Monthly Archives: September 2017

Unjustifiable Extinctions

Hydrostachys polymorpha. image from http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/speciesdata/image-display.php?species_id=124820&image_id=2

The world’s botanic gardens contain at least 30% of all known plant species, including 41% of all those classed as ‘threatened’, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date of diversity in ‘ex situ’ collections: those plants conserved outside natural habitats.

The study, in September 2017 in the journal Nature Plants, found that the global network of botanic gardens conserves living plants representing almost two-thirds of plant genera and over 90% of plant families.  However, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a significant imbalance between temperate and tropical regions. The vast majority of all plants species grown ex situ are held in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, some 60% of temperate plant species were represented in botanic gardens but only 25% of tropical species, despite the fact that the majority of plant species are tropical.

For the study, researchers analysed datasets compiled by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)….

“The global network of botanic gardens is our best hope for saving some of the world’s most endangered plants,” said senior author Dr Samuel Brockington, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences as well as a curator at the University’s own Botanic Garden.
“Currently, an estimated one fifth of plant diversity is under threat, yet there is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct.   “If we do not conserve our plant diversity, humanity will struggle to solve the global challenges of food and fuel security, environmental degradation, and climate change.”

The plants not currently grown in botanic gardens are often more interesting than those that are, say the researchers. Hydrostachys polymorpha, for example, an African aquatic plant that only grows in fast flowing streams and waterfalls, or the tiny parasitic plant Pilostyles thurberi – only a few millimetres long, it lives completely within the stem tissue of desert shrubs.  Species from the most ancient plant lineages, termed ‘non-vascular’ plants, are currently almost undocumented in botanic gardens – with as few as 5% of all species stored in the global network. These include plants such as the liverworts and mosses.

“Non-vascular species are the living representatives of the first plants to colonise the land,” said Brockington. “Within these plants are captured key moments in the early evolutionary history of life on Earth, and they are essential for understanding the evolution of plants”

Excerpts from World’s botanic gardens contain a third of all known plant species, and help protect the most threatened, Press Release of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Sept. 25, 2016

The Meaning of Forever: permanent military presence

Duqm, Oman. Image from wikipedia

UK Foreign Minister Michael Fallon cemented a raft of military agreements with Oman in August 2017, including the use of an Arabian Sea port for British naval ships.  Fallon visited the sultanate on August 28, 2017 to sign agreements with his counterpart and strengthen the already close military ties between the two countries.  A memorandum of understanding was signed between the two defence ministers to allow British naval ships to the use facilities at Duqm port before the establishment of the UK Joint Logistics Support Base.  “This agreement ensures British engineering expertise will be involved in developing Duqm as a strategic port for the Middle East, benefiting the Royal Navy and others,” Fallon said….Among the craft that will be allowed to dock in Duqm is the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, the largest ship in the British navy.   From Duqm, the supercarrier will be able to “project influence across an important region” the UK foreign office said.

The Joint Logistics Support Base*** will give the UK a “permanent” military presence in Oman, serving as a naval base, training facility, and key logistics centre, the foreign office said on its website.

Also finalised were joint exercises between the two countries, including “Saif Sareea 3” due to take place next year in Duqm.  Oman and the UK have some of the strongest military relations in the Gulf, strengthened after Sultan Qaboos bin Said took to the throne in 1970.  The UK was a key ally in the sultan’s war against communist separatists in the south of the country.  British military officers have traditionally trained the Omani armed forces, while the UK has been a notable arms supplier including the sale of 12 Typhoon “Eurofighters” with the first jets delivered in May

Excerpts from UK secures use of Oman naval base in Duqm, The New Arab, Aug. 29, 2017

***Once completed, the UK Joint Logistics Support Base, a multi-million pound joint venture between British defence company Babcock International and the Oman Drydock Company, will provide the UK a permanent training facility in addition to a key military logistics centre in the Gulf. It will also be connected to other Gulf countries by the Gulf Rail Project.

Disused, Dangerous and Nuclear

National inventory of DSRS in storage, awaiting disposal. Image from IAEA.

Most of radioactive waste arising from nuclear applications consists of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS). Radioactive sources are used in different devices in medical, industrial and agricultural facilities. They have to be accounted for and when they are no longer usable, they have to be recovered, dismantled, stored and, as the case may be, prepared for transportation. Therefore, countries with or without nuclear power programmes have to make sure they have the ability to properly manage them. The IAEA is supporting capacity building in both regulatory framework and operation and can support removal operations. The IAEA is also developing tools (mobile tool kits, mobile hot cells, transport packages) and supporting the strengthening of regional capabilities.

In an effort to scale up the safe and secure management of disused sealed radioactive sources (DSRS), the IAEA on September 19, 2017 introduced a new concept of Qualified Technical Centres.

“At the IAEA we receive a large number of requests for assistance in characterization, conditioning and removal of all categories of DSRS,” said Christophe Xerri, Director of the IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, Xerri, Director, IAEA Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology  “The idea behind this initiative is to increase the worldwide capability to manage DSRS by encouraging countries with well-equipped centres and trained personnel to provide technical services for the management of DSRS, within their countries and regionally.”…

The IAEA regularly dispatches expert missions to Member States to provide advice and guidance for the recovery and conditioning of DSRS. The most recent missions include recovery and conditioning of DSRS in Honduras in July, in Ghana in August and in Malaysia in September 2017…

During the event, experts from several Member States highlighted recent projects and activities related to DSRS management. Participants learned details of a South American Source Removal Project, with 29 sources to be removed from five countries. The event also included presentations on national regulatory infrastructure for inventories of radioactive sources and progress made on the integration of mobile hot cell with borehole disposal system.

Excerpts from IAEA Announces Concept of Qualified Technical Centres for the Management of Disused Sealed Radioactive Sources, IAEA Department of Nuclear Energy, Sept. 19, 2017

Shriveling the Salt Lakes of the World

Mountains of the Great Salt Lake in Winter. Image from wikipedia

Utah Great Salt Lake has shrunk to a depth of about 14 feet—nearly half its former average since it was settled by the Mormons 170 years ago. Under a controversial engineering plan, the lake would recede even further.  State engineers want to siphon off some of the river water that flows into the lake and use it for the Salt Lake City area’s booming population. Proponents say the plan, which calls for lapping up a fifth of Bear River’s current unused flow, is essential for meeting the region’s needs.

But critics note that the diversion would cause the lake to drop by almost a foot, according to state estimates, eventually exposing 30 square miles of lake bed and potentially worsening the dust storms that regularly blanket the region and ruining a fragile wetlands habitat.

The debate echoes concerns heard in many other arid parts of the world. Salt lake ecology is especially delicate and requires a certain amount of fresh water to maintain a saline balance. Brine shrimp, for instance, could die off if the water becomes too salty.

In the Middle East, diversion of the Jordan and other rivers that feed the Dead Sea has shriveled the famous body of saltwater and its once robust tourism. The Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has shrunk to about 10% of its original size after diversions.

Critics, including environmental groups and affected businesses, say that under the new diversion plan lake-dependent businesses such as brine shrimp fishing would suffer, as would farmers whose land could be inundated upstream if existing dams are raised to retain more water. In all, the lake accounts for an estimated $1.3 billion in annual economic output, according to Utah State University, much of it from the shrimping industry, as well as mineral extraction and tourism.

The plan would also destroy wetlands along the lake shoreline that provide food and habitat for an estimated eight million birds, said Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group opposed to the project.

But proponents say the diversion of up to 72 billion gallons of water—enough to meet the needs of a city of one million for a year—is needed to forestall anticipated shortages for one of the fastest-growing regions in the country….“If Utah continues to grow, it’s not a matter of if but when we are going to need more water,” said state Sen. Stuart Adams, the Republican majority whip, who sponsored a bill to begin funding the estimated $1.5 billion project.

Excerpt from Utah Searches for Water Solution, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 14, 2017

The Deadly Combination

Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country’s chemical weapons program were intercepted in mid-2017 according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations.  The report by a panel of independent U.N. experts, which was submitted to the U.N. Security Council in August 2017 and seen by Reuters gave no details on when or where the interdictions occurred or what the shipments contained.  “The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK (North Korea),” the experts wrote in the 37-page report.

“Two member states interdicted shipments destined for Syria. Another Member state informed the panel that it had reasons to believe that the goods were part of a KOMID contract with Syria,” according to the report.

KOMID is the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation.  It was blacklisted by the Security Council in 2009 and described as Pyongyang’s key arms dealer and exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. In March 2016 the council also blacklisted two KOMID representatives in Syria.  “The consignees were Syrian entities designated by the European Union and the United States as front companies for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a Syrian entity identified by the Panel as cooperating with KOMID in previous prohibited item transfers,” the U.N. experts wrote.  SSRC has overseen the country’s chemical weapons program since the 1970s.

The U.N. experts said activities between Syria and North Korea they were investigating included cooperation on Syrian Scud missile programs and maintenance and repair of Syrian surface-to-air missiles air defense systems….The experts said they were also investigating the use of the VX nerve agent in Malaysia to kill the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in February.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programs…Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States. However, diplomats and weapons inspectors suspect Syria may have secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability.

During the country’s more than six-year long civil war the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said the banned nerve agent sarin has been used at least twice, while the use of chlorine as a weapon has been widespread. The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

On September 7, Israel targeted and heavily damaged a SSRC weapons factory in Masyaf Syria.

Excerpts from Michelle Nichols North Korea shipments to Syria chemical arms agency intercepted: U.N. report, Reuters, Aug. 21, 2017

Excerpts from Israel Hits Syrian Site Said to be Linked to Nuclear Weapons, Reuters, Sept. 7, 2017

Tying Up the Nile River

Blue Nile Falls. Image from wikipedia
Since Ethiopia announced its plan to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it has inspired threats of sabotage from Egypt, which sits downstream and relies on the Nile for electricity, farming and drinking water. Egypt claims that it is entitled to a certain proportion of the Nile’s water based on colonial-era treaties….

By 2050 around a billion people will live in the countries through which the Nile and its tributaries flow. That alone will put enormous stress on the water supply. But according to a study by Mohamed Siam and Elfatih Eltahir of MIT, potential changes to the river’s flow, resulting from climate change, may add to the strain. Messrs Siam and Eltahir conclude that on current trends the annual flow could increase, on average, by up to 15%. That may seem like a good thing, but it could also grow more variable, by 50%. In other words, there would be more (and worse) floods and droughts.

There is, of course, uncertainty in the projections, not least because differing global climate models give different numbers. But the idea that the flow of the Nile is likely to become more variable is lent credibility, the authors argue, by the fact that trends over decades seem to agree with them, and by consideration of the effects of El Niños. 

More storage capacity will be needed to smooth out the Nile’s flow. But unlike Egypt’s large Aswan Dam, which was built with storage in mind, the new Ethiopian one is designed for electricity production. Once water starts gushing through its turbines, it is expected to produce over 6,000 megawatts of power. It is unclear, though, if the structure has the necessary flexibility to meet downstream demands in periods of prolonged drought.

The talks between the three countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, seem to be glossing over the potential effects of climate change. “Nowhere in the world are two such large dams on the same river operated without close co-ordination,” says another study from MIT. But so far co-operation is in short supply. The latest round of talks has been postponed. Even the methodology of impact studies is cause for wrangling.

Excerpts from: Climate Change and the Nile: Flood and Famine, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017

The Battle of 1500 at Diego Garcia

coconut crabs at chagos islands

On June 22nd, 2017 the UN weighed in on a dispute between Britain and Mauritius over the Chagos islands, a tiny but strategically important archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Ninety-four countries sided with Mauritius; just 15 backed Britain… Only four members of the EU voted with Britain; one, Cyprus, voted with Mauritius and 22 abstained, including usually reliable allies France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

The roots of the dispute go back to 1965, when Britain lopped off the Chagos islands from Mauritius, at the time a British colony. It loaned the largest island, Diego Garcia, to America to use as a military base. Since then the atoll, which is within striking distance of east Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia, has become indispensable for America’s armed forces, who nickname it “the footprint of freedom”. It gives them control over the Indian Ocean and has served as a base for long-range bombers to pummel Afghanistan and Iraq. The CIA used it as a “black site” in its rendition programme.

But taking over Diego Garcia for military use meant deporting some 1,500 Chagossians, mostly to Mauritius and the Seychelles. They have never been allowed to return; many moved to Britain. (After landing at Gatwick airport, they were given temporary accommodation nearby in Crawley, where most of them still live.)

The importance of the vote should not be exaggerated. It refers the case to the ICJ, whose opinion will be non-binding….The ICJ will probably offer an advisory opinion on the matter, but not before the spring of 2019.

Excerpt from: Britain and Diego Garcia: Tropical Storm, Economist, July 1, 2017

Brains without Consciousness: humans in warfare

Two millivolts is enough to show that someone has seen something even before he knows he has seen it himself. The two millivolts in question are those associated with P300, a fleeting electrical signal produced by a human brain which has just recognised an object it has been seeking. Crucially, this signal is detectable by electrodes in contact with a person’s scalp before he is consciously aware of having recognised anything.

That observation is of great interest to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  DARPA’s Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts programme is dedicated to exploiting it in the search for things like rocket launchers and roadside bombs in drone and satellite imagery. To that end it has been paying groups of researchers to look into ways of using P300 to cut human consciousness out of the loop in such searches.

Among the beneficiaries are Robert Smith’s group at Honeywell Aerospace, in Phoenix, Arizona, and Paul Sajda’s at Neuromatters, in New York. Both of the “image triage systems” designed by these groups require the humans in them to wear special skull-enclosing caps. Each cap is fitted with 32 electrodes that record the brain’s electrical responses to whatever stimuli it is subjected to. Wearers have pictures flashed before their eyes at the rate of ten a second. That is too fast for conscious recognition, because the brain’s attention will have moved on to the next image before consciousness can come into play. It is not, though, too fast for the initial stages of recognition, marked by a P300 signal, to occur when suspicious items are present. Images that provoke such a signal are then tagged for review. According to Dr Sajda, this triples the speed with which objects of interest can be found.

Speed is important, of course. But in matters such as this, accuracy matters more. And some people think they can improve that, too—not by reading the brain, but by stimulating it. Many studies have shown that zapping the brain with a weak electric current, a procedure called transcranial neuronal stimulation, enhances what is known as “fluid intelligence”. This is the ability to reason, as opposed merely to recall facts. Another American military-research establishment, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), hopes to exploit this phenomenon for the purpose of target identification….[W]ith a current of just two milliamps, the stimulation is painless and safe, says Vincent Clark, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico. In a project paid for in part by IARPA, he and his team have stimulated the brains of more than 1,000 volunteers using a 9V battery connected to electrodes on the scalp. After half an hour of stimulation, volunteers spot in test photographs 13% more snipers, makeshift bombs and the like than do volunteers given a “sham” current of 100 microamps (5% of the experimental current) that mimics the skin-tingling induced by the experimental current.

Excerpts from Know your enemy: How to make soldiers’ brains better at noticing threats, Economist,  July 29, 2017

One-of-a-Kind Nuclear Complex: Sellafield

The Windscale Piles in 1985 Image from wikipedia

There is no other site like Sellafield in the world. It is where many major developments in the 20th century nuclear industry were pioneered.

It is home to:

–the Windscale Piles, which were used to create material for weapons

–the world’s first commercial-scale nuclear power station – Calder Hall, opened in 1956

–the world’s first large-scale advanced gas-cooled reactor, opened in 1963

–nuclear fuel storage ponds and waste silos, built in the 1940s and 50s

–nuclear fuel fabrication plants

–nuclear fuel reprocessing plants

–a fleet of nuclear waste storage facilities

Sellafield is a densely packed site of just 6sq km housing thousands of buildings. Many of them store highly hazardous waste. Its oldest facilities were built in great haste during the early years of the Cold War with no plans for how they would be decommissioned.  Record-keeping in the early days was poor by modern standards, meaning much work has had to be carried out to confirm the nature and state of the material kept in these facilities. There is no blueprint for decommissioning Sellafield’s oldest facilities. Staff and contractors had to come up with ground-breaking engineering projects in order to decommission these one-of-a-kind facilities.  And these highly complex projects have to be done on small parcels of land, often just feet away from buildings containing highly hazardous material, with all of the safety constraints this presents.

When an uncertain challenge is combined with highly constrained working conditions and a series of never-done-before projects, the result is a long, complex and costly decommissioning programme.  Huge strides have already been made at Sellafield, but it is fair to say the site will continue to test ingenuity in construction, engineering, nuclear science and project management for decades to come.

-Commissioned for use in 1952, the Pile Fuel Cladding Silo received and safely stored radioactive cladding―pieces of metal tubes—used for uranium fuel rods in some of the UK’s earliest nuclear reactors―first from military projects and later power plants. Other debris was added, and by 1964 the silo was full.  The Pile Fuel Cladding Silo is 69 feet (21 meters) tall and houses six compartments that hold some 4,200 cubic yards (more than 3,200 cubic meters) of intermediate-level waste. The job at hand is safely retrieving the waste and storing it in highly secure concrete containers.

The first of six holes on the silo were cut (August 2017). To remove the waste, a crane will extend through the cut holes, and a grabber will drop down to scoop the waste up.It will be lifted out of the container and into a specially-designed metal box.

Excerpts from  Nuclear Provision: the cost of cleaning up Britain’s historic nuclear sites updated 19 July 2017 

Sellafield decommissioning: Nuclear waste silo opened, BBC, Sept. 5, 2017

SELLAFIELD PILE FUEL CLADDING SILO RETRIEVAL, Bechtel

How to Spend $18 billion on Foreign Garbage

image from wikipedia

China sucked in more than half the world’s exports of scrap copper and waste paper in 2016, and half of its used plastic. All in all, China spent over $18bn on imports of rubbish in 2016. America, meanwhile, is an eager supplier. In 2016 nearly a quarter of America’s biggest exporters by volume were recyclers of paper, plastic or metal. Topping the list was America Chung Nam, a California-based supplier of waste paper which last year exported a whopping 333,900 containers, almost all of them to China.

This may soon change. On July 18, 2017 China told the World Trade Organisation that by the end of the year, it will no longer accept imports of 24 categories of solid waste as part of a government campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”. The Ministry of Environmental Protection says restricting such imports will protect the environment and improve public health. But the proposed import ban will disrupt billions of dollars in trade. Recyclers worry that other categories of waste may soon receive the same treatment.

It is often cheaper to recycle scrap copper, iron and steel, as well as waste paper and plastic, than to make such materials from scratch, especially when commodity prices are high. So as commodity prices rose during the 2000s, the burgeoning trade in waste benefited both exporters, who made money from previously worthless trash, and importers, who gained access to a reliable stream of precious feedstock. Between 1995 and 2016 Chinese imports of waste grew tenfold, from 4.5m to 45m tonnes.

But imports of recyclable waste are often dirty, poorly sorted or contaminated with hazardous substances such as lead or mercury. In 1996 factories in Xinjiang inadvertently imported more than 100 tonnes of radioactive metal from Kazakhstan. The following year an American businessman was convicted of smuggling over 200 tonnes of unsorted rubbish labelled as waste paper. Even when the intended material is imported, it is often recycled improperly. In 2002 the authorities faced widespread criticism after a documentary showed workers in Guangdong province crudely dismantling discarded electronic devices and dumping the toxic remains into a river. Officials may have been spurred into the latest restrictions by the release of Plastic China, an unflattering documentary about the plastic-recycling industry which was screened at Sundance, a grand American film festival, in January 2017,

The government had already been campaigning to block imports of illegal and low-quality waste under a crackdown called Operation Green Fence launched in 2013….Whereas Green Fence was aimed at improving the quality of imported waste, the government’s latest move bans several types of waste outright, threatening some $5bn in trade. But…. recyclers who rely on imports may now switch to grubbier domestic stock.

Excerpts from Waste Management: Anti-Dumping, Economist, Aug. 5, 2017, at 32