Monthly Archives: October 2017

Who is Afraid of North Korea

 USS Michigan, Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine. Image from wikipedia

President Trump agreed in September 2017 to send more of the Pentagon’s “strategic assets” to South Korea on a rotational basis to deter North Korean provocations, but what exactly that means remains something of a mystery.

The U.S. assets — typically defined as submarines, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons or bombers — have long been involved in the standoff that began with the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement after open warfare subsided between the two Koreas.

The U.S. Navy typically keeps the movements of its submarines secret, but it also has periodically sent them to port in South Korea. The USS Michigan, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine, has appeared at Busan Naval Base in South Korea at least twice in 2017. It is capable of carrying cruise missiles and elite Navy SEALs, although not ballistic missiles.

More recently, the Navy announced last week it has plans for a massive exercise involving three aircraft carriers — the USS Nimitz, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Reagan — and their associated strike groups, each of which include dozens of aircraft and thousands of sailors and Marines.

Excerpts from  Dan Lamothe, In standoff with North Korea, the U.S. keeps deployment of ‘strategic assets’ mysterious, Washington Post, Oct. 29 at 6:00

Fixing the Earth: De-Extinction

Woolly Mammoth. image from wikipedia

Is extinction forever? Efforts are under way to use gene editing and other tools of biotechnology to “recreate” extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. Could such “de-extinction” initiatives aid conservation by reviving species lost to habitat destruction and climate change?…. These are some of the questions addressed in Recreating the Wild: De-extinction, Technology, and the Ethics of Conservation, a new special report of the Hastings Center Report.

Advances in biology have revealed the ways the environment influences species’ genomes. Even if scientists could produce creatures with DNA identical to that of extinct species, different environmental pressures would alter their genomes in novel ways, raising the possibility that those creatures would differ from the extinct species…

Many scientists believe that although the maintenance of biodiversity benefits ecosystems, changes to the environment could make the reintroduction of extinct species difficult—possibly even ecologically disruptive. …Several commentators in the report raise the concern that the notion that extinct species might be “brought back” could weaken efforts to prevent extinctions. “By proposing that we can revive species through modern technology, we give the impression that species are ‘throwaway’ items,” write Robert DeSalle, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and George Amato, director of the conservation genomics program at the institute.

Excerpt from Recreating the wild: De-extinction, technology, and the ethics of conservation, https://phys.org/news/, Aug. 2017

Earthquake Qualified Nuclear Power Plants

Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant Armenia, Image from wikipedia

The fate of the 41-year-old Armenian Nuclear Power Plant (ANPP), commonly known as Metsamor, is up for debate yet again as reports have emerged questioning whether the Armenian government will abandon plans for renewal or replacement altogether.  Metsamor, which is the only nuclear energy plant in the South Caucasus and one of the five remaining Soviet nuclear reactors of its kind, provides energy to 40% of Armenian consumers. Despite its critical role in Armenia’s modern energy economy, its aging design and proximity to earthquake-prone areas make it among the most dangerous nuclear plants in the world.

Built in 1976, the plant was shut down in 1989 by Soviet officials, following the devastating Spitak Earthquake. However, the economic difficulty and energy scarcity in Armenia after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, motivated the new Armenian government to relaunch the second of the plant’s two units.  Since then, the reactor’s operations have been a contentious issue both domestically and internationally. The issue was even addressed in an impending EU-Armenia trade agreement, where a 350-page, publicly-released draft text stipulated the reactor should be closed and replaced (though practical measures in enforcing this were notably vague).

For years, Armenian officials have pledged to build a new nuclear plant, which was originally scheduled to expire in 2016, but in 2015, an extension was granted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowing the site to continue operating until 2027…

Replacing the plant will require serious investment—around five billion dollars—which would fund a medium capacity plant (600 megawatts). Closing the plant would deprive millions of people of electricity, without a viable alternative, and would deal a blow to the security of the country.

Excerpts from The Uncertain Fate of Armenia’s Nuclear Power Plant, The Armenian Weekly, Oct. 20, 2017

The Flourishing Jihadists and their Support Systems

Ansar Dine jihadists. Ansar Dine seeks to impose strict Sharia law across Mali. Image from wikipedia

U.S. special forces who accompanied Niger’s military at a meeting of village leaders in Tongo Tongo on Oct. 4, 2017were working in the country’s treacherous western borderlands, a region of shifting tribal allegiances, opaque motives and ethnic grudges going back decades, all feeding into a growing jihadi problem.  Four Americans and five Nigerien troops died after leaving Tongo Tongo and being ambushed and heavily outgunned by fighters armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. The militants are believed to be from a Malian-led militia, Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, which declared allegiance to the overall militant organization in 2015.

One error appears to have been downplaying the danger. The Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in western Niger have been under a state of emergency since March 2017, as Niger has confronted the Islamic State offshoot, led by Malian extremist Abu Walid Sahrawi. U.S. forces have been present in the region to advise and assist Nigerien forces.

The United Nations has cataloged 46 attacks by extremists in western Niger since February 2016, including a February 2017 attack that killed 15 Nigerien soldiers and one a year ago that killed 22 Nigerien forces at a refugee camp.,,

Niger’s interior minister, Mohamed Bazoum, said intelligence failures were to blame for the nine deaths. He said Islamic State in the Greater Sahel is more entrenched in local communities than are government forces.

Adam Sandor, an analyst on violent extremism in the Sahel at the University of Ottawa, said….“Essentially, the attackers are believed to have been scoping out and planning the attack and must have a knowledge of local communities in the area. Local communities most likely shared with them the information regarding the Nigerien Armed Forces operating with foreigners or military advisors in this space,” he said.  Leaders of Tongo Tongo village have been arrested, amid suspicions they were delaying the departure of the Nigerien and U.S. forces to pave the way for the attackers.

America has 6,000 troops in 50 countries across the continent, according to the Department of Defense, although many of the missions are charged with guarding U.S. embassies. The counter-terrorism deployments include an estimated 1,000 special operations forces, many posted in high-risk locations such as Somalia, Mali and Nigeria. An estimated 800 troops are in Niger.  The U.S. also operates a string of drone bases throughout Africa, including one in Niger.

The Shabab is the deadliest of Africa’s terrorist groups and is believed to be responsible for the country’s worst terrorist attack: At least 358 people were killed Oct. 14, 2017 and 56 are still missing. The attack came weeks after a U.S. drone strike killed 10 civilians, including three children, in Bariire, west of Mogadishu.  The U.S. has carried out at least 60 drone strikes in Somalia since January 2017, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing up to 510 people, including at least 38 civilians. The Shabab has killed 2,745 people in 2017, carrying out 987 of the continent’s 1,827 incidents of violent extremism in the first nine months of the year, according to the analytical group African Center for Strategic Studies.

The Shabab also has a presence in Kenya, where it launches regular attacks, including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall massacre that killed at least 67 people, and the 2015 Garissa University College attack, where 147 people — mainly university students — were killed. The terrorist group is believed to have a presence across East Africa.

Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and southeastern Niger, was responsible for 2,232 deaths in the first nine months of the year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In Mali, myriad armed extremists operate, including Islamic State in the Greater Sahel and its rival the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, formed in March 2017 from several Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, Islamist militias took over half of the country before the French military drove them out of major cities.

The militias range freely across rural areas, crossing borders at will, launching operations in Mauritania, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, including attacks on hotels and resorts popular with foreigners.   In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where myriad rebel groups vie for control over mineral resources, a new organization emerged recently declaring fealty to Islamic State.  By comparison, Niger is one of the more stable countries in the region, making it the U.S. choice for a drone base being built outside Agadez, in central Niger, that will launch strikes across the region.

The Tongo Tongo attack has focused attention on Sahel leader Sahrawi…. He has a history of swapping sides and financing his operations through kidnappings.  He has recruited fighters from among the Fulani nomads in western Niger, exploiting ethnic rivalries with the Daoussahak people in the region, some of whom have formed a militia called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Both Niger and France have used the group as a proxy force to fight Islamic State in the Great Sahel, deepening ethnic animosities.

Excerpts from After Niger attack, a look at clandestine jihadis posing a growing danger to U.S. forces in Africa, L.A. Times, Oct. 21, 2017

From Pariah to Responsible: Sudan

Sudan Airways regularly ranks among the worst airlines in the world. The national carrier has only one working plane..The troubled airline, or rather, airplane, epitomizes some of the effects that two decades of American sanctions have had on Sudan…Most Western countries have shunned Sudan, making it hard for companies like Sudan Airways to procure parts or buy new planes from Boeing or Airbus. The airline’s general manager once described the sanctions as “hell.”The country’s economic isolation is about to end.

The Trump administration announced on October 6, 2017 that it would formally lift a host of sanctions, including a trade embargo, saying the Sudanese government had made progress on a number of issues, like cooperating on counterterrorism efforts and making modest improvements…

The United States is still keeping Sudan on its list of terrorism sponsors, which means it will not be granted debt relief, a major drag on the economy.

The Trump administration decision has provoked a backlash from some human rights groups…Amnesty International accused Sudanese government forces of using chemical weapons against civilians in Darfur in 2016, and there are ongoing skirmishes in the region. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who came to power 27 years ago, is sought by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur…

Sudan is now expected to become at least moderately more attractive to Western investors, particularly companies eager to enter a region where countries like China, Malaysia and India are already present.

State Department officials say the removal of sanctions would unfreeze government assets and benefit aviation and energy businesses.  Sudan’s economy is mired in debt — foreign creditors are owed $51 billion, or 60 percent of its gross domestic product — and it suffers from high inflation and low productivity. The economy was dealt a severe blow after the oil-rich south tore itself away.

The sanctions placed restrictions on international financial transactions, making it difficult to acquire technology and equipment. Hundreds of factories were shut down because of a lack of parts and trade barriers.Remittances from abroad will be transferred more easily, which will help lift domestic consumption and the economy.

Excerpts from In Long-Isolated Sudan, ‘Lot of Excitement’ as U.S. Sanctions End, NY Times, Oct. 7, 2017

Staying in Svalbard

Abandoned aerial tramway previously used for transporting coal. Image from wikipedia

Svalbard has an unusual status that makes it a flashpoint of an escalating face-off in the Arctic between Russia and the West.  Norway, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Russia subsidize unprofitable mines to keep a strategic footprint on an icy group of islands where Oslo and Moscow have been the main players since a 1920 treaty among multiple nations recognized Norwegian sovereignty but allowed other nations to develop some commercial interests. (pdf).

 Russia has upgraded its northern fleet, conducted large military exercises in the region, and opened a revamped military base on the archipelago closest to Svalbard….  NATO has described its lack of maritime resources in the region as a weakness.  “Svalbard is part of Norway and therefore it’s part of NATO,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “So, of course, all the NATO security guarantees apply to Svalbard. When it comes to the question of coal mining, that’s for the Norwegian authorities to decide.”…

Oslo is planning to buy new submarines and has increased the number of troops on its border with Russia.  But Norway, one of the world’s richest countries on a per capita basis, is debating whether to keep financing coal mining on Svalbard. A renewed commitment to mining would be controversial, not just for the cost but also because of Norwegians’ vision of themselves as champions of environmental causes…

“It’s a question of how much are we going to spend doing something irrational versus how great do we feel the need to counter Russian Arctic activity,” said Indra Overland, head of energy at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, a think tank that is partially funded by the state…

Some 800 miles from the North Pole, the islands are barren, with temperatures that dip to minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter months when the sun doesn’t rise.  Miners on both sides are attracted by relatively high salaries. Barentsburg’s 400 inhabitants are also provided with health care, a school and low-cost housing.Russia, which started mining here in the 1930s, focused on Barentsburg and another settlement called Pyramiden. The towns housed swimming pools, 24-hour canteens and food products that were then largely unavailable elsewhere in the Soviet Union…

Russia’s government has ordered coal production to slow to stretch reserves out until 2032, and will then face a decision similar to Norway’s on whether to invest in a new mine…

Both countries are turning to tourism.  In Russia’s settlements, visitor numbers have doubled in the past four years, and income from tourism stood at $2.4 million last year, more than from mining. Arktikugol received $8 million in government subsidies in 2016….Norway has opened a university, and one closed coal mine has become a museum and film archive. Old miners’ cabins have been renovated for holiday accommodation and a warehouse is now a restaurant.

But Norwegian politicians and academics admit that without a coal mine, their country’s presence will diminish, in part because tourism is so seasonal.  “To put it bluntly, the purpose of the Norwegian settlements is to assert Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard,” said Torbjørn Pedersen, a political scientist at Nord University in Bodø, Norway

Excerpts from A New Cold War Grip Arctic Enclave, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 11, 2017

Nuclear States in the Making: Argentina

Argentina's CAREM small modular reactor. Image from http://www.ansnuclearcafe.org

When we say Argentina is a nuclear power we are not referring to the club of those armed with bombs but rather the similarly small group of countries that generate electricity from nuclear power. Moreover unlike many of those in retreat from an activity they hate to need, Argentina without any fanfare has added a third reactor to its existing two reactors.

Argentina has also been active in nuclear power generation & research and uranium mining since the middle of last century. Some 10% of current electricity needs are met from nuclear power stations in the country. The Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica (CNEA – Atomic Energy Commission) was set up in 1950 to oversee nuclear R&D, including construction of several research reactors. Currently, five research reactors are operated by CNEA and others.

Another is planned, similar to the Opal reactor built in Australia by Argentina’s INVAP. An example of the country’s membership of the front ranks of nuclear technology nations is that Argentina’s CAREM small modular reactor design is under consideration for massive desalination projects in Saudi Arabia.

The goal of Argentina’s government…is for nuclear power to be part of an expansion in generating capacity to meet rising demand. The government signed co-operation agreements with China and UAE and Argentina received a $240m loan from the development bank of Latin America to extend the life of an existing reactor.

Excerpts from Nuclear Energy and Uranium in Argentina, BNamericas.com
Friday, October 13, 2017