The Bento Rodrigues Dam in Brazil collapsed on November 5, 2015...The dam had been used to store water and mineral waste from a nearby iron-ore mine. It had no alarm system and no good emergency plan or designated evacuation routes. According to the villagers, nobody was warned about the breach. “If the dam had collapsed at night, everyone would have died,” said Duarte Júnior, the mayor of the city that includes Bento Rodrigues.The dam was operated by Samarco, a joint venture between two multinational mining companies: Brazil’s Vale and the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton. More than a month after the dam collapsed, it is unclear how long it will take for the ecosystem — and the economy — to recover. And two more dams in the area are at risk of collapsing.
After flooding the village, the wave of approximately 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mineral residue, enough to fill about 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, made its way to the Doce River. The river, which passes through 228 municipalities, is crucial to the region’s economic life. The mineral-waste sludge has devastated the area. Several companies had to suspend operations. Local fishermen are among the most severely affected. The water supply for Governador Valadares, a city of 300,000 people, had to be cut off for a week.
The companies involved insist that the muck poses no threat to human health. But two United Nations environmental experts declared that the mud contained “high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.” A report from the Institute for Water Management, a government agency in the state of Minas Gerais, found that the water’s arsenic levels were 10 times above the legal limit. Other samples collected at different points along the river contained high levels of mercury, iron, aluminum and manganese.
According to Ibama, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, the Doce River is home to 80 fish species, of which 11 are endangered and 12 are found nowhere else in the world…. The mud’s brown route across Brazil’s waterways is visible in NASA satellite images. Sixteen days after the dam broke, the tide reached the Atlantic Ocean, more than 400 miles downstream. It also spread into the Comboios Biological Reserve on the coast, a spawning area for loggerhead sea turtles and critically endangered leatherback sea turtles. “The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient,” the United Nations environmental experts said in a statement, adding that it was unacceptable that it took three weeks for information about the water’s toxicity to surface. “The government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals,” they said.
The exact cause of the breach has not yet been determined. Samarco’s chief executive officer suggested that a seismic tremor near the mine may have caused it, but public prosecutors suspect negligence by the company. Brazil’s press is criticizing the federal government in Brasília for failing to monitor the dam. The National Department of Mineral Production employed only four people in the whole state of Minas Gerais to inspect 735 dams.
Excerpt from Vanessa Barbara, Brazil’s Toxic Sludge, NY Times, Dec. 17, 2015
VW Air Pollution
China’s new pledge to depeg its currency from the U.S. dollar underscores a difficult fact for Beijing: the U.S. Federal Reserve could blunt its efforts to rekindle Chinese growth.The Fed is widely expected to raise rates this week amid signs of a strengthening U.S. economy. Meanwhile, China’s economy is going the other direction, with Beijing cutting interest rates and making other moves to loosen monetary policy and spur slowing economic growth.
A U.S. rate increase could hinder that effort. It would likely make the dollar stronger, forcing China to intervene in currency markets to maintain the peg. That means buying yuan, often from Chinese banks, which effectively takes money out of China’s financial system at a time when Beijing is trying to make more available to its businesses and consumers.Already, credit remains tight for many Chinese borrowers, especially small and private companies, despite six interest-rate cuts and looser bank-reserve requirements enacted over the past 13 months.
On December 11, 2015, China’s central bank signaled its hope to break up that dynamic by pegging the yuan to a basket of currencies — including the dollar, euro, yen and 10 other currencies — instead of the U.S. dollar alone. That would give the yuan room to fall against the dollar…
But the move has also set off selling of the yuan both within China and in what is known as Hong Kong’s offshore market amid investor expectations that a currency basket means a weaker yuan…In a bid to calm the jittery markets, the PBOC said in an editorial posted on its website on December 14, 2015 that China’s still-high growth rate, ample foreign-exchange reserves and rising foreign demand for Chinese assets should work together to keep the Chinese currency at a reasonable equilibrium.
It is far from clear that China will depeg its currency from the dollar — something it has said it would do in the past only to retreat. Decoupling risks a loss of investor confidence in the yuan’s stability, which could lead to more money leaving China, according to Chinese officials and advisers to the central bank.
“Abandoning the peg would be an important step toward achieving monetary-policy independence, but destabilizing capital outflows could hold the central bank back from doing that,” one of the advisers said. In early 2009, four years after it said it would divorce the yuan from the dollar, China hitched the value of its currency to the greenback again to keep the yuan from falling in the midst of the global financial crisis.
The peg has “complicated domestic macroeconomic policy management as economic prospects between the U.S. and China have diverged,” said Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University professor and former China head of the International Monetary Fund.
Some economists blame the yuan’s strength for some of the problems. They say an overvalued yuan relative to its purchasing power has led Chinese companies to cut prices and lower wages to stay competitive. Also, China’s exports to countries like Japan and those in Europe in recent months have declined faster than its sales to the U.S.”The overvaluation of the renminbi is a root cause of China’s economic ills these days,” said chief economist Lu Zhengwei at Industrial Bank Co., a large national bank in China.
Excerpts from China’s Pledge to Divorce Yuan From Dollar Faces Fed Test, Dow Jones Business News, Dec. 14, 2015
Sweden keeps its radioactive operational waste SKB’s Final Repository for Short-Lived Radioactive Waste is located at Forsmark in the municipality of Östhammar. The facility started operating in 1988 and was then the first of its kind in the world. The radioactive waste deposited in the SFR is low and medium level waste. This means that unlike spent nuclear fuel it does not have to be cooled and is relatively short-lived. The SFR is situated 50 metres below the bottom of the Baltic and comprises four 160-metre long rock vaults and a chamber in the bedrock with a 50-metre high concrete silo for the most radioactive waste. Two parallel kilometre-long access tunnels link the facility to the surface. Except from http://www.skb.com/our-operations/sfr/
Hardly a day goes by without some tech company proclaiming that it wants to reinvent itself as a platform. …Some prominent critics even speak of “platform capitalism” – a broader transformation of how goods and services are produced, shared and delivered. Such is the transformation we are witnessing across many sectors of the economy: taxi companies used to transport passengers, but Uber just connects drivers with passengers. Hotels used to offer hospitality services; Airbnb just connects hosts with guests. And this list goes on: even Amazon connects booksellers with buyers of used books.d innovation, the latter invariably wins….
But Uber’s offer to drivers in Seoul does raise some genuinely interesting questions. What is it that Uber’s platform offers that traditional cabs can’t get elsewhere? It’s mostly three things: payment infrastructure to make transactions smoother; identity infrastructure to screen out any unwanted passengers; and sensor infrastructure, present on our smartphones, which traces the location of the car and the customer in real time. This list has hardly anything to do with transport; they are the kind of peripheral activity that traditional taxi companies have always ignored.
However, with the transition to knowledge-based economy, these peripherals are no longer really peripherals – they are at the very centre of service provision.There’s a good reason why so many platforms are based in Silicon Valley: the main peripherals today are data, algorithms and server power. And this explains why so many renowned publishers would team up with Facebook to have their stories published there in a new feature called Instant Articles. Most of them simply do not have the know-how and the infrastructure to be as nimble, resourceful and impressive as Facebook when it comes to presenting the right articles to the right people at the right time – and doing it faster than any other platform.
Few industries could remain unaffected by the platform fever. The unspoken truth, though, is that most of the current big-name platforms are monopolies, riding on the network effects of operating a service that becomes more valuable as more people join it. This is why they can muster so much power; Amazon is in constant power struggles with publishers – but there is no second Amazon they can turn to.
Venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel want us to believe that this monopoly status is a feature, not a bug: if these companies weren’t monopolies, they would never have so much cash to spend on innovation. This, however, still doesn’t address the question of just how much power we should surrender to these companies.
Making sure that we can move our reputation – as well as our browsing history and a map of our social connections – between platforms would be a good start. It’s also important to treat other, more technical parts of the emerging platform landscape – from services that can verify our identity to new payment systems to geolocational sensors – as actual infrastructure (and thus ensuring that everybody can access it on the same, nondiscriminatory terms) is also badly needed.
Most platforms are parasitic: feeding off existing social and economic relations. They don’t produce anything on their own – they only rearrange bits and pieces developed by someone else. Given the enormous – and mostly untaxed – profits made by such corporations, the world of “platform capitalism”, for all its heady rhetoric, is not so different from its predecessor. The only thing that’s changed is who pockets the money.
Excerpt from Evgeny Morozov, Where Uber and Amazon rule: welcome to the world of the platform, Guardian, Nov. 15, 2015
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s agreement in principle to supply nuclear power technology to India may run counter to Japan’s stated commitment against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The deal was reached on Dec. 12, 2015 during a meeting between Abe, who is visiting New Delhi, and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. If an actual nuclear power agreement is signed, it would mark the first for Japan with a nation that has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The latest move by Japan was met swiftly with criticism in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japan and India began negotiating a nuclear power agreement in 2010 when the Democratic Party of Japan was still in power. Japan had wanted a provision in any such deal that would allow it to immediately stop any nuclear power cooperation should India resume testing of nuclear weapons, which has been on hold since 1998. Although a joint declaration and a memorandum regarding a nuclear power agreement were released on Dec. 12, 2015 no provisions were included regarding a suspension of cooperation should India resume nuclear testing. In the joint declaration, the two leaders confirmed that a nuclear power agreement would be signed after completion of the technological details through further negotiations between the two nations.
Excerpt from Japan’s nuclear power deal in principle with India a first with an NPT non-signer, ASAHI SHIMBUN, Dec. 13, 2015
The industry ministry will consider the feasibility of burying high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants under the seabed, which a working panel said Dec. 11, 2015 could be a “highly appropriate” solution. In an interim report on disposal methods of highly contaminated materials from spent nuclear fuel, the panel said such waste could be disposed of in adjacent waters within 20 kilometers of the coastline.
It called the disposal method relatively realistic because the circulation of groundwater at sea is not as strong as on land. The panel said the site should be created in adjacent waters so that nuclear waste can easily be transported by ships. The panel included the under-the-seabed disposal plan in nearby waters as a viable option for the final disposal site.
Based on this proposal, the ministry will set up an expert panel in January 2016 to discuss what specific technical challenges lay ahead. The expert panel will discuss locations of active faults under the seabed and the impact of sea level changes to evaluate the feasibility of the project. It is expected to issue its recommendations by next summer.
While the government has encouraged municipalities to submit candidate sites for nuclear waste disposal, it is being forced to rethink this policy because no local government has come forward to provide a realistic disposal site. Instead, it will hand-pick the “candidate sites from scientific perspectives” and unilaterally request local governments to comply with its research and inspection efforts.
Japan to consider ocean disposal of nuclear waste, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, Dec. 12, 2015
[The] intelligence network Islamic State has put in place since it seized vast stretches of Iraq and neighbouring Syria… [is overseen by] former army and intelligence officers, many of whom helped keep former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party in power for years. …The Baathists have strengthened the group’s spy networks and battlefield tactics and are instrumental in the survival of its self-proclaimed Caliphate, according to interviews with dozens of people, including Baath leaders, former intelligence and military officers, Western diplomats and 35 Iraqis who recently fled Islamic State territory for Kurdistan. Of Islamic State’s 23 portfolios – equivalent to ministries – former Saddam regime officers run three of the most crucial: security, military and finance, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst who has worked with the Iraqi government….In many ways, it is a union of convenience. Most former Baathist officers have little in common with Islamic State. Saddam promoted Arab nationalism and secularism for most of his rule. But many of the ex-Baathists working with Islamic State are driven by self preservation and a shared hatred of the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. Others are true believers who became radicalised in the early years after Saddam’s ouster, converted on the battlefield or in U.S. military and Iraqi prisons….
Baathists began collaborating with al Qaeda in Iraq – the early incarnation of what would become Islamic State – soon after Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. Saddam had run a brutal police state. The U.S. occupation dissolved the Baath Party and barred senior and even middling party officials from joining the new security services. Some left the country, others joined the anti-American insurgency…..By 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies. As Islamic State fighters swept through central Iraq, they were joined by the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a group of Baathist fighters..That has boosted Islamic State’s firepower and tactical prowess….Emma Sky, a former adviser to the U.S. military, believes Islamic State has effectively subsumed the Baathists. “The mustached officers have grown religious beards. I think many have genuinely become religious,” she said.
Among the most high profile Baathists to join Islamic State are Ayman Sabawi, the son of Saddam Hussein’s half brother, and Raad Hassan, Saddam’s cousin, said the senior Salahuddin security official and several tribal leaders. Both were children during Saddam’s time, but the family connection is powerfully symbolic. More senior officers now in Islamic State include Walid Jasim (aka Abu Ahmed al-Alwani) who was a captain of intelligence in Saddam’s time, and Fadhil al-Hiyala (aka Abu Muslim al-Turkmani) whom some believe was a deputy to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi until he was killed in an airstrike earlier this year.
The group’s multi-layered security and intelligence agencies in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq, are overseen by an agency called Amniya – literally ‘Security’. The agency has six branches, each responsible for maintaining a different aspect of security…..They also run a network of informants, placing children such as 14-year-old Mohannad in mosques and markets, and women at funerals and family gatherings, according to residents of Mosul…
Islamic State execution squads often arrive in a large bus with tinted windows, another resident said. Police seal off streets surrounding the place where a killing is to be carried out. Men dressed in black with balaclavas either shoot people, or behead them with swords.The bodies of those deemed to have committed the worst offences – cursing God or the group – are thrown in an area called al-Khafsa, a deep natural crater in the desert just south of Mosul, residents in the city said. Those killed for lesser crimes are returned to their families wrapped in a blanket.
Excerpts from Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, The Baathists: How Saddam’s men help Islamic State rule, Reuters, Dec. 11, 2015