Monthly Archives: August 2017

Whale Wars and 2017 Armistice

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society flag. Image from wikipedia

Environmental activists are abandoning their annual anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica, saying Japan’s threat to defend its fleet is too daunting.  Capt. Paul Watson, the founder of anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, said Japan’s threat to dispatch its military was unprecedented.“For the first time ever, they have stated they may send their military to defend their illegal whaling activities,” Capt. Watson said in a statement Tuesday. “The Japanese whalers not only have all the resources and subsidies their government can provide, they also have the powerful political backing of a major economic superpower.”

The Japanese embassy in Canberra, Australia, didn’t immediately respond to Sea Shepherd’s announcement, but it previously accused the group of sabotage and “acts of violence which seriously endangered the safe navigation of vessels.”  Some of Sea Shepherd’s tactics include ramming whaling vessels and throwing stink bombs onto the decks of Japanese ships. In January 2010, one of Sea Shepherd’s boats sank after a collision with a whaling vessel.

The group’s decision to suspend its campaign after 12 years leaves Japan’s fleet free to resume whaling through the coming Antarctic summer without disruption. Japan’s whaling fleet reported in 2016 killing 333 minke whales, with plans to cull about 4,000 whales over the next 12 years under a quota set by the Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo.

The International Whaling Commission put in place a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. The next year, Japan embarked on a cull that it said was in the name of science, not commerce. Japan says it has a right to monitor whales’ impact on the fishing industry, though it also claims they are an important part of its cultural and culinary heritage.

Activists say scientific whaling is aimed at circumventing the 1986 ban.Last month, Japan’s Parliament passed a series of laws allowing for the protection of commercial whaling fleets. The International Court of Justice ruled against Japan in a scientific-whaling case in 2014.  Australia’s government condemned Japan’s new whaling laws in July 2017 saying they weren’t consistent with the 2014 ruling. Tokyo has withdrawn from the court’s jurisdiction with regard to whaling cases…

Capt. Watson said Sea Shepherd would resume anti-whaling efforts in the future, not only against the Japanese, but also in opposition to Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic whaling. “This is what we have been doing for 40 years,” he said.

Excerpts from  Foes of Whaling End Campaign, Wall Street Journal,  Aug. 30, 2017

The Nuclearized People

copper canister for spent nuclear fuel, Finland. Image from http://www.posiva.fi/en/final_disposal/basics_of_the_final_disposal/machinery#.WaWPwciGPIU

The Onkalo Nuclear Repository, Finland: Buried in holes in the floor will be copper canisters, 5.2 metres long, containing the remains of some of the world’s most radioactive nuclear waste. When the drilling is finished, in a century or so, 3,250 canisters each containing half a tonne of spent fuel will be buried in up to 70km of tunnels. Then the entire area will be sealed to make it safe for posterity.

The hundred-year timescale already means this is a megaproject. But that is just the beginning. The radioactive isotopes of plutonium used in nuclear-power plants must be stored for tens of thousands of years before they are safe. Finland aims to isolate its stockpile in the Onkalo repository, a burial chamber beneath the small forested island of Olkiluoto, home to one of its two nuclear-power plants, for at least 100,000 years.

In geological terms, that is a heartbeat; Finland’s bedrock is 1.9bn years old. But in human terms, 4,000 generations are almost inconceivable. As Mika Pohjonen, the managing director of Posiva, the utility-owned Finnish company overseeing the project, says, no one knows whether humans, creatures (or machines) will rule the Earth above by then—let alone whether they will be able to read today’s safety manuals. A hundred thousand years ago, Finland was under an ice sheet and Homo sapiens had not yet reached Europe….

But Posiva’s immediate priority is to create disposal caverns far enough from rock fissures and groundwater that Finland’s nuclear authorities allow it to start moving the canisters to their tomb in the early 2020s. “This is drilling with silk gloves on,” Mr Pohjonen says, as the machine pounds the rock with a deafening roar. “It has to be done gently.”

The disposal of nuclear fuel is among the most intractable of infrastructure projects. And there are already 266,000 tonnes of it in storage around the world, about 70,000 tonnes more than there were a decade ago. As Markku Lehtonen, a Finnish academic at the University of Sussex, puts it, the costs are high; the benefits are about avoiding harm rather than adding value; and evaluation is not about assessing risk, but about dealing with “uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance” over a protracted timescale….

Finland began the search for a site in 1983, shortly after it began generating nuclear power, and chose Olkiluoto after reviewing 100 areas. It has mapped faults and fissures in the bedrock, and sited the repository in a seismic “quiet zone”. It says it will avoid burying canisters close to potential pressure points, to minimise the danger that rock movements would crush or tear the canisters and cause radioactive leakage. Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) called Posiva’s analysis of the bedrock and groundwater “state of the art”…

But whether in crystalline granite, as in Finland and Sweden, or clay, as in France, or volcanic rock, as in Yucca Mountain, nuclear experts are confident that deep geological disposal can be safe. “There is a great deal of evidence that we can find many sites in the world with adequate geological properties for the required safety,” says Stefan Mayer, a waste-disposal expert at the IAEA.

Technology is the next hurdle. As well as 400-500 metres of bedrock between the canisters and the surface, there will be several man-made layers: steel, copper, water-absorbent bentonite clay around the canisters, and bentonite plugs sealing the caverns and, eventually, the access tunnel…. Some academics…are worried that the Finnish media have underplayed concerns about copper corrosion, compared with other countries with similar “multi-barrier” protection systems.

The trickiest challenge, though, is to build broader societal consent. Finland appears to have succeeded by starting early and sticking to its timetable. The decision to find a site and start disposing of nuclear waste in the 2020s was taken 40 years ago. In 1994 its parliament banned the import and export of spent nuclear fuel, which increased the pressure to find a home-grown solution. Few other countries have demonstrated the same determination. The good news is that, because waste needs to be cooled in tanks for 30-50 years before being disposed of, emerging nuclear powerhouses such as China have time to prepare.

Finns’ trust in their nuclear industry has remained high, despite accidents elsewhere, such as those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Finland’s four nuclear reactors operate at among the world’s highest utilisation rates, and supply 26% of its electricity. Its two nuclear utilities, TVO and Fortum, which co-own Posiva, are themselves part of an electricity system in which Finnish industries and many municipalities have a stake, bolstering public support. The Onkalo repository is situated next door to TVO’s two working Olkiluoto reactors, which means people nearby are—in the phrase of academics—“nuclearised”, that is, convinced of the benefits of nuclear power. Surveys suggest positive attitudes to nuclear power nationally exceed negative ones.

Some academics worry that Finland is taking waste disposal too much on faith. Any mishap could erode trust in an instant, as happened in Japan, another “high-trust” society, after the Fukushima disaster.,,

Other countries, including America and France, follow principles of reversibility or retrievability, meaning they can reverse the disposal process while it is under way or retrieve waste after burial, if technologies and social attitudes change. Finland’s model is more closed; it would take a huge amount of digging to recover the waste once it has been sealed. But analysts say there is no single correct approach. Britain, for instance, has done things by the book but still failed to find a place for a repository.

Finally, there is the matter of cost. Finland’s nuclear-waste kitty, collected from the utilities, currently stands at €2.5bn ($2.7bn). By the time it is closed, the price is expected to be €3.5bn. That is reassuringly modest for a 100-year project, partly reflecting the fact that Finland’s nuclear industry, even when the planned total of five reactors are up and running, is relatively small. Other countries have higher costs, and less discipline. Yucca Mountain, for instance, was once estimated to cost $96bn to complete. In 2012 America had $27bn in its disposal fund, collected from ratepayers, none of which has gone towards nuclear-waste management.

Excerpts Disposing Nuclear Waste: To the Next Ice Age and Beyond, Economist, Apr. 15, 2017

Longing for Lithium

Salar de Atacama. image from wikipedia

Lithium is a coveted commodity. Lithium-ion batteries store energy that powers mobile phones, electric cars and electricity grids (when attached to wind turbines and photovoltaic cells). Joe Lowry, an expert on the lightest metal, expects demand to nearly triple by 2025. Supply is lagging, which has pushed up the price. Annual contract prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide doubled in 2017, according to Industrial Minerals, a journal. That is attracting investors to the “lithium triangle” that overlays Argentina, Bolivia and Chile .  The region holds 54% of the world’s “lithium resources”, an initial indication of potential supply before assessing proven reserves.

Chile dominated the world lithium markets for decades. The Atacama salt flat has the largest and highest-quality proven reserves. The desert’s blazing sun, scarce rainfall and mineral-rich brines make Chile’s production costs the world’s lowest. Allied to this is the region’s most benign investment climate. Chile is far ahead in rankings of ease of doing business, levels of corruption, and the quality of its bureaucracy and courts (see charts). Its lithium deposits are close to Antofagasta and other Chilean ports;

But growth has flattened, allowing Australia to threaten Chile’s position as the world’s top producer…Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” material on the ground that it can be used in future nuclear-fusion power plants. There is little prospect that Chile will soon build one of these, but controls on lithium production remain as a way of protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem.

Just two companies, Chile’s SQM and Albemarle of the United States, are allowed to extract brine under leases that were signed in the 1980s. In addition, they are subject to quotas on the lithium they can produce from the brine, which also yields other minerals….Ending the metal’s strategic status and getting rid of quotas would make still more sense. So would improving Chile’s institutions and infrastructure. 

Argentina: Under the constitution, provinces, not the federal government, own the country’s minerals. Mining firms had to find their way through a confusion of provincial rules and regulations. “It was like the Tower of Babel,” says Daniel Meilán, the country’s current mining secretary. I Argentina’s newish president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to unblock investment, including that in lithium….  The federal government is trying to harmonise provincial regulations. It has hammered out agreement on a standard royalty (3% of revenue, plus 1.5% to improve local infrastructure)…

These advances have started to unfreeze investment in lithium. In 2016 the sector attracted $1.5bn; production rose by nearly 60%….

Under the left-wing government led by President Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has pulled out of numerous bilateral investment treaties, denying investors access to international arbitration. His government has nationalised parts of the oil and gas industries, along with the biggest telecoms company and most of the electricity sector.  The government keeps an even tighter grip on lithium than it does on gas, its biggest export. YPFB, the state-owned natural-gas company, at least enters into joint ventures with private-sector firms. Since 2010 the right to extract lithium brine has been reserved for the state. Private firms can now do no more than gaze longingly upon the Uyuni salt flat near Potosí, the largest in the world…

Like Chile, Bolivia hopes to form partnerships with private firms to make value-added products, including batteries and electric cars, through a new lithium enterprise, Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. But the government’s insistence on keeping a controlling stake is discouraging potential investors. In 2016 Bolivia sold 25 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China, pocketing a princely $208,000.

The white gold rush: The lithium triangle, Economist, June 17, 2017

Sleep Easy:the Nuclear Fuel Bank in Kazakhstan

image from IAEA

Kazakhstan has chosen August 29, 2017 for the opening ceremony of the first Low Enriched Uranium Bank (LEU Bank), being established in Kazakhstan under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The idea to establish the LEU bank was initially put forward in 2006 by Sam Nunn, co-founder of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit organization… The IAEA authorised the initiative in 2010 and Kazakhstan volunteered the following year to host the bank.

Previously Kazakhstan voluntarily had destroyed the 1,400 nuclear weapons it inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991….Kazakhstan was the first to close, at the end of Soviet days, the largest nuclear test site in the world, the Semipalatinsk test site, where 500 nuclear explosions took place,” he said, adding the LEU Bank is another example of Kazakh efforts to address the nuclear weapons issue.

The LEU bank will operate as a mechanism of last resort; in case of unforeseen disruption in a commercial market of uranium, countries that are unable to procure uranium for their nuclear power plants can request LEU from the bank under certain conditions. Thus, it will ensure a global nuclear fuel supply and facilitate nuclear non-proliferation efforts.The bank will be based at the Ulba Metallurgy Plant in Ust-Kamenogorsk in eastern Kazakhstan. The plant has dealt with and stored nuclear materials for more than 60 years without any incidents.  The funding is based on voluntary contributions from the NTI, the U.S., the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Kuwait, and Kazakhstan, which in total equals to $150 million, believed to be enough to procure 90 tonnes of low enriched uranium.

Excerpt from  Colin Stevens, 29 August opening of #Kazakhstan Low Enriched Uranium Bank, EU Report, July 24, 2017

Policing the Amazon Jungle

Transamazon Highway, image from wikipedia

The small town of Apui sits at the new frontline of Brazil’s fight against advancing deforestation…  The home of 21,000 people in southern Amazonas state was long protected by its remote location from illegal loggers, ranchers and farmers who clear the forest.  Now those who would destroy the jungle are moving in from bordering states, following the Transamazon Highway, which is little more than a red-dirt track in this part of the rainforest.

First come the loggers, who illegally extract valued lumber sold in far-off cities. The cattle ranchers follow, burning the forest to clear land and plant green pasture that rapidly grows in the tropical heat and rain. After the pasture is worn out, soy farmers arrive, planting grain on immense tracts of land…

Roughly 7,989 square kilometres (3,085 square miles) of forest were destroyed in 2016, a 29 percent increase from the previous year and up from a low of 4,571 square kilometers in 2012, according to the PRODES satellite monitoring system.

Then there are the fires.  Apui ranked first in the country for forest fires in the first week of August 2017, according to the ministry.

At their best the environmental agents can slow but not stop the destruction. They raid illegal logging camps, levy large fines that are rarely collected and confiscate chainsaws to temporarily impede the cutting.  Costa acknowledges that the roughly 1,300 environmental field agents who police a jungle area the size of western Europe have a difficult task, at the very least.

Excerpt from Brazil’s agents of the Amazon fighting loggers, fires to stop deforestation, Reuters, Aug. 20, 2017

Here to Stay: the Nuclear Supply Chain

The smallest nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S. Navy's NR-1. image from wikipedia

The report from the Energy Futures Initiative released on August 15, 2017 by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for greater federal investment in the US huclear-power industry. The report calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but the industry has been struggling.  Five nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of 5 gigawatts, have closed early since 2013, and an additional six plants are scheduled to shutter early over the next nine years. Of the two new nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., one was halted by Scana Corp. in July 2017 and backers of the other, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are seeking additional aid from the federal government.

Westinghouse Electric Co., the nuclear technology pioneer that is part of Toshiba Corp., went bankrupt in March, after it hit delays with its AP1000 reactors at each of those plants. After it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse — whose technology is used in more than half the world’s nuclear power plants — said it shifted its focus from building reactors to helping dismantle them.

The U.S. needs companies and engineers that can both build and run nuclear enterprises…. The U.S. Navy’s reactors require supplies and qualified engineers, and American nuclear scientists fill vital national security roles, it said.  Companies, such as BWX Technologies Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia manufacture nuclear components for both the commercial nuclear industry and naval reactors. If the commercial business collapses, that may mean one less company able to process highly enriched uranium, according to the report.

“A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers,” according to the report.

In addition to extending a tax credit for new nuclear power and the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, the report says the federal government could also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain.”

Excerpts from Moniz: Nuclear Power’s Woes Imperil US National Security, Bloomberg, Aug. 15, 2017

 

Scientific Torture

Comment from Donald Rumsfeld: "I stand for 8–10 hours a day. Why is standing [by prisoners] limited to four hours?" Image from wikipedia

Was the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program an instance of human experimentation?

Recently declassified documents raise this explosive question. The documents were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in connection with a federal lawsuit scheduled for trial on September 2017. The case was brought on behalf of three former detainees against two psychologists who developed the C.I.A.’s program..[T]he C.I.A. paid the psychologists to develop a research methodology and instructed physicians and other medical staff members at clandestine detention sites to monitor and chart the health conditions of detainees.

In response, the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights has charged that the program was an unlawful experiment on human beings. It calls the program “one of the gravest breaches of medical ethics by United States health professionals since the Nuremberg Code,” the ethical principles written to protect people from human experimentation after World War II. In its lawsuit, the A.C.L.U. is pressing a similar claim….

To some degree, the documents suggest, the two psychologists resisted pressure within the C.I.A. for rigorous assessment of the program’s efficacy. They argued that interrogation strategies can’t be standardized and therefore can’t be compared, like medical treatments, in randomized, prospective fashion. But backers of more systematic assessment seem to have won out. In an undated document, the C.I.A.’s chief of medical services chided Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen for treating the torture program as an “art form” that “could not be objectively analyzed,” then pressed the “need to look more objectively for the least intrusive way to gain cooperation.”…

Given that, in the words of President Barack Obama, “we tortured some folks,” isn’t it better to have learned something about the toll on bodies and minds?… Here’s why it may be….Prohibiting data collection as an adjunct to torture makes it harder for perpetrators to hone their technique. It stands in the way of efforts to make torture, like some medical procedure, “safe and effective.” And it keeps apologists from rationalizing that abuse is acceptable since researchers are making improvements.  Observational studies of the torturer’s craft victimize people by legitimizing it. And they put future captives at greater risk for becoming victims.

Excerpts from  M. GREGG BLOCHE , When Torture Becomes Science, New York Times, Aug. 12, 2017 full article