11,000 meters,” said Weidong Sun, a coauthor of the study, “so we need to be careful about our future behaviors.”

RADIOACTIVE CARBON FROM NUCLEAR BOMB TESTS FOUND IN DEEP OCEAN TRENCHES
AGU Press Release, 8 May 2019

Killing Albinos for the Body Parts: Endangered Humans

In Malawi, ritual human sacrifice is till practiced. Murders are not uncommon. Women and children are killed for their breasts and genitals. Albinos, who number no more than 10,000 in Malawi, are said to carry the most powerful magic and are thus most at risk. Albino body parts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The Association for Persons with Albinism in Malawi (APAM) says it began documenting attacks in 2014 after a surge before an election that year. Since then it has recorded 25 murders, 15 disappearances and 122 other crimes, including attempted abductions and exhumations.

In 2019, as Malawians prepare to vote in a general election on May 21st, there has been another rise in attacks. An albino man was killed and dismembered in front of his nine-year-old son. Three weeks later an 18-month-old girl was kidnapped. In February, a machete-wielding gang carried away Goodson Makanjira, aged 14. Another 11 attempted attacks were thwarted by neighbours, AAPM says.  Activists suspect politicians are involved. Though evidence remains circumstantial, suspicions have been fuelled by the mysterious deaths (one in police custody) of two suspects who may have held clues about who is behind recent attacks…The scandal has only deepened since, with the parties of Mr Mutharika and his two chief rivals blaming each other for the killings. Mr Kalindo says that, while in custody earlier this year for insulting the president in song, he met suspects held for the murder of an albino in 2014. Lurid recordings of the men purportedly implicating one of the president’s senior advisers have been circulated widely on social media….Malawi’s albinos would rather their politicians stopped trading accusations and worked together to protect them…

Kenya has an albino senator and holds albino beauty pageants, which helps demystify the condition. Tanzania has created an island refuge for albinos.

White magicThe killing of albinos is overshadowing Malawi’s election, Economist, May 11, 2019

Institutions Go Way But Not Nuclear Waste

The Trump administration  is asking Congress for money to resume work on the Yucca Mountain nulcear waste storage in Nevada.  But that may not end local opposition or a longstanding political stalemate. And in the meantime, nuclear plants are running out of room to store spent fuel….As the waste piles up, private companies are stepping in with their own solutions for the nation’s radioactive spent fuel. One is proposing a temporary storage site in New Mexico, and another is seeking a license for a site in Texas.

Most experts agree that what’s needed is a permanent site, like Yucca Mountain, that doesn’t require humans to manage it.  “Institutions go away,” says Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s no guarantee the owner will still be around for the duration of time when that waste remains dangerous, which is tens or hundreds of thousands of years.”

A California company says it has a viable plan for permanent storage. Deep Isolation wants to store spent fuel in holes drilled at least 1,000 feet underground in stable rock formations. The company says the waste would be separate from groundwater and in a place where it can’t hurt people.  “I like to imagine having a playground at the top of the Deep Isolation bore hole where my kids and I can go play,” says CEO Elizabeth Muller.  In November 2018, Muller’s company conducted a test north of Austin, Texas. Crews lowered an 80-pound canister into a drilled hole. It was a simulation, so no radioactive substances were involved. The goal was to determine whether they could also retrieve the canister.  The test was successful, and that’s important. Regulators require retrieval, because new technology could develop to better deal with the spent fuel. And the public is less likely to accept disposal programs that can’t be reversed, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Proving the waste can be retrieved may be the easy part. The bigger challenge is federal law, which doesn’t allow private companies to permanently store nuclear waste from power plants.  Current law also says all the waste should end up at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. By contrast, Deep Isolation’s technology would store waste at sites around the country, likely near existing nuclear power plants.

Jeff Brady, As Nuclear Waste Piles Up, Private Companies Pitch New Ways To Store It, NPR, Apr. 30, 2019

US v. China: The Slow and Sure Conquest of Internet Infrastructure


A new front has opened in the battle between the U.S. and China over control of global networks that deliver the internet. This one is beneath the ocean. While the U.S. wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data.

About 380 active submarine cables—bundles of fiber-optic lines that travel oceans on the seabed—carry about 95% of intercontinental voice and data traffic, making them critical for the economies and national security of most countries. 

The Huawei Marine’s Undersea Cable Network majority owned by Huawei Technologies, has worked on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables around the world…US o fficials say the company’s knowledge of and access to undersea cables could allow China to attach devices that divert or monitor data traffic—or, in a conflict, to sever links to entire nations.  Such interference could be done remotely, via Huawei network management software and other equipment at coastal landing stations, where submarine cables join land-based networks, these officials say.

Huawei Marine said in an email that no customer, industry player or government has directly raised security concerns about its products and operations.Joe Kelly, a Huawei spokesman, said the company is privately owned and has never been asked by any government to do anything that would jeopardize its customers or business. “If asked to do so,” he said, “we would refuse.”

The U.S. has sought to block Huawei from its own telecom infrastructure, including undersea cables, since at least 2012. American concerns about subsea links have since deepened—and spread to allies—as China moves to erode U.S. dominance of the world’s internet infrastructure…..Undersea cables are owned mainly by telecom operators and, in recent years, by such content providers as Facebook and Google. Smaller players rent bandwidth.Most users can’t control which cable systems carry their data between continents. A handful of switches typically route traffic along the path considered best, based on available capacity and agreements between cable operators.

In June 2017, Nick Warner, then head of Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service, traveled to the Solomon Islands, a strategically located South Pacific archipelago. His mission, according to people familiar with the visit, was to block a 2016 deal with Huawei Marine to build a 2,500-mile cable connecting Sydney to the Solomons.  Mr. Warner told the Solomons’ prime minister the deal would give China a connection to Australia’s internet grid through a Sydney landing point, creating a cyber risk, these people said. Australia later announced it would finance the cable link and steered the contract to an Australian company.  In another recent clash, the U.S., Australia and Japan tried unsuccessfully in September 2018 to quash an undersea-cable deal between Huawei Marine and Papua New Guinea.

U.S. and allied officials point to China’s record of cyber intrusions, growing Communist Party influence inside Chinese firms and a recent Chinese law requiring companies to assist intelligence operations. Landing stations are more exposed in poorer countries where cyber defenses tend to be weakest, U.S. and allied officials said. And network management systems are generally operated using computer servers at risk of cyber intrusion. Undersea cables are vulnerable, officials said, because large segments lie in international waters, where physical tampering can go undetected. At least one U.S. submarine can hack into seabed cables, defense experts said. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden alleged that Britain and the U.S. monitored submarine cable data. The U.S. and its allies now fear such tactics could be used against them. American and British military commanders warned recently that Russian submarines were operating near undersea cables. In 2018, the U.S. sanctioned a Russian company for supplying Russian spies with diving equipment to help tap seabed cables.


The Ionian Sea Submarine Cable Project (Greece) 

China seeks to build a Digital Silk Road, including undersea cables, terrestrial and satellite links, as part of its Belt and Road plan to finance a new global infrastructure network. Chinese government strategy papers on the Digital Silk Road cite the importance of undersea cables, as well as Huawei’s role in them. A research institute attached to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, in a paper published in September, praised Huawei’s technical prowess in undersea cable transmission and said China was poised to become “one of the world’s most important international submarine cable communication centers within a decade or two.” China’s foreign and technology ministries didn’t respond to requests for comment…

Huawei Marine Networks

Bjarni Thorvardarson, then chief executive of the cable’s Ireland-based operator, said U.S. authorities raised no objections until 2012, when a congressional report declared Huawei Technologies a national security threat. Mr. Thorvardarson wasn’t convinced. “It was camouflaged as a security risk, but it was mostly about a preference for using U.S. technology,” he said. Under pressure, Mr. Thorvardarson dropped Huawei Marine from Project Express in 2013. The older cable network continued to use Huawei equipment.

The company is now the fourth-biggest player in an industry long dominated by U.S.-based SubCom and Finnish-owned Alcatel Submarine Networks. Japan’s NEC Corp is in third place.Huawei Marine is expected to complete 28 cables between 2015 and 2020—nearly a quarter of all those built globally—and it has upgraded many more, according to TeleGeography, a research company.

Excerpts from America’s Undersea Battle With China for Control of the Global Internet Grid , WSJ, Mar. 12, 2019

Who Has the Right to Free Speech? Let Credit Cards Decide The Wikileaks Saga from 2010 to 2019

Visa and Mastercard’s partner company in Iceland, Valitor was found guilty by the Reykjavik District Court for illegally blocking payments to the controversial international nonprofit WikiLeaks – a media outlet that publishes classified documents provided by anonymous sources The case against Valitor began sometime in 2010 when a data hosting company named DataCell was given the responsibility to handle donations sent to WikiLeaks.The year 2010 was a particularly important one for the publishing company as its famous Chelsea Manning leaks made rounds in media houses across the world. However, soon after the leaks, Valitor blocked transactions from Visa card holders in Iceland to WikiLeaks, thus starting a legal tug-of-war that would last for years.

Fast forward to 2019, DataCell has finally won the legal battle against Valitor which has now been ordered to pay approximately $9.85 million to both DataCell and Wikileaks’ publishing firm, Sunshine Press Productions.

Excerpts from Iceland: Debit Card Company Fined $9.85 Million for Blocking WikiLeaks Payment, April 30, 2019

From Nuclear Powerhouse to Nuclear Mafia: South Korea

South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana, eventually became the most reactor-dense country in the world, with 23 reactors providing about 30% of the country’s total electricity generation…. South Korea’s reactors…are mostly packed into a narrow strip along the densely populated southeastern coast. The density was a way of cutting costs on administration and land acquisition. But putting reactors close to one another—and to large cities—was risky. … 

In December 2009, the UAE had awarded a coalition led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) a $20 billion bid to build the first nuclear power plant in the UAE. Barakah was chosen as the site to build four APR-1400nuclear reactors successively.  In 2012 to Park Geunhye the newly elected president pledged to increase South Korea’s reactor fleet to 39 units by 2035 and making sales trips to potential client states such as the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia bulding on prior success like the UAE deal mentioned above. …


Barakah under construction in UAE

But on September 21, 2012, officials at Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), a subsidiary of the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO),  received an outside tip about illegal activity among the company’s parts suppliers. Eventually, an internal probe had become a full-blown criminal investigation. Prosecutors discovered that thousands of counterfeit parts had made their way into nuclear reactors across the South Korea, backed up with forged safety documents. KHNP insisted the reactors were still safe, but the question remained: was corner-cutting the real reason they were so cheap?

Park Jong-woon, a former manager who worked on reactors at KEPCO and KHNP until the early 2000s, believed so. He had seen that taking shortcuts was precisely how South Korea’s headline reactor, the APR1400, had been built…After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, most reactor builders had tacked on a slew of new safety features.KHNP followed suit but later realized that the astronomical cost of these features would make the APR1400 much too expensive to attract foreign clients.“They eventually removed most of them,” says Park, who now teaches nuclear engineering at Dongguk University. “Only about 10% to 20% of the original safety additions were kept.”  Most significant was the decision to abandon adding an extra wall in the reactor containment building—a feature designed to increase protection against radiation in the event of an accident. “They packaged the APR1400 as ‘new’ and safer, but the so-called optimization was essentially a regression to older standards,” says Park. “Because there were so few design changes compared to previous models, [KHNP] was able to build so many of them so quickly.”

Having shed most of the costly additional safety features, KEPCO was able to dramatically undercut its competition in the UAE bid, a strategy that hadn’t gone unnoticed. After losing Barakah to KEPCO, Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon likened the Korean nuclear plant to a car without airbags and seat belts. At the time Lauvergeon’s comments were dismissed as sour words from a struggling rival.

By the time it was completed in 2014, the KHNP inquiry had escalated into a far-reaching investigation of graft, collusion, and warranty forgery; in total, 68 people were sentenced and the courts dispensed a cumulative 253 years of jail time. Guilty parties included KHNP president Kim Jong-shin, a Kepco lifer, and President Lee Myung-bak’s close aide Park Young-joon, whom Kim had bribed in exchange for “favorable treatment” from the government.

Several faulty parts had also found their way into the UAE plants, angering Emirati officials. “It’s still creating a problem to this day,” Neilson-Sewell, the Canadian advisor to Barakah, told me. “They lost complete faith in the Korean supply chain.”

Excerpts from Max S. Kim,  How greed and corruption blew up South Korea’s nuclear industry, MIT Technology Review, April 22, 2019

Getting Rid of Nuclear Waste for Good: A Dream Coming True?

Gerard Mourou—one of the three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics—claims that the lifespan of radioactive waste could potentially be cut to minutes from thousands of years. Although Mourou, 74, is quick to say that the laser option for nuclear waste that he and Irvine, California-based Professor Toshiki Tajima are working on may be years away, its promise has created a flurry of excitement for the sector in France.

 Environmental group Greenpeace estimates that there’s a global stockpile of about 250,000 tons of toxic spent fuel spread across 14 countries, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of that, 22,000 cubic meters—roughly equivalent to a three-meter tall building covering an area the size of a soccer pitch—is hazardous, according to the IAEA. A 2015 report by GE-Hitachi put the cost of disposing nuclear waste—outside of China, Russia and India—at well over $100 billion.  France produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year. And although only a fraction of that is highly toxic, more than 60 years after getting into nuclear energy, the country still has no definitive way to cope with it.

In April 2019, France opened its third national debate on nuclear waste, bringing together policy makers, advocacy groups and scientists to discuss handling an estimated 10,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste collectively produced by the country’s 58 reactors over their lifespan. And that doesn’t include atomic material generated by the military and medical sectors.

The most toxic parts are stored right now in short-term facilities in La Hague in Normandy, in Marcoule and Cadarache in southern France and in Valduc, near Dijon. At the facility in La Hague, an hour’s drive from the D-Day beaches, specially designed robots cast the most radioactive nuclear waste into glass casings before putting them in inox containers. Already the world’s largest facility for processing atomic waste, it is constantly being expanded—making a long-term solution urgent.

State-controlled nuclear entities Electricite de France SA and Orano SA, charged with nuclear waste management, and CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Agency, have spent billions on the toxic material. At least another 25 billion euros ($28 billion) is set to be plowed into an underground maze of tunnels near the village of Bure in northeastern France that could be the final resting place for the highly toxic waste starting in 2025.  Like with other deep storage sites in place, under construction or being considered in countries including the U.S., Japan, Finland and Sweden, the Bure plan has drawn protests. Greenpeace has pointed to several risks, not least of which being the chance of the toxic material seeping into the groundwater or a fire releasing radioactive gases.

Enter Mourou, with his high-intensity laser option. The physicist’s work has paved the way for the shortest and most-intense laser pulses ever created. In his Nobel Lecture on Dec. 8, Mourou laid out his vision for using his “passion for extreme light” to address the nuclear-waste problem.  The process he and Tajima are working on is called transmutation, which involves changing the composition of an atom’s nucleus by bombarding it with a laser. “It’s like karate—you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment,” said Mourou…Transmutation research has been going on for three decades, with efforts in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, U.S. and Japan either failing or in various stages of study…“I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal,” said Rodney C. Ewing, a professor in nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. A radionuclide is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable.

Excerpts from Zapping Nuclear Waste in Minutes Is Nobel Winner’s Holy Grail Quest, Bloomberg, Apr. 2, 2019

How to Clean a Multibillion-Dollar Radioactive Mess: WIPP

Twenty years and more than 12,380 shipments later, tons of Cold War-era waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research across the U.S. have been stashed in the salt caverns that make up the underground facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant  (WIPP) in New Mexico. Each week, several shipments of special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements are trucked to the site.

But the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has not been without issues.  A 2014 radiation leak forced an expensive, nearly three-year closure, delayed the federal government’s cleanup program and prompted policy changes at national laboratories and defense-related sites across the U.S. More recently, the U.S. Department of Energy said it would investigate reports that workers may have been exposed last year to hazardous chemicals.

Still, supporters consider the repository a success, saying it provides a viable option for dealing with a multibillion-dollar mess that stretches from a decommissioned nuclear weapons production site in Washington state to one of the nation’s top nuclear research labs, in Idaho, and locations as far east as South Carolina… Overall 22 sites around the nation that have been cleaned up as a result of having somewhere to put the waste — including Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons plant outside Denver that had a history of leaks, spills and other violations.

For critics, that success is checkered at best since the repository is far from fulfilling its mission.  “It’s 80 percent through its lifetime, and it has disposed of less than 40 percent of the waste and has cost more than twice as much as it was supposed to,” said Don Hancock with the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center. “How great of a success is that?” Officials initially thought the facility would operate for about 25 years. Rather than wrapping up in the next few years, managers have bumped the timeline to 2050….

With some areas permanently sealed off due to contamination, more mining will have to be done to expand capacity. The federal government also is spending more than a half-billion dollars to install a new ventilation system, sink more shafts and make other upgrades aimed at returning to “normal business.”..,.

Toney Anaya, who served as New Mexico governor in the 1980s, remembers the heated debates about bringing more radioactive waste to the state. He said there were concerns about safety, but the promise of jobs was attractive. Some also argued New Mexico had a moral obligation given its legacy of uranium mining and its role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Excerpts First-of-its-kind US nuclear waste dump marks 20 years, Associated Press, Mar. 23, 2019

Just 20: Floating Nuclear Reactors Tranform South China Sea into Chinese Lake

China will start building its first floating nuclear power plant in 2019.  A floating nuclear power plant is a marine platform carrying a scaled-down or minuscule nuclear reactor to power islets and offshore drilling platforms that may otherwise have little or no access to the onshore grid supply.  Analysts have associated these novel marine nuclear power stations with Beijing’s initiatives to militarize and “colonize” the South China Sea and turn its vast waters into a Chinese lake

Mobile nuclear reactors could power the many man-made islands being created in the South China Sea, while transmitting electricity from the mainland would be expensive and conventional diesel generators could not meet the demand amid an expanding population of soldiers, constructors and residents….Observers say that as many as 20 floating nuclear stations could be needed across the South China Sea for new chunks of land created on reefs and shoals, especially in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos that are subject to conflicting territorial claims by China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.  These reactors can also sail and power the many Chinese drilling platforms in the ocean to expedite the exploitation of oil, natural gas as well as “combustible ice,” a frozen mixture of water and concentrated natural gas found on the sea floor.

Exerpts from Ocean-going nuclear plants for South China Sea, Asia Times, Mar. 2019

Killing Popcupines for their Bellies: endangered species

Porcupines  are been hunted for undigested plant material in their gut known as bezoars.


Varieties of porcupine bezoar

According to leading wildlife trafficking experts, the small, spiny rodents are at risk of becoming endangered across Southeast Asia.  Demand is predominantly driven by China, where some believe that bezoars, which accumulate in the digestive tract, have potent medicinal properties, including the ability to cure diabetes, dengue fever, and cancer. Bezoars are sold either raw or in powdered form and may be processed into capsules. A few ounces of the substance can command hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Most sought after is the dark red “blood” bezoar, believed to be the most potent of the several varieties. Prices for bezoars have “increased exponentially during the past few years, following recent claims of their cancer-curing properties,” according to a 2015 report by the wildlife trade monitoring organization Traffic.

The Philippine porcupine, the Asiatic brush-tailed porcupine, and the Malayan porcupine, which live throughout Southeast Asia, are all flagged as threatened and declining in number by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the body that sets the conservation status of wildlife species. None has yet been listed as endangered, which would bolster legal protection and international awareness.

Excerpts from Porcupines are being poached for their stomach content, National Geographic, Mar. 22, 2019

Armed Attack on Truck Carrying Nuclear Fuel: Brazil

Armed men shot at members of a convoy transporting uranium to one of Brazil’s two working nuclear power plants on a coastal road in Rio de Janeiro state on March 19, 2019 police and the company managing the plant said.  They said the truck carrying the nuclear fuel and its police escort came under attack when it was passing by the town of Frade, about 30 km (19 miles) from Angra dos Reis, where the reactor is located.  Policemen guarding the convoy returned the attackers’ fire, police said. They said there were no injuries or arrests and the armed men fled.

Excerpts from Brazilian nuclear plant uranium convoy attacked by armed men: police, Reuters, Africa, Mar. 19, 2019

How to Strengthen the Immune System of Plants: biodiversity

n the past 150 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 410 ppm. For farmers this is mixed news. Any change in familiar weather patterns caused by the atmospheric warming this rise is bringing is bound to be disruptive. But more carbon dioxide means more fuel for photosynthesis and therefore enhanced growth—sometimes by as much as 40%. And for those in temperate zones, rising temperatures may bring milder weather and a longer growing season. (In the tropics the effects are not so likely to be benign.) What is not clear, though, and not much investigated, is how rising CO2 levels will affect the relation between crops and the diseases that affect them…

Plant biology is altered substantially by a range of environmental factors. This makes it difficult to predict what effect a changing climate will have on particular bits of agriculture. Carbon dioxide is a case in point. It enhances growth of many plants but,  it also shifts the defences to favour some types of disease over others.

To make matters even more complicated, evidence is mounting that changes in temperature and water availability also shift plant immune responses. André Velásquez and Sheng Yang He, at Michigan State University, wrote an extensive review on the warfare between plants and diseases in Current Biology in 2018. They noted that though some valuable crops, such as potatoes and rice, experience less disease as moisture levels increase, this is not the case for most plants. High humidity, in general, favours the spread of botanical diseases. The same can be said for temperature—with some diseases, like papaya ringspot virus, thriving in rising temperatures while others, for example potato cyst, are weakened.

The problems are daunting, then, but there is a way to try to solve them… Genes which grant resistance to diseases that might become severe in the future need to be tracked down. Modern crops have been streamlined by artificial selection to be excellent at growing today. This means that they have the genes they need to flourish when faced with the challenges expected from current conditions, but nothing more. Such crops are thus vulnerable to changes in their environment.  One way to find genes that may alter this state of affairs is to look to crops’ wild relatives. Uncossetted by farmers, these plants must survive disease by themselves—and have been fitted out by evolution with genes to do so. Borrowing their dna makes sense. But that means collecting and cataloguing them. This is being done, but not fast enough. The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, a charity which works in the area, reckons that about 30% of the wild relatives of modern crops are unrepresented in gene banks, and almost all of the rest are underrepresented….

[This is becuase] most countries are, rightly, protective of their genetic patrimony. If money is to be made by incorporating genes from their plants into crops, they want to have a share of it. It is therefore incumbent on rich countries to abide by rules that enable poor ones to participate in seed collecting without losing out financially. Poor, plant-rich countries are in any case those whose farmers are most likely to be hurt by global warming. It would be ironic if that were made worse because genes from those countries’ plants were unavailable to future-proof the world’s crops.

Excerpts from Blocking the Road to Rusty Death: Climate Change and Crop Disease, Economist,  Apr. 20, 2019

Suing and Wining: Indigenous People, Ecuador

Hunter-gatherers in the Amazon sought in court on in April 2019 to stop Ecuador’s government auctioning their land to oil companies, as tension mounts over the future of the rainforest…The Waorani said the government did not properly consult them in 2012 over plans to auction their land to oil companies.

“We live on these lands and we want to continue to live there in harmony. We will defend them. Our fight is that our rights are respected,” said Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the 2,000-strong Waorani….Ecuador is pushing to open up more rainforest and develop its oil and gas reserves in the hope of improving its sluggish economy and cutting its high fiscal deficit and foreign debt…

The constitution gives the government the right to develop energy projects and extract minerals on any land, regardless of who owns it, but requires that communities are consulted first and are properly informed about any projects and their impact. Laws to regulate the consultation process have yet to be introduced – although the court case could push the government to do this, said Brian Parker, a lawyer with campaign group Amazon Frontlines, which is supporting the Waorani…

The government announced last year that it had divided swathes of forest up into blocs for auction, one of which – bloc 22 – covers the Waorani’s ancestral lands, raising the specter of pollution and an end to their way of life.  In two landmark cases in 2018, local courts sided with indigenous communities who said the government had failed to inform them before designating their land for mineral exploitation….The Inter-American Court of Human Rights also ruled in 2012 that Ecuador had violated its Sarayaku Amazonian community’s right to prior consultation before drillers started exploration on their lands in the late 1990s.

Excerpts Ecuador’s hunter-gatherers in court over oil drilling in Amazon, Reuters, Apr. 11, 2019

The World in its Pocket: Saudi Arabia as a Nuclear Power

New satellite imagery shows that construction on an experimental nuclear  reactor in Saudi Arabia  is making”expeditious” progress — just three months after the Kingdom announced plans to build it…  The Kingdom has been open about its nuclear program with the IAEA, which sent a team to Saudi Arabia last July to check on building plans. It has repeatedly pledged that the program is peaceful. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year that “without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
 
Also raising concern among industry experts and some in Congress is the Saudi insistence that it should be allowed to produce its own nuclear fuel, rather than import it under strict conditions.  In an interview last year, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al Falih said: “It’s not natural for us to bring enriched uranium from a foreign country to fuel our reactors,” citing the country’s uranium reservess.  Saudi Arabia went public with its nuclear ambitions nine years ago, but the plans have gone into overdrive as part of the Crown Prince’s “Vision 2030” — a strategy to wean Saudi Arabia off its reliance on oil and diversify both the economy and its energy mix.  Companies that help Saudi Arabia with its nuclear ambitions  are US, China, Russia, France and South Korea. Saudi Arabia has also signed agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation for exploring uranium reserves in the Kingdom

In heated exchanges at the Senate Armed Services committee at the end of March, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that if the United States did not cooperate with the Saudis, they would look to Russia or China to develop their nuclear industry.  “I can assure you that those two countries don’t give a tinker’s damn about nuclear non-proliferation,” Perry said.

Excerpts from Saudi nuclear program accelerates, raising tensions in a volatile region, CNN, Apr. 7, 2019

Never-Ending CleanUp: Fukushima

 The operator of Japan’s wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant completed in April 2019 the removal of the first fuel rods from a cooling pool high up in a badly damaged reactor building, a rare success in the often fraught battle to control the site.  The batch of 22 unused fuel assemblies, which each contain 50-70 of the fuel rods, was transferred by a trailer to a safer storage pool, the last day of a four-day operation, Tokyo Electric Power Co, or Tepco, said in a statement.

The company must carefully pluck more than 1,500 brittle and potentially damaged assemblies from the unstable reactor No.4., the early stages of a decommissioning process following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked the site.

Tepco estimates removing the damaged assemblies from reactor No.4 alone will take a year. Some experts say that timeline is ambitious.  Still, it is an urgent operation. They are being stored 18 meters (59 feet) above ground level in a building that has buckled and tilted and could collapse if another quake strikes.  Carefully plucking the damaged fuel assemblies from the reactor building is being seen as a test of Tepco’s ability to move ahead with decommissioning the whole facility – a task likely to cost tens of billions of dollars and take decades.  The removal has to be conducted under water. If the rods are exposed to air or if they break, huge amounts of radioactive gases could be released into the atmosphere. Each assembly weighs around 300 kg (660 pounds) and is 4.5 meters (15 feet) long.  The hazardous removal operation has been likened by Arnie Gundersen, a veteran U.S. nuclear engineer and director of Fairewinds Energy Education, to trying to pull cigarettes from a crushed pack

Exerpts from In Start of Long Operation, Fukushima Removes First Fuel Rods, Reuters, April 2019

5,000 Eyes in the Sky: environmental monitoring

The most advanced satellite to ever launch from Africa will soon be patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters to crack down on oil spills and illegal dumping.  Data from another satellite, this one collecting images from the Texas portion of a sprawling oil and gas region known as the Permian Basin, recently delivered shocking news: Operators there are burning off nearly twice as much natural gas as they’ve been reporting to state officials.

With some 5,000 satellites now orbiting our planet on any given day…. They will help create a constantly innovating industry that will revolutionize environmental monitoring of our planet and hold polluters accountable…

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund focused on natural gas flares from the wells in the Permian Basin, located in Western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Our analysis proved that the region’s pollution problem was much larger than companies had revealed.  A second study about offshore gas flaring in the Gulf of Mexico, published by a group of scientists in the Geophysical Research Letters, showed that operators there burn off a whopping 40% of the natural gas they produce.

Soon a new satellite will be launching that is specifically designed not just to locate, but accurately measure methane emissions from human-made sources, starting with the global oil and gas industry.  MethaneSAT, a new EDF affiliate unveiled in 2018, will launch a future where sensors in space will find and measure pollution that today goes undetected. This compact orbital platform will map and quantify methane emissions from oil and gas operations almost anywhere on the planet at least weekly.

Excerpts from Mark Brownstein, These pollution-spotting satellites are just a taste of what’s to come, EDF, Apr. 4, 2019

Why Texas Loves Nuclear Waste

A proposal to take in more out-of-state waste at a West Texas radioactive waste disposal site has encountered an unlikely argument against it: that it can harm the booming oil and gas industry.  Waste Control Specialists is asking state lawmakers for permission to take in more low-level radioactive waste — such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals — from outside of Texas for disposal at its Andrews County facility near the Texas-New Mexico border.

Environmental groups have long opposed radioactive waste at the site, which they say could jeopardize groundwater.  Environmentalists at the hearing were joined by Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch, which operates in Andrews County.  Quoting from a handbook of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Taylor said radioactive waste dumps should be sited away from “land with exportable minerals and energy resources.”  “Don’t put it in an oilfield,” he said. “The oil and gas resources of the Permian Basin are too important for the security of the state of Texas and the United States to put it at risk with storing spent fuel rod casks in this region.”

Spent fuel is not designated as low-level waste, but he said he worried that designation could change.  It’s unusual for a representative of an oil and gas company to publicly criticize at the Capitol another segment of the energy industry…

But If Waste Control Specialists becomes insolvent the state might have to take control of the facility.  The legislation poposed by Texas lawmakers lifts the cap on the amount of out-of-state, low-level waste the company can accept at the 8.9 million cubic feet-capacity site from 30 percent to 60 percent.  The company currently pays six Austin lobbyists as much as $240,000 to persuade lawmakers of the wisdom of its plans….Waste Control Specialists’ partnership with Orano USA, called Interim Storage Partners LLC, has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to accept used nuclear fuel — high-level waste — at the Andrews facility.  Waste Control Specialists, which already disposes of other kinds of radioactive waste at its site in Andrews County, has been trying to position itself as a short-term alternative to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site long ago selected by the federal government for storage of radioactive waste. Yucca had been bedeviled by decades of political quarrels, even as radioactive waste has piled up at the country’s nuclear power plants.

Excerpt from Asher Price, Radioactive waste site seeks more out-of-state material, Statesman, Mar. 30, 2019

Who Bears the Costs of Technology? Lynas and Hazardous Waste from Rare Earths

Companies and governments around the world are anxiously watching the fate of a sprawling industrial facility 30 kilometers north of this city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.The 100-hectare Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) produces 10% of the world’s output of rare earth oxides (REOs), minerals needed in technologies including mobile phones, hard drives, fiber optic cables, surgical lasers, and cruise missiles. Lynas, an Australian company, imports concentrated ores from mines on Mount Weld in Australia and refines them in Malaysia, where costs are lower; it sells REOs—which include cerium compounds, used in catalytic converters, and neodymium, critical to permanent magnets—to Japan, the United States, and other countries. The plant produced almost 18,000 tons of REOs in 2018.

Now, the LAMP faces closure, barely 7 years after it opened. Environmental groups have long opposed the storage on the site of slightly radioactive waste from the extraction process, and they found a sympathetic ear in a new government elected in May 2018. In December 2018, the government demanded that the facility ship its radioactive waste back to Australia if it wants to renew its operating license, which expires on 2 September. On 12 March 2019overnment task force to help organize the shipments was announced. But the company says exporting the more than 451,000 tons of residue by the deadline is “unachievable.”

 A shutdown would be “a significant event with a ripple effect,” says Ryan Castilloux, a metals and minerals analyst at Adamas Intelligence in Amsterdam. For one thing, the shutdown would strengthen China’s position as the dominant supplier of REOs, which many countries deem a strategic risk. Japan’s electric vehicle industry, for instance, would lose its main supplier of REOs for permanent magnets; “it would have to reestablish a relationship with China after almost a decade of friction” in the REO trade, Castilloux says…. “Although rare earth oxides production worldwide is only worth several billions of dollars, it is essential for industries worth trillions,” Castilloux says.

Rare earth deposits themselves are not scare..Refining them takes lots of corrosive chemicals and generates huge amounts of residue. China was long the sole supplier; when it reduced exports in 2010, citing environmental concerns, prices jumped as much as 26-fold and major consumers scrambled for alternate sources. Lynas has become a “flagship” of REO production outside China, Castilloux says. The United States and Myanmar mine REEs as well, but they are processed in China, which today produces about 89% of the global REO output…

But in Malaysia, the waste has raised red flags. At the LAMP, concentrated ores are roasted with sulfuric acid to dissolve the rare earths and then diluted with water in a process called water leach purification, leaving a moist, pastelike residue. By September 2018, the LAMP had already produced 1.5 million tons of residue; because the ores contain thorium and uranium, almost 30% of it is slightly radioactive.  Some REO facilities elsewhere have built permanent, secure facilities to store such waste, says Julie Klinger, a geographer and expert in REO mining at Boston University; others are secretive about what they do with it.  Radioactivity isn’t the only risk…heavy metals as ickel, chromium, lead, and mercury could contaminate groundwater.

Excerpts by Yao-Hua, Radioactive waste standoff could slash high tech’s supply of rare earth elements, Science Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019

Assisted Evolution: Engineering Coral Reefs

Imagine ecologists cultivating whole new breeds of trees to restock a devastated wilderness…. Coral conservation has traditionally focused on minimizing damage from insults such as water pollution, invasive starfish, and destructive fishing or tourism. In the Caribbean, some conservationists have worked to “replant” damaged coral. But Gates and Van Oppen [two scientists]  have something more intrusive in mind. They want to try to alter the genetics of coral or the microbes that live on it. They dubb the effort “assisted evolution.”

Coral’s most remarkable characteristic—being an animal that is part plant—is also its Achilles’ heel in a hotter world. Normally, coral polyps—the individual coral organisms, which resemble a sea anemone the size of a pinhead—live in harmony with their algal partners, which help feed the polyps and give corals their bright colors. But during heat waves, the relationship sours. Overheated polyps perceive the algae as an irritant and eject them like unwanted squatters. The coral is left bleached, bone-white and starving. If the heat persists, the coral won’t take in new algae and can die.  The bond between coral and algae is complicated, however, and still not fully understood. Just 25 years ago, for example, researchers believed that coral housed just one variety of symbiotic algae. Now, they have identified hundreds. And they are just beginning to examine the role played by the coral’s microbiome, the menagerie of bacteria that inhabit a coral polyp.

Coral bleaching right.

But the complexity also offers multiple paths for scientists trying to forge a less fragile bond between coral and algae. Today, four major lines of research exist: One involves cross-breeding corals to create heat-tolerant varieties, either by mixing strains within a species or by crossing two species that would not normally interbreed. The second enlists genetic engineering techniques to tweak coral or algae. A third tries to rapidly evolve hardier strains of coral and algae by rearing them for generations in overheated lab conditions. A fourth approach, the newest, seeks to manipulate the coral’s microbiome…

In 2018, Cleves [scientist] became the first to report successfully using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral. CRISPR is often touted as a method for making genetically modified species. But Cleves says he isn’t interested in creating new kinds of coral. Rather, he sees CRISPR as a tool for deciphering the inner workings of coral DNA by knocking out, or disabling, genes one by one. He hopes to identify genes that might serve as “master switches” controlling how coral copes with heat and stress—knowledge that could help researchers quickly identify corals in the wild or in the laboratory that are already adapted to heat.

Either way, such efforts to re-engineer coral reefs make people such as David Wachenfeld, chief scientist for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority here, uneasy. The authority is supposed to protect the reef and regulate activities there. In the past, that meant a hands-off approach. Now, he concedes that “it is almost inconceivable that we’re not going to need these tools.” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about any of this. This is crisis management.”

He ticks off a list of potential difficulties. Scientists focused on breeding heat-loving coral have to avoid weakening other key traits, such as coping with cold. Introducing a new coral on the scale needed to make a dent on a network of 2900 reefs spanning an area half the size of Texas is a daunting challenge. Even in its damaged state, the Great Barrier Reef still contains hundreds of millions of corals—enough to swamp the genetic impact of new coral species…

Could some kind of “super coral,” as some researchers have dubbed them, also run amok in delicate coral ecosystems.

Excerpts from  The Reef Builders, Science, Mar. 22, 2019

Gummy Squirrels v. Cobalt: Mining the Seabed for Real


Sometimes the sailors’ myths aren’t far off: The deep ocean really is filled with treasure and creatures most strange. For decades, one treasure—potato-size nodules rich in valuable metals that sit on the dark abyssal floor—has lured big-thinking entrepreneurs, while defying their engineers. But that could change April 2019 with the first deep-sea test of a bus-size machine designed to vacuum up these nodules.

The trial, run by Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of the Belgian dredging giant DEME Group, will take place in the international waters of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a nodule-rich area the width of the continental United States between Mexico and Hawaii. The Patania II collector, tethered to a ship more than 4 kilometers overhead, will attempt to suck up these nodules through four vacuums as it mows back and forth along a 400-meter-long strip.

Patantia Vessel for Deep Sea Mining by DEME

Ecologists worried about the effect of the treasure hunt on the fragile deep-sea organisms living among and beyond the nodules should get some answers, too. An independent group of scientists on the German R/V Sonne will accompany GSR’s vessel to monitor the effect of the Patania II’s traverses. The European-funded effort, called MiningImpact2, will inform regulations under development for seafloor mining,…

The nodules are abundant, and they are rich in cobalt, a costly metal important for many electronics that is now mined in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a conflict zone…Ideal for nodule formation, the CCZ is estimated to contain some 27 billion metric tons of the ore. But its abyssal plain is also a garden of exotic life forms. Craig Smith, a benthic ecologist at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, has helped lead biological surveys in the CCZ that, in one case, revealed 330 species living in just 30 square kilometers, more than two-thirds of them new to science. The CCZ’s inhabitants include a giant squid worm,  green-yellow sea cucumbers that researchers called “gummy squirrels,” and a greater variety of bristle worms than ever reported before.

gummy squirrel on seabed

Mining could leave a lasting imprint on these ecosystems. In 2015, MiningImpact scientists visited the site of a 1980s experiment off Peru in which a small sledge was pulled along the bottom to simulate nodule harvesting. Three decades later, “It looked like the disturbance had taken place yesterday,” says Andrea Koschinsky… Many of the species in the deep seabed, such as corals and sponges, live right on the nodules. “They will be sucked up and are gone. You can’t go back.”Such concerns make many environmentalists wary of opening any of the deep sea to mining…

For one thing, the legal framework for mining in international waters is uncertain. Although the United Nations’s International Seabed Authority has granted contracts for exploration, it is still drafting rules that will govern commercial operations and set limits for environmental damage. The rules are unlikely to be final before 2021…

These sensors will focus on the plume of sediment the collector kicks up. The waters of the CCZ are some of the clearest in the world, and scientists have long feared that mining could spread a vast blanket of silt, hurting life far outside the mining area. Recent experiments, however, suggest most of the silt particles will clump together and fall out within a kilometer or two, Koschinsky says. But a film of finer nanoparticles might spread farther.

Excerpts from Scheme to Mine the Abyss Gets Sea Tria, Science,  Mar. 15, 2019

Facebook Denizens Unite! the right to privacy and big tech

The European Union’s (EU) approach to regulating the big tech companies draws on its members’ cultures tend to protect individual privacy. The other uses the eu’s legal powers to boost competition.  The first leads to the assertion that you have sovereignty over data about you: you should have the right to access them, amend them and determine who can use them. This is the essence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), whose principles are already being copied by many countries across the world. The next step is to allow interoperability between services, so that users can easily switch between providers, shifting to firms that offer better financial terms or treat customers more ethically. (Imagine if you could move all your friends and posts to Acebook, a firm with higher privacy standards than Facebook and which gave you a cut of its advertising revenues.)

Europe’s second principle is that firms cannot lock out competition. That means equal treatment for rivals who use their platforms. The EU has blocked Google from competing unfairly with shopping sites that appear in its search results or with rival browsers that use its Android operating system. A German proposal says that a dominant firm must share bulk, anonymised data with competitors, so that the economy can function properly instead of being ruled by a few data-hoarding giants. (For example, all transport firms should have access to Uber’s information about traffic patterns.) Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants buying up scores of startups that might one day pose a threat.

Ms Vestager has explained, popular services like Facebook use their customers as part of the “production machinery”. …The logical step beyond limiting the accrual of data is demanding their disbursement. If tech companies are dominant by virtue of their data troves, competition authorities working with privacy regulators may feel justified in demanding they share those data, either with the people who generate them or with other companies in the market. That could whittle away a big chunk of what makes big tech so valuable, both because Europe is a large market, and because regulators elsewhere may see Europe’s actions as a model to copy. It could also open up new paths to innovation.

In recent decades, American antitrust policy has been dominated by free-marketeers of the so-called Chicago School, deeply sceptical of the government’s role in any but the most egregious cases. Dominant firms are frequently left unmolested in the belief they will soon lose their perch anyway…By contrast, “Europe is philosophically more sceptical of firms that have market power.” ..

Tech lobbyists in Brussels worry that Ms Vestager agrees with those who believe that their data empires make Google and its like natural monopolies, in that no one else can replicate Google’s knowledge of what users have searched for, or Amazon’s of what they have bought. She sent shivers through the business in January when she compared such companies to water and electricity utilities, which because of their irreproducible networks of pipes and power lines are stringently regulated….

The idea is for consumers to be able to move data about their Google searches, Amazon purchasing history or Uber rides to a rival service. So, for example, social-media users could post messages to Facebook from other platforms with approaches to privacy that they prefer…

Excerpts from Why Big Tech Should Fear Europe, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019; The Power of Privacy, Economist, Mar. 3, 2019

Biodiversity and Respect for Human Rights

The instinctive response of many environmentalists  is to to fence off protected areas as rapidly and extensively as possible. That thought certainly dominates discussions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the main relevant international treaty. An eight-year-old addendum to the pact calls for 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of the ocean’s water column (that is, the water under 10% of the ocean’s surface) to be protected by 2020. Currently, those figures are 15% and 6%. Campaigners want the next set of targets, now under discussion, to aim for 30% by 2030—and even 50% by 2050. This last goal, biogeographers estimate, would preserve 85% of life’s richness in the long run.  As rallying cries go, “Nature needs half” has a ring to it, but not one that sounds so tuneful in the poor countries where much of the rhetorically required half will have to be found. Many people in such places already feel Cornered by Protected Areas.” (See also Biodiversity and Human Rights)

James Watson, chief scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (wcs), another American charity, has an additional worry about focusing on the fence-it-off approach. If you care about the presence of species rather than the absence of humans, he warns, “‘nature needs half’ could be a catastrophe—if you get the wrong half.” Many terrestrial protected areas are places that are mountainous or desert or both. Expanding them may not translate into saving more species. Moreover, in 2009 Lucas Joppa and Alexander Pfaff, both then at Duke University in North Carolina, showed that protected areas disproportionately occupy land that could well be fine even had it been left unprotected: agriculture-unfriendly slopes, areas remote from transport links or human settlements, and so on. Cordoning off more such places may have little practical effect.

Southern Appalachians, Virginia. image from wikipedia

 In the United States it is the underprotected southern Appalachians, in the south-east of the country, that harbour the main biodiversity hotspots. The largest patches of ring-fenced wilderness, however, sit in the spectacular but barren mountain ranges of the west and north-west. In Brazil, the world’s most speciose country, the principal hotspots are not, as might naively be assumed, in the vast expanse of the Amazon basin, but rather in the few remaining patches of Atlantic rainforest that hug the south-eastern coast.

Deforestation Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro. Image from wikipedia

Nor is speciosity the only consideration. So is risk-spreading. A team from the University of Queensland, in Australia, led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, has used a piece of financial mathematics called modern portfolio theory to select 50 coral reefs around the world as suitable, collectively, for preservation. Just as asset managers pick uncorrelated stocks and bonds in order to spread risk, Dr Hoegh-Guldberg and his colleagues picked reefs that have different exposures to rising water temperatures, wave damage from cyclones and so on. The resulting portfolio includes reefs in northern Sumatra and the southern Red Sea that have not previously registered on conservationists’ radar screens…

Another common finding—counterintuitive to those who take the “fence-it-all-off” approach—is that a mixed economy of conservation and exploitation can work. For example, rates of deforestation in a partly protected region of Peru, the Alto Mayo, declined by 78% between 2011 and 2017, even as coffee production increased from 20 tonnes a year to 500 tonnes.

Environmental groups can also draw on a growing body of academic research into the effective stewardship of particular species. For too long, says William Sutherland, of Cambridge University, conservationists have relied on gut feelings. Fed up with his fellow practitioners’ confident but unsubstantiated claims about their methods, and inspired by the idea of “evidence-based medicine”, he launched, in 2004, an online repository of relevant peer-reviewed literature called Conservation Evidence.  Today this repository contains more than 5,400 summaries of documented interventions. These are rated for effectiveness, certainty and harms. Want to conserve bird life threatened by farming, for example? The repository lists 27 interventions, ranging from leaving a mixture of seed for wild birds to peck (highly beneficial, based on 41 studies of various species in different countries) to marking bird nests during harvest (likely to be harmful or ineffective, based on a single study of lapwing in the Netherlands). The book version of their compendium, “What Works in Conservation”, runs to 662 pages. It has been downloaded 35,000 times.

Excerpts from How to preserve nature on a tight budget, Economist, Feb. 9, 2919

The Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

To date politicians, particularly in America, have been reluctant to legislate for bold restrictions on carbon. That is in part thanks to ExxonMobil’s attempts to obstruct efforts to mitigate climate change. …ExxonMobil’s policies on climate change remain marred by inconsistencies. In October the company said it was giving $1m, spread over two years, to a group advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil maintains that a carbon tax is a transparent and fair way to limit emissions. But the sum is less than a tenth of its federal lobbying spending in 2018. Moreover, the carbon tax it favours would include protection for oil companies from climate lawsuits.

The firm is also working to reduce leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its wells, pipelines and refineries. However the American Petroleum Institute  (API) has been a main force urging Mr Trump’s administration to ease regulations on methane emissions. The API’s other efforts include lobbying against incentives for electric cars.  ExxonMobil is not alone in trying to sway the climate debate in its direction either. Shell, Total and BP are all members of the API. Marathon Petroleum, a refiner, reportedly campaigned to ease Barack Obama’s fuel-economy standards. BP spent $13m to help block a proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state in November. The Western States Petroleum Association, whose membership includes ExxonMobil and Shell, also lobbied to defeat that tax.

While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed. In 2018 carbon emissions in America grew by 3.4% as economic activity picked up, even as coal fell out of favour. Mr Woods maintains that any change to the energy supply will be gradual. “I don’t think people can readily understand just how large the energy system is, and the size of that energy system will take time to evolve,” he argues… Out at sea, ExxonMobil is working to increase production. By next year an underwater web of pipes will connect wells on the seabed to a vast vessel. From there the oil will be transferred to smaller tankers, then to the vast infrastructure that can refine and transport it until it reaches consumers in the form of fertiliser, plastic bottles, polyester or, most likely, petrol. From beneath the ocean floor to your car’s tank, for about the price of a gallon of milk.

Excerpts from  Crude Awakening, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019; Bigger Oil, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019

Islands are not Disappearing. They Just Suffer

Every so often comes news of islands just up and disappearing. Eight in Micronesia. Five in the Solomon Islands. One off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Yet there’s also been a crop of studies and researchers, led by coastal geomorphologist Paul Kench from Simon Fraser University, saying that island nations such as Tuvalu (long a poster child for the existential threat of sea level rise) not only aren’t disappearing—they’re actually growing. So how do we make sense of this? Are the low-lying islands we know today doomed? Or are we seeing some other process at work? The answer is that a million complicated things are happening all at once, and it provides a window into how hard it is to talk about what’s currently happening to the planet….

Tuvalu not sinking. Growing.

One big culprit that comes up when we talk about disappearing islands is sea level rise, of course. The Sea level was, for a few thousand years up to around the late 19th century, pretty constant, on average. Since the late 1800s, it’s been steadily rising. On average.We keep saying “on average” because sea level changes are not the same in all places. In fact, in a lot of places, the sea level is dropping.… The single largest cause of global sea level rise, right now, isn’t melting glaciers, but the phenomenon called thermal expansion.  Thermal expansion is the tendency of matter, including sea water, to change its volume in response to a change in temperature… Global temperatures have risen by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, with most of that in the last half-century. And that means the water already in the ocean is getting bigger…

Yes, all of this is going to have a major impact on any low-lying land the world over. But the researchers I talked to for this story don’t necessarily think that islands are disappearing right now at a higher rate than they were in past centuries. Of the independent island nations most at risk of disappearing, Tuvalu is near the top of the list. But a 2018 Paul Kench study of all 101 islands—all small and low-lying—that make up Tuvalu reported that there’s no consistency in what is happening there at all. About three quarters of the islands actually grew in size, to one quarter that shrank, over the past 40 years. Overall, during this time period, Tuvalu grew almost three percent. This is not to say that Tuvalu isn’t in a period of intense crisis right now, because the country certainly is. But disappearing—which is a very specific thing—might not be the cause of that crisis, at least not today…. [It is imporant] to  realize that the impacts of the direction that global climate is headed in are simply not going to be the same everywhere.

Paul Kench’s work—which ran counter to the narrative that the days of the low-lying, habitable islands that we know are gone—angered some, who see it as unhelpful to the very real plight of Tuvalu and other South Pacific island nations. But Kench notes that the mere disappearance of some islands shouldn’t be the whole story. Those harsher and more frequent storms send waves of salt water inland—sometimes over entire islands, sometimes into fields, or into fragile island freshwater sources. Homes and infrastructure are at risk, as are the unusual plant, insect, and bird species found on small islands and nowhere else. Scientists are already exploring simply moving endemic species to more stable islands.

Excerpts from DAN NOSOWITZ, How Alarming Is It That Islands Are Just Disappearing? Atlas Obscura, Mar. 2019

An Affordable and Risk Free Way to Kill: Drones

Armed drones have become ubiquitous in the Middle East, say Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, in a recent report. America has jealously guarded the export of such aircraft for fear that they might fall out of government hands, be turned on protesters or used against Israel. America has also been constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an arms-control agreement signed by 35 countries, including Russia, that restricts the transfer of particularly capable missiles and drones (both rely on the same underlying technology).

China…has sold missile-toting drones to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All are American security partners…. Other countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, have filled the gap with their own models.  America wants to muscle its way back into the market. In April 2018 the Trump administration began loosening export rules to let countries buy armed drones directly from defence companies rather than through official channels. Drones with “strike-enabling technology”, such as lasers to guide bombs to their targets, were reclassified as unarmed. American drones are costlier and require more paperwork than Chinese models, but are more capable. ..The flood of drones into the market is already making an impact—sometimes literally. Ms Tabrizi and Mr Bronk say some Middle Eastern customers see drones as an “affordable and risk-free” way to strike across borders… 

Drone Bayraktar made by Turkey

Non-state actors are unwilling to be left out of the party. The jihadists of Islamic State often used drones in Iraq and Syria. Hizbullah used drones when it hit 23 fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Syria in 2014. The Houthi drone that bombed Al-Anad looked a lot like an Iranian model. Last year the Houthis sent a similar one more than 100km (60 miles) into Saudi Arabia before it was shot down. ..

Excerpts from Predator Pricing: Weapon Sales, Economist,  Mar. 9, 2019

How to Make Broken Ships Disappear: pollution

How do you make a 10,000-tonne container ship disappear? At Alang, a small town in Gujarat, on the western coast of India  is the world’s biggest ship-breaking town. Almost a third of all retired vessels—at least 200 each year—are sent to be broken up here, at over 100 different yards stretching along 10km of sand. The industry employs some 20,000 people, almost all men who migrate from the poorer states of India’s northern Hindi-speaking belt. Taxes paid by breakers generate huge sums for the state government. Yet it is a dangerous industry for its workers and a filthy one in environmental terms.

Of 744 ships that were pulled apart worldwide last year, 518 were dismantled on beaches. Only 226 were processed “off the beach” at industrial sites designed for the purpose, according to the Shipbreaking Platform, an ngo which campaigns against beach-breaking. The majority of big shipping firms use beaches, except a tiny few such as Hapag Lloyd of Germany and Boskalis of the Netherlands.

A typical operation involves a ship being beached at low tide. Once her fittings and other resaleable parts are removed, hundreds of workers with gas blowtorches clamber over the vessel’s hull, cutting it into huge steel blocks. These are then dropped onto the beach, where they are cut up again before being sold, then rerolled for use in construction.

Apart from the danger of dropping tens of tonnes of steel from a great height, the method is immensely polluting. A review in 2015 by Litehauz, a Danish marine environmental consultancy, found that in the process of scrapping a 10,000-tonne ship at least 120 tonnes of steel becomes molten and is lost in the sea. Levels of mercury and lead, as well as oil, in Alang’s water are at least 100 times higher than at other beaches. Workers must handle asbestos and dangerous chemicals. Accidents are common. Last year 14 workers died at Alang.Alang is just one of many ship-breaking centres in South Asia. Among the others are beaches in Bangladesh (where workers reportedly include children) and Pakistan. Last year the subcontinent recycled around 90% of the world’s ships by tonnage.

Ship-breaking is concentrated in the region for three reasons. Prices for scrap steel are higher than elsewhere (90% of a ship is typically steel), thanks to demand for rerolled steel for construction. Labour costs are lower than at yards in Europe, America or Turkey (workers at Alang make up to 800 rupees, or $11, per day, and usually less) and safety and environmental regulations are much weaker. Most sellers scrap their ships in South Asia because they get better prices for them.

 Shipowners, in particular Maersk, a Danish company which is the world’s biggest shipper, are preparing to comply with them…At the Baijnath Melaram shipyard a huge crane barge sits in the water next to a stretch of “impermeable” concrete. “We used to have to winch the blocks up the beach,” says Siddharth Jain, the firm’s business manager. Now, the crane lifts blocks of steel down from the ships directly to the concrete, so that they need never touch the sand. In contrast to the yards nearby, where men in simple work clothes and no safety goggles operate blowtorches, the workers scuttling around Baijnath Melaram wear boiler suits, face masks and helmets.

Blocks of steel from recycled ships

The changes are largely down to Maersk… Around 70 more are upgrading in order to meet standards set by the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, an unratified treaty on ship recycling.  Maersk’s campaign is in response to new regulations in force since December 31st 2018 that require all European-flagged vessels to be recycled at shipyards approved by Brussels. Just over a third of the world’s ships fall in this category. Maersk, whose fleet is roughly 40% European-flagged, hopes that the best yards at Alang will be able to comply with the new rules. Two Indian yards have already been audited for the European certification; 11 more have applied. “If we sustain that momentum, in five, six or seven years all of Alang could be really responsible,” says John Kornerup Bang, Maersk’s sustainability chief.

But on January 30, 2019 the eu announced that the Indian yards audited will not make the list,… Ingvild Jenssen of the Shipbreaking Platform says that even Alang’s best yards are not clean enough. She argues that Maersk’s efforts merely “greenwash” a model that needs to change completely…. Not clean enough for Europe; but too expensive to compete with breakers in Bangladesh or Pakistan which have not changed at all. If that happens, the industry in Alang—and the jobs and revenue it generates—could disappear almost as quickly as the ships it dismantles.

Gadani, Pakistan

Excerpt from HIgh by the Beach: Ship Recycling, Economist, Mar. 9, 2019

The Secret Powers of Saudi Arabia — Murder not Included

In 2016 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, announced the latest stage of “Saudisation”—the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi ones. It now appears the policy does not stop at swapping out bankers and bakers, but extends to ballistic missiles.  Satellite photos analysed by researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and reported by the Washington Post, appear to show that Saudi Arabia has been building a factory for rocket engines, at an existing missile base in al-Watah, south-west of Riyadh. It seems to be configured for solid-fuel rockets, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled ones….he rocket factory was “designed, equipped and constructed by an outside entity”. Saudi Arabia has “no capacity” for such a project. The facility, he notes, closely resembles a Chinese one in Lantian.

Saudi Arabia is no newcomer to missiles. Having watched Iran and Iraq fling them at each other during the 1980s, it bought a few dozen df-3 missiles from China in 1987. It came close to unleashing them after being struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war in 1991. In the 2000s it probably picked up a batch of newer, more accurate Chinese df-21s.

Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, has been honing its missile force despite Western opposition and un rebukes, conducting 135 test launches since 1990. On December 1st, 2018  it tested one thought capable of comfortably reaching any corner of Saudi soil….Nor is Iran the only concern. Hizbullah, a Lebanese militant group nurtured and armed by Iran, has a growing arsenal of missiles; some can already reach the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia. Israel is also armed to the teeth. Though Prince Muhammad is on good terms with the Jewish state, satellite images published in 2013 reportedly showed that one of the Saudi df-3 launching pads at al-Watah was set in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Because missiles are ideal delivery systems for nuclear weapons, news of the plant has also revived worries about Saudi Arabia’s atomic intentions…Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb,” warned Prince Muhammad last March, “we will follow suit

So the Saudis may turn to other nuclear friends. Western diplomats and spooks have long been concerned that Pakistan, whose own nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, might be a ready supplier of know-how, fuel or bombs. In 1999 Saudi Arabia’s then defence minister horrified American officials by touring Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and meeting A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Ties remain close. Prince Muhammad was due to agree on $14bn of investment in Pakistan during a visit to the country on February 16th.  2019. ….

Excerpts from Protection rocket Saudi Arabia’s missile race, Economist, Feb. 16, 2019

How Iranian Oil Escapes US Sanctions

 At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in February 2019 despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders.  The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.  The people said they did not know who forged the documents, nor when.

“Some buyers…will want Iranian oil regardless of U.S. strategic objectives to deny Tehran oil revenue, and Iran will find a way to keep some volumes flowing,” said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  While the United States has granted eight countries temporary waivers allowing limited purchases of Iranian crude oil, these exemptions do not cover products refined from crude, including fuel oil, mainly used to power the engines of large ships. Documents forwarded to Reuters by ship owners say a 300,000 tonne-supertanker, the Grace 1, took on fuel oil at Basra, Iraq, between Dec. 10 and 12, 2018. But Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters do not list the Grace 1 as being in port during those dates.  One Iraqi industry source with knowledge of the port’s operations confirmed there were no records of the Grace 1 at Basra during this period. 

Grace 1 oil tanker

Reuters examined data from four ship-tracking information providers – Refinitiv, Kpler, IHS Markit and Vessel Finder – to locate the Grace 1 during that time. All four showed that the Grace 1 had its Automatic Identification System (AIS), or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.  The Grace 1 then re-appeared in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded, data showed. The cargo was transferred onto two smaller ships in UAE waters in January, from where one ship delivered fuel oil to Singapore in February 2019.  Shipping documents showed about 284,000 tonnes of fuel oil were transferred in the cargoes tracked by Reuters, worth about $120 million at current prices…

One of those vessels, the 130,000 tonne-capacity Kriti Island, offloaded fuel oil into a storage terminal in Singapore around Feb. 5 to 7. Reuters was unable to determine who purchased the fuel oil for storage in Singapore.  The Kriti Island is managed by Greece’s Avin International SA… Avin International’s Chief Executive Officer George Mylonas told Reuters. Mylonas confirmed the Kriti Island took on fuel oil from the Grace 1.There is no indication that Avin International knowingly shipped Iranian fuel oil. Mylonas said his firm had conducted all necessary due diligence to ensure the cargo’s legitimate origin….

Kriti Island oil tanker

Excerpts from Roslan Khasawneh et al, Exclusive: How Iran fuel oil exports beat U.S. sanctions in tanker odyssey to Asia, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2019

The Price of Banning Dirty Fuels for Ships

A strict sulfur limit for marine fuels is starting in 2020.  US refiners say they have been preparing for the International Maritime Organization’s 0.5% sulfur cap for a dozen years by making billions of dollars of investments to their plants. They also think US oil producers are well positioned to meet new global demand for lower-sulfur fuels.

Despite the industry’s confidence, Gulf Coast refiners are nevertheless skittish about one major wild card.  The January 1, 2020 implementation date comes right in the middle of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, and this White House has shown a particular sensitivity to pump prices and their impact on voters.  Trump administration sources told the Wall Street Journal in October that the White House was considering ways to delay the IMO’s 0.5% sulfur cap beyond the long-scheduled January 1, 2020, implementation date. The story alone sent the stock market value of five US refining companies down by a combined $11 billion – hence their skittishness.

Within weeks of the story, trade groups for refiners, oil and gas producers, LNG exporters and steelworkers created the Coalition for American Energy Security to educate White House officials and members of Congress about IMO 2020 and what US industries were already doing to prepare… “The American energy industry is ready to dominate the global market for these new fuels, and timely implementation is critical to achieving that objective.”  said Ken Spain, spokesman for the Coalition for American Energy Security..

Excerpts from Insight from Washington: US refiners worry about White House wild card as IMO 2020 nears, S&P Global The Barrel, Mar. 11, 2019

The Pristine Waters of Alaska and Big Oil: Exxon Valdez

Thirty years ago this Sunday, at just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Prince William Sound off the south coast of Alaska. No-one was hurt, but the ship’s hull was ruptured, and of the 1.26m barrels of crude on board about 258,000 spilled into the water. The National Transportation Safety Board inquiry found that the causes of the accident included the failure of the ship’s master to provide a proper navigation watch “because of impairment from alcohol”, as well as inadequate personnel training and deficient management oversight.

In terms of volume released, the spill does not make the list of the world’s largest, but it was one of the worst in US waters. The harm caused by a spill is also not a direct function of the quantity of oil: a release in the cool waters of Prince William Sound, where oil breaks down more slowly, could be more damaging than a larger volume in the Gulf of Mexico, where temperatures are warmer and there are more plentiful microbes that thrive on natural oil seeps. The location of the spill also added to its emotional impact: the pictures of the oil fouling the pristine waters of Alaska shocked the world.

Exxon Valdez Clean up

Even decades after the spill, there was still evidence of the oil visible on some of the beaches in the region. Exxon agreed to pay $900m for restoration to settle damages claims from the state and federal governments, and the work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, which oversees the use of that money, goes on. The Pacific herring population in Prince William Sound has collapsed since the early 1990s, although it is not clear whether the spill was responsible, and other wildlife such as sea ottershave recovered.

For the oil industry, the disaster was transformative. Single-hulled tankers began to be phased out, to be replaced by safer double hulls, first in the US and then worldwide. The process was accelerated after the sinking of the tanker Erika off the coast of Brittany in 1999, an accident that was considered one of France’s worst environmental disasters.

For Exxon in particular, the Valdez spill prompted a fundamental rethink of its safety culture and practices. The company developed what is called its Operations Integrity Management System, a framework that “puts safety at the center of everything we do”. By the time that Rex Tillerson ran ExxonMobil, in 2006-16, the company could rightly boast of having a safety record that was admired across the industry, and its OIMS was widely emulated….But any employer’s highest duty is to make sure workers can do their jobs safely and go home at the end of the day, and on that measure Exxon has performed better than its peers. Any workplace death is one too many, of course, but over the past decade Exxon has suffered significantly fewer than other leading oil companies.

Excerpts from Ed Crooks,  The Exxon Valdez spill 30 years on, Financial Times, Mar. 22, 2019

Can’t Eat This! MicroPlastics Carrying Bacteria

The hard surface of waterborne plastic provides an ideal environment for the formation of biofilm by opportunistic microbial colonisers, and could facilitate a novel means of dispersal for microorganisms across coastal and marine environments. Biofilms that colonise the so-called ‘plastisphere’ could also be a reservoir for faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), such as Escherichia coli, or pathogenic bacteria such as species of Vibrio.

Nurdles on bathing beach

A study published in March 2019 looks into five public bathing beaches and quantifies their colonisation by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Nurdles [i.e., microplastics] were heterogeneously distributed along the high tide mark at all five beaches, and each beach contained nurdles that were colonised by E. coli and Vibrio spp. Knowledge of E. coli colonisation and persistence on nurdles should now be used to inform coastal managers about the additional risks associated with plastic debris.

Abastract from Colonisation of plastic pellets (nurdles) by E. coli at public bathing beaches

A Swamp of Oil Pollution: Ogoniland

Status of Cleaning up Oil Pollution in Ogoniland, Nigeria:

According to the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), the clean-up of Ogoniland is bugged with identity crisis, procedures, processes and overheads. Perception of corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, complex decision making, internal crisis of choice between Ogoni and the Niger Delta….The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland in August 2011 after series of protests of oil spillage in the community that culminated to the death of Ken Sarowiwa and eight others.  The report  made recommendations to the government, the oil and gas industry and communities to begin a comprehensive cleanup of Ogoniland, restore polluted environments and put an end to all forms of ongoing oil contamination in the region…

Pollution of soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, sediments and swampland.  In 49 cases, UNEP observed hydrocarbons in soil at depths of at least 5 metres. At 41 sites, the hydrocarbon pollution has reached the groundwater at levels in excess of the Nigerian standards permitted by National Laws..

Excerpts from Ogoni: Cleanup Exercise by Authorities Questioned by Civil Society Groups, UNPO, Mar. 12, 2019

How to Save the Rhino? Torture and Kill Civilians

In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit WWF  with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people…WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against indigenous communities…Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and document

 WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages…The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.

The charity funnels large sums of cash to its field offices in the developing world where staff work alongside national governments — including brutal dictatorships — to help maintain and police vast national parks that shelter endangered species. But many parks are magnets for poachers, and WWF expends much of its energy — and money — in a global battle against the organized criminal gangs that prey on the endangered species the charity was founded to protect.  It’s a crusade that WWF refers to in the hardened terms of war. Public statements speak of “boots on the ground,” partnerships with “elite military forces,” the creation of a “Jungle Brigade,” and the deployment of “conservation drones.”  WWF is not alone in its embrace of militarization: Other conservation charities have enlisted in the war on poaching in growing numbers over the past decade, recruiting veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach forest rangers counterinsurgency techniques

The enemy is real, and dangerous. Poaching is a billion-dollar industry that terrorizes animals and threatens some species’ very existence. Poachers take advantage of regions ravaged by poverty and violence. And the work of forest rangers is indeed perilous: By one 2018 estimate, poachers killed nearly 50 rangers around the world in the previous year. But like any conflict, WWF’s war on poaching has civilian casualties.

Indigenous people living near one park in southeast Cameroon described a litany of horrors incuding dead-of-night break-ins by men wielding machetes, rifle butt bludgeonings, burn torture involving chilis ground into paste, and homes and camps torched to the ground. Their tormentors in these accounts were not poachers, but the park officials who police them. Although governments employ the rangers, they often rely on WWF to bankroll their work.  …Documents reveal WWF’s own staffers on the ground are often deeply entwined with the rangers’ work — coordinating their operations, jointly directing their raids and patrols alongside government officials, and turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.

Iindigenous groups — both small-fry hunters and innocent bystanders — say they suffer at the hands of the rangers.  Nepal’s park officials were given this free rein decades ago, shortly after WWF first arrived in Chitwan in 1967 to launch a rhinoceros conservation project in a lush lowland forest at the foot of the Himalayas. To clear the way, tens of thousands of indigenous people were evicted from their homes and moved to areas outside the park’s boundaries..

The park’s creation radically changed their way of life: Now they must scrape together money to buy tin for their roofs, pay hospital bills, and farm new crops. They also live in fear of the park’s wild animals, which, while rising in number thanks to anti-poaching efforts, have destroyed crops and mauled people to death.  Rhinoceros horns can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. Professional poachers offer a tiny portion to locals who assist them, which can be hard for impoverished residents of villages to turn down.

Chitwan’s forest rangers work alongside over 1,000 soldiers from the park’s army battalion. Nepalese law gives them special power to investigate wildlife-related crimes, make arrests without a warrant, and retain immunity in cases where an officer has “no alternative” but to shoot the offender, even if the suspect dies….. Indigenous groups living near Chitwan have long detailed a host of abuses by these forces. Villagers have reported beatings, torture, sexual assaults, and killings by the park’s guards. They’ve accused park officials of confiscating their firewood and vegetables, and forcing them into unpaid labor.

WWF’s work with violent partners spans the globe. In Central Africa, internal documents show the charity’s close involvement in military-style operations with both a repressive dictatorship and a notoriously fierce army. …The park’s management plan says WWF will help organize raids, known as “coup de poings,” on local villages suspected of harboring poachers. A confidential internal report found that such missions, frequently conducted in the dead of night with the help of police units, were often violent.

Excerpts from WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People, BuzzFeed News

Who is Afraid of Bats?

More than 50,000 of the fruit bats are thought to have been killed in Mauritius since 2015, in an attempt to protect fruit in orchards.  The bats – also known as flying foxes – are resorting to eating in orchards to survive because only 5 per cent of Mauritius’s native forests remain, animal experts warned.  Fruit bats are vital for biodiversity as they pollinate flowers and scatter seeds, enabling trees and plants to grow and spread, according to conservationists.  But populations of the flying foxes have fallen by more than 50 per cent in four years, said Vincent Florens, an ecologist at the University of Mauritius. Some believe fewer than 30,000 now remain.

The first cull, in 2015, killed 30,000, and in a second cull, the following year, 7,380 were targeted.  The latest cull involved 13,000.  Prof Florens said he believed the number killed is much higher than the 50,300 government figure.  “The culls took place late in the year, when many mothers were pregnant or had babies,” he told National Geographic. “You shoot one bat and basically kill two.” Others were likely to have been injured and died later, he said.

Scientists are supporting a lawsuit against the government on grounds of animal welfare violations to prevent any more culls…Mahen Seeruttun, Mauritius’s minister of agro-industry and food security, told FDI Spotlight: “We have a large population of bats who will eat fruit crops.

Excerpts from Endangered fruit bats ‘being driven to extinction’ in Mauritius after mass culls kill 50,000, Independent, Mar. 4, 2019

Olkiluoto 3 Nuclear Plant is Ready: 2005-2020

Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (Stuk) yesterday informed the government it sees no reason why an operating licence for the first-of-a-kind nuclear plant EPR at Olkiluoto 3 should not be granted to utility Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO).]…The Areva-Siemens consortium began construction of Olkiluoto 3 – the first-of-a-kind EPR – in 2005 under a turnkey contract signed with TVO in late 2003. Completion of the reactor was originally scheduled for 2009, but the project has suffered various delays and setbacks. Under the latest schedule, fuel will now be loaded into the reactor core in June 2019, with grid connection to take place in October 2019, and the start of regular electricity generation scheduled for January 2020.

In December 2018, unit 1 of the Taishan plant in China’s Guangdong province became the first EPR to enter commercial operation. Taishan 2 is scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2019. The loading of fuel into the core of the Flamanville EPR in France is expected towards the end of this year. Two EPR units are also under construction at the Hinkley Point C project in Somerset, UK.

Excerpts from Regulator concludes Finnish EPR can operate safely, Nuclear News, Feb. 2019

The Micro-Plastics Menance: Oceans

The IUCN report published in 2019 looked at primary microplastics – plastics that enter the oceans in the form of small particles, as opposed to larger plastic waste that degrades in the water – released from household and industrial products across seven geographical regions. Sources of primary microplastics include car tyres, synthetic textiles, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, plastic pellets and city dust.  According to the report, between 15 and 31% of the estimated 9.5 m tonnes of plastic released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics, almost two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving…Synthetic textiles are the main source of primary microplastics in Asia and tyres dominate in the Americas, Europe and Central Asia…. Synthetic clothes could be designed to shed fewer fibres, for example, and consumers can act by choosing natural fabrics over synthetic ones”

The World Health Organization is reviewing microplastics’ potential impact on human health after a study found plastic in 259 bottles of water from 11 different brands bought in nine countries. Microplastics have turned up in seafood, drinking water, beer, honey and sugar, according to studies, but the impact on human health is unclear.Research shows that ingesting microplastics can hurt the ability of planktonic organisms to feed and the ability of fish and marine worms to gain energy from food.  Pending bills in New York and California, if successful, would require labels on clothes made from more than 50% synthetic material to tell consumers that these shed plastic microfibers when washed.

Researchers also have zeroed in on how clothes are washed. Outdoor-apparel brand Patagonia found fabrics shed lots of microfibers on the first wash, but few in subsequent washes. That suggests pretreating garments before they are sold could potentially capture and recycle what otherwise goes down consumers’ drains.  It also found types of washing machines matter. Jackets washed in top-load washing machines shed seven times as many microfibers as front-loaders.

Excerpts from  Invisible plastic particles from textiles and tyres a major source of ocean pollution – IUCN study,Feb 2017; The Tiny Plastics in Your Clothes Are Becoming a Big Problem, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7, 2019
 

Cleaning Up the US Nuclear Weapons Complex

A report from the National Academies of Sciences published in March 2019 recommends changes in the way that the U.S. Department of Energy manages science and technology (S&T) development in order to accelerate the cleanup of radioactive waste and contaminated soil, groundwater, and facilities at U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

A portion of DOE’s technology development should focus on breakthrough solutions and technologies that can substantially reduce schedules, risks, and uncertainties in the cleanup, says Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. This effort should be managed by ARPA-E, a DOE division that has a record of investing in innovative solutions for complex technical challenges; it would require substantial new funding…DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM) is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites in 31 states and one territory that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and related activities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The cleanup program began in 1989 and has, over the past three decades, cleaned up 91 sites at a cost of about $170 billion. DOE-EM projects that it will spend at least another 50 years and $377 billion to complete its cleanup of the 16 remaining sites.

The new report says that these time and cost estimates are highly uncertain – and probably low – because of significant remaining technical challenges and uncertainties, and also because additional sites and facilities may be added to the cleanup program in the future. ..Currently, DOE-EM’s management of S&T development is ad hoc and uncoordinated, the report says. Most DOE-EM-related S&T development activities are focused on individual sites, are driven and managed by contractors, and have a short-term emphasis on addressing technical challenges in existing cleanup projects…The successful cleanup of the large, complex Rocky Flats site near Denver showed that technology development and deployment can have major impacts in accelerating schedules and reducing costs, the report notes. The remaining cleanup sites – which include large, complex sites such as Hanford in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee – provide an opportunity for S&T to have similar impacts.

The report identifies seven examples of technologies and alternative approaches that could substantially reduce costs and speed cleanup schedules – these include changes in waste chemistry and nuclear properties to facilitate treatment and disposal, and changes in human involvement in cleanup activities to increase efficiencies and reduce worker risks. 

Excerpts from Breakthrough Solutions and Technologies Needed to Speed Cleanup of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites, National Academies Press Release, Mar. 4, 2019

US Special Forces in Africa: the G-5 Sahel

The number of attacks in Burkina Faso  have increased as al Qaeda- and ISIS-linked groups have established a presence there, attacking remote gendarmerie outposts and expanding their reach from Mali and Niger in attempt to take advantage of what they see as a permissible environment.  The number of violent incidents in Burkina Faso linked to the local affiliates of al Qaeda JNIM* and ISIS (Greater Sahara) rose from 24 in 2017 to 136 in 2018, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

 US Special Forces that train the Burkina Faso military told CNN in March 2019 that the US was considering deploying surveillance drones to Burkina Faso in order to help the country better monitor threats…The Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad, make up the G-5 Sahel, a multinational task force charged with combating transnational terrorists….A Burkinabe officer told CNN on Monday that terror groups had managed to recruit locals in the north of the country by exploiting the economic situation in the region, where many live in povert

**the local branch of al Qaeda, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), commands over 800 fighters while ISIS in the Greater Sahara has approximately 300 members.

Excerpts from US Forces Train in African Nation Facing Twin Terror Threat, CNN, Mar. 2, 2019

From Savior to Villain: Biofuel from Palm Oil

Globally, average palm oil yields have been more or less stagnant for the last 20  years, so the required increase in palm oil production to meet the  growing demand for biofuels  has come from deforestation and peat destruction in Indonesia.  Without fundamental changes in governance, we can expect at least a third of new palm oil  area to require peat drainage, and a half to result in deforestation.

Currently, biofuel policy results in 10.7  million tonnes of palm oil demand.  If the current biofuel policy continues we expect by 2030:
• 67 million tonnes palm oil demand due to biofuel policy.
• 4.5 million hectares deforestation.
• 2.9 million hectares peat loss.
• 7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over 20 years, more than total annual U.S. GHG emissions.
It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of biofuel policy in the EU and many  other countries is climate change mitigation. Fuel consumers in the European Union, Norway  and elsewhere cannot be asked to continue indefinitely to pay to support vegetable oil based
alternative fuels
that exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.

The use of palm oil-based biofuel should be  reduced and ideally phased out entirely.  In Europe, the use of biodiesel other than that produced from approved waste or  by-product feedstocks should be reduced or eliminated.
In the United States, palm oil biodiesel should continue to be restricted from generating  advanced RINs under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Indonesia should reassess the relationship between biofuel mandate, and its  international climate commitments, and refocus its biofuel programme on advanced biofuels from wastes and residues. The aviation industry should focus on the development of advanced aviation biofuels  from wastes and residues, rather than hydrotreated fats and oils.

Excerpts from Dr Chris Malins,  Driving deforestation: The impact of expanding palm oil demand through biofuel policy, January 2018

In Feb. 28, 2019, Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, pulled out of more than 33 palm oil companies over deforestation risks.

Satellites and Algorithms against Slaveholders

Brick kilns, tens of thousands across South Asia are often run on forced labor.  Satellite imagery of such kilns can help tally the kilns, enabling organizations on the ground to target slaveholders at the sites…

Some 40.3 million people are held in bondage today, according to the latest estimates from the International Labor Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But finding them is hard… Boyd who works for the Rights Lab estimates, however, that one-third of all slavery is visible from space, whether in the scars of kilns or illegal mines or the outlines of transient fish-processing camps.

Boyd is now using artificial intelligence to speed up the search. As a pilot project, she and her colleagues at the Rights Lab used crowdsourced visual searchers to identify brick kilns. The oval shape of the large ovens, sometimes 150 meters long, and their chimneys are distinctive, even from space. “You cannot mix them up with something else,” Boyd says.

Since then, Boyd has turned to machine-learning algorithms that recognize the kilns after being trained on the human-tagged examples. Last month, in the journal Remote Sensing, she and her colleagues reported that the algorithms could correctly identify 169 of 178 kilns in Google Earth data on one area of Rajasthan, although it also output nine false positives…

Another company, called Planet, has about 150 small satellites that snap images of the globe’s entire landmass daily. The images are lower-resolution than DigitalGlobe’s, but their frequency opens up opportunities to identify changes over time.With Planet data, Boyd and the Rights Lab plan to investigate fast moving signatures of slavery. From space, you can watch a  harvest in Turkmenistan and, based on how quickly the cotton disappears, you can tell whether machines or hands picked it. In the Sundarbans, an area spanning India and Bangladesh, shrimp farms and fish-processing camps employ slave labor to clear mangrove trees—a process satellites can capture.

Excerpts from Sarah Scoles, Researchers Spy Signs of Slavery from Space, Science, Feb. 21, 2018

100 Ways to Finance Criminal Cartels Logging Forests

The report – Green Carbon, Black Trade (2012) – by UNEP and INTERPOL focuses on illegal logging and its impacts on the lives and livelihoods of often some of the poorest people in the world set aside the environmental damage. It underlines how criminals are combining old fashioned methods such as bribes with high tech methods such as computer hacking of government web sites to obtain transportation and other permits. The report spotlights the increasingly sophisticated tactics being deployed to launder illegal logs through a web of palm oil plantations, road networks and saw mills. Indeed it clearly spells out that illegal logging is not on the decline, rather it is becoming more advanced as cartels become better organized including shifting their illegal activities in order to avoid national or local police efforts. By some estimates, 15 per cent to 30 per cent of the volume of wood traded globally has been obtained illegally…

The much heralded decline of illegal logging in the mid- 2000s in some tropical regions was widely attributed to a short-term law enforcement effort. However, long-term trends in illegal logging and trade have shown that this was temporary, and illegal logging continues. More importantly, an apparent decline in illegal logging is due to more advanced laundering operations masking criminal activities, and notnecessarily due to an overall decline in illegal logging. In many cases a tripling in the volumes of timber “originating” from plantations in the five years following the law enforcement crack-down on illegal logging has come partly from cover operations by criminals to legalize and launder illegal logging operations….

Much of the laundering of illegal timber is only possible due to large flows of funding from investors based in Asia, the EU and the US, including investments through pension funds. As funds are made available to establish plantations operations to launder illegal timber and obtain permits illegally or pass bribes, investments, collusive corruption and tax fraud combined with low risk and high demand, make it a highly profitable illegal business, with revenues up to 5–10 fold higher than legal practices for all parties involved. This also undermines subsidized alternative livelihood incentives available in several countries.

[It is important to discourage] the use of timber from these regions and introducing a rating og companies based on the likelihood of their involvement in illegal practices to discourage investors and stock markets from funding them.

Excerpts from Nellemann, C., INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme (eds). 2012.Green Carbon, Black Trade Illegal Logging, Tax Fraud and Laundering in the Worlds Tropical Forests. A Rapid Response Assessment United Nations Environment Programme

When the State is the Gang

In South Sudan “There is a confirmed pattern of how combatants attack villages, plunder homes, take women as sexual slaves and then set homes alight often with people in them,” commented Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka.  “Rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, abductions and sexual slavery, as well as killings, have become commonplace in South Sudan. There is no doubt that these crimes are persistent because impunity is so entrenched that every kind of norm is broken,” she added.

UNICEF reports that 25 per cent of those targeted by sexual violence are children, including the rapes of girls as young as 7. Elderly and pregnant women have also been raped. The Commission also received reports of male victims of sexual violence. Sexual and gender-based violence against men and boys is even more underreported than that against women and girls as there is a greater level of stigma. There are even reports of raping and killing of the young and the elderly.

The Commission has also looked at the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). From January 2018 to 2019, seven such cases involving 18 alleged UNMISS perpetrators were registered in the UN Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Database. 

The oil producing areas of the country have become increasingly militarized by Government forces, including by the National Security Services, which have expanded their involvement in the oil sector. The state-owned Nilepet oil company’s operations have been characterized by a total lack of transparency and independent oversight, allegedly diverting oil revenues into the coffers of elites in the government. Furthermore, oil revenues, and income from other natural resources such as illegal teak logging, have continued to fund the war, enabling its continuation and the resulting human rights violations. 

Outraged by renewed fighting and continuing human rights violations in South Sudan, UN Human Rights Experts urge all parties to stop conflict, end impunity and respect provisions of the revitalized peace agreement, UN Human Rights Council, Press Release, Feb. 20, 2019

How Nuclear Technology Creates New Plants

Joining the FAO/IAEA coordinated research projects in the area of mutation breeding has led to the development of several barley mutant lines with improved yield and quality under Kuwait’s environmental conditions.  As arable land is limited to small areas, 95% of the country’s food and animal fodder is imported. Barley is a preferred crop for cultivation, because it is relatively drought tolerant and therefore one of the most suitable crops for an arid country like Kuwait. Having high yielding home grown crops is among the key objectives of the country’s agricultural programme to enhance food security.

Drought, salinity and diseases have historically limited staple crop productivity in Kuwait.   Mutation induction by radiation rapidly increases the genetic diversity necessary to produce new and improved varieties and is thus advantageous over traditional breeding…The best adaptable varieties were identified, and the seeds were subjected to induced mutation using gamma rays.

New mutant lines have been generated and they are now examined for drought and salinity tolerance. The selected mutant lines will be advanced, which then can be multiplied for planting. …One of the major challenges was explaining to farmers the safety of the new mutated barley lines developed. “When they heard that ‘nuclear techniques’ were used to create improved barely seeds, they got scared….

Aabha Dixit , Nuclear Technology Helps Develop New Barley Variety in Kuwait, IAEA Press Release, Feb. 18, 2019

Worse than the Dirty Bomb? Mobile Nuclear Military Reactors

In January 2019, the Defense Department issued a call for information in support of the aptly titled Project Dilithium. It seeks to develop a tiny, readily transportable, yet virtually indestructible nuclear power reactor for use at forward operating bases, the military facilities that provide logistical and troop support to the front-lines of conflict zones.

To be sure, the type of reactor it is seeking could be a great military asset: all the benefits of nuclear energy with none of the risks. The costly and dangerous process of trucking diesel fuel to bases, sometimes through hostile territory, may eventually be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the need to store and ship irradiated nuclear fuel in a war zone will introduce different problems. And the odds that a meltdown-proof reactor could be successfully developed any time soon are vanishingly small.

The Defense Department…is seeking a nuclear reactor capable of producing 1 to 10 megawatts of electricity. …The reactor, at a minimum, should be less than 40 tons total weight; small enough to be transported by truck, ship, and aircraft; able to run for at least three years without refueling; and capable of semi-autonomous operation… The reactor should have an “inherently safe design” that ensures “a meltdown is physically impossible in various complete failure scenarios;” cause “no net increase in risk to public safety … by contamination with breach of primary core;” and have “minimized consequences to nearby personnel in case of adversary attack.

 An Octrober 2018 report commissioned by the army’s Deputy Chief of Staff admits, quite reasonably, that exposed mobile nuclear plants would “not be expected to survive a direct kinetic attack.” If commanders need to expend significant resources to protect the reactors or their support systems from military strikes, such reactors could become burdens rather than assets.  Can one really invent a reactor robust enough to suffer such a strike without causing unacceptable consequences? …If a severe accident or sabotage attack were to induce more extreme conditions than the reactor was designed to withstand, all bets are off. How long would passive airflow keep nuclear fuel safely cool if, say, an adversary threw an insulating blanket over a small reactor? Or if the reactor were buried under a pile of debris?

Moreover, it is hard to imagine that a direct explosive breach of the reactor core would not result in dispersal of some radioactive contamination. An operating nuclear reactor is essentially a can filled with concentrated radioactive material, including some highly volatile radionuclides, under conditions of high pressure and/or temperature. Even a reactor as small as 1 megawatt-electric would contain a large quantity of highly radioactive, long-lived isotopes such as cesium-137—a potential dirty bomb far bigger than the medical radiation sources that have caused much concern among security experts. 

At best a release of radioactivity would be a costly disruption, and at worst it would cause immediate harm to personnel, render the base unusable for years, and alienate the host country. For any reactor and fuel design, extensive experimental and analytical work would be needed to understand how much radioactivity could actually escape after an attack and how far it would disperse. This is also true for spent fuel being stored or transported.

The 2018 report describes several existing reactor concepts that it thinks might meet its needs. One is the 2 megawatt-electric “Megapower” reactor being designed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. But a 2017 INL study of the design iden­­tified several major safety concerns, including vulnerabilities to seismic and flooding events. The study also found that the reactor lacked sufficient barriers to prevent fission product release in an accident. INL quickly developed two variants of the original Los Alamos design, but a subsequent review found that those shared many of the safety flaws of the original and introduced some new ones.

Building Mobile Nuclear Reactor LANL

The other designs are high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that use TRISO (“tristructural isotropic”) fuel, which was originally developed decades ago for use in reactors such as the now-decommissioned Fort St. Vrain plant in Colorado. TRISO fuel consists of small particles of uranium coated with layers of different materials designed to retain most fission products at temperatures up to 1,600 degrees Celsius.

TRISO fuel enthusiasts have long claimed that reactors utilizing it do not need containments because each particle essentially has its own. This would seem to make TRISO an ideal fuel for small, mobile reactors, which can’t be equipped with the large, leak-tight containment structures typical of commercial power reactors. The army report buys into the notion that these “encapsulated” nuclear fuels can “avoid the release of radioactive volatile elements” and prevent contamination of the surrounding area, either during normal operations or accidents.

TRISO fuel contained in pebble

TRISO fuel’s actual performance has been inconsistent, however, and much is still not known. The Energy Department has been carrying out a program for more than a decade to try to improve TRISO fuel, but final results are not expected for years. In addition, if the fuel temperature rises above 1,600 degrees Celsius, fission product release can rapidly increase, making it vulnerable to incendiary weapons that burn hotter, such as thermite. The Defense Department may have already realized that TRISO fuel is not as miraculous as it first thought.

The RFI also specifies that the reactor should be capable of being transported within seven days after shutdown, presumably with the irradiated nuclear fuel still inside. While this requirement is understandable—if forces need to retreat in a hurry, they would not want to leave the reactor behind—it is unrealistic to expect this could be met while ensuring safety. Typically, spent nuclear fuel is stored for many months to years after discharge from a reactor before regulators allow it to be shipped, to allow for both thermal cooling and decay of short-lived, intensely radioactive fission products. Moving a reactor and its irradiated fuel so soon after shutdown could be a risky business.

Finally, the proliferation risks of these reactors and their fuel is a concern. The original RFI stipulated that the reactor fuel had to be high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which is uranium enriched to levels above the 5 percent uranium-235 concentration of conventional power reactors, but still below the 20 percent that marks the lower limit for highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is usable in nuclear weapons….If the Defense Department goes forward with Project Dilithium, other nations, including US adversaries, may be prompted to start producing HALEU and building their own military power reactors.

Excerptsf rom Edwin Lyman The Pentagon wants to boldly go where no nuclear reactor has gone before. It won’t work, Feb. 22, 2019

Plastics in Seas as New Tiny Ecosystems

The malign effect of floating plastic debris on seabirds, turtles and other sea creatures is well known. But, as Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler have discovered, plastic debris also provides a new habitat for organisms small enough to take advantage of it.  The two researchers collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, and also an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Lots of things were. Altogether, they discovered about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal and bacterial life. Each bit of debris was, in effect, a tiny ecosystem….Plastics are energy-rich substances, which is why many of them burn so readily. Any organism that could unlock and use that energy would do well….Less encouragingly, Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler also found cholera-like bacteria in their tiny floating ecosystems. Both fish and seabirds act as vectors for cholera (the former bring it into human settlements when caught by fishermen, the latter when resting ashore or nesting), so anywhere that such creatures might pick up cholera bugs is something worth keeping an eye on.

The researchers paint an intriguing picture of the adaptability of nature, and provide another piece of the jigsaw that is the Anthropocene. Conservationists intent on preserving charismatic megafauna have reason to lament the spread of plastics through the ocean. But those interested in smaller critters have been given a whole, new sphere—the plastisphere—to study.

Marine ecology: Welcome to the plastisphere, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 7

Radical New Potatoes

Potatoes are already a staple for 1.3 billion people… but unlike other major crops, however, the potato has not had a breeding breakthrough of the kind that helped dramatically boost yields during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. The reason is that creating a new potato variety is slow and difficult, even by the patient standards of plant breeders…Readying a new potato variety for farm fields can take a decade or more.  Many countries continue to plant popular potato varieties that have remained essentially unchanged for decades. But new approaches, including genetic engineering, promise to add more options. Potato breeders are particularly excited about a radical new way of creating better varieties. This system, called hybrid diploid breeding, could cut the time required by more than half, make it easier to combine traits in one variety, and allow farmers to plant seeds instead of bulky chunks of tuber

Solynta Hybrid Potato Seeds

To breed a better potato, it helps to have plenty of genetic raw material on hand. But the world’s gene banks aren’t fully stocked with the richest source of valuable genes: the 107 potato species that grow in the wild. Habitat loss threatens many populations of those plants. In a bid to preserve that wild diversity before it vanishes, collectors have made their biggest push ever, part of a $50 million program coordinated by the Crop Trust, an intergovernmental organization based in Bonn, Germany.

The Crop Trust has provided grants and training to collectors around the world. The effort on wild potatoes, which wraps up this month, has yielded a collection representing 39 species from six nations: Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Chile. Zorrilla’s team alone found 31 species in Peru, including one for which no seeds had ever been collected. They plan to continue to search for four other species still missing from gene banks. “We will not stop,” she says. The plants are being stored in each nation’s gene bank, CIP, and the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom. The stored seeds will be available to potato breeders worldwide.

THE HARDEST PART comes next: getting desirable genes from wild species into cultivated potatoes….Other researchers are skirting the limitations of traditional breeding by using genetic engineering. CIP’s Marc Ghislain and colleagues, for example, have directly added genes to already successful potato varieties without altering the plants in any other way—an approach not possible with traditional breeding. They took three genes for resistance to late blight from wild relatives and added them to varieties of potato popular in East Africa.

Potato Blight , a disease affecting potatoes

The engineered varieties have proved successful in 3 years of field tests in Uganda and are undergoing final studies for regulators. Transgenic potatoes that resist late blight have already been commercialized in the United States and Canada….

Pim Lindhout has been plotting a revolution that would do away with much of that tedium and complexity. As head of R&D for Solynta, a startup company founded in 2006, he and his colleagues have been developing a new way to breed potatoes….Breeders reduce the complexity either by using species with only two sets of chromosomes (known as diploids) or by manipulating domesticated potatoes to cut the number of chromosomes in half. With persistence, diploid potatoes can be inbred. In 2011, Lindhout published the first report of inbred diploid lines that are vigorous and productive. More recently, Jansky and colleagues also created inbred diploid lines.

Such diploid inbred plants are at the heart of Solynta’s strategy to revolutionize potato breeding. Other firms, including large seed companies, are also working to develop hybrid potatoes. HZPC in Joure, the Netherlands, has begun field trials in Tanzania and in several countries in Asia.

Excerpt from Erik Stokstad, The new potato, Science, Feb. 8, 2019

Can Gucci Save the Steppes of Mongolia?

 Essential to the identity and economy of Mongolia—more than half of the country’s 3 million people live there—the grasslands are under increasing threat from overgrazing and climate change. Multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the once lush Mongolian steppe, an expanse twice the size of Texas that is one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands, is slowly turning into a desert. An estimated 70% of all the grazing lands in the country are considered degraded to some degree…. 

The collective here of a little more than 100 families is at the center of an unusual effort, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to turn space-based maps of the grasslands into a tool for making grazing more sustainable. Supported by the world’s largest mining company and a luxury apparel giant, the pilot effort uses data gathered by NASA and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, to help herders find places where the vegetation is healthy enough to sustain their voracious herds.

 Meanwhile, development, especially mining, has exponentially increased water usage. Twelve percent of rivers and 21% of lakes have dried up entirely. An increasing number of people, vehicles, and heavy equipment put additional stress on the land.  But one factor stands out: overgrazing, which, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Oregon State University in Corvallis, has caused 80% of the recent decline in vegetation on the grasslands.

Mongolia is now the world’s second-largest cashmere producer, after China. Goats, which account for more than half of all grazing animals on the grasslands, can be more lucrative than other livestock, but they’re also much more destructive than the sheep they’ve replaced because they eat roots and the flowers that seed new grasses=s.

WCS’s Sustainable Cashmere project may offer part of the solution. The project, whose budget the organizers won’t disclose, is funded by mining giant Rio Tinto, which runs a massive copper mine not far away, and Kering, the French luxury apparel giant that owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and other brands that need cashmere. Both aim to help offset their impact on the Mongolian environment, a requirement of Rio’s mining agreement and part of Kering’s corporate social responsibility program.

Excerpts Kathleen McLaughlin, Saving the steppes, Science, Feb. 1, 2019