Monthly Archives: May 2017

$2 Trillion Gamble: congested nuclear pools

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. Based on the guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in July 2015, four major cities would be contaminated (New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.), resulting in the displacement of millions of people. (Photo from http://wws.princeton.edu/news-and-events/news/item/us-nuclear-regulators-greatly-underestimate-potential-nuclear-disaster).

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relied on faulty analysis to justify its refusal to adopt a critical measure for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire at any one of dozens of reactor sites around the country, according to an article in the May 26,  2017 issue of Science magazine. Fallout from such a fire could be considerably larger than the radioactive emissions from the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. Published by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the article argues that NRC inaction leaves the public at high risk from fires in spent-nuclear-fuel cooling pools at reactor sites. The pools—water-filled basins that store and cool used radioactive fuel rods—are so densely packed with nuclear waste that a fire could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. On average, radioactivity from such an accident could force approximately 8 million people to relocate and result in $2 trillion in damages….”The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants,” said paper co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry’s wishes.”

Spent-fuel pools were brought into the spotlight following the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan…..”The Fukushima accident could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor,” von Hippel said. “That almost happened at Fukushima in Unit 4.”

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC considered proposals for new safety requirements at U.S. plants. One was a measure prohibiting plant owners from densely packing spent-fuel pools, requiring them to expedite transfer of all spent fuel that has cooled in pools for at least five years to dry storage casks, which are inherently safer. Densely packed pools are highly vulnerable to catching fire and releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The NRC analysis found that a fire in a spent-fuel pool at an average nuclear reactor site would cause $125 billion in damages, while expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry casks could reduce radioactive releases from pool fires by 99 percent. However, the agency decided the possibility of such a fire is so unlikely that it could not justify requiring plant owners to pay the estimated cost of $50 million per pool.

The NRC cost-benefit analysis assumed there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles from a fire. It also assumed that all contaminated areas could be effectively cleaned up within a year. Both of these assumptions are inconsistent with experience after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

In two previous articles, von Hippel and Schoeppner released figures that correct for these and other errors and omissions. They found that millions of residents in surrounding communities would have to relocate for years, resulting in total damages of $2 trillion—nearly 20 times the NRC’s result. Considering the nuclear industry is only legally liable for $13.6 billion, thanks to the Price Anderson Act of 1957, U.S. taxpayers would have to cover the remaining costs.

The authors point out that if the NRC does not take action to reduce this danger, Congress has the authority to fix the problem. Moreover, the authors suggest that states that provide subsidies to uneconomical nuclear reactors within their borders could also play a constructive role by making those subsidies available only for plants that agreed to carry out expedited transfer of spent fuel…

The paper, “Nuclear safety regulation in the post-Fukushima era,” was published May 26 in Science. For more information, see von Hippel and Schoeppner’s previous papers, “Reducing the Danger from Fires in Spent Fuel Pools” and “Economic Losses From a Fire in a Dense-Packed U.S. Spent Fuel Pool,” which were published in Science & Global Security in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The Science article builds upon the findings of a Congressionally-mandated review by the National Academy of Sciences, on which von Hippel served.

Excerpts from US nuclear regulators greatly underestimate potential for nuclear disaster, researchers say, Princeton University Woodrow Wilson  News, May 25,, 2017

Ooops, a Gentlemen’s Agreement Breaks

The mysterious hacking group that supplied a critical component of the WannaCry “ransomware” software attack that spread across the globe in mid-May 2017 has been releasing alleged National Security Agency secrets for the past eight months.  Former intelligence officials now fear that the hackers, who go by the name Shadow Brokers, are taking a new tack: exposing the identities of the NSA’s computer-hacking team. That potentially could subject these government experts to charges when traveling abroad.

The Shadow Brokers on April 14, 2017 posted on a Russian computer file-sharing site what they said were NSA files containing previously unknown attack tools and details of an alleged NSA hack affecting Middle Eastern and Panamanian financial institutions.

But something went largely unnoticed outside the intelligence community. Buried in the files’ “metadata”—a hidden area that typically lists a file’s creators and editors—were four names. It isn’t clear whether the names were published intentionally or whether the files were doctored. At least one person named in the metadata worked for the NSA, a person familiar with the matter said.  Additionally, the hacking group in April, 2017 sent several public tweets that seemingly threatened to expose the activities of a fifth person, former NSA employee Jake Williams, who had written a blog post speculating the group has ties to Russia… Security experts who have examined the documents believe they contain legitimate information, including code that can be used in hacks, as well as the names of the files’ creators and editors.

Because nation-state hackers might run afoul of other countries’ laws while discharging their duties, they could, if identified, face charges when outside their country. So, to keep their own people safe, governments for decades have abided by a “gentleman’s agreement” that allows government-backed hackers to operate in anonymity, former intelligence officials say….

Some former intelligence officials suggested the U.S. prompted the outing of state-sponsored hackers when it indicted five Chinese military hackers by name in 2014, and more recently brought charges against two officers with Russia’s Federal Security Service over a 2014 Yahoo Inc. breach.  By exposing cyberagents, the Shadow Brokers appear to be taking a page from the U.S. playbook, said Mr. Williams, who worked for the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking group until 2013. An NSA spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment about “most individuals’ possible current, past or future employment with the agency.”  “We’ve fired first,” Mr. Williams said, referring to the U.S. charging the alleged Chinese hackers by name. “This is us taking flak.”…

The documents revealed jealously guarded tactics and techniques the NSA uses to access computer systems…For example, the files include source code for software designed to give its creators remote access to hacked machines, and to evade detection from antivirus software. If the code was created by the NSA, it now gives security professionals a digital fingerprint they can use to track the NSA’s activities prior to the leak.

That could prove disruptive to NSA activities, forcing the agency to consider pulling its software from others’ networks and taking other steps to erase its tracks. And while the information could help companies determine whether they have been hacked by the NSA, it could also be used to create more malicious software. The Shadow Brokers tools, for example, are now being used to install malicious software such as WannaCry on corporate networks.

Mr. Williams initially thought the Shadow Brokers had access only to a limited set of NSA tools. His assessment changed after three tweets directed at him April 9, 2017 included terms suggesting the group had “a lot of operational data or at least operational insight” into his work at the NSA, he said.  The tweets, which are public, are cryptic. They express displeasure over an article Mr. Williams wrote attempting to link the Shadow Brokers to Russia. They also mention apparent software code names, including “OddJob” and “Windows BITS persistence.”…..OddJob is a reference to software released by the Shadow Brokers five days after the tweets. “Windows BITS persistence” is a term whose meaning isn’t publicly known.

Excerpts from In Modern Cyber War, the Spies Can Become Targets, Too, Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017

 

Commercial Experimenting on Space

space robotics

Space News reported on May 17, 2017 that a top Pentagon research official said that satellite servicing offers an opportunity for the government to foster close relationships with industry that allow companies to lead development of new technologies, rather than requiring them to abide by DOD guidelines. DARPA is currently partnering with Space Systems Loral to develop the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, and DARPA Tactical Technology Office Director Bradford Tousley said that the arrangement illustrates how the Pentagon can leverage “robust commercial space base” for technology development.

Excerpts from Satellite servicing a chance for industry-first development, DoD official says , Space News, May 17, 2017

The Final Development Frontier

glacial lake Tsho Rolpa, Nepal.

While India, Pakistan and China have all developed massive hydropower plants along the Himalayan mountains, Nepal’s civil war and political instability scared off investment for decades.  Now, thanks to an inclusive peace process that allowed the country’s main rebel leader to be elected prime minister twice, the focus is shifting to Nepal. Hydropower projects worth billions of dollars are in progress, with geologists and investors scouring the landscape for more.

Government surveys show Nepal’s abundant water resources can feasibly yield hydropower equal to more than 40% of U.S. output, a 40-fold increase from today. Officials project almost a third more hydropower capacity will come online this year. More than 100 projects under construction—over 40 since last year—and others in development will yield at least a tenfold increase in the next decade to 10 gigawatts of power, they say.

Nepal is ramping up its development of hydroelectric power plants in the Himalayas, but building in the region can be risky work. Photo: Brian Sokol for The Wall Street Journal  “There’s such an energy shortage that any project you build will find a market,” said Allard Nooy, CEO of InfraCo Asia, a development body funded by the U.K., Swiss and Australian governments that is financing one hydro project and seeking to develop two more.

Still, power companies don’t face an easy ride.  Among the hurdles are natural ones: earthquakes, landslides and inland tsunamis from glacial lakes as warmer temperatures prompt ice melt. Two years ago a series of massive quakes killed 9,000 people and shattered the country.

Opposition from environmental groups is another difficulty, especially for a new generation of dam projects. In the past, the World Bank and Japan’s Asian Development Bank have withdrawn support for projects amid opposition from environmental groups that say large dams can damage natural habitats like wetlands, threaten migratory fish stocks, and displace traditional farming communities.

Activists are concerned over the effects hydropower projects have on the environment and communities. Here are some of their top worries.

Displacement Dams flood valleys and in many cases require communities to abandon their land. A number of dam projects under consideration in Nepal would require whole villages to relocate.
Earthquakes A growing body of research suggests large dams can trigger quakes by adding pressure to areas near fault lines, a phenomenon known as “reservoir-induced seismicity.”
Wildlife Projects can disrupt the natural migration of fish and other river life. Environmentalists in Nepal are particularly concerned about the country’s small population of endangered Ganges River Dolphins.
Seasonal River-based hydropower projects, which are popular in Nepal, only generate electricity when water is flowing, making them less effective in the dry season. Dams can generate power in any season.

The greater stability has boosted momentum for rising investment in the Himalayas—a region dominated by Nepal, India and Bhutan that is considered the final development frontier in South Asia. Hydro energy projects are the biggest focus.  “The only resource we have, like the Arabian countries have oil, is water,” said Chhabi Gaire, project manager at the Rasuwagadhi Hydroelectric Project, a 1f11-megawatt plant under construction near China’s border.

Funding for projects is increasingly coming from Nepalese working abroad, says the Nepal Electricity Authority. Their remittances reached $6.7 billion in 2015, according to the World Bank, more than even Thai and South Korean workers abroad sent to their own countries.  Meanwhile, India’s cabinet approved $850 million in February to build a plant on Nepal’s Arun River that would export most of its energy to India. A month earlier, the Chinese-state owned China Three Gorges Company agreed to a joint venture with Nepal’s government to build a $1.6 billion hydropower plant on Nepal’s Seti River, also mainly for electricity export to India…

Workers on Nepal’s hydropower projects face sometimes deadly risks in the steep mountain valleys of the Himalayas such as landslides, falling boulders and flash floods…  [T] he 456-megawatt Upper Tamakoshi project, funded by a group of Nepal’s major banks and pension funds, is now under construction and set to open in mid-2018 with a reservoir to enable energy generation in the dry season.  It’s is also a risky project.

To the East the dangerous glacial lake Tsho Rolpa threatens to burst its banks. To the West, the Gongar river routinely spits boulders the size of two-story buildings over the valley wall. A bridge the developers built over the Gongar was swept away in a flash flood during monsoon season. Landslides triggered by quakes swept away swaths of the access road. To keep working, project developers built a steel truss bridge and drilled a new road tunnel through a collapsed valley wall.  Moreover, the project is built on such volatile terrain that the turbines and delicate transmission equipment were buried 460 feet beneath the surface.

Excerpts from In the Himalayas, a New Power Rises: Water, Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2017

 

Behavior Mining: your smartphone knows you better

Currently, understanding and assessing the readiness of the warfighter is complex, intrusive, done relatively infrequently, and relies heavily on self-reporting. Readiness is determined through medical intervention with the help of advanced equipment, such as electrocardiographs (EKGs) and otherspecialized medical devices that are too expensive and cumbersome to employ continuously without supervision in non-controlled environments. On the other hand, currently 92% of adults in the United States own a cell phone, which could be used as the basis for continuous, passive health and readiness assessment.  The WASH program will use data collected from cellphone sensors to enable novel algorithms that conduct passive, continuous, real-time assessment of the warfighter.

DARPA’s WASH [Warfighter Analytics using Smartphones for Health] will extract physiological signals, which may be weak and noisy, that are embedded in the data obtained through existing mobile device sensors (e.g., accelerometer, screen, microphone). Such extraction and analysis, done on a continuous basis, will be used to determine current health status and identify latent or developing health disorders. WASH will develop algorithms and techniques for identifying both known indicators of physiological problems (such as disease, illness, and/or injury) and deviations from the warfighter’s micro-behaviors that could indicate such problems.

Excerpt from Warfighter Analytics using Smartphones for Health (WASH)
Solicitation Number: DARPA-SN-17-4, May, 2, 2018

See also Modeling and discovering human behavior from smartphone sensing life-log data for identification purpose

Throwing Money at Nuclear Waste

Japan seeks final resting place for highly radioactive nuclear waste
…[W]ith a number of Japan’s nuclear reactors closed down for good in the wake of the Fukushima accident, the need for a permanent storage site is more pressing than ever.

The disaster, in which a 13-meter tsunami triggered by an off-shore earthquake crippled four reactors at the plant and caused massive amounts of radioactivity to escape into the atmosphere, also underlined just how seismically unstable the Japanese archipelago is and the need for the repository to be completely safe for 100,000 years.

“They have been trying to get this plan of the ground for years and one thing they tried was to offer money to any town or village that agreed to even undergo a survey to see if their location was suitable,” she said.  “There were a number of mayors who accepted the proposal because they wanted the money – even though they had no intention of ever agreeing to host the storage site – but the backlash from their constituents was fast and it was furious,” Smith added.  “In every case, those mayors reversed their decisions and the government has got nowhere,” she said. “But I fear that means that sooner or later they are just going to make a decision on a site and order the community to accept it.”

The security requirements of the facility will be exacting, the government has stated, and the site will need to be at least 300 meters beneath the surface in a part of the country that is not subject to seismic activity from active faults or volcanoes. It must also be safe from the effects of erosion and away from oil and coal fields. Another consideration is access and sites within 20 km of the coast are preferred.

The facility will need to be able to hold 25,000 canisters of vitrified high-level waste, while more waste will be produced as the nation’s nuclear reactors are slowly brought back online after being mothballed since 2011 for extensive assessments of their safety and ability to withstand a natural disaster on the same scale as the magnitude-9 earthquake that struck Fukushima.

When it is released, the government’s list is likely to include places in Tohoku and Hokkaido as among the most suitable sites, because both are relatively less populated than central areas of the country and are in need of revitalization efforts. Parts of Tohoku close to the Fukushima plant may eventually be chosen because they are still heavily contaminated with radiation from the accident.

Excerpts from Japan seeks final resting place for highly radioactive nuclear waste, Deutsche Welle, May 4, 2017

The Electric Brain

image from DARPA.

In March 2016, DARPA announced the…TNT was inspired by recent research showing that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves can activate regions of the brain involved with learning. Such signals can potentially trigger synaptic plasticity by releasing neurochemicals that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences. TNT researchers will strive to identify the physiological mechanisms that might allow this natural process to be enhanced using electrical stimulation of peripheral nerves, making the brain more adaptive during key points in the learning process.

“DARPA is approaching the study of synaptic plasticity from multiple angles to determine whether there are safe and responsible ways to enhance learning and accelerate training for skills relevant to national security missions,” said Doug Weber, the TNT Program Manager.  DARPA is funding eight efforts at seven institutions in a coordinated research program that focuses initially on the fundamental science of brain plasticity and aims to conclude with human trials in healthy volunteers. To facilitate transition into real-world applications, some of the teams will work with intelligence analysts and foreign language specialists to understand how they train currently so that the TNT platform might be refined around their needs. The program will also compare the efficacy of invasive (via an implanted device) versus non-invasive stimulation, investigate how to avoid potential risks and side effects of stimulation, and hold a workshop on the ethics of using neurostimulation to enhance learning.

DARPA’s TNT efforts differ from the Agency’s previous neuroscience and neurotechnology endeavors by seeking not to restore lost function but to advance capabilities in healthy individuals. By the end of the planned four-year program, DARPA aims to demonstrate that TNT methods and technologies can yield at least a 30 percent improvement in learning rate and/or skill performance over traditional training regimens, with minimal negative side effects.

Recognizing that these new technologies for learning and training could raise social and ethical issues, the TNT program is funding Arizona State University to host a national ethics workshop within the first year of the program.

Excerpts from TNT Researchers Set Out to Advance Pace and Effectiveness of Cognitive Skills Training, Apr. 26, 2017