Monthly Archives: May 2015

How to Effectively Bomb a City from the Sea: the Railgun

Railgun US Navy 2008. image from wikipedia

Two firms have been working on the navy’s railgun—BAE Systems and General Atomics. Amir Chaboki, the project leader at BAE, is coy about what advances in metallurgy, materials science and electrical engineering have made a useful weapon (railgun) possible. But he says his firm’s weapon should be able to go hundreds of shots between rail replacements. And, thanks to the trend for “electric boats”, in which a warship uses electric power for everything from the lights in the captain’s bathroom to the main engines, vessels with enough juice to fire the weapon are now coming into service. USS Zumwalt, the first of a new class of destroyers that have enough power generation to run a railgun, will be commissioned soon.

The brief given to the companies is to develop a weapon that can fire a 10kg projectile at about 2.5km a second. This is roughly seven times the speed of sound—and about three times the muzzle velocity of a conventional naval gun. At those sorts of speeds, there is no need to give the projectile a warhead. Its momentum is enough to cause destruction. The design has a muzzle energy of 32 megajoules, which is roughly the kinetic energy that would be carried by a small hatchback doing 900kph. The fiery plume, visible in the photograph, that accompanies the projectile out of the gun is not the result of propellant exploding but of the air itself being ionised by the electric current in the barrel.

The sheer destructive potential of the new weapon, though, is not the main point. Although a railgun’s speed makes plenty of headlines, old-style naval guns—such as the 16-inch monsters found on second-world-war battleships—had muzzle energies ten times as high. Modern ship-launched cruise missiles can deliver large explosive warheads to targets hundreds of nautical miles away.

Instead, says Commander Jason Fox of Naval Sea Systems Command, the part of the navy responsible for railguns, the weapon offers three other advantages. One is range. The projectile’s speed means ships could attack other vessels, or bombard targets on land, from a distance of 110 nautical miles. (about 204 kilometers or 127 miles) That is much farther than existing naval guns can manage, and beyond the range of at least some shore-launched anti-ship missiles.

Another advantage is safety. If a ship is hit by enemy fire, its magazine of high-explosive shells can detonate, with potentially devastating consequences. A vessel equipped with railguns would have only inert slugs on board, so would not face that risk. (As a bonus, the modest dimensions of the projectiles would allow more of them to be stored.)

But the biggest advantage, says Commander Fox, is cost. A single ship-launched missile can set the navy back well over $1m. Current estimates for railgun projectiles are around $25,000 per shot. Even given the tendency for costs to swell, that is a dramatic saving. And not even America’s military budget is infinite.

Like Dr Chaboki, Commander Fox is coy about specific tactical applications for railguns, beyond long-range bombardment—although he says that the next challenge will be to work out a way to guide the projectiles, to permit accurate fire from a hundred miles’ distance. One navy document talks about rail guns (suitably upgraded for an even longer range) as providing more shore-bombardment ability than an aircraft-carrier’s worth of planes.

Peter Roberts, a naval expert at the Royal United Services Institute, in London, thinks that smaller versions of the weapon could one day find uses as anti-aircraft guns or anti-missile weapons, applications where their enormous speeds would make them hard to evade. Nor, says Mr Roberts, are the Americans the only ones pursuing the idea. Researchers in China are thought to be working on a similar system. If and when someone manages to perfect one, the centuries-long monopoly of gunpowder will have come to an end.

Excerpts from  Advanced Weapons: Rail Strikes, Economist, May 9, 2015, at 73

The Final Disposal of Nuclear Waste: Japan

Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant Japan

The Japanese government will select potential areas to host nuclear dump sites instead of waiting for communities to volunteer, according to the revised policy on permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste that was adopted by the Cabinet on May 22, 2015  The revision, the first in seven years, was prompted after towns, villages and cities throughout Japan snubbed requests to host nuclear waste dumps. The government has been soliciting offers since 2002.

The move is seen as a sign that the government wants to address the matter as it proceeds with its pursuit of reactor restarts. All commercial units have largely sat idle since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011….Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is seeking to revive atomic power, although the majority of the public remains opposed in light of the Fukushima disaster, which left tens of thousands homeless. Critics have attacked the government for promoting atomic power without resolving where all the waste will end up.

Permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste requires that a depository be built more than 300 meters underground, where the materials must lie for up to 100,000 years until radiation levels fall to the point where there is no harm to humans or the environment.  About 17,000 tons of spent fuel is stored on the premises of nuclear plants and elsewhere in Japan, but some would run out of space in three years if all the reactors got back online.  Under the revision, the government said it will allow future generations to retrieve high-level waste from such facilities should policy changes or new technologies emerge.

Worldwide, only Finland and Sweden have been able to pick final depository sites.

Excerpts from METI changes tactics after search for nuclear waste host proves futile,  Japan Times, May 22, 2015

The X-37B Drone: 4th Mission


The unmanned X-37B spacecraft was launched May 20 2015  atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The liftoff will begin the reusable space plane’s fourth mission, which is known as OTV-4 (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).  Most of the X-37B’s payloads and specific activities are classified, so it’s not clear what the space plane will be doing once it leaves Earth. This secrecy has led to some speculation that the vehicle might be some sort of space weapon. Air Force officials have repeatedly rejected that notion, saying that the X-37B flights simply test a variety of new space technologies.
For example, the space plane is carrying a type of ion engine called a Hall thruster on OTV-4, Air Force officials said. This Hall thruster is an advanced version of the one that powered the first three Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications satellites, the officials added.  NASA is also flying an experiment on OTV-4. The agency’s Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space investigation will see how exposure to the space environment affects nearly 100 different types of materials. The results should aid in the design of future spacecraft, NASA says.

The X-37B looks like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle. The robotic, solar-powered space plane is about 29 feet long by 9.5 feet tall (8.8 by 2.9 meters), with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 meters) and a payload bay the size of a pickup-truck bed. Like the space shuttle, the X-37B launches vertically and lands horizontally, on a runway.,,,


Excerpts from Mike Wall, Air Force Gets X-37B Space Plane Ready for Its Next Mystery,  SPACE.COM, May 18, 2015

How Germany is Used in CIA Drone Strikes

US Military Base in Germany Ramstein, image from wikipedia

The case of three Yemenis whose relatives were killed in the attack in August 2012, will be heard on Wednesday by a court in Cologne, Germany. Lawyers for the victims say the German government shares responsibility for the death of civilians because the US military base of Ramstein, which allegedly played a key role in the attack, is on German soil. The government rejects the claim.

Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who lost his brother-in-law Salim, a preacher, and his nephew Waleed, a police officer, in the strike on the village of Khashamir on 29 August, 2012,…Bin Ali Jaber, whose extended family had travelled back to the eastern Yemeni village to celebrate a wedding, had been having supper when he felt the impact of five rockets hitting the ground. Speaking in Arabic through a translator, he recalled leaving his house with his wife. “We found scattered body parts and people picking them up. We picked them up as well. It (soon) became apparent that Salim and Walid were among the victims. The incident was a tragedy in every way, for all the residents of Khashamir and the surrounding villages.”

Ramstein, in the German state of Rheinland Pfalz, is used by the US military on condition nothing is done there that violates German law. The German government has been repeatedly accused of failing to confront Washington over Ramstein’s alleged role in the drone war.The case rests on the claim that Ramstein is central to the drone strikes because it relays crucial information via satellite that enables drone operators in Nevada to communicate with the aircraft in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The geographical location of Ramstein is said to be vital to the transmission of the information, because, due to the curvature of the earth, a relay station is needed between the US and the Middle East.

Der Spiegel and the Intercept website reported in April 2015  that Ramstein is critical to the US drone strikes, quoting experts, but the US government has so far failed to confirm or deny the claim.  The potential loss of Ramstein as a strategically located relay station would present the US with the tough challenge of finding an alternative country willing to offer it a hub, amid global controversy and growing unease over drone strikes.

Excerpts from Kate Connolly ,German court to hear case brought by relatives of Yemen drone attack victims, Guardian, May 22, 2015

The First Chinese Military Base in Africa: Djibouti

Camp Lemonier Thunder Dome. image from wikipedia

China is negotiating a military base in the strategic port of Djibouti, an historic development that would see the US and China each have bases in the small nation that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. President Ismail Omar Guelleh says that discussions are “ongoing” and that Beijing is “welcome”.  Djibouti is already home to Camp Lemonnier, the military headquarters used by US Special Forces for covert, anti-terror and other operations in Yemen and in Africa. France, the former colonial master, and Japan also have bases in the port, which is used by many foreign navies to fight piracy in neighbouring Somalia…

China signed a security and defence agreement with Djibouti in February 2014. But a Chinese military base in Djibouti, the first in Africa, “would definitely be historic”, according to David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia.  The US was reportedly angry about the conclusion last year of the China-Djibouti defence deal last year. But Shinn predicts that the US will take it in its stride…

China is reportedly considering a permanent military base in Obock, Djibouti’s northern port city.  “China clearly has a goal of building a blue-water navy, which means it will at some point go well beyond the east coast of Africa and the western Indian Ocean, and it has to think — long term — about how it would be able to service its naval vessels as they go further and further, ” he explained.

Camp Lemonnier, home to 4,000 American citizens, is in the south-east of Djibouti. The US in May 2015 signed a 20-year lease, indicating its willingness to stay. Terms of the lease were not disclosed.

A new Chinese deep-sea port in Djibouti…could provide a boost to China’s sphere of influence, which already extends from the South China Sea, along the west coast of Myanmar to the Arabian-Sea coastal port of Gwadar, Pakistan — a major destination in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  “Establishing these deep-sea ports is really about securing its economic interests, projecting influence and securing oil exports from the Gulf region,”…..

Trade between Africa and China, in excess of 200 billion dollars (180 billion euros), is above the continent’s trade with the European Union or the US.  In Djibouti, China is already financing major infrastructure projects estimated to total more than 9 billion dollars (8 billion euros), including improved ports, airports and railway lines….There was speculation that Russia also wanted to establish a presence in Djibouti, but the presence of Russian warships may have created even more controversy in western nations because of the crisis in the Ukraine.

Excerpts  Michel Arseneault, ‘Historic’ Chinese military base to open in Horn of Africa, Agence France Presse, May 11, 2015

A Hundred Years of Silent Oil Leaks: Gulf of Mexico

Containment Dome for Arctic Challenger, 2012. Image from wikipedia

A decade-old oil leak where an offshore platform toppled during a hurricane could continue spilling crude into the Gulf of Mexico for a century or more if left unchecked, according to government estimates obtained by The Associated Press that provide new details about the scope of the problem.  Taylor Energy Company, which owned the platform and a cluster of oil wells, has played down the extent and environmental impact of the leak. The company also maintains that nothing can be done to completely eliminate the chronic oil slicks that often stretch for miles off the coast of Louisiana….

Federal regulators suspect oil is still leaking from at least one of 25 wells that remain buried under mounds of sediment from an underwater mudslide triggered by waves whipped up by Hurricane Ivan in 2004….A Taylor contractor drilled new wells to intercept and plug nine wells deemed capable of leaking oil. But a company official has asserted that experts agree the “best course of action … is to not take any affirmative action” due to the risks of additional drilling…

The AP’s review of more than 2,300 Coast Guard pollution reports since 2008 showed a dramatic spike in sheen sizes and oil volumes since Sept. 1, 2014. That reported increase came just after federal regulators held a workshop August 2014 to improve the accuracy of Taylor’s slick estimates and started sending government observers on a Taylor contractor’s daily flights over the site.

Presented with AP’s findings, the Coast Guard provided a new leak estimate that is about 20 times greater than one recently touted by the company. In a February 2015 court filing, Taylor cited a year-old estimate that oil was leaking at a rate of less than 4 gallons per day.

A Coast Guard fact sheet says sheens as large as 1.5 miles wide and 14 miles long have been spotted by Taylor since the workshop. Since last September, the estimated daily volume of oil discharged from the site has ranged from roughly 42 gallons to 2,329 gallons, with a daily average of more than 84 gallons.,,, Based on satellite imagery and pollution reports, the watchdog group SkyTruth estimates between 300,000 and 1.4 million gallons have spilled from the site since 2004, with an annual average daily leak rate between 37 and 900 gallons.

Ken Arnold, an industry consultant, said natural oil seeps from cracks in the seabed can last for thousands of years. But he has never heard of another commercial oil spill lasting more than a decade, let alone a century.

In 2008, Taylor set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for leak-related work as part of a trust agreement with the Interior Department. The company says it has spent tens of millions of dollars on its efforts to contain and halt the leak, but it hasn’t publicly disclosed how much money is left in the trust. The company sold all its offshore leases and oil and gas interests in 2008, four years after founder Patrick Taylor died, and is down to only one full-time employee.

Justice Department officials say the company approached the government concerning the trust fund, but they declined to discuss the terms of its proposal. Federal agencies responded that more work needed to be done, including installing a more effective containment dome system, and that the company remained responsible for doing that work, the officials said.

Oil leak that began after 2004 storm could last a century, U.S. says, Chicago Tribune, May 15, 2015



How to Release Radioactive Waste to the Pacific Ocean: IAEA on Fukushima

storage tanks for nuclear water Fukushima

From the Report of the IAEA regarding  Radioactive Water at Fukushima:  While the IAEA is recognizing the usefulness of the large number of water treatment systems deployed by TEPCO for decontaminating and thereby ensuring highly radioactive water accumulated at the site is not inappropriately released to the environment including the adjacent Pacific Ocean, the IAEA team also notes that currently not all of these systems are operating to their full design capacity and performance. ….The IAEA team is of the opinion that the present plan to store the treated contaminated water containing tritium in above ground tanks, with a capacity of 800,000 m 3 , is at best a temporary measure while a more sustainable solution is needed. Therefore the present IAEA team reiterates the advisory point of the previous decommissioning mission: “The IAEA team believes it is necessary to find a sustainable solution to the problem of managing contaminated water at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi NPS. This would require considering all options, including the possible resumption of controlled discharges to the sea. TEPCO is advised to perform an assessment of the potential radiological impact to the population and the environment arising from the release of water containing tritium and any other residual radionuclides to the sea in order to evaluate the radiological significance and to have a good scientific basis for taking decisions. It is clear that final decision making will require engaging all stakeholders, including TEPCO, the NRA, the National Government, Fukushima Prefecture Government, local communities and others”.