Monthly Archives: December 2016

300 Years and Counting: Nuclear Waste in Russia

City of Novouralsk Russia, Image from wikipedia

Russia opened it first ever repository for low and medium level nuclear waste last week in a major benchmark for the country’s radioactive waste …Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona… called the opening of the repository “the first important step” of Russia’s National Operator for Radioactive waste management.

The 48,000 cubic meter facility in the Sverdlovsk Region’s close nuclear city of Novouralsk lies at shallow depth and operates as a repository for what state nuclear corporation Rosatom classifies as type 3 and 4 wastes.The new facility will be able to store solid waste in isolation from the outside environment for 300 years, ten times longer than any other current storage schemes in Russia….

The Novouralsk site…. is the first of several that will open in Russia in the coming years….Rosatom plans to build a repository for type 3 and 4 waste at the closed nuclear city of Ozersk, where the notorious Mayak Chemical Combine is located. Another is planned for the closed city of Seversk in the Tomsk Region.

A site for Rosatom types 1 and 2 waste, representing high level nuclear waste, is currently being sited at the Nizhnekansky Rock Mass in the Krasnoyarsk Region.If the rock mass proves suitable for deep geological storage of intermediate and high level waste, construction of the repository could begin in 2024. How much waste the site would hold has yet to be determined.

Excerpts from Charles Digges, Russia’s first nuclear waste repository starts operation, Bellona, December 14, 2016

Off the Hook: Nuclear Power Companies in Germany

location of nuclear plants Germany, Image from wikipedia.

Germany aims to phase out its nine remaining reactors by 2022, faster than almost any country

On  December 12, 2016 , it cut a deal with the nuclear power companies operating in the country that would guarantee them a ceiling on costs related to radioactive waste, lawmakers said  on December 12, 2016  Germany’s E.ON SE, RWE AG, EnBW AG and Sweden’s Vattenfall AB already set aside about €17 billion ($18 billion) to finance the disposal of radioactive waste after the government moved to ban nuclear power five years ago. Now  they would pay an additional €6 billion into a public fund but be off the hook for any further payments if the cost of processing the radioactive material were to balloon out of control in the decades to come, as many experts fear.  The companies have also agreed to drop some of the lawsuits they filed against the government after the nuclear ban….

The government and the power companies are moving toward “legal certainty,” said Oliver Krischer, a lawmaker with the Greens on Monday. But “to bring a lasting peace to the topic, the nuclear power plant companies should drop their remaining disputes at the national level and in international tribunals,” he said. Vattenfall is suing Germany for around €5 billion in arbitration at Washington’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Excerpt Germany Cuts Deal With Nuclear Power Companies Over Waste Costs, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12, 2016

The Body Count and the Small Footprint

Jan. 14, 2014. Islamic State marching in Raqqa Syria. Image Associated Press

The U.S. assaults… have been far more deadly than is generally recognized. Military sources say that drone strikes have killed between 20,000 and 25,000 Islamic State operatives in Iraq and Syria. U.S. conventional attacks have killed about 30,000 more, for a total “body count” of over 50,000….The CIA and JSOC both conduct roughly the same number of drone flights every day. But the sources said the military’s drones conducted more than 20,000 strikes over the last year, in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, while the CIA is said to have struck less than a dozen targets over that same period.

The CIA oversaw much of America’s drone warfare during the first half of Obama’s presidency, when it was targeting al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan. But the agency’s focus on such counterterrorism “direct action” appears to have diminished over the past several years.
Obama’s  preference for special operations forces and their “small-footprint” tactics, as opposed to big conventional assaults….One unlikely legacy of Obama’s presidency is that he made the secret, once-impermissible tactic of targeted killing the preferred tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Excerpt from David Ignatius, Pentagon and CIA in a terror turf war,  Washington Post. Dec 12, 2016

New Species for Museums: Giraffes and the Unknowables

giraffe skeleton

Over 700 newly recognised bird species have been assessed for the latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and 11% of them are threatened with extinction. The update also reveals a devastating decline for the giraffe, driven by habitat loss, civil unrest and illegal hunting. The global giraffe population has plummeted by up to 40% over the last 30 years, and the species has been listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Today’s IUCN Red List update also includes the first assessments of wild oats, barley, mango and other crop wild relative plants. These species are increasingly critical to food security, as their genetic diversity can help improve crop resistance to disease, drought and salinity…Almost every species of plant that humans have domesticated and now cultivate has one or more crop wild relatives. However, these species have received little systematic conservation attention until now.

The update was released today at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP13) in Cancun, Mexico. The IUCN Red List now includes 85,604 species of which 24,307 are threatened with extinction. “Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen.

Excerpts from New bird species and giraffe under threat – IUCN Red List, News Release, Dec. 8, 2016 

Where Nuclear Ships Go to Die

USS Gerald R. Ford under construction

A $1.65 billion facility will be built at a nuclear site in eastern Idaho to handle fuel waste from the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered warships, the Navy and U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday.Officials said the new facility is needed to keep nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines deployed.

The new construction will be at the Naval Reactors facility on the Energy Department’s southeastern Idaho site that covers about 890-square-miles of high-desert sagebrush steppe. The area also includes the Idaho National Laboratory, considered the nation’s primary lab for nuclear research.  Officials said site preparation is expected to begin in 2017 with construction of the facility likely to start in 2019, creating 360 on-site jobs. The facility is expected to start operating in late 2024…

Officials say the new facility will operate through at least 2060 and can handle a new type of spent-fuel shipping container, which is not possible at the current facility. The Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier will use the new container when the carrier becomes operational. So will nuclear-powered submarines under construction, officials said.  The facility will have storage spaces to submerge the fuel waste in water so it cools before being transferred into dry storage areas, said Don Dahl, a spokesman for the Naval Reactors facility.

The places where the waste will be submerged will meet seismic standards aimed at preventing them from being affected by earthquakes, unlike existing storage spaces at the site that don’t meet those standards.

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, a joint Navy and Energy Department organization, has been sending spent Navy fuel to the Idaho site since 1957. It’s transported by rail from shipyards. Dahl declined to describe security at Navy site….

Nuclear waste coming into Idaho prompted lawsuits when state leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s thought the site was becoming a permanent nuclear waste repository. The lawsuits culminated in a 1995 agreement, then a 2008 addendum, limiting such shipments and requiring most nuclear waste to be removed from the federal site by 2035. The deal applies to the Navy’s spent nuclear fuel.  Under the agreement, fuel waste coming to the new facility after 2035 will only remain for the six years it takes to cool in pools. After that, it’s required to be put in dry storage and taken out of Idaho. However, the nation has no repository for spent nuclear fuel at this time, so where it will go is not clear.

US to build $1.6B Idaho facility for warships’ nuclear waste, Associated Press, Dec. 6, 2016

Regulating the Cockpit: Investor-State Disputes

emile_claus_-_hanengevecht_in_vlaanderen

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS)cases+are decided by extrajudicial tribunals composed of three corporate lawyers. Although ISDS has existed for decades, its scope and impact has grown sharply in the last decade. As ISDS has been written into over 3,000 Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) and numerous Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), the opportunities for ISDS claims are huge and growing.

Originally justified as necessary to protect foreign corporate investments abroad from nationalization or expropriation by governments controlling national judiciaries, [it is claimed that] foreign corporations have used ISDS to change sovereign laws and undermine national regulations...Already, India, Indonesia and Ecuador have advised their treaty partners that they are considering ending their BITs because of ISDS. To reduce abuses, investors could be required to first prove discrimination in national courts before being allowed to proceed to ISDS arbitration. Alternatively, national courts could exercise judicial review over ISDS awards. Also, arbitrators could be required to be independent of the ISDS process, with set salaries, security of tenure and no financial ties to litigants while investor status for ISDS claims could be defined more strictly.

Excerpts from Jomo Kwame Sundaram ISDS Corporate Rule of Law, IPS, Dec. 1, 2016

+While ISDS is often associated with international arbitration under the rules of ICSID (the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes of the World Bank), it often takes place under the auspices of international arbitral tribunals governed by different rules or institutions, such as the London Court of International Arbitration, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre or the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. ISDS has been criticized because the United States has never lost any of its ISDS cases, and that the system is biased to favor American companies and American trade over other Western countries, and Western countries over the rest of the world (wikipedia)

The Wild West of Fear: how states scare each other in space

image from NASA

It was May 2014 when a small team of American airmen monitoring a Russian satellite launch saw something they had never seen before. An object the team thought was a piece of debris from the launch suddenly came to life.  “The one object that we assumed was a piece of debris started to maneuver in close proximity to the (rocket) booster,” recalled Lt. Gen. David Buck …at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Buck… said the deliberate maneuvers the mystery object made close to the rocket’s booster were a red flag. Getting that close to another object in space is a complex feat, as objects can move as fast as 17,500 miles per hour….[W]hat the US military was witnessing was not debris at all, but instead a satellite with a dangerous capability, one that could allow it to cozy up next to another satellite and potentially destroy it….

The Russian satellite is officially known as Kosmos 2499 but it has been given a more daunting nickname: “kamikaze,” a spacecraft expressly designed to maneuver up close to another satellite to disable or destroy it. In other words, it’s a satellite that could go on the attack.Retired Gen. William Shelton, the former commander of Air Force space command, likened the satellite to a space Trojan horse. “You could have something on orbit that, for all intents and purposes, looks like a communications satellite, when in actuality, it is also a weapon,” said Shelton.

Kosmos 2499 is far from the only threat. In September 2014, just a few months after Kosmos was placed in orbit, Russia launched an additional satellite named Luch with both maneuvering and spying capabilities.  “This satellite has been maneuvering through geosynchronous space … cozying up close to various communications satellites, listening to what traffic is flowing over those,” said Paul Graziani, CEO of civilian satellite tracker Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI).
Over the course of a year, Graziani’s team has watched as Luch parked itself next to three US commercial satellites and one European satellite. The Russians flew the satellite close enough to collect both civilian and, possibly, sensitive military information.  Graziani was charged with delivering the bad news to US-owned commercial satellite company Intelsat…

“If the operators of this spacecraft so chose, they could direct it to actually hit another spacecraft,” said Graziani.  Like Kosmos, Luch’s ability to maneuver has the potential to make it into a satellite killer.

 Launched in 2013, the Shiyan, meaning “experiment” in Chinese, was “experimenting” shadowing the smaller satellite, according to AGI. But then something unexpected happened: The smaller satellite repeatedly disappeared and then reappeared on their screens.“We saw the approach, we saw the larger spacecraft come close to the smaller spacecraft, and then we no longer saw the smaller spacecraft,” said Graziani.
The only reasonable explanation, experts say, is that the Shiyan has a robotic arm that was repeatedly grabbing and then releasing its smaller partner.  The Chinese government acknowledged the satellite’s robotic arm, saying the satellite is “mainly used in space debris observation,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

But space watchers like Graziani see a more sinister application.  “You could grab and hold of a satellite and maneuver it out of its mission,” said Graziani  If true, it would be a new threatening capability, allowing the Shiyan to essentially kidnap another satellite….

Lasers:  “You can aim a laser at a satellite’s sensor and try to make it hard to see,” said Laura Grego, a scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Like someone shining a flashlight in your eyes.”With power dialed up high that same laser could permanently fry the satellite’s sensor. But “very expensive and important satellites should have shutters” to block this kind of threat, said Grego, who considers these types of activities more of a nuisance than a space attack.

Space drone: Moving further into the realm of science fiction, the US military has developed the first space drone, the X-37BBearing a striking resemblance to the space shuttle, the drone is officially a reusable spacecraft for carrying payloads into space…Its other missions are classified, but the drone’s maneuverability, payload space and ability to stay in orbit for hundreds of days have space watchers and countries like Russia and China wondering whether the X-37B would one day be used as a space fighter jet,

Excerpts from Jim Sciutto and Jennifer Rizzo War in space: Kamikazes, kidnapper satellites and lasers, CNN, Nov. 29, 2016