Monthly Archives: January 2018

Demining with Bare Hands: Benghazi

Mines planted during more than three years of war in Benghazi (2014-2017) are taking a high toll on under-equipped deminers and residents trying to return to districts where protracted battles took place. Military engineers striving to clear the explosives lack mine detectors and are working with basic tools and their bare hands. Their task is painstaking and extremely dangerous: 50 have been killed and 60 wounded, according to a military source.

The war in Benghazi erupted in 2014, when Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar began battling ISIS and other opponents, part of a broader conflict that spread in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi seven years ago.  Despite warnings from the military and indications of mined areas scribbled on walls, some long-displaced residents impatient to rebuild their lives have gone home, with deadly consequences.  [ISIS had used abandoned houses for shelter durng the war. Before they retreated they planted mines in the houses].

Excerpts from Mines still claim legs and lives in Libya’s Benghazi, months after war ceased, Reuters, Jan. 21, 2017

 

How to Relocate an Open Wound: Rubbish Dumps

Couple married at waste dump. Image from BBC

One of the biggest rubbish dumps in South America was closed in January 2018 in Brazil after almost 60 years.The Estructural dump in the country’s capital, Brasilia, had processed more than 1,000 tonnes of rubbish every day. But its closure is likely to have an impact on a nearby favela as many of the residents rely on scavenging.  The regional governor, Rodrigo Rollemberg, says the rubbish scavengers will be paid to work in a recycling centre in cleaner conditions.

“We cannot live with this open wound in the midst of our nation’s capital, a dump where human beings put their lives at risk seeking a livelihood in an undignified way,” he said at the opening of the new landfill which is further out from the city centre.  “Rollemberg hasn’t offered us a real alternative. We cannot survive on that pay,” Valdir Dutra, who has scavenged for 16 years, told Reuters news agency.

Excerpt from Huge Brazil rubbish dump closes after six decades, Reuters, Jan. 20, 2018

The Geopolitics of Enriched Uranium: controlling Urenco

Image from URENCO.

The Japanese government has entered into negotiations to acquire U.K.-based Urenco, a major European producer of enriched uranium, in a deal that is expected to be worth several billions of dollars.  The state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation is expected to make an offer together with U.S. nuclear energy company Centrus Energy [formely known as United States Enrichment Corporation].  The not-so-ulterior motive is to block companies from Russia and China — two countries that are increasing their influence in the global nuclear power market — from taking control of the company.

The Japanese government is holding talks with major shareholders of Urenco, sources close to the matter said. Ownership of Urenco is evenly split by three parties — the governments of the U.K. and the Netherlands as well as German electric utilities including RWE.The German side is exploring a sale as the government plans to phase out nuclear power. The U.K. government, working on fiscal consolidation, is also looking for a buyer.  Urenco is engaged in turning natural uranium into enriched uranium, which is critical in generating nuclear power [and nuclear weapons]. The company ranks second in the world after Tenex — a unit of Russian nuclear concern Rosatom — in terms of capacity to produce enriched uranium, holding a global share of around 30%…

According to the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum, China had 35 nuclear reactors in operation as of January 2017, while Russia had 30. Including reactors in the planning stage, however, the numbers grow to 82 in China and 55 in Russia, surpassing Japan’s 53.

Excerpts from Japan in talks over bid for UK uranium powerhouse, NIkkei Asian Review, Jan. 19, 2018

The Process of Legitimation of a Nuclear Power

Soldier wears mask to protect against chemical weapons. Image from wikipedia

India on January 19, 2017 joined the Australia Group which aims to stop the development and acquisition of chemical and biological weapons, a move that may take the country an inch closer to joining the Nuclear Suppliers’ group (NSG).  This is the third multilateral export control group – after the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement – that India has become a member of.  The Ministry of External Affairs said that the series of multilateral export control groups that India has joined “helps in establishing our credentials” for joining the NSG. India joined the MTCR in June 2016, followed by the Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017…

India’s application to the NSG has been pending largely due to opposition from China, which wants the group to first draw up guidelines for all the candidates who have not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Pakistan has also applied to join the NSG, but has never been granted a waiver from the NSG’s export rules, unlike India, which was given one in 2008.

Excerpts from India Enters Australia Group, Inches Closer to Joining Nuclear Suppliers Group, https://thewire.in/,  Jan. 19, 2018

Sterilized Prostitutes

 3D printed reconstruction of the face of the Lady of Cao

Pope Francis on Janurary 19, 2018 criticized sterilization campaigns that have targeted indigenous people during a speech to Amazonian communities in Peru.  It’s a topic likely to strike a chord in a country where more than 300,000 women were sterilized during the 1990-2000 government of former President Alberto Fujimori. ..The pontiff decried organizations that promote “reproductive policies favoring infertility” and said some continue to advocate for the sterilization of women — even without consent.  Many of the women sterilized during Fujimori’s administration were illiterate and came from poor, indigenous communities. More than 2,000 later came forward to complain that they had been forcibly sterilized…In 1996 there were, according to official statistics, 81,762 tubal ligations performed on women, with a peak being reached the following year, with 109,689 ligatures, then only 25,995 in 1998 (bbc).

Pope Francis denounced sexual enslavement of women in the Amazon who are trafficked and forced into prostitution, saying the “machismo” culture cannot stand. …It is painful how “so many women are devalued, denigrated and exposed to endless violence.”  Many women work as prostitutes in the region’s bars, servicing clients who often work in gold mines and other extraction industries….

Excerpts from The Latest: Pope decries sterilization campaigns in Peru, Associated Press, Jan. 19, 2018

Case: In 1996, Peruvian public health officials threatened Maria Mamerita Mestanza Chávez with criminal sanctions if she did not undergo a sterilization surgery. Her partner ultimately agreed to the surgery. She was never examined prior to the procedure. After complications ensued, she was refused medical treatment and died at home nine days later. After domestic remedies failed, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM) and two other Peruvian human rights group filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1999 and were later joined by the Center and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). In 2002, the Peruvian government agreed in principle to settle the case. An agreement was signed in 2003 in which the government acknowledged international legal responsibility, agreed to compensate Mestanza’s surviving husband and children, and agreed to modify and implement recommendations made by Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman concerning sterilization procedures in Peru’s government facilities.  (see center for reproductive rights)

The Right to Drinkable Water and Uranium Mining in the USA

image from http://postcardy.blogspot.com/2015/02/map-southern-utah-and-northern-arizona.html

[T]he uranium mining industry in the United States is renewing a push into the areas adjacent to Navajo Nation, Utah: the Grand Canyon watershed to the west, where a new uranium mine is preparing to open, and the Bears Ears National Monument to the north.

The Trump administration is set to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in February 2018, potentially opening more than a million acres to mining, drilling and other industrial activity….[T]here were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument, according to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) office that was reviewed by The New York Times.  The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the [Trump] administration. And an examination of local B.L.M. records, including those not yet entered into the agency’s land and mineral use authorizations database, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke, Energy Secretary,  in May 2017.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon…

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.  It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administrationthat allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.” “Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”…

In Sanders, Arizona, hundreds of people were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of uranium in their drinking water for years, until testing by a doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University named Tommy Rock exposed the contamination.  “I was shocked,” Mr. Rock said. “I wasn’t expecting that reading at all.”

Mr. Rock and other scientists say they suspect a link to the 1979 breach of a wastewater pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, N.M., now a Superfund site. That accident is considered the single largest release of radioactive material in American history, surpassing the crisis at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that testing by state regulators picked up uranium levels in Sanders’s tap water. Still, the community was not told. Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department had urged the now-defunct local water company for years to address the contamination, but it had been up to that company to notify its customers….The town’s school district, whose wells were also contaminated with uranium, received little state or federal assistance. It shut off its water fountains and handed out bottled water to its 800 elementary and middle-school students.  “I still don’t trust the water,” said Shanon Sangster, who still sends her 10-year-old daughter, Shania, to school with bottled water. “It’s like we are all scarred by it, by the uranium.”

Excerpts from HIROKO TABUCHIJAN,  Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish,  NY Times, Jan. 13, 2018

Thugs and Lambs: the war in Yemen

A withering United Nations report on Yemen’s civil war provides fresh evidence about the extent to which Saudi Arabia and Iran have intervened in the conflict, pursuing their regional proxy war even as Yemen disintegrated into “warring statelets” that would be difficult to reunite. The U.N. panel said there were “strong indications of the supply of arms-related material manufactured in, or emanating from, the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in violation of a U.N. embargo on Yemen.

The U.N. experts were particularly critical of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. The U.N. previously had said that the majority of the more than 5,000 civilian deaths in the conflict are a result of the airstrikes, which are carried out by a handful of coalition countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, often using U.S.-supplied munitions.  The report, which has not yet been made public, was obtained by The Washington Post…

Eight million people, or a third of the Yemen’s population, are facing famine. A cholera outbreak that has affected roughly a million people is one of the largest ever recorded. More than 10,000 people have been killed since the war began…

At least four attacks on Saudi Arabia were carried out with missiles capable of a range “beyond that normally expected of the known missiles” in the Houthi arsenal, the panel said. The U.N. panel examined the remnants of two of the missiles – fired July 22 and Nov. 4, 2017 – and found they were consistent with the design of an Iranian missile and “almost certainly produced by the same manufacturer.”  While the report criticized Iran for failing to halt the transfer of weapons, the panel could not say with certainty how they were transported to the Houthis or who the supplier was.

In reviewing the conduct of Saudi-led military activity, the U.N. panel examined 10 airstrikes last year that killed 157 people, including 85 children, and found that “measures taken by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in its targeting process to minimize child casualties, if any, remain largely ineffective.” And a coalition committee tasked with investigating the airstrikes had in some cases denied that strikes had taken place despite “clear evidence” to the contrary, the report said… The panel had corroborated media reports that the United Arab Emirates – part of the Saudi-led military coalition – had tortured prisoners under its control. The Saudi-led coalition, which enforced a blockade on Yemen, was using the “threat of starvation as a bargaining tool and an instrument of war.”The Houthis had carried out extrajudicial executions and mass detentions, fueling a cycle of revenge that “may last for years.”…“Political decision makers on all sides are not bearing the brunt of the war,” the report added. “Yemeni civilians are.”

Excerpts from KAREEM FAHIM A United Nations probe has detailed the fallout of the proxy war in Yemen between the Saudi coalition and Iran,  Washington Post, Jan 12, 2018

Air, Water, Waste and Death

UN Environment and WHO have agreed a new, wide-ranging collaboration to accelerate action to curb environmental health risks that cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.

On January 10, 2018 in Nairobi, Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, signed an agreement to step up joint actions to combat air pollution, climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as improve coordination on waste and chemicals management, water quality, and food and nutrition issues. The collaboration also includes joint management of the BreatheLife advocacy campaign to reduce air pollution for multiple climate, environment and health benefits

“Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Together, air, water and chemical hazards kill more than 12.6 million people a year. This must not continue,” said WHO’s Tedros.  He added: “Most of these deaths occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest health toll.”

Excerpts from, UN Environment and WHO agree to major collaboration on environmental health risks, Press Release, Jan. 10, 2017

The First to Shoot…from Space

image from NASA.

North Korea’s preparations to launch a more advanced reconnaissance satellite with a high-resolution scanning capability threaten to push Asia’s space race deeper into the military theater.  The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.

This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space.  Space programs in Asia have largely been driven by competition for the US$300 billion global commercial transponders market, which is expected to double by 2030 if demand holds.

A shift toward miniature satellites of less than 20 kilograms, mostly used by governments and smaller companies, has drawn nations as diverse as Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea into a field led by Japan and China, with India a more recent player.

Japan placed two satellites in different orbits for the first time on December 2017, displaying a technical edge aimed at reducing launch costs for commercial clients. India announced this week that it had successfully tested a GSLV Mark III rocket that can lift a 4-ton satellite into orbit. In 2017, it managed to launch 104 satellites of varying sizes in just one operation. China has loftier ambitions, including a lunar landing some time in 2018, after sending a roving module down a steep crater on the moon in 2013. About 40 Chinese launches are likely in 2018, mainly to boost communications.  India and Japan are both locked in undeclared space races with China that go well beyond commercial rivalries and have muddied the debate over North Korea’s shadowy aims….

“Militarization” refers to any systems that enhance the capability of forces in a conventional setting, such as intelligence, communications and surveillance. “Weaponization” is the physical deployment of weapons in outer space or in a ground mode where they can be used to attack and destroy targets in orbit.  The United Nations Treaty on Outer Space prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but the US has blocked efforts to ban space weapons outright. In 2007, Washington said it would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space.”

Excerpts from  ALAN BOYD,  Asia’s Space Race Gathers Pace, Asia Times, Jan. 6, 2017

Killer Robotic Insects

Chased by robotic bees: Film Still from 'Hated in the Nation' Black Mirror Series

On November 12, 2017,  a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. … It is set in a near-future in which small drones fitted with face-recognition systems and shaped explosive charges can be programmed to seek out and kill known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). In one scene, the drones are shown collaborating with each other to gain entrance to a building. One acts as a petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others…

[M]ilitary laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots for use in warfare, both conventional and unconventional. In America, in particular, a programme called MAST (Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology), which has been run by the US Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, is wrapping up this month after ten successful years….. Its successor, the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology (DCIST) programme, which began earlier this year, is now getting into its stride….Along with flying drones, MAST’s researchers have been developing pocket-sized battlefield scouts that can hop or crawl ahead of soldiers. DCIST’s purpose is to take these autonomous robots and make them co-operate. The result, if the project succeeds, will be swarms of devices that can take co-ordinated action to achieve a joint goal.

If swarms of small robots can be made to collaborate autonomously, someone, somewhere will do it…[Many of these small robots are today] cyclocopters …of less than 30 grams. Such machines can outperform polycopters...Cyclocopter aerodynamics is more like that of insects than of conventional aircraft…Cyclocopters get better as they get smaller. They are also quieter…[Another innovation involves] robots…that hop.One of the most advanced is Salto, developed by the Biomimetic Millisystems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Salto… has the agility to bounce over uneven surfaces and also to climb staircases…

Bouncing over the rubble of a collapsed building is not the only way to explore it. Another is to weave through the spaces between the debris. Researchers at the Biomimetic Millisystems lab are working on that, too. Their solution resembles a cockroach.

Getting into a building, whether collapsed or intact, is one thing. Navigating around it without human assistance is quite another. For this purpose MAST has been feeding its results to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)… The next challenge…is getting the robots to swarm and co-ordinate their behavior effectively.

Excerpt from Miniature Robots: Bot Flies, Economist, Dec. 16, 2017