Monthly Archives: September 2015

Pacific Islands and their Big Brothers: from decarbonization to detention centers

naurau dentention center for asylum seekers. image from wikipedia

Australia and New Zealand have never found it easy to corral Pacific-island leaders into supporting their initiatives. It is getting harder….[The Pacific Island Forum (PIF) was held in September 2015].  It was attended by both Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, and New Zealand’s, John Key. They were probably relieved not to be joined by Frank Bainimarama, the former military commander who led a coup in Fiji in 2006. Fiji was suspended from the forum in 2009, but readmitted after Mr Bainimarama won a general elections in 2014. Some of his officials attended, but he himself is boycotting PIF meetings until the forum is reformed—and Australia and New Zealand are expelled. Other Pacific nations are less strident. But they too want to reshape the PIF’s agenda, particularly on climate change.

Mr Bainimarama has launched a rival group, the Pacific Island Development Forum, which held its third annual meeting in Fiji from September 2nd to 4th, 2015. The resultant communiqué endorsed the goal of keeping global average temperatures no more than 1.5˚Celsius above pre-industrial levels (the existing goal agreed among developed countries is 2˚). It is part of a strategy of “deep decarbonisation” that Mr Bainimarama hopes to take to the UN’s climate-change conference to be held in Paris in December. Tony De Brum, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, says Australia’s proposed 26-28% cut in emissions from 2005 levels is far too low to stop the atoll states from disappearing beneath the waves. He wants much bolder targets. Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, said that island leaders might ask Australia to leave the PIF; or they might stage a walkout if it refuses to sign up to the 1.5˚ target.

Australia’s moral authority in the region has been dented. It has cut its foreign-aid budget and disbanded its specialised aid agency, AusAID, with greater aid emphasis now on Australia’s commercial interests. And the shunting of Australia’s unwanted refugees to “Offshore Processing Centres” on Nauru and in PNG has looked mean-minded, despite sweeteners such as refurbished hospitals, roads and local jobs for the host countries.

On tiny Nauru, with a population of only 10,000, the refugee centres have supplanted phosphates as the biggest source of earnings. Electoral self-interest means no politician dares oppose the centres. Nauru’s politics are troubled. An authoritarian government, led by Baron Waqa, has removed most opposition MPs from parliament. One MP, Roland Kun, has had his passport seized and been prevented from rejoining his family in New Zealand. The Australian government has refrained from criticising its island ally. But, in a rare Pacific-policy split with Australia, New Zealand suspended its aid to Nauru’s judicial sector in early September 2015.

Unlike Nauru, Papua New Guinea, which, with 7.2m people is the largest Pacific Island state, has other sources of foreign exchange, including a $19 billion ExxonMobil liquefied-natural-gas project. But PNG’s politicians are more likely to turn on the unpopular detention centre on Manus island. Relations with Australia are often frosty. In July 2015 the prime minister, Peter O’Neill, announced a ban on foreign (mostly Australian) consultants. Then PNG stopped Australian vegetable imports.

New donors, such as Indonesia and, most noticeably, China, are offering money to the island states. So island leaders have greater leeway to pursue independent foreign policies.

Excerpts from The Pacific Islands Forum: Australasia feels the heat, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 39.

Impacts of Nuclear Accidents: ASEAN


In Asia, plans have been delayed but not derailed. China and India, between them, have almost 50 nuclear plants in operation and are building even more.  In Southeast Asia, Vietnam could have its first power reactors by 2020. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have also made plans.

“Southeast Asia is quasi-completely dependent on fossil fuels,” said Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of Singapore Management University….Nuclear-based energy can add security and stability to the region’s source of energy. For Singapore, 95 per cent of its electricity comes from natural gas powered plants. Its cost is tied to oil prices.  Experts say Singapore’s choice, although the cleanest among fossil fuels, is also an expensive choice….This is because the cost associated with importing natural gas to run Singapore’s power plants is also higher….

In 2010, Singapore embarked on an extensive study of whether nuclear-based electricity could be added to its energy mix.  Two years later, it concluded that nuclear risks for Singapore outweighed the benefits.  “It was all to do with size,” said Professor Tim White, co-director of Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute.  “The first factor was that we did not really need a very large single nuclear reactor. Singapore just does not have that need for energy. So we would have had to look at modular designs, but none of those designs are actually operating at the moment – at least for power. So Singapore did not want to be the first one off the rack to take these new designs.

“The other concern was that after Fukushima, it was realised that the exclusion zone around the reactor was in fact as large as Singapore. So that meant one Fukushima accident in Singapore and that’s the end of the country. …But the study also concluded that Singapore needs to build up its nuclear knowledge and capability. In 2014, the government announced it would set aside S$63 million over five years for the Nuclear Safety Research and Education Programme.  The programme would train local scientists and engineers in three key areas – radiochemistry, radiobiology and risk assessment

Even if Singapore would never have electricity generation by nuclear sources, countries around us will do it, or may well do it,” said Prof De Meyer. “But nuclear radiation is not something that stops at borders. If there is an accident or a problem, Singapore will be automatically influenced by it.,,,

But first, one expert says ASEAN needs a regulatory framework to address transboundary issues such as the management of nuclear fuel, waste and risk management….“If something happens, for example, in Indonesia’s nuclear facility, which will be built very close to Singapore, it will affect the whole country,” said Associate Professor Sulfikar Amir from NTU’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Excerpts from Monica Kotwani, Singapore must be prepared to handle nuclear developments: Experts, Channel NewsAsia,  27 Sep 2015

Gene Banks and War

Svalbard seed vault.image from wikipedia

Syria’s civil war has forced scientists to request the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from a Doomsday vault built in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s food supplies…The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) said it has made a request to take back some of its samples from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault was created by the Norwegian government in 2008 to protect vital crops such as wheat against global disasters, war or disease.

It will be the first time seeds have been withdrawn from the facility, which lies more than 800 miles inside Arctic Circle — midway between Norway and the North Pole — and is the largest vault of its kind in the world. Built into the mountainside on the Svalbard archipelago, it relies on permafrost and thick rock to ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power..,ICARDA has requested approximately 16,500 of its seed samples — one seventh of the total it has stored in Svalbard — and hopes to reproduce them at its other facilities in Morocco and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually it will send new samples back to Norway…

He said some scientists were still present at the Aleppo facility but that its one-time headquarters had been occupied by armed groups.  “Fortunately it is not ISIS, they are some fundamentalist groups,” he said. “They seem to co-exist. They are using the land for their own benefit, for example to grow legumes, but we have no control of it…..The Svalbard seed bank has exactly 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said.  “In fact, we have seeds from more countries than now exist,” he explained, since some of the older seeds are from now-defunct nations such as Czechoslovakia. Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011, according to United Nations estimates, and driven 11 million more from their homes.
Excerpts from ALASTAIR JAMIESON, Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault,NBC News, Sept. 25, 2015

How Lasers Facilitate Nuclear Weapons Production

Different lazer sizes. The neodymium glass lasers (bottom) are used for nuclear weapons research.

 Using spinning gas centrifuges to enrich fuel for nuclear bombs requires a structure the size of a department store, and enough electricity for some 10,000 homes. An alternative method being developed would make the search far more difficult...The alternative is to zap the uranium vapour with a powerful infra-red beam from a laser…At least 27 countries, by one tally, have worked on laser enrichment since the 1970s. Most gave up, largely because production batches were tiny. Now, however, two firms say that they have learned how to scale up the process.

Jeffrey Eerkens of Neutrek, a Californian research firm, says its laser process requires around half the space and electricity that centrifuges need. A competing laser method is offered by Global Laser Enrichment (GLE), a consortium of General Electric, Hitachi and Cameco, a Canadian uranium producer. It, too, requires less space. In 2012 GLE was awarded a licence to build a facility in North Carolina for the commercial production of reactor fuel.

America has classified the technology, but that may not stop it spreading. The most important bit of laser-enrichment know-how has already leaked, says Charles Ferguson, head of the Federation of American Scientists—namely, that companies now consider it to be practical. This will reinvigorate efforts by other countries to develop the technology for themselves….

Non-proliferation optimists think laser-enrichment might not work as well as advertised, because GLE has still not begun commercial production. But this may be only temporary, because the company says the price of enriched uranium is too low to justify completing the project. A regime keen for a more discreet path to the bomb would not bother with such considerations.

Monitoring nuclear weapons: Lasering the fuel, Economist Technology Quarterly,  Sept. 5, 2015

Regulation of Deep-Sea Fishing by Depth: the scientific facts

setting a trawl. image from wikipedia

A study published in 2009 suggested that in all but the deepest of their waters—those with a seabed closer than 1,500 metres to the surface—yields had dropped by 70% over 25 years. Even in the abyss below that depth, the fall was 20%. To try to stem this decline the European Union, which regulates fishing in much of the area, is proposing to limit the depth at which trawling can take place. This would, in effect, create a marine reservoir below that level, a form of protection additional to the system of species-specific quotas that already exists. The question is where the line below which trawl-gear is forbidden should be drawn. And, until now, there have been few scientific data to inform that decision.
This has just changed, however, with the timely publication, inCurrent Biology, of a study by Jo Clarke of Glasgow University and Francis Neat of Marine Scotland Science, a government agency. Their work suggests that the appropriate cut-off would be at a depth of 600 metres—below which the ecological damage caused by trawling increases substantially.

Ms Clarke and Dr Neat derive their conclusion from data collected between 1978 and 2013 by Marine Scotland Science and the Universities of Aberdeen and St Andrews. These data record species caught, and also the depths of the trawls that caught them, which ranged from 250 to 1,500 metres.

The researchers note that biodiversity increases with depth. On average, an extra 18 fish species show up with each 100-metre increase. Many of these, though, are of little commercial value. Such so-called by-catch gets thrown back, but by then most of it is dead. And that, particularly because deep-sea species tend to grow more slowly than those which live near the surface, and have lower fecundity rates, can have profound effects on ocean ecology.  Trawls at 300 metres, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat found, have a ratio of catch to by-catch (in terms of weight) of five to one. At 600 metres the ratio is around three to one. At 800 metres, though, it is ten to nine; at 1,000 metres one to one; and at 1,200 metres, one to two.

Based on these findings, Ms Clarke and Dr Neat suggest that a trawl limit of 600 metres would be a suitable compromise between commercial reality and ecological necessity.

Excerpts from Fisheries: Drawing the line, Economist, Sept.  5, 2015, at 80

The Race for Nuclear Weapons Non-Proliferation

hydrophone. image from CTBTO

As nuclear blasts go, North Korea’s first test in 2006 was small. The detonation of an underground device produced an explosive force well below one kiloton (less than a tenth of the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Even so, the vibrations it caused were recorded half a world away in the centre of Africa. Advances in the sensitivity of seismic sensors and monitoring software are now good enough to distinguish between a distant nuclear detonation and, say, a building being demolished with conventional explosives, says Lassina Zerbo, head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), the international organisation that seeks to enforce the agreement ratified, so far, by 163 nations.

The CTBTO operates 170 seismic stations worldwide, 11 underwater hydroacoustic centres detecting sound waves in the oceans, 60 listening stations for atmospheric infrasound (low-frequency acoustic waves that can travel long distances) and 96 labs and radionuclide-sampling facilities. More sensors are being installed. Crucially, however, the optimal number for global coverage was recently reached. It is now impossible, reckons Dr Zerbo, to test even a small nuclear weapon in secret anywhere on Earth. And on top of that, the United States Air Force runs a detection network that includes satellites that can spot nuclear-weapons tests.

It is better, though, to discover a secret weapons programme before testing. Once a country has a nuclear bomb or two, there is not much other governments can do to stop it from making more, says Ilan Goldenberg, a former head of the Iran team at the Pentagon. Plenty of states want such capabilities. The Defence Science Board, an advisory body to the Pentagon, concluded in a report last year that the number of countries that might seek nuclear weapons is higher now than at any time since the cold war. Those states include Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab rivals of Iran, which in July, after long and tortuous negotiations, signed a nuclear deal with America and other nations to restrict its nuclear activities, and to allow enhanced monitoring and inspection of its facilities.

As the technologies to unearth work on clandestine nuclear weapons become more diverse and more powerful, however, the odds of being detected are improving. Innovation is benefiting detection capabilities, says Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general. The products under development range from spy software that sifts through electronic communications and financial transactions to new scanners that can detect even heavily shielded nuclear material….

Software used for this type of analysis include i2 Analyst’s Notebook from IBM, Palantir from a Californian firm of the same name, and ORA, which was developed with Pentagon funds at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. ORA has crunched data on more than 30,000 nuclear experts’ work and institutional affiliations, research collaborations and academic publications, says Kathleen Carley, who leads the ORA work at Carnegie Mellon. Changes, such as a halt in publishing, can tell stories: scientists recruited into a weapons programme typically cannot publish freely. Greater insights appear when classified or publicly unavailable information is sifted too. Credit-card transactions can reveal that, say, a disproportionate number of doctors specialising in radiation poisoning are moving to the same area.

The software uses combinatorial mathematics, the analysis of combinations of discrete items, to score individuals on criteria including “centrality” (a person’s importance), “between-ness” (their access to others), and “degree” (the number of people they interact with). Network members with high between-ness and low degree tend to be central figures: they have access to lots of people, but like many senior figures may not interact with that many. Their removal messes things up for everybody. Five or more Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated in recent years—by Israel’s Mossad, some suspect—were no doubt chosen with help from such software, says Thomas Reed, a former secretary of the United States Air Force and co-author of “The Nuclear Express”, a history of proliferation.

Importantly, the software can also evaluate objects that might play a role in a nuclear programme. This is easier than it sounds, says a former analyst (who asked not to be named) at the Pentagon’s Central Command in Tampa, Florida. Ingredients for homemade conventional bombs and even biological weapons are available from many sources, but building nukes requires rare kit. The software can reveal a manageable number of “chokepoints” to monitor closely, he says. These include links, for instance, between the few firms that produce special ceramic composites for centrifuges and the handful of companies that process the material.

A number of countries, including Japan and Russia, use network analysis. Japan’s intelligence apparatus does so with help from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which assists in deciding which “dual use” items that might have both peaceful and military purposes should not be exported. Such work is tricky, says a member of the advisory board (who also asked not to be named) to the security council of the Russian Federation, a body chaired by Vladimir Putin. Individual items might seem innocent enough, he says, and things can be mislabelled.

Data sources are diverse, so the work takes time. Intelligence often coalesces after a ship has left port, so foreign authorities are sometimes asked to board and search, says Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary for arms control at America’s State Department. The speed of analysis is increasing, however. Software that converts phone conversations into computer-readable text has been “extremely helpful”, says John Carlson, a former head of the Australian foreign ministry’s Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office.

Would-be nuclear states can also reduce their networks. North Korea helped to keep its centrifuge facility secret by using mostly black-market or domestically manufactured components. Iran is also indigenising its nuclear programme, which undermines what network analysis can reveal, says Alexander Montgomery, a political scientist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Iran mines uranium domestically and has produced centrifuge rotors with carbon fibre, instead of importing special maraging steel which is usually required.

A big computer system to make sense of all this would help, says Miriam John, vice-chairman of the Pentagon’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee. Which is why the Pentagon is building one, called Constellation. Dr John describes it as a “fusion engine” that merges all sorts of data. For instance, computers can comb through years of satellite photos and infra-red readings of buildings to detect changes that might reveal nuclear facilities. Constellation aims to increase the value of such nuggets of information by joining them with myriad other findings. For example, the whereabouts of nuclear engineers who have stopped teaching before retirement age become more interesting if those people now happen to live within commuting distance of a suspect building.

Yet photographs and temperature readings taken from satellites, even in low Earth orbit, only reveal so much. With help from North Korea, Syria disguised construction of a nuclear reactor by assembling it inside a building in which the floor had been lowered. From the outside the roof line appeared to be too low to house such a facility. To sidestep the need for a cooling tower, water pipes ran underground to a reservoir near a river. The concealment was so good the site was discovered not with remote sensing but only thanks to human intelligence, says Dr Tobey, the former National Security Council official. (Israel bombed the building in 2007 before it could be completed.)

Some chemical emissions, such as traces of hydrofluoric acid and fluorine, can escape from even well-built enrichment facilities and, with certain sensors, have been detectable from space for about a decade, says Mr Carlson, the Australian expert. But detecting signs of enrichment via radiation emissions requires using different sorts of devices and getting much closer to suspected sources.

The “beauty” of neutrons and alpha, beta and gamma radiation, is that the energy levels involved also reveal if the source is fit for a weapon, says Kai Vetter, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. But air absorbs enough radiation from uranium and plutonium bomb fuel to render today’s detectors mostly useless unless they are placed just a few dozen metres away. (Radiological material for a “dirty bomb” made with conventional explosives is detectable much farther away.) Lead shielding makes detection even harder. Not one of the more than 20 confirmed cases of trafficking in bomb-usable uranium or plutonium has been discovered by a detector’s alarm, says Elena Sokova, head of the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, a think-tank.

Ground-based detectors are becoming more sensitive….. Detectors still need to be close to whatever it is they are monitoring, which mostly restricts their use to transport nodes, such as ports and borders. The range the detectors operate over might stretch to about 100 metres in a decade or so, but this depends on uncertain advances in “active interrogation”—the bombardment of an object with high-energy neutrons or protons to produce other particles which are easier to pick up. One problem is that such detectors might harm stowaways hiding in cargo.

That risk has now been solved, claims Decision Sciences, a Californian company spun out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in America. It uses 16,000 aluminium tubes containing a secret gas to record the trajectory of muons. These are charged particles created naturally in the atmosphere and which pass harmlessly through people and anything else in their path. However, materials deflect their path in different ways. By measuring their change in trajectory, a computer can identify, in just 90 seconds, plutonium and uranium as well as “drugs, tobacco, explosives, alcohol, people, fill in the blank”, says Jay Cohen, the company’s chief operating officer and a former chief of research for the United States Navy. The ability to unearth common contraband will make the machine’s $5m price tag more palatable for border officials. A prototype is being tested in Freeport, Bahamas.

Other groups are also working on muon detectors, some using technology developed for particle physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Another approach involves detecting neutrinos, which are produced by the sun and nuclear reactors, and seeing how they interact with other forms of matter. The NNSA and other organisations are backing the construction of a prototype device called WATCHMAN in an old salt mine (to shield it from cosmic rays and other interference) in Painesville, Ohio. It will be used to detect neutrinos from limited plutonium production at a nuclear power station 13km away. Such a system might have a 1,000km range, eventually. But even that means it would require a friendly neighbour to house such a facility on the borders of a country being monitored.

Once nuclear facilities have been discovered, declared or made available for inspection as part of a deal, like that signed with Iran, the job of checking what is going on falls to experts from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The equipment available to them is improving, too. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has built a prototype hand-held spectrometer for determining if traces of uranium collected on a cotton swab and blasted with a laser emit a spectral signature that reveals enrichment beyond that allowed for generating electricity. Within three years it will provide an unprecedented ability to assess enrichment without shipping samples back to a lab, says Raoul Awad, director-general of security and safeguards at the commission.

Laser scanning can also reveal other signs of enrichment. A decade ago inspectors began scanning intricate centrifuge piping with surveying lasers. A change between visits can reveal any reconfiguration of the sort necessary for the higher levels of enrichment needed for bombmaking. Secret underground facilities might also be found by wheeling around new versions of ground-penetrating radar.

The remote monitoring of sites made available to inspectors is also getting better. Cameras used to record on videotape, which was prone to breaking—sometimes after less than three months’ use, says Julian Whichello, a former head of the IAEA’s surveillance unit. Today’s digital cameras last longer and they can be programmed to take additional pictures if any movement is detected or certain equipment is touched. Images are encrypted and stamped with sequential codes. If technicians at a monitored facility delete any pictures, the trickery will be noticed by software and the inspectors informed.

Such technology, however, only goes so far. The IAEA cannot inspect computers and countries can veto the use of some equipment. It does seem that inspectors sent to Iran will get access to Parchin, a site near Tehran where intelligence agencies say tests related to nuclear-weapons making took place. (Iran denies it has a military programme.) But even the best tech wizardry can only reveal so much when buildings have been demolished and earth moved, as in Parchin.

Could nuclear weapons be built in secret today? …. A senior American State Department counter-proliferation official (whose asked to remain anonymous), however, says that it is not impossible…Companies, including a General Electric consortium, are making progress enriching uranium with lasers . If this becomes practical, some worry that it might be possible to make the fuel for a nuclear bomb in smaller facilities with less fancy kit than centrifuges

Monitoring nuclear weapons: The nuke detectives, Economist Technology Quarterly, Sept. 5, 2015, at 10

Nuclear Power in Africa: financing and security

Somair mine in Niger. Image from wikipedia

In Democratic Republic of Congo’s nuclear plant is in limbo, after it shut down its reactor in 2004 due to overheating, lack of spares and unwillingness by the US to send parts.  Egypt, Niger, Ghana, Tanzania, Morocco, Algeria and Nigeria have also begun the rollout of projects in this sector.

In May 2015, South Africa announced that it will procure a nuclear fleet to generate 9,600MW of power at a cost of $100 billion. The country’s installed nuclear generating capacity of 1,830 MW from its two reactors at Koeberg. These plants were commissioned in 1984 and will be closed in 2025….”We are still on course with our plans to construct an additional eight new nuclear plants by 2023 to produce 9,600MW,” Ms Joemat-Petterson said.[South African Energy Minister ]

Kenya is also planning to construct nuclear power plants that it hopes will generate a minimum of 4,000MW from 2023.  “We have no option but to embrace nuclear early enough to avoid starting the process long after we have exhausted geothermal sources,” Energy Principal Secretary Joseph Njoroge said.

The key question, however, is if the countries on the continent can afford the costs of setting up nuclear plants. Nuclear reactor costs run into billions of dollars but the main cost is in the initial investment and the plant itself. It is a long-term form of energy, with reactors operating for close to 60 years producing electricity with minimal maintenance.

For instance, Nigeria is looking for $32 billion to construct four nuclear plants. However, the project is shrouded in controversy as the country is currently facing a financial deficit, with other key infrastructure projects pending.  Ochilo Ayacko, the chief executive of the Kenya Nuclear Electricity Board, said that the country will need at least $20 million to put up its 4,000MW plants. Uganda is also facing financial hurdle as it seeks to join the nuclear club. According to an AF-Consult Switzerland report, Uganda will require $26 billion to have an installed capacity of 4,300MW from nuclear energy by 2040.  James Isingoma Baanabe, Uganda’s acting Commissioner for Energy Efficiency and Conservation, said it will take the country at least 20 years to build its first nuclear plant, mostly because of financing.

In 2000, Tanzania invited bids to construct its nuclear plant, with South Africa’s South Areva, being touted as a front runner. However, little came of this as the country slowed down in its nuclear bid because of financing challenges.

For most nuclear projects, security is key… In 2014, Niger saw militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attack the Somair uranium mine owned by Areva, killing 26 people.  In April 2015, the Nigerian government announced that it was downscaling its uranium stockpiles and beefing up security around the proposed sites of its nuclear reactors.

Kenya is also facing insecurity from Somali Al Shabaab militants who have in several occasions tried to blow up power plants in Garissa and northern Kenya. Securing these facilities is a key concern in the preliminary report handed to the Kenyan government by Josi Bastos, the International Atomic Energy Agency team leader.

Excerpts  from Allan Olingo,  Africa Now Turns to Nuclear for Power Generation Amid Fears of Insecurity,, Sept. 15, 2015