Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sitting Still Nuclear Waste

Several options are available to immobilise waste resulting from nuclear fuel reprocessing. One of these is vitrification – a mature technology which has been used for high-level nuclear waste immobilization for over 50 years…Argentina is considering vitrification as a viable option for dealing with its high-level nuclear waste. The Argentine National Programme for Radioactive Waste Management aims to build capacities to implement vitrification processes for radioactive waste….
The vitrified radioactive waste is extremely durable, and ensures a high degree of environmental protection. Although the process of vitrification requires a high initial investment and then operational costs, waste vitrification has important advantages: it significantly reduces the volume of waste, and allows simple and cheap disposal possibilities. The overall cost of vitrified radioactive waste is usually lower than alternative options when transportation and disposal expenses are taken into account. For this reason, the process is very attractive for sates seeking effective and reliable immobilisation solutions for their radioactive waste stocks.

Excerpts from Taking a Closer Look at Vitrification: How the IAEA Helps Countries Utilise Advanced Immobilisation Technologies, IAEA Press Release, Mar. 24, 2017

US Special Forces Wars: 2017

location of drone base in Niger

Yemen to Syria to Central Africa, the Trump administration is relying on Special Operations forces to intensify its promised fight against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups as senior officials embrace an Obama-era strategy to minimize the American military’s footprint overseas.

In Africa, President Trump is expected to soon approve a Pentagon proposal to remove constraints on Special Operations airstrikes and raids in parts of Somalia to target suspected militants with the Shabab, an extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. Critics say that the change — in one of the few rejections of President Barack Obama’s guidelines for the elite forces — would bypass rules that seek to prevent civilian deaths from drone attacks and commando operations.

The global reach of special operators is widening. During the peak of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 13,000 Special Operations forces were deployed on missions across the globe, but a large majority were assigned to those two countries. Now, March 2017, more than half of the 8,600 elite troops overseas are posted outside the Middle East or South Asia, operating in 97 countries, according to the Special Operations Command.  Still, about one-third of the 6,000 American troops currently in Iraq and Syria are special operators, many of whom are advising local troops and militias on the front lines. About a quarter of the 8,400 American troops in Afghanistan are special operators.

In Africa, about one-third of the nearly 6,000 overall troops are Special Operations forces. The only permanent American installation on the continent is Camp Lemonnier [Djibouti], a sprawling base of 4,000 United States service members and civilians in Djibouti that serves as a hub for counterterrorism operations and training. The United States Air Force flies surveillance drones from small bases in Niger and Cameroon.

Elsewhere in Africa, the roles of special operators are varied, and their ranks are small, typically measured in the low dozens for specific missions. Between 200 and 300 Navy SEALs and other special operators work with African allies to hunt shadowy Shabab terrorists in Somalia. As many as 100 Special Forces soldiers help African troops pursue the notorious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. And Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta.

The United States is building a $50 million drone base in Agadez, Niger, that is likely to open sometime in 2018 to monitor Islamic State insurgents in a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad.  Mr. Trump’s tough talk on terrorism has been well received in Chad, where American Special Operations and military instructors from several Western nations finished an annual three-week counterterrorism training exercise last week.

Excerpts from AERIC SCHMITT, Using Special Forces Against Terrorism, Trump Seeks to Avoid Big Ground Wars, Mar. 19, 20187

Rusting and Leaking: radioactive waste in Australia

image from wikipedia

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia.
CSIRO faces a $30 million clean up bill after barrels of radioactive waste at a major facility were found to be “deteriorating rapidly” and possibly leaking.

An inspection found “significant rusting” on many of the 9,725 drums, which are understood to contain radioactive waste and other toxic chemicals.  Much of the radioactive waste was trucked to Woomera from Sydney in the mid 1990s.  CSIRO flagged a $29.7 million budget provision for “remediation works” at a remote location in its latest annual report.

Almost 10,000 drums of radioactive waste are stored at a CSIRO facility in Woomera, South Australia.  The Woomera facility is currently one of Australia’s largest storage sites for low and intermediate-level radioactive waste.   A damning report of the Woomera facility was issued by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) after an inspection in April 2016.   “Evidence was sighted that indicates the drums are now beginning to deteriorate rapidly,” read the report, seen by Fairfax Media.   “Significant rust on a number of the drums, deterioration of the plastic drum-liners and crushing of some stacked drums was observed.

Tests confirmed the presence of radioactive isotopes at one location and inspectors said there was a possibility the drums were leaking.”Although unlikely, there is the possibility that the presence of deceased animals such as rodents and birds may indicate that some of the drums, which contain industrial chemicals, may be leaking into the environment.”  The mixture of water and concentrated radioactive material inside some of the drums also had the potential to produce explosive hydrogen gas, inspectors found.

They also noted CSIRO had little knowledge of what was inside many of the barrels, some of which are believed to date back more than 50 years.  “Without full knowledge [of] the contents of the drums, risks cannot be fully identified and risk controls cannot be appropriately implements to protect people and the environment,” inspectors noted in the report.

Many of the drums are understood to contain contaminated soil generated by government research into radioactive ores at Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  The toxic soil was discovered by the Department of Defence in 1989, who sent it to Sydney’s Lucas Heights facility before it was palmed off to Woomera in 1994.

The country’s other major radioactive waste storage facility at Lucas Heights, Sydney, is rapidly approaching full capacity. 

Coupled with issues at the CSIRO site, the revelations highlighted the urgent need for a national radioactive waste storage solution, experts said.

Excerpts from Rusted barrels of radioactive waste cost CSIRO $30 million, Sydney Morning Herald, Mar. 13, 2017

The Ever-Present Human: digging deep into the sea

hydrothermal vents. image from http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/vents.html

In the 1960s and 1970s, amid worries about dwindling natural resources, several big companies looked into the idea of mining the ocean floor. They proved the principle by collecting hundreds of tonnes of manganese nodules…rich in cobalt, copper and nickel. As a commercial proposition, though, the idea never caught on. Working underwater proved too expensive and prospectors discovered new mines on dry land.

The International Seabed Authority, which looks after those parts of the ocean floor beyond coastal countries’ 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones, has issued guidelines for the exploitation of submarine minerals.

One of the most advanced projects is that of Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm. In January 2016 Nautilus took delivery of three giant mining machines (two rock-cutters and an ore-collector) that move around the seabed on tracks, like tanks. It plans to start testing these this year. If all goes well the machines could then start operating commercially in Nautilus’s concession off the coast of Papua New Guinea, which prospecting shows contains ore with a copper concentration of 7%. (The average for terrestrially mined ore is 0.6%.) This ore also contains other valuable metals, including gold.

This approach (which is also that taken by firms such as Neptune Minerals, of Florida, and a Japanese consortium led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) is different from earlier efforts. It involves mining not manganese nodules, but rather a type of geological formation unknown at the time people were looking into those nodules—submarine hydrothermal vents. These rocky towers, the first of which was discovered in 1977, form in places where jets of superheated, mineral-rich water shoot out from beneath the sea floor. They are found near undersea volcanoes and along the ocean ridges that mark the boundaries between Earth’s tectonic plates. They generally lie in shallower waters than manganese nodules, and often contain more valuable substances, gold among them.

They are not, though, as abundant as manganese nodules, so if and when the technology for underwater mining is proved, it is to nodules that people are likely to turn eventually. These really are there in enormous numbers. According to Dr Hannington, the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone, a nodule field that stretches from the west coast of Mexico almost to Hawaii, contains by itself enough nickel and copper to meet global demand for several decades, and enough cobalt to last a century.

Mining, whether on land or underwater, does come at an environmental cost, though… [T]he sediments the nodules are found in play host to microscopic critters that would be most upset by the process of trawling that is needed to bring the nodules to the surface. They might take decades to recover from it.

Excerpts from :Oceanography: Fruits de mer, Economist, Feb. 25, 2017

 

Not for the Fainthearted: total nuclear waste at Fukushima

Rubble Japan earthquake. image from wikipedia

Each form of waste at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, where three reactors melted down after an earthquake and a tsunami on March 11, 2011, presents its own challenges.

400 Tons of Contaminated Water Per Day
The Tokyo Electric Power Company is pumping water nonstop through the three reactors to cool melted fuel that remains too hot and radioactive to remove. About 400 tons of water pass through the reactors every day, including groundwater that seeps in. The water picks up radiation in the reactors and then is diverted into a decontamination facility.  But the decontamination filters cannot remove all the radioactive material. So for now, all this water is being stored in 1,000 gray, blue and white tanks on the grounds. The tanks already hold 962,000 tons of contaminated water, and Tokyo Electric is installing more tanks. It is also trying to slow the flow of groundwater through the reactors by building an underground ice wall.

Within a few years, though, and no one is sure exactly when, the plant may run out of room to store the contaminated water. “We cannot continue to build tanks forever,” said Shigenori Hata, an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.  The authorities are debating whether it might be acceptable, given the relatively low radioactive levels in the water, to dilute the contaminated water and then dump it into the ocean. But local fishermen are vehemently opposed. Many people still do not trust Tokyo Electric because of its bungled response to the disaster, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

3,519 Containers of Radioactive Sludge
The process of decontaminating the water leaves radioactive sludge trapped in filters, which are being held in thousands of containers of different sizes.Tokyo Electric says it cannot quantify the amount of radioactive sludge being generated. But it says it is experimenting with what to do with it, including mixing it with cement or iron. Then it will have to decide how to store it.

64,700 Cubic Meters of Discarded Protective Clothing
The estimated 6,000 cleanup workers at the site put on new protective gear every day. These hazmat suits, face masks, rubber gloves and shoe coverings are thrown out at the end of each shift. The clothing is compressed and stored in 1,000 steel boxes stacked around the site.To date, more than 64,700 cubic meters of gear has been discarded, the equivalent of 17 million one-gallon containers. Tokyo Electric says it will eventually incinerate all this contaminated clothing to reduce the space needed to store it.

Branches and Logs From 220 Acres of Deforested Land
The plant’s grounds were once dotted with trees, and a portion was even designated as a bird sanctuary. But workers have cleared about 220 acres of trees since the meltdown spewed radiation over them.Now, piles of branches and tree trunks are stacked all over the site. Officials say there are about 80,000 cubic meters of this waste, and all of it will have to be incinerated and stored someday.

200,400 Cubic Meters of Radioactive Rubble
Explosions during the meltdown filled the reactors with rubble. Workers and robots are slowly and carefully trying to remove this tangled mass of crushed concrete, pipes, hoses and metal.  Tokyo Electric estimates that more than 200,400 cubic meters of rubble — all of it radioactive — have been removed so far and stored in custom-made steel boxes. That is the equivalent of about 3,000 standard 40-foot shipping containers.

3.5 Billion Gallons of Soil

Thousands of plastic garbage bags sit in neat rows in the fields and abandoned towns surrounding the Fukushima plant. They contain soil that was scraped from land that was exposed to radiation in the days after the accident.  Japan’s Ministry of the Environment estimates that it has bagged 3.5 billion gallons of soil, and plans to collect much more. It will eventually incinerate some of the soil, but that will only reduce the volume of the radioactive waste, not eliminate it.  The ministry has already begun building a massive, interim storage facility in Fukushima prefecture and negotiating with 2,360 landowners for the thousands of acres needed to complete it. And that is not even a long-term solution: The government says that after 30 years it will need another site — or sites — to store radioactive waste.

1,573 Nuclear Fuel Rods
The ultimate goal of the cleanup is to cool and, if possible, remove the uranium and plutonium fuel that was inside the three reactors at the time of the disaster.  Hundreds of spent fuel rods are in cooling pools inside the reactors, and the company hopes to have cleared away enough rubble to begin removing them next year. The much bigger challenge will be removing the fuel that was in use in the reactor core at the time of the meltdown.

The condition and location of this molten fuel debris are still largely unknown. In one reactor where a robot was sent in January, much of the melted fuel is believed to have burned through the bottom of the inner reactor vessel and burrowed into the thick concrete foundation of the containment structure.  The plan is to completely seal the containment vessels, fill them with water and use robots to find and remove the molten fuel debris. But the rubble, the lethal levels of radiation and the risk of letting radiation escape make this an exceedingly difficult task.

In January 2017, the robot sent into one of the reactors discovered radiation levels high enough to kill a person in less than a minute. Another had to be abandoned last month after debris blocked its path and radiation disabled it.

Tokyo Electric hopes to begin removing fuel debris from the reactor cores in 2021. The entire effort could take decades. Some say the radioactive material may prove impossible to remove safely and have suggested leaving it and entombing Fukushima under a concrete and steel sarcophagus like the one used at Chernobyl.

But the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric say they are committed to removing all the waste and cleaning the site, estimated at a cost of $188.6 billion.

Excerpts from MOTOKO RICH, Struggling With Japan’s Nuclear Waste, Six Years After Disaster, Mar. 11, 2017

Robo-Cells Killing Bacteria

Fuligo septica, the "dog vomit" slime mold. image from wkipedia

Johns Hopkins University researchers are setting out to design and test self-directed microscopic warriors that can locate and neutralize dangerous strains of bacteria…[The goal] s to devise a prototype biocontrol system that can dispatch single-cell fighters to track down and engulf specific pathogens, rendering them harmless. The funding was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly called DARPA.

Possible first targets in this proof-of-concept project include Legionella, the bacteria that cause Legionnaire’s disease; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial strain that is the second-leading cause of infections found in hospitals. If the project succeeds, these tiny infection-fighters might one day be dispatched to curtail lethal microbes lurking in medical settings. Eventually, they could also be used to cleanse contaminated soil or possibly defend against bioterror attacks.

An important goal of the project is that each of the proposed soldier cells must carry out its own mission without relying on step-by-step commands from a remote human operator.

“Once you set up this biocontrol system inside a cell, it has to do its job autonomously, sort of like a self-driving car,” said Pablo A. Iglesias.”…In a similar way, the biocontrol systems we’re developing must be able to sense where the pathogens are, move their cells toward the bacterial targets, and then engulf them to prevent infections among people who might otherwise be exposed to the harmful microbes.”

These experts plan to biologically embed search-and-surround orders within a familiar type of amoeba cell called Dictyostelium discoideum [slime mold]. These widely studied microbes, commonly found in damp soil such as riverbeds, typically engulf and dine on bacteria, which are much smaller.  “These amoebas possess receptors that can detect the biochemical ‘scents’ emitted by bacteria,” Robinson said. “Our goal is to use concepts from control theory to design a ‘super amoeba’ that can recognize a particular bad guy—a specific type of disease-causing bacteria—and then move toward and attack these target cells.”  Robinson added: “The plan is to develop amoebas that are super-sensitive to these bacterial signals and home in on them as though they were a plate piled high with fresh chocolate chip cookies. The goal is to make these amoebas behave as though this is the most natural thing to do.”.. But if the project is successful, the researchers say the single-cell fighters could eventually be introduced into the cooling and ventilation system in a hospital, where they could feast on the bacteria that are currently causing dangerous infections. One possible method of introducing the infection fighters into such systems might be through use of a spray solution.

Iglesias noted that initial efforts will focus on bacteria lurking outside, not within the body.  “In this contract, we are not targeting bacteria in human blood,” he said, “but the hope is that the techniques we develop would ultimately be useful for that.”

Excerpts from Phil Sneiderman, Johns Hopkins researchers aim to design self-driving cells to pursue deadly bacteria, John Hopkins University, Feb. 2, 2016

Infestation: Vault 7 on the CIA cyber weapons

On 7 March 2017, WikiLeaks began its new series of leaks on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency…code-named “Vault 7” by WikiLeaks..

The first full part of the series, “Year Zero”, comprises 8,761 documents and files from an isolated, high-security network situated inside the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence in Langley, Virgina. It follows an introductory disclosure last month of CIA targeting French political parties and candidates in the lead up to the 2012 presidential election.

“Year Zero” introduces the scope and direction of the CIA’s global covert hacking program, its malware arsenal and dozens of “zero day” weaponized exploits against a wide range of U.S. and European company products, include Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows and even Samsung TVs, which are turned into covert microphones….

By the end of 2016, the CIA’s hacking division, which formally falls under the agency’s Center for Cyber Intelligence (CCI), had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other “weaponized” malware. Such is the scale of the CIA’s undertaking that by 2016, its hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook. The CIA had created, in effect, its “own NSA”…

Once a single cyber ‘weapon’ is ‘loose’ it can spread around the world in seconds, to be used by rival states, cyber mafia and teenage hackers alike.

CIA malware and hacking tools are built by EDG (Engineering Development Group), a software development group within CCI (Center for Cyber Intelligence), a department belonging to the CIA’s DDI (Directorate for Digital Innovation)…. Malware called “Weeping Angel”, developed by the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch (EDB), infests smart TVs, transforming them into covert microphones…  The attack against Samsung smart TVs was developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s MI5/BTSS. After infestation, Weeping Angel places the target TV in a ‘Fake-Off’ mode, so that the owner falsely believes the TV is off when it is on. In ‘Fake-Off’ mode the TV operates as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the Internet to a covert CIA server.

As of October 2014 the CIA was also looking at infecting the vehicle control systems used by modern cars and trucks. The purpose of such control is not specified, but it would permit the CIA to engage in nearly undetectable assassinations.

The CIA’s Mobile Devices Branch (MDB) developed numerous attacks to remotely hack and control popular smart phones. Infected phones can be instructed to send the CIA the user’s geolocation, audio and text communications as well as covertly activate the phone’s camera and microphone.

Despite iPhone’s minority share (14.5%) of the global smart phone market in 2016, a specialized unit in the CIA’s Mobile Development Branch produces malware to infest, control and exfiltrate data from iPhones and other Apple products running iOS, such as iPads. CIA’s arsenal includes numerous local and remote “zero days” developed by CIA or obtained from GCHQ, NSA, FBI or purchased from cyber arms contractors such as Baitshop. The disproportionate focus on iOS may be explained by the popularity of the iPhone among social, political, diplomatic and business elites.

A similar unit targets Google’s Android which is used to run the majority of the world’s smart phones (~85%) including Samsung, HTC and Sony. 1.15 billion Android powered phones were sold last year. “Year Zero” shows that as of 2016 the CIA had 24 “weaponized” Android “zero days” which it has developed itself and obtained from GCHQ, NSA and cyber arms contractors.

These techniques permit the CIA to bypass the encryption of WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Wiebo, Confide and Cloackman by hacking the “smart” phones that they run on and collecting audio and message traffic before encryption is applied.

The CIA also runs a very substantial effort to infect and control Microsoft Windows users with its malware.

Attacks against Internet infrastructure and webservers are developed by the CIA’s Network Devices Branch (NDB). The CIA has developed automated multi-platform malware attack and control systems covering Windows, Mac OS X, Solaris, Linux and more, such as EDB’s “HIVE” and the related “Cutthroat” and “Swindle” tools, which are described in the examples section below.

Cyber ‘weapons’ are in fact just computer programs which can be pirated like any other. Since they are entirely comprised of information they can be copied quickly with no marginal cost.  Securing such ‘weapons’ is particularly difficult since the same people who develop and use them have the skills to exfiltrate copies without leaving traces — sometimes by using the very same ‘weapons’ against the organizations that contain them. There are substantial price incentives for government hackers and consultants to obtain copies since there is a global “vulnerability market” that will pay hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for copies of such ‘weapons’. Similarly, contractors and companies who obtain such ‘weapons’ sometimes use them for their own purposes, obtaining advantage over their competitors in selling ‘hacking’ services…

In addition to its operations in Langley, Virginia the CIA also uses the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt as a covert base for its hackers covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa….

If there is a military analogy to be made, the infestation of a target is perhaps akin to the execution of a whole series of military maneuvers against the target’s territory including observation, infiltration, occupation and exploitation...

The CIA’s hand crafted hacking techniques pose a problem for the agency. Each technique it has created forms a “fingerprint” that can be used by forensic investigators to attribute multiple different attacks to the same entity…The CIA’s Remote Devices Branch’s UMBRAGE group collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques ‘stolen’ from malware produced in other states including the Russian Federation.  With UMBRAGE and related projects the CIA cannot only increase its total number of attack types but also misdirect attribution by leaving behind the “fingerprints” of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from.

Excerpts from, Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed, Wikileaks Press Release, Mar. 7, 2017