Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Scramble for Africa II: secret cables

Diamond Mine Sierra Leone, image from wikipedia

Africa emerges as the 21st century theatre of espionage, with South Africa as its gateway, in the cache of secret intelligence documents and cables seen by the Guardian. “Africa is now the El Dorado of espionage,” said one serving foreign intelligence officer.

The continent has increasingly become the focus of international spying as the battle for its resources has intensified, China’s economic role has grown dramatically, and the US and other western states have rapidly expanded their military presence and operations in a new international struggle for Africa…. The leaked documents obtained by al-Jazeera and shared with the Guardian contain the names of 78 foreign spies working in Pretoria, along with their photographs, addresses and mobile phone numbers – as well as 65 foreign intelligence agents identified by the South Africans as working undercover. Among the countries sending spies are the US, India, Britain and Senegal.

The United States, along with its French and British allies, is the major military and diplomatic power on the continent. South Africa spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Iran and jihadi groups, in spite of internal documents showing its intelligence service does not regard either as a major threat to South Africa. “The Americans get what they want,” an intelligence source said…

Chinese intelligence is identified in one secret South African cable as the suspect in a nuclear break-in. A file dating from December 2009 on South Africa’s counter-intelligence effort says that foreign agencies had been “working frantically to influence” the country’s nuclear energy expansion programme, identifying US and French intelligence as the main players. But due to the “sophistication of their covert operations”, it had not been possible to “neutralise” their activities.

However, a 2007 break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear research centre – where apartheid South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s – by four armed and “technologically sophisticated criminals” was attributed by South African intelligence to an act of state espionage. At the time officials publicly dismissed the break-in as a burglary.

Several espionage agencies were reported to have shown interest in the progress of South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. According to the file, thefts and break-ins at the PBMR site were suspected to have been carried out to “advance China’s rival project”. It added that China was “now one year ahead … though they started several years after PBMR launch”.

In an October 2009 report by South Africa’s intelligence service, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), on operations in Africa, Israel is said to be “working assiduously to encircle and isolate Sudan from the outside, and to fuel insurrection inside Sudan”. Israel “has long been keen to capitalise on Africa’s mineral wealth”, the South African spying agency says, and “plans to appropriate African diamonds and process them in Israel, which is already the world’s second largest processor of diamonds”.  The document reports that members of a delegation led by then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman had been “facilitating contracts for Israelis to train various militias” in Africa…

[According to leaked documents]: “Foreign governments and their intelligence services strive to weaken the state and undermine South Africa’s sovereignty. Continuing lack of an acceptable standard of security … increases the risk.” It lists theft of laptop computers, insufficient lock-up facilities, limited vetting of senior officials in sensitive institutions, no approved encryption on landlines or mobiles, total disregard by foreign diplomats for existing regulations, ease of access to government departments allowed to foreign diplomats, and the lack of proper screening for foreigners applying for sensitive jobs.  According to one intelligence officer with extensive experience in South Africa, the NIA is politically factionalised and “totally penetrated” by foreign agencies: “Everyone is working for someone else.” The former head of the South African secret service, Mo Shaik, a close ally of the president, Jacob Zuma, was described as a US confidant and key source of information on “the Zuma camp” in a leaked 2008 Wikileaks cable from the American embassy in Pretoria.

Excerpts Seumas Milne and Ewen MacAskill Africa is new ‘El Dorado of espionage’, leaked intelligence files , Guardian, Feb. 23, 2015

Russia Improves Nuclear Waste Management

Krasnoyarsk, Russia

Russia has introduced an automated system for the accounting and control of its radioactive substances and waste that encompasses more than 2000 organizations. The system follows an order by state nuclear corporation Rosatom, 113 subsidiaries of which account for 96% of the country’s radioactive substances and waste.  The system automates the collection and monitoring of the availability, production, transmission, receipt, processing, conditioning, siting and deregistration of radioactive substances and waste, as well as their changes in status, properties and location….Full implementation of the system is scheduled for late 2015…[T]he system is needed for the implementation of a Russian government decree on the procedure for state registration and control of radioactive waste.”The new solution enables a high level of quality control in the movement of radioactive substances and waste and provides complete data for assessment of the financial responsibility for handling them,.”

In June 2011, the Russian legislature passed the Radioactive Waste Management Law developing a unified state radioactive waste management system that brought Russia into compliance with the United Nations Joint Convention on the Safe Management of Spent Nuclear Fuel ( adopted in 1997 entered into force in 2001). In April 2012, the state-run national operator for radioactive waste, NO RAO, was created to manage this process.

Plans for disposal of low- and intermediate-level wastes are to be in place by 2018. It is expected to establish repositories for 300,000 cubic metres of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, and an underground research laboratory in Nizhnekansky granitoid massif at Zheleznogorsk near Krasnoyarsk for study into the feasibility of disposal of solid high-level radioactive waste and solid medium-level long-lived wastes by 2021. A decision on final high-level radioactive waste repository is expected by 2025.

Excerpts from Russia makes progress with radwaste data management, World Nuclear News, Feb. 23, 2015

 

Controlling Radioactive Water: Leaks of Fukushima to the Pacific Ocean

pacific

Sensors at the Fukushima nuclear plant have detected a fresh leak of highly radioactive water to the sea, the plant’s operator announced on Feb. 22, 2015, highlighting difficulties in decommissioning the plant.  Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) said the sensors, which were rigged to a gutter that pours rain and ground water at the Fukushima Daiichi plant to a nearby bay, detected contamination levels up to 70 times greater than the already-high radioactive status seen at the plant campus.  Tepco said its inspections of tanks storing nuclear waste water did not find any additional abnormalities, but it shut the gutter to prevent radioactive water from going into the Pacific Ocean.
Fresh leak detected at Fukushima N-plant, Agency France, Presse, Feb. 23, 2015

The Seven Samurai and 70 000 Nuclear Refugees: Fukushima

Fukushima construction of emergency  pumps

The first three of Fukushima Dai-ichi’s six reactors melted down in March 2011 and the fourth was damaged. TEPCO’s early guess was that decommissioning would take 30-40 years. That is certainly optimistic.

Engineers are grappling with problems with little precedent. Akira Ono, the plant manager, says cameras have begun peeking into the first reactor to check the state of 100 tonnes of molten fuel. A robot needs to be developed to extract the fuel. Last October the utility pushed back the start of this removal work by five years, to 2025. Dale Klein, a former chairman of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says that the schedule for decommissioning the plant is pure supposition until engineers figure out how to remove all the fuel.
One victory for engineers is with reactor four. Late last year the last of 1,535 highly toxic fuel rods was plucked from the spent-fuel pool a year ahead of schedule. The fear was that the complex could not withstand another strong earthquake.  Solutions create new problems. Water is pumped in to keep melted uranium at the bottom of reactors one, two and three from overheating. A purification system, known on-site as the “seven samurai”, is struggling to keep up with the flow of contaminated water being produced—370,000 tonnes and rising is stored in vast tanks. Even when the worst nuclides are filtered out, TEPCO will face huge opposition with plans to dump the water into the Pacific.

Then there is the ice wall. TEPCO is attempting to freeze the ground in a huge ring around the four damaged reactors to prevent toxins from reaching the groundwater and flowing into the sea. Workers have dug vast holes and filled them with coolant. In May they will begin refrigerating the coolant to up to -40ºC. Whether the wall can take another big earthquake or work in the baking summer is not proven. The cost for this so far: ¥32 billion ($272m).

Meanwhile, a lower-tech clean-up is taking place beyond the Dai-ichi site over a big swathe of Fukushima’s rolling countryside. Armed with Geiger counters, men in mechanical diggers or with shovels are skimming off contaminated soil. Once the land is clean, at least some residents have a hope of returning home—71,000 nuclear refugees remain in temporary housing. But it could take years.

The price tag for the whole clean-up is as uncertain as its duration. For one, decontamination costs depend on lowering annual radiation to 1 millisievert, a goal now widely seen as unrealistic, says Tatsujiro Suzuki, a former vice-chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.

TEPCO says decommissioning Dai-ichi’s four damaged reactors will cost ¥980 billion, but that does not include the clean-up, fuel storage or compensation. On a broader reckoning, the Japan Centre for Economic Research, a private research institute, puts the bill over the next decade at ¥5.7 trillion-¥20 trillion, but that still excludes compensation to the fisheries and farming industries. A still broader calculation by the same institute puts the entire cost of the disaster at ¥40 trillion-¥50 trillion. Thanks to government bail-outs, the company that so mismanaged Fukushima Dai-ichi carries on. It even says it will make a profit this year.

Fukushima Daiichi: Mission impossible, Economist, Feb.7, 2014, at 36

Nuclear Renaissance: Egypt-Russia Deal

El Dabaa is famous for the proposal of establishing a new nuclear reactor in it.  El Dabaa has been targeted by protesters who are claiming that their land was wrongly taken by the government to make way for the nuclear plant.  Image and info. from wikipedia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi signed a preliminary agreement to jointly build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, after the two leaders met in Cairo on February 9-10, 2015.  This announcement comes after multiple reports last November (2014) about Russia’s state nuclear power company Rosatom’s agreement to help Iran build several nuclear reactors, including reactors at Iran’s Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Putin had travelled to Cairo this week upon Sisi’s invitation. Russian-Egyptian relations began improving after the July 2013 military ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, when U.S.-Egyptian relations began to decline.  Cairo grew increasingly concerned with what it perceived to be U.S. engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood, and felt abandoned in its fight against terrorists, particularly in the restless Sinai—a hotbed of radicalism and instability going back to President Hosni Mubarak’s time. Washington also delayed weapons deliveries to Egypt, withheld military aid, and later halted the nascent bilateral strategic dialogue. The decline of U.S.-Egyptian relations created an opportunity for Putin to step in and assert his national interests in Egypt.

Putin and Sisi see eye to eye on a number of issues. Putin would certainly prefer to see a secular government in Egypt. Unlike President Obama, Putin enthusiastically endorsed Sisi’s bid for Egyptian presidency. Russia’s Supreme Court has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in February 2003. Russia continues to battle an increasingly-radicalized insurgency in the Caucasus and the Kremlin has long believed the Brotherhood helped arm radical Islamists in Russia. Putin certainly won’t criticize Sisi on his democratic backslide.

Economic relations have significantly improved between Egypt and Russia in recent years….Putin’s trip to Cairo created a political opportunity for him to show to the West, in light of his aggression in Ukraine, that he is not isolated, no matter what the West says…

Cairo used to be Washington’s partner on energy cooperation. This is no longer the case.In February 2006, the George W. Bush administration announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It aimed to create an international partnership, which would advance safe and extensive global expansion of nuclear power through so-called “cradle-to-grave fuel services” within a regulated market for enriched uranium, where several large countries would provide enriched uranium to smaller countries. This plan aimed to address crucial concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation and waste management, and to eliminate the need for smaller countries to build facilities for uranium processing and disposal in the first place, saving them billions. Egypt was among participant countries in GNEP. President Obama, however, effectively scrapped parts of GNEP and now shows little interest in expanding the strategic energy partnership with Egypt. Putin is only too happy to fill the gap, and is not concerned with the safeguards inherent to GNEP.

Excerpt from Anna Borshchevskaya, Russia-Egypt Nuclear Power Plant Deal: Why Ignoring Egypt’s Needs Is Bad For The U.S., Forbes, Feb. 13, 2015

How Ships Dump Oily Waste at Sea

Bilge compartment in a steel hulled ship (looking down).  Image from wikipedia

A ship company based in Germany and the chief engineer on one of its vessels have agreed to plead guilty to illegally dumping oily water off Alaska.  The AML Ship Management GMBH and Nicolas Sassin, the chief engineer on the AML-operated ship City of Tokyo, agreed to plead guilty to violating federal clean water law by knowingly dumping 4,500 gallons of oily bilge water south of the Aleutian Islands.  The company and Sassin, 45, face a separate charge of presenting false pollution oversight records to the U.S. Coast Guard when the vessel docked in Portland, Oregon, prosecutors said.  As part of the plea deal, AML agreed to pay $800,000 in fines and community service payments…

Discharge of oily waste from vessels is a worldwide problem, said Kevin Feldis, first assistant U.S. attorney.”This is the first time we have charged Clean Water Act crimes for an actual discharge of oil into the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) off the coast of Alaska,” Feldis said in an email. “As detailed in the court documents, witnesses saw a sheen off the side of the vessel after the chief engineer hooked up a pump to illegally dump oily bilge water overboard.

Water routinely accumulates in the bilge, or bottom, of vessels. Federal law requires ships to store it until it can be treated on shore, or to run it through an onboard oil-water separator. Water that contains less than 15 parts per million of petroleum can be dumped overboard…On Aug. 29, 2015  as the ship passed 165 miles south of Alaska’s Sanak Island, Sassin used an illegal pump system to dump untreated oily bilge water over the side of the 603-foot ship, bypassing the oil-water separator and other pollution control equipment, prosecutors said.

“Nobody knows exactly how much oily waste is illegally dumped from ships, but as this case demonstrates, a determined engineer with a few pieces of equipment who does not have proper oversight can easily circumvent the pollution prevention equipment onboard vessels,” Feldis said.

Excerpt fro DAN JOLING German company, ship’s chief engineer reach plea agreement in Alaska marine pollution case, Associated Press, Feb. 12, 2015

Catching Illegal Fishers: Yongding, Kunlun and Songhua

Yongding illegal fishing vessel.  image interpol

 

 

From INTERPOL: Between 6 and 13 January, 2005 a Royal New Zealand Naval Patrol spotted the vessels – the Yongding, the Kunlun and the Songhua – hauling gill nets laden with toothfish in an area regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where such fishing methods are prohibited.

——

The Pew Charitable Trusts, an American research group… reckons that around one fish in five sold in restaurants or shops has been caught outside the law. That may amount to 26m tonnes of them every year, worth more than $23 billion. This illegal trade, though not the only cause of overfishing, is an important one…

The new monitoring system has been developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult, a British government-backed innovation centre based at Harwell, near Oxford, in collaboration with Pew. In essence, it is a big-data project, pulling together and cross-checking information on tens of thousands of fishing boats operating around the world. At its heart is what its developers call a virtual watch room, which resembles the control centre for a space mission. A giant video wall displays a map of the world, showing clusters of lighted dots, each representing a fishing boat.

The data used to draw this map come from various sources, the most important of which are ships’ automatic identification systems (AIS). These are like the transponders carried by aircraft. They broadcast a vessel’s identity, position and other information to nearby ships and coastal stations, and also to satellites. An AIS is mandatory for all commercial vessels, fishing boats included, with a gross tonnage of more than 300. Such boats are also required, in many cases, to carry a second device, known as a VMS (vessel monitoring system). This transmits similar data directly to the authorities who control the waters in which the vessel is fishing, and carrying it is a condition of a boat’s licence to fish there. Enforcement of the AIS regime is patchy, and captains do sometimes have what they feel is a legitimate reason for turning it off, in order not to alert other boats in the area to profitable shoals. But the VMS transmits only to officialdom, so there can be no excuse for disabling it. Switching off either system will alert the watch room to potential shenanigans.

The watch room first filters vessels it believes are fishing from others that are not. It does this by looking at, for example, which boats are in areas where fish congregate. It then tracks these boats using a series of algorithms that trigger an alert if, say, a vessel enters a marine conservation area and slows to fishing speed, or goes “dark” by turning off its identification systems. Operators can then zoom in on the vessel and request further information to find out what is going on. Satellites armed with synthetic-aperture radar can detect a vessel’s position regardless of weather conditions. This means that even if a ship has gone dark, its fishing pattern can be logged. Zigzagging, for example, suggests it is long-lining for tuna. When the weather is set fair, this radar information can be supplemented by high-resolution satellite photographs. Such images mean, for instance, that what purports to be a merchant ship can be fingered as a transshipment vessel by watching fishing boats transfer their illicit catch to it.

As powerful as the watch room is, though, its success will depend on governments, fishing authorities and industry adopting the technology and working together, says Commander Tony Long, a 27-year veteran of the Royal Navy who is the director of Pew’s illegal-fishing project. Those authorities need to make sure AIS and VMS systems are not just fitted, but are used correctly and not tampered with. This should get easier as the cost of the technology falls.

Enforcing the use of an identification number that stays with a ship throughout its life, even if it changes hands or country of registration, is also necessary. An exemption for fishing boats ended in 2013, but the numbering is still not universally applied. Signatories to a treaty agreed in 2009, to make ports exert stricter controls on foreign-flagged fishing vessels, also need to act. Fishermen seek out ports with lax regulations to land illegal catches….

The watch room will also allow the effective monitoring of marine reserves around small island states that do not have the resources to do it for themselves. The first test of this approach could be to regulate a reserve of 836,000 square kilometres around the Pitcairn Islands group, a British territory in the middle of the South Pacific with only a few dozen inhabitants.

The watch-room system is, moreover, capable of enlargement as new information sources are developed. One such may be nanosats. These are satellites, a few centimetres across, that can be launched in swarms to increase the number of electronic eyes in the sky while simultaneously reducing costs. Closer to the surface, unmanned drones can do the same.

Combating illegal fishing: Dragnet, Economist, Jan 24, 2015, at 70