Category Archives: Environment

How Rivers Die

Kapuas river: Indonesia

Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river support somes 3m people...One reason that the water is so murky is deforestation. Since the 1970s logging has enriched locals while stripping away the vegetation that held the soil in place. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that between 1973 and 2010 over 100,000 square kilometres of forest was lost on Kalimantan, or a third of the original coverage. A national moratorium that began in 2011 has done little to still the axes. As a result, torrential tropical rains wash lots of loose earth into the Kapuas.

Illegal gold-mining compounds the problem. Locals tear up the riverbed with diggers or blast the banks with high-pressure hoses, then sieve the mud for gold. Mercury, which the miners use to separate gold from sediment, but which is poisonous to humans and fish alike, leaks into the river.

The riverbank is punctuated with corrugated-iron towers, which emit birdsong from loudspeakers. These are designed to lure swiftlets, who make their nests with saliva. The nests of swiftlets  are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac by many Chinese.* Deane, a shop owner, built his tower last December after seeing others do the same. He sells the nests to a wholesaler for about 15m rupiah ($1,025) a kilogram...

In Kapuas Hulu, an upstream district, half the population rely on the river for drinking water. A quarter have no toilet. Even where bathrooms do exist along the river, they are often floating cubicles with a hole in the floorboards. Cows and goats, living in wooden riverside cages, also defecate straight into the Kapuas...

The Kapuas passes through seven districts. Midstream ones, such as Sintang and Sanggau, earn hefty tax revenues by encouraging palm-oil plantations. But downstream districts suffer from the resulting silt, traffic and run-off without receiving any of the benefits. The same problem occurs at a village level. Mr Hadi says that fishing by sprinkling poisonous leaves on the water (the stricken fish float to the surface) is forbidden but other village heads do not enforce the rules...

A study by CIFOR on the income of villagers living near the Kapuas river found that the best-paid palm-plantation workers earned 50% more than the most successful fishermen. (Gold miners made three times as much—and spent more on education.)...But the environmental damage is plain to see. The river here is brown, clouded by silt. A study published in 2016 found that levels of phosphates in the water, from fertilisers and villagers washing themselves with soap, are highest near urban areas and palm plantations.

Down in Pontianak, the river water is darker still, occasionally brightened by oil slicks. Water bottles and instant-noodle packets cling together to form plastic islands.

Excerpts from  Indonesia's Longest River,  Economist, Aug. 25, 2018

*According to Wikipedia: Authentic bird's-nest soup is made from nests of some species of swiftlet.  Instead of twigs, feathers and straw, these swiftlets make their nest only from strands of their gummy saliva, which hardens when exposed to air. Once the nests are harvested, they are cleaned and sold to restaurants. Eating swiftlet nest material is believed to help maintain skin tone, balance qi ("life energy") and reinforce the immune system... (Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine, The History of Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Table).

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An Epiphany Moment: useful waste-water

image from http://www.solarismidstream.com/midstream-solutions

Fledgling companies, many backed by private equity, are rushing to help shale drillers deal with one of their trickiest problems: what to do with the vast volumes of wastewater that are a byproduct of fracking wells.

When producers blast a mix of water, sand and chemicals to release oil and gas from rock formations miles underground, they not only unlock oil and gas, but also massive quantities of briny water long buried beneath the surface. Drillers in the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas currently generate more than 1,000 Olympic-size swimming pools full of this murky, salty water every day. Handling it amounts to up to 25% of a well’s lease operating expense, according to analysts.

Investors have expressed interest in this corner of the U.S. shale industry as oil production in the Permian soars to record levels. Analysts said the region could produce more than five million barrels of oil a day by 2023, more than the current daily production of Iran.

Sensing a chance for a big return, private-equity firms have invested more than $500 million into wastewater-disposal companies such as Solaris Water Midstream LLC, WaterBridge Resources LLC, Goodnight Midstream LLC and Oilfield Water Logistics LLC. There are roughly a dozen of these water-focused companies that analysts said could each be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

These companies are building pipelines to transport the wastewater and dispose of it deep underground, hoping to displace the trucks that currently do the job. Some companies have a longer-term plan: recycling the wastewater to sell it back to drillers to reuse. Most of the companies are currently private;....

Apache Corp. , one of the largest producers in the Permian, wants to reuse more water to reduce the millions of barrels it must dispose of and limit the freshwater it purchases for fracking, according to a company presentation earlier this year. Apache recycled more than 22 million barrels of water from 2013 to 2016 in just one subsection of the Permian.

Excerpts from The Next Big Bet in Fracking: Water, WSJ, Aug. 12, 2018

How Many Uranium Mines Do We Need?

Retired well heads used for ISL at Uranium One's operations in Johnson County., Wyoming

At the height of activity in 1980, U.S. companies produced nearly 44 million pounds of uranium concentrate and provided most of the supplies purchased by nuclear power plants. In 2017, American miners produced 2.4 million pounds and supplied just 7 percent of the uranium bought by domestic plants.  The industry, which once supported nearly 22,000 jobs, now employs just a few hundred people each year...

In July 2018, the U.S. Commerce Department opened an investigation to determine whether the nation's growing dependence on foreign uranium supplies poses a risk to national security....The two miners that petitioned Commerce to conduct the review, Energy Fuels and UR-Energy, want the United States to take steps to ensure U.S. producers control 25 percent of the market. They say they can't compete with subsidized supplies from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

To be sure, nearly half of the uranium used in the United States comes from allies like Canada and Australia. From the moment they lost trade protections, U.S. miners had trouble competing with these foreign supplies.
"It's been government-sponsored, government-subsidized just since the beginning. Trying to sort that out and find where there's a free market in uranium — I find that very questionable."-Luke Danielson, Sustainable Development Strategies Group president

The U.S. uranium mining industry is relatively young. It went through a brief golden age between about 1955 and 1980, beginning when the United States offered generous incentives to shore up its stockpiles of the nuclear weapons fuel during the Cold War....By the 1960s, the program had packed U.S. storehouses so full of uranium stockpiles that the government stopped paying the incentives. However, it left in place rules barring the use of foreign uranium until 1975, when it began to allow a growing percentage of overseas supplies into the market.  That opened the door to high-quality, low-cost supplies from Canada and Australia. By 1987, the United States was importing nearly 15 million pounds of uranium, and domestic output fell by about a third to roughly 13 million pounds.

While competition weighed on U.S. uranium production, the excitement around nuclear energy in the 1970s kept mines busy. However, the American love affair with atomic power proved short-lived. The 1979 meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania sparked fierce backlash against nuclear energy. Seven years later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster turned a Ukrainian city into a ghost town...

By the early 2000s, U.S. uranium production was at its lowest in a half century.  Around that time, the former Soviet state Kazakhstan was ramping up uranium mining. In just a few short years, it would become the world's top uranium producer and the second biggest supplier to the United States.
The Central Asian nation accomplished that feat in large part by exploiting a process called "in situ leaching" (ISL) or in situ recovery  (ISR)*** increasingly being used to extract uranium.  Along with countries like Niger, Mali and Mongolia, Kazakhstan has an advantage: lax regulations that allow it to process uranium cheaply from in situ leaching, which involves pumping chemicals into uranium reserves and carries serious risks to the environment if it's not carried out responsibly...

And then in 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan created a backlash unlike anything seen since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the aftermath, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, and Germany decided to phase out nuclear energy by 2022.  The U.S. nuclear renaissance has also fizzled as flagship projects have turned into costly boondoggles. The venerable Westinghouse Electric Company filed for bankruptcy last year under the weight of billions of dollars in losses tied to its troubled nuclear power plant projects in Georgia and South Carolina. "There's such a glut of inventory in the market that it's just not profitable for some of the mines to produce, so the price has just really plummeted as a result of that," said Sean Davis, a research analyst at IHS Markit who tracks the chemicals used in uranium mining.

Since their peak in 2007, uranium prices have crashed from nearly $140 per pound to $20-$25.

Excerpts from Nuclear wasteland: The explosive boom and long, painful bust of American uranium mining, CNBC, Aug. 4, 2018

***"No remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions."

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Floating Nuclear Graveyard Rests

Lepse in Nerpa shipyard where decommissioning takes place. image from https://thebarentsobserver.com/

Russia: The Lepse service vessel, Russia’s waterborne atomic graveyard, has inched a step closer to complete dismantlement as officials say they will begin extracting nuclear fuel rods from its irradiated holds in September 2018 -- a long awaited development involving robotic technology, thousands of technicians and a small city of radiation shelters surrounding the vessel’s hull.

The vessel, which technicians are carefully pulling apart at the Nerpa Shipyard near Murmansk, was used to refuel Russia’s nuclear icebreakers at sea – a job that eventually turned it into one of the world’s most dangerous radioactive hazards. Since its retirement, it has become a flagstone in Northwest Russia’s legacy of Cold War nuclear waste.

Removing spent fuel from the vessel ­– including the extraction of several damaged assemblies ­– is among the most complex nuclear cleanup operations Russia has ever undertaken. When it’s completed in 2020, it will be a decades-long culmination of high-tech preparation paid for by marshaling millions of dollars from nearly a dozen western countries, (the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development) often in the face of trying political circumstances.

The new phase in the Lepse dismantlement also marks another step toward cleaning up naval and civilian nuclear debris in Northwest Russia. Almost exactly a year ago, the first containers of spent nuclear fuel that accrued over fifty years at Andreyeva Bay were hauled away for storage. Both are projects that Bellona has long advocated for.

During its career, the Lepse amassed 639 spent nuclear fuel assemblies in its holds, many from refueling the Lenin, the flagship Soviet icebreaker, between 1965 and 1967. The bulk of those fuel rods are damaged, and defy removal by conventional means.

Excerpts from Charles Digges, Anna Kireeva,  Russia to start breaking down one of its most radioactive ships next month, Bellona. org, Aug. 1, 2018

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Diving into a Nuclear Pool

nuclear pool

United Kingdom: Specialist divers have completed their mission to deal with radioactive waste from Sizewell A Site’s nuclear fuel storage ponds, nearly two months ahead. The divers, who are shielded from radiation by the water in the ponds, successfully cut up and ‘size reduced’ all of the 35 waste storage containers left in Sizewell A’s ponds. They also cut up around 100 tonnes of other redundant equipment before removing all the radioactive sludge from the pond floor.

Conventionally, pond clean-out is done using remotely operated equipment to lift the whole radioactive skips  (waste containers) and other pond furniture clear of the water, exposing them to the air, where they are carefully cut and decontaminated. This process is slow with potential radiation dose risks for workers,” Magnox Sites said.  “Using this innovative underwater decommissioning technique, radiation levels for workers were around 20 times less than with conventional techniques of decommissioning the waste items in air,” it added. The diving technique also has a lower environmental impact, is quicker and more efficient and therefore cheaper.  The next phase of work is to take the waste out of the ponds where it will be treated and safely packaged. The ponds are set to be completely emptied and drained by the end of 2019.

The team of 12 nuclear divers was supplied by Underwater Construction UK Ltd. They tackled their first UK ‘nuclear dive’ at the Dungeness A Site in 2016 and arrived on site at Sizewell A in October 2017.

Sizewell A's two 210 MWe Magnox gas-cooled reactors operated from 1966 until 2006. Defuelling began in 2009, with fuel removed from the reactors placed in the site's used fuel storage ponds before being packaged in transport containers for shipment to the Sellafield complex for reprocessing. The final flask of fuel was shipped to Sellafield in August 2014. Sizewell A was declared completely fuel free in February 2015.

Excerpts from Divers Complete Radwast work at Sizewell A, World Nuclear News, Aug. 3,  2018

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Nuclear Terrorism: How to Crash a Drone into a Nuclear Plant

Greenpeace crashed a drone into the spent-fuel cooling building at the EDF-Bugey nuclear power plant site on July 3, 2018 to demonstrate gaps in the facility's security. Officials  were lucky it was just Greenpeace demonstrating vulnerabilities at the facility, and not a terrorist group intent on attacking the site. This incident highlights why the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review’s assessment that nuclear terrorism is “today’s most immediate and extreme danger” remains relevant: It underscores the importance of the sustained and persistent six-year effort from 2010 to 2016 to reduce the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, far from the headline nuclear issues of Iran, North Korea, and arms control with Russia...

The Nuclear Security Summits, initiated by President Barack Obama in 2009 and concluded in April 2016, significantly strengthened the global nuclear security architecture and brought high-level political attention to the risk posed by nuclear terrorism. ..According to a new report from the Arms Control Association and the Fissile Materials Working Group, The Nuclear Security Summits: And Overview of State Actions to Curb Nuclear Terrorism 2010-2016, countries made more than 935 distinct commitments to strengthen and improve nuclear security throughout the six-year process.

As a result, three entire geographic regions—South America, Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe—have entirely eliminated highly-enriched uranium from their soil, and only 22 countries possess weapons-usable nuclear material, down from more than 50.

Excerpts from Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Kelsey Davenpor, Why countries still must prioritize action to curb nuclear terrorism, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Aug. 3, 2018

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Mini-Green Grids

image from http://www.nigeriaelectricityhub.com/2017/12/11/legal-framework-for-mini-grids-power-generation-and-distribution-in-nigeria/

A forested village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid... In 2018, it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the national power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

In 2016, before the national grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network.  The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. ...But Mlinda and other mini-grid installers see them as more than a way to satisfy existing demand for electricity: they are a way to catalyse development. The installers advise villagers on irrigation, farming and marketing to help them develop businesses that require reliable electricity, which in turn justifies the expense of installation.

Vijay Bhaskar of Mlinda says a big mistake in development has been to assume that, once people are hooked up to electricity, businesses will automatically flourish. People have to be taught how to make the most of power, he says. “Bringing energy is the easy part. The hard part is finding productive ways to make use of it.”  According to one British expert, “mini-grid operators are not sellers of kilowatt-hours; they are stimulators of rural development.” Jaideep Mukherjee, the boss of Smart Power India, an NGO supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, says their job is to “demonstrate the benefits, train and then propagate”.

An independent study for Mlinda found that GDP per person in eight villages with mini-grids rose by 10.6% on average over the first 13 months, compared with 4.6% in a group of similar villages without them.  Mini-grids are being set up at the rate of just 100 or so a year, from Myanmar to Mozambique. But the International Energy Agency (IEA), a forecaster, says hundreds of thousands of them could connect 440m people by 2030, with the right policies and about $300bn of investment.

African countries used to focus almost exclusively on expanding national electricity networks. Now some, including Nigeria and Togo, have started to prioritise mini-grids. ..

Most mini-grids are green, unlike diesel, kerosene and coal- and gas-fired electricity. That is a welcome feature, though not the main aim, since the contribution of places like Narotoli to global warming is minuscule.

Excerpts from Mini-girds and development: Empowering Villages, Economist, July 14, 2018, at 61

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How to Relocate Elephants

Diamond producer De Beers said on July 23, 2018 it was relocating 200 elephants from its private reserve in South Africa to neighboring Mozambique, part of wider efforts to restore wildlife populations ravaged by conflict there.  The Anglo American unit said its 32,000-hectare (80,000-acre) Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve could support around 60 elephants but now had 270, causing “extensive damage to an ecosystem that must sustain a diverse wildlife population.”

The world’s largest land mammals have a jumbo-sized impact on their terrain and in many South African parks, which are fenced to contain them, populations have reached levels where the vegetation cannot support their numbers.  De Beers said the elephants would be moved 1,500 km (1,000 miles) to Mozambique’s Zinave National Park, which has over 400,000 hectares and an elephant population of only 60.  Mozambique’s wildlife numbers were badly hit by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1992. In more recent years, its remaining elephant populations have been targeted by ivory poachers.

The operation is being conducted with the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) conservation group, and De Beers said it was providing it with $500,000 to support anti-poaching efforts...Elephants are extremely social animals and family groups will be kept together for the translocation, a huge logistical undertaking that will include darting operations and the movement of tranquilized animals over long distances by road.

Excerpts from De Beers to move 200 elephants from South Africa to Mozambique, Reuters, July 23, 2018

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7 Frozen Embryos and the Resuscitation of Rhinos

SUDAN, the last male northern white rhinoceros on Earth, died in March 2018. He is survived by two females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, who live in a conservancy in Kenya. This pair are thus the only remaining members of the world’s most endangered subspecies of mammal. But all might not yet be lost. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, in Berlin, in collaboration with Avantea, a biotechnology company in Cremona, Italy, is proposing heroic measures to keep the subspecies alive. In a paper published in Nature, he and his colleagues say that they have created, by in vitro fertilisation (IVF), apparently viable hybrid embryos of northern white rhinos and their cousins from the south. This, they hope, will pave the way for the creation of pure northern-white embryos.

Though stored sperm from Sudan and several other males are available, both Najin and Fatu now seem unable to conceive. This means, if the subspecies is to be preserved, that one or both of them will have to have some eggs removed from their ovaries and combined with stored sperm in a Petri dish;... and subsenquently implanted in the uterus of a southern white, who would act as a surrogate mother, with a reasonable hope of success.  That has not yet happened. The seven embryos are now in a freezer awaiting the results of research on how best to transfer them to surrogates. In the meantime, having proved their technique with these hybrids, Dr Hildebrandt and his colleagues now hope to create more embryos, this time using eggs from the two remaining female northern whites.

Even if they succeed, though, it will be a long haul back for the northern white rhino. Members of any new generation resulting from IVF will have then to be bred with each other to create subsequent generations—with all the risks of reduced biological fitness which such incest entails. It is not so much a gene pool that Dr Hildebrandt is working with as a gene puddle.

Then there is the question of what to do with the resulting animals. Analysis of other rhinoceros species, both in Africa and Asia, points to a viable population in the wild needing to be at least 500 strong. Even if such a group could be created, and not collapse from lack of genetic diversity, releasing it into the tender mercies of what remains of Kenya’s savannah would be risky.

Excerpts from Animal Conservation: Drinking in the last-chance saloon, Economist, July 7, 2018, at 66.

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Running out of Beaches: sand miners and builders

For a place that depends on sun-and-sand-seeking tourists, Fort Lauderdale, Florida has a big problem: Its beaches are disappearing.  The Florida city has been fighting a defensive battle against nature for decades. The sand that lines its shores is constantly being swept out to sea by wind, waves and tides. In the natural course of things, that sand would be replenished by grains carried by the Atlantic’s southward-moving currents. That’s what used to happen. Today, however, so many marinas, jetties and breakwaters have been built along the Atlantic coast that the flow of incoming sand has been blocked. The natural erosion continues, but the natural replenishment does not.

For many years, Broward County, in which Fort Lauderdale sits, solved its vanishing-beach problem by replacing the sand with grains dredged up from the nearby ocean floor. Nearly 12 million cubic yards of underwater grains have been stripped off the sea bottom and thrown onto the county’s shores. But by now, virtually all of the accessible undersea sand has been used up.  The same goes for Miami Beach, Palm Beach and many other beach-dependent Florida towns. In fact, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, nearly half of the state’s beaches have suffered “critical erosion.” Florida isn’t an anomaly. Beaches are disappearing all across America and around the world, from South Africa to Japan to Western Europe. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey warned that unless something is done, as much as two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches may be completely eroded by 2100...

Massive coastal development blocks the flow of ocean-borne sand. In many countries, including the U.S., river dams also cut off sand that used to feed beaches. The widespread practice of dredging up river sand to use for making concrete makes the problem worse. Researchers at the South African Institute of International Affairs believe that sand mining has slashed by one-third the flow of river sand that feeds the beaches of Durban, South Africa; and in the San Francisco Bay, environmentalists warn that massive sand dredging may be starving nearby beaches.

In some places, outlaw sand miners are hauling away the beach itself. In Morocco, Algeria, Russian-occupied Crimea and elsewhere, illegal miners have stripped entire beaches for construction sand, leaving behind rocky moonscapes. Smugglers in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia load beach sand onto small barges in the night to sell in Singapore.

Having thwarted the natural processes that used to feed beaches, people are now replacing them with artificial ones. The easiest and cheapest method is to suck up grains from offshore and blast them onto the beach through massive pipes. But having run out of offshore sand, many towns in southern Florida are left with no choice but to dig their sand from inland quarries and haul it to the coast one roaring, diesel-spewing truck at a time. Tourists and locals hate the noise and traffic, and county officials hate the extra cost, which can be easily double that of dredged sand. Desperate officials are even talking about importing sand from the Bahamas.

The costs add up fast. The price of renourishing a beach can reach $10 million per mile. Broward County alone has spent more than $100 million replenishing its beaches in a multiyear project launched in 2015. More than a few places, such as Atlantic City, have already racked up tabs of well over $100 million by themselves. All told, nearly $9 billion has been spent in the U.S. in recent decades on artificially rebuilding hundreds of miles of beach, according to researchers at Western Carolina University. Florida accounted for about a quarter of the total. Almost all of the costs are covered by taxpayers.

Dredging up ocean sand clouds the water with stirred-up grains and muck. Suspended in the water, those particles can block life-giving sunlight from reaching coral reefs. And when the grains settle, they can suffocate the reefs and whatever creatures are living on them.  Moreover, beach sands are themselves home to a multitude of creatures. Besides the obvious ones—clams, crabs, birds, plants—they shelter all kinds of nematodes, flatworms, bacteria and other organisms so small that they live on the surface of individual sand grains. Despite their tiny size, these creatures play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down organic matter and providing food for other creatures. Dumping thousands of tons of imported sand on top of these organisms can obliterate whole colonies of them.

Beaches are bulwarks that can protect lives and property from storms and rising seas in our climatically imperiled world....The U.S.’s densely populated eastern seaboard is already getting a taste of what that means. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it killed 159 people and damaged or destroyed at least 650,000 homes. The storm struckhardest in areas where beaches had eroded, leaving little or no buffer between cities and the raging wind and waves. On the other hand, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, renourished beaches in New York and New Jersey prevented an estimated $1.3 billion in damages that Sandy otherwise would have inflicted.

Excerpts from Vince Beiser, The Battle for our Beaches, Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2018

See also The World in a Grain