Ukrainian officials have sought calm after forest fires in the restricted zone around Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident, led to a rise in radiation levels.
Firefighters said they had managed to put out the smaller of two forest fires that began at the weekend, apparently after someone began a grass fire, and had deployed more than 100 firefighters backed by planes and helicopters to extinguish the remaining blaze.
The fire had caused radiation fears in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, which is located about 60 miles south of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Government specialists on Monday sent to monitor the situation reported that there was no rise in radiation levels in Kyiv or the city suburbs.
‘A horrible way to die’: how Chernobyl recreated a nuclear meltdown
“You don’t have to be afraid of opening your windows and airing out your home during the quarantine,” wrote Yegor Firsov, head of Ukraine’s state ecological inspection service, in a Facebook post about the results of the radiation tests.
As of Monday afternoon, the country’s emergency ministry said that the remaining fire in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covered about 20 hectares and was still being extinguished. Footage released by the ministry showed firefighters dousing flames on the forest floor, and clouds of smoke rising.
Police have arrested a suspect believed to have caused the blaze, a 27-year-old man from the area who reportedly told police he had set grass and rubbish on fire in three places “for fun”. After he had lit the fires, he said, the wind had picked up and he had been unable to extinguish them.
An earlier post by Firsov had warned about heightened radiation levels at the site, which he said had been caused by the “barbaric” practice of local grass fires often started in the spring and autumn. “There is bad news – radiation is above normal in the fire’s centre,” Firsov wrote on Sunday.
The post included a video with a Geiger counter showing radiation at 16 times above normal. The fire had spread to about 100 hectares of forest, Firsov wrote.
Tourists flock to Chernobyl – in pictures
The country’s emergency ministry put out a warning for Kyiv on Monday about poor air quality but said it was related to meteorological conditions, and not to the fire.
The service had said on Saturday that increased radiation in some areas had led to “difficulties” in fighting the fire, while stressing that people living nearby were not in danger. On Monday, it said that gamma radiation levels had not risen near the fire.
(CNN)When it comes to the big questions plaguing the world’s scientists, they don’t get much larger than this.
Where do you safely bury more than 28,000 cubic meters — roughly six Big Ben clock towers — of deadly radioactive waste for the next million years?
This is the “wicked problem” facing Germany as it closes all of its nuclear power plants in the coming years, according to Professor Miranda Schreurs, part of the team searching for a storage site.
Experts are now hunting for somewhere to bury almost 2,000 containers of high-level radioactive waste. The site must be beyond rock-solid, with no groundwater or earthquakes that could cause a leakage.
The technological challenges — of transporting the lethal waste, finding a material to encase it, and even communicating its existence to future humans — are huge.
But the most pressing challenge today might simply be finding a community willing to have a nuclear dumping ground in their backyard.
Searching for a nuclear graveyard
Germany decided to phase out all its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, amid increasing safety concerns.
The seven power stations still in operation today are due to close by 2022.
With their closure comes a new challenge — finding a permanent nuclear graveyard by the government’s 2031 deadline.
Germany’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy says it aims to find a final repository for highly radioactive waste “which offers the best possible safety and security for a period of a million years.”
The country was a “blank map” of potential sites, it added.
Currently, high-level radioactive waste is stored in temporary facilities, usually near the power plant it came from.
But these facilities were “only designed to hold the waste for a few decades,” said Schreurs, chair of environmental and climate policy at the Technical University of Munich, and part of the national committee assisting the search for a high-level radioactive waste site.
As the name suggests, high-level radioactive waste is the most lethal of its kind. It includes the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. “If you opened up a canister with those fuel rods in it, you would more or less instantly die,” said Schreurs.
These rods are “so incredibly hot, it’s very hard to transport them safely,” said Schreurs. So for now they’re being stored in containers where they can first cool down over several decades, she added.
There are dozens of these temporary storage sites dotted across Germany. The search is now on for a permanent home at least 1 kilometer underground.
Between a rock and a hard place
The location will need to be geologically “very very stable,” said Schreurs. “It can’t have earthquakes, it can’t have any signs of water flow, it can’t be very porous rock.”
Finland, which has four nuclear power plants and plans to build more in the future, is a world leader in this field. Work is well underway on its own final repository for high-level waste — buried deep in granite bedrock.
Germany’s problem is “it doesn’t have a whole lot of granite,” said Schreurs. Instead, it has to work with the ground it’s got — burying the waste in things like rock salt, clay rock and crystalline granite.
Next year the team hope to have identified potential storage sites in Germany (there are no plans to export the waste). It’s a mission that stretches beyond our lifetimes — the storage facility will finally be sealed sometime between the years 2130 and 2170.
Communications experts are already working on how to tell future generations thousands of years from now — when language will be completely different — not to disturb the site.
Schreurs likened it to past explorers entering the pyramids of Egypt — “we need to find a way to tell them ‘curiosity is not good here.'”
For now, nobody wants a nuclear dumping ground on their doorstep.
Schreurs admitted public mistrust was a challenge, given Germany’s recent history of disastrous storage sites.
Former salt mines at Asse and Morsleben, eastern Germany, that were used for low- and medium-level nuclear waste in the 1960s and 1970s, must now be closed in multibillion-dollar operations after failing to meet today’s safety standards.
The fears around high-level waste are even greater.
Protesters block railway tracks outside Gorleben in 2010.
For more than 40 years, residents in the village of Gorleben, Lower Saxony, have fought tooth-and-nail to keep a permanent high-level waste repository off their turf.
The site was first proposed in 1977 in what critics say was a political choice. Gorleben is situated in what was then a sparsely populated area of West Germany, close to the East German border, and with a high unemployment rate that politicians argued would benefit from a nuclear facility.
Over the decades, there have been countless demonstrations against the proposal. Protesters have blocked railway tracks to stop what they described as “Chernobyl on wheels” — containers of radioactive waste headed for Gorleben’s temporary storage facility.
An exploratory mine was eventually constructed in Gorleben, but it was never used for nuclear waste. And in the face of huge public opposition, the government in recent years decided to start afresh its national search for a dumping ground.
“If we did not build this big, strong and long-lasting resistance, I think the salt mine would already be used,” said Kerstin Rudek, 51, who grew up in Gorleben and has been campaigning against a permanent nuclear repository for the last 35 years.
That doesn’t mean she and other activists plan on quitting their campaign anytime soon. “They haven’t canceled out Gorleben completely, so we are very suspicious it might still be chosen,” said Rudek.
With more than 400 nuclear power plants around the world, many nearing the end of their operating lifetimes, the issue of waste storage will only become more urgent, said Schreurs.
Germany is in the unique position of knowing exactly how much waste it will be dealing with. Knowing where to put it is the challenge.
Imagine this scenario: You are driving home from work one evening, and you notice a strange metallic taste in your mouth. That night on the evening news, you hear there’s been an accident at the nuclear plant in your community, but that everything is under control.
The next day, the metallic taste is stronger, and you see a rust-colored ring around the bathtub when you drain it. Public announcements continue to say everything is OK. Your eight-month-old daughter has been playing outside much of those two days.
The following day, the governor announces that pregnant women and women with preschool children within five miles of the plant should evacuate. You flee in terror with your daughter, husband and a friend, driving more than 250 miles to a town south and east on the coast. Before you go, you notice a strange thick, heavy, slightly glowing orange haze around the nuclear plant and over the area.
Hospital staff tell you to go to a Civil Defense station, where your car and belongings are scanned for radiation. The Geiger counter goes off the charts.
The day after the accident begins, your husband gets a bad headache that turns into a nasty sinus condition, and he is nauseous. You, your husband and daughter all have extremely sore noses that are too tender to touch. Your gums are purple and bleeding, and your sore noses and bleeding gums last for weeks. The metallic taste stays in your mouth for about three weeks.
You return home after three weeks. In the subsequent days, months and years, every time radioactive gases are vented from the nuclear plant, you know it — whether it’s publicly announced or not — because the metallic taste returns. You are filled with rage and anxiety, and feel helpless to stop the ongoing radiation exposures. When your daughter is two years old, she is diagnosed with severe cataracts in both her eyes, which doctors attribute to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
When you file a medical claim for your daughter’s radiation-induced illness with the nuclear plant’s insurance company, you are told the claim is absurd. Eventually, 2,000 others in your community join a class action lawsuit for compensation for injuries and illness after the accident. But 18 years later, it is dismissed for lack of evidence after the judge disallowed virtually all of the plaintiffs’ expert testimony. Years later, the official and widely accepted word about the accident that sickened, killed and terrorized so many people in your community is that nobody died. Then, 20 years after that, a study identifies radiation-induced thyroid cancers among area residents, challenging that assertion.
This is not a made-up story. It is what happened to Becky Mease, a nurse in her late 20s, and her family during and after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979. And the railroading that Mease experienced when she tried to demand accountability for the poisoning of her family was not an isolated case, either — it is what happened to all the victims who attempted to get restitution for their suffering.
Nuclear Energy Is Not “Clean”
Ever since the nuclear industry became a global pariah following Three Mile Island and the much more severe accident at Chernobyl in 1986, it has been desperately trying to make a comeback.
In the late 1980s, then-chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix began touting the idea that nuclear power should play a significant role in combating climate change because it does not release carbon while generating electricity, a position he continues to promote.
Several prominent advocates for addressing the climate crisis have taken up this call, some of the latest being Democratic presidential hopefuls Cory Booker and Andrew Yang.
But the fact that reactors don’t emit carbon while operating doesn’t mean nuclear energy is “clean.” Because of the huge volume of deadly poisons that the nuclear fission process creates, nuclear reactors need an uninterrupted electricity supply to run the cooling systems that keep the reactors from melting down, a requirement that may be increasingly difficult to guarantee in a world of climate-fueled megastorms and other disasters.
The ongoing accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan following the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 demonstrates the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to such disasters.
Nuclear boosters have been remarkably successful in ignoring and erasing the health effects of radiation exposure, enabling them to downplay the impacts of serious accidents. In truth, reactor meltdowns, depending on where they occur, can kill and injure enormous numbers of people and contaminate the air, water, land and food supply over thousands of miles with radiation. A 1982 study by the Sandia National Laboratory, one of the labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy, calculated deaths and injuries within a year of a core meltdown and subsequent cancer deaths at 76 different nuclear power plant sites, many of which were only proposed at that time. According to this study, the Salem nuclear plant outside Philadelphia could kill 100,000 people within a year, result in 40,000 subsequent cancer deaths and give another 70,000-75,000 people a range of radiation-related injuries. A 1997 report by Brookhaven National Laboratory on the potential consequences of a spent fuel accident also forecasted large numbers of fatalities.
The risks of radiation exposure are downplayed and easily dismissed as “irrational fear” because the physics and chemistry of the fission process and the radioactive elements it produces are complex and not understood by the general public and also because, except in cases of acute radiation poisoning, radiation is invisible.
Radioactive fission products are “variant forms of the ordinary chemicals which are the building blocks of all material and living things,” explains Dr. Rosalie Bertell in her book, No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth. The difference is that stable, non-radioactive atoms have an equal number of protons and electrons.
Nuclear fission creates an imbalance between protons and electrons, producing enormous quantities of hundreds of different radioactive elements — the high-level waste and activation products — all of which seek to return to a stable state. These unstable atoms become stable by knocking out the extra particles fission created, a process she says takes hundreds of thousands of years.
“Every such release of energy is an explosion on the microscopic level,” Bertell says. Radiation exposure is particularly damaging to the structure of cells, which is why it is necessary to keep these radioactive elements, known as radionuclides or radioisotopes, out of the bodies of humans, other living beings and the environment.
As climate models have long predicted, our warming world is now experiencing much larger and stronger storms with significantly more rainfall in the Earth’s wetter areas and more sustained and severe drought and wildfires in the drier regions. In 2019, the hottest June on record triggered an unprecedented fire season in the Arctic, with over 100 intense fires. The summer of 2019 also saw 55 billion tons of water melt off Greenland’s ice sheet in just five days, a rate scientists hadn’t expected for 50 years.
A month before the massive ice loss in Greenland, scientists predicted sea levels could rise 6.5 feet by the end of the century, submerging nearly 700,000 square miles of land.
Most nuclear power plants are located beside rivers, lakes, dams or oceans because they need a continuous source of water to cool the reactors. In August 2018, Ensia reported that at least 100 nuclear power plants built a few meters above sea level in the U.S., Europe and Asia would likely experience flooding due to sea level rise and storm surges.
Though nuclear reactors vary in generating capacity, 1,000 megawatts is common. A reactor of that size contains 100 metric tons of enriched uranium fuel, roughly a third of which needs to be replaced with fresh fuel each year. According to radioactive waste expert Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, the spent fuel, also known as high-level waste, becomes 2.5 million times more radioactive after undergoing nuclear fission in the reactor core.
In a May 2011 report, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) senior scholar Robert Alvarez, a top official at the U.S. Department of Energy from 1993 to 1999, described the danger of high-level waste this way: “Spent fuel rods give off about 1 million rems (10,000 sieverts) of radiation per hour at a distance of one foot — enough radiation to kill people in a matter of seconds.”
The intense radioactivity the fission process creates is why reactor cores are surrounded by five-feet thick reinforced concrete containment structures and spent fuel must be shielded by at least 20 feet of water in pools for several years after it leaves the reactor.
As of September 2019, 444 nuclear reactors are operating in the world, with 54 under construction, 111 planned and 330 more proposed.
The Three R’s of Nuclear Accidents
David Lochbaum, nuclear engineer and former director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says nuclear plants are basically vulnerable to three kinds of accidents. “I compare it to the three R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic,” he told Truthout.
The first R — radioactive decay and residual heat — caused three reactors at Fukushima to melt down after the tsunami flooded the plant and knocked out the emergency diesel generators that were meant to kick in to keep the plant’s cooling system operating.
The second R is reactivity control. In this type of accident, operators lose control, as happened at Chernobyl. In that case, Lochbaum says, the reactor was only running at 7 percent power when worker mistakes accelerated it to 1,000 percent in less than a second or so. That blew the building apart and released up to an estimated 9 billion curies of radiation into the air, contaminating many areas in Europe and eventually spreading radioactive particles throughout the northern hemisphere.
Decades of inventory of lethally hot spent nuclear fuel remain stacked in fuel pools at most of the world’s nuclear power plants. These pose the most serious potential for Lochbaum’s third R, an accident sparked by radioactive materials. The explosion of a radioactive waste drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a nuclear weapons waste dump in New Mexico, in 2014 is another example of a third R accident.
Despite housing “some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet,” Alvarez points out, spent nuclear fuel pools in the U.S., which currently has the world’s largest reactor fleet, mostly reside in “ordinary industrial structures designed to merely protect them against the elements. Some are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships.”
Because fuel pools on average contain about six times as much irradiated fuel as a reactor core, a fuel pool accident could be significantly worse than a reactor meltdown. So far, no fuel pool accidents have occurred, though one was only narrowly averted at Fukushima.
Anything that interrupts power to the reactor — whether it’s a devastating wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, ice storm, dam failure or some other unforeseen incident — poses a risk of nuclear disaster. “All plants are vulnerable to loss of power for an extended period,” Lochbaum said. “The pathway to get there varies from plant to plant.”
In the U.S., the nuclear industry is responding to the risk of indefinite power outages with a strategy called FLEX. Plant owners are required to purchase portable backup pumps, hoses and diesel generators housed on-site. FLEX also relies on equipment and supplies, like diesel fuel, being trucked or flown in from other places.
Lochbaum is not confident that FLEX is adequate to protect the public from nuclear disaster in a warming world. Over the 20 years he monitored the industry and its government overseer, he says the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has gotten increasingly complacent — and often hostile toward its own staff members who raise questions — about the potential dangers of a technology capable of doing long-lasting, deadly harm over enormous distances.
The nuclear industry and its supporters, of course, see it differently.
In a Bloomberg Businessweekfeature in April 2019, former New York Times reporter Matthew Wald, who covered the nuclear industry for years and is now a spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s lobby group in Washington, D.C., downplayed the concern: “There is a perennial problem in any high-tech industry deciding how safe is safe enough,” he said. “The civilian nuclear power industry exceeds the NRC-required safety margin by a substantial amount.”
Yet safety standards set by an agency rolling back safety inspections, loosening safety requirements, permitting less public disclosure of problems, and limiting public input does not inspire confidence.
Nor, Lochbaum says, will it likely serve the nuclear industry’s quest for revival. “If you truly want to expand nuclear power, what’s going on now is the exact opposite of what you should do,” he said. If they don’t regulate the plants and instead let the owners do it and cause a bad accident, that could halt nuclear power. “Just like in Japan, that will bring them all down,” he said.
But at what cost to public health and safety?
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
The current existential question facing the human race is climate change. If we continue on the current path, some currently populated areas of the planet will become uninhabitable. For instance, coastal cities will be submerged and the whole nation of Bangladesh will be displaced. Everyone will be affected.
Something has to be done. But what? The problem is that none of the paths presently under consideration are viable, except one.
Cloudscape with eye of hurricane
The Limits Of Wind, Solar And Batteries
As explained in a paper from the Manhattan Institute, we are near the theoretical limits of what is possible from efficiency improvements in existing hydrocarbon technology or from wind, and solar energy and battery storage: those technologies are radically inadequate to handle the challenge of climate change.
Hydrocarbons collectively supply 84% of the world’s energy. wind, solar, and batteries provide about 2% of the world’s energy and 3% of America’s.
There have been suggestions that the technologies of wind and solar power and battery storage could be significantly enhanced in the way that improvements in computing and communications have been drastically lowering costs and increasing efficiency. These suggestions ignore profound differences between systems that produce energy and those that produce information.
Solar technologies have improved greatly and will continue to become cheaper and more efficient. But the era of 10-fold gains is over. The physics boundary for silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells, the Shockley-Queisser Limit, is a maximum conversion of 34% of photons into electrons; the best commercial PV technology today exceeds 26%.
Wind power technology has also improved greatly, but here, too, no 10-fold gains are left. The physics boundary for a wind turbine, the Betz Limit, is a maximum capture of 60% of kinetic energy in moving air; commercial turbines today exceed 40%.
The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual U.S. electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of U.S. electricity demand.”
There is simply not enough room for improvement in these technologies to make a big enough difference.
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Other experts push for greater investment in nuclear power, which is the second largest low-carbon power source after hydroelectricity. It supplies about 10% of global electricity generation. While these experts push for nuclear power as “the answer”, disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima dominate the popular imagination about nuclear power and make wider implementation politically difficult.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Photo Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
While experts claim that the technological and safety obstacles that once affected the nuclear sector have largely been overcome, laymen continue to worry about the safety of storing nuclear waste for thousands of years. Presently, waste is mainly stored at individual reactor sites and there are over 400 locations around the world where radioactive material continues to accumulate. It would be an improvement if there were centralized underground repositories which are well-managed, guarded, and monitored, but no one can guarantee the fail-safe longevity of those arrangements for thousands of years. Unless and until the storage question of nuclear waste is resolved, nuclear power can hardly be seen as a rational answer to climate change. Pursuit of this option could be jumping out of a climate frying pan into a nuclear fire.
More Regulatory Action And Voluntary Efforts
Meanwhile, regulatory action or voluntary efforts will be utterly insufficient to make a difference. The 2015 Paris Agreement called on countries to individually make their best efforts to contain the damage. This was perceived as a positive step, but it was not enough to stay climate change, even if the Agreement were to be fully implemented.
Jean-Dominique Senard, CEO Michelin in Paris 2015. Photo Christophe Morin/Bloomberg
Under the Paris Agreement, each country is to determine, plan, and regularly report on the contribution that it undertakes to mitigate global warming. No mechanism forces a country to set a specific target by a specific date, but each target should go beyond previously set targets.
Introducing further regulations and controls with ever more intrusive impacts on lifestyles would require enormous political support, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in the current divisive political climate.
The more important problem is that the best efforts by countries individually, even in the unlikely event that all fulfilled their obligations, would not be nearly enough to deal with the issue. That’s because the countries don’t have the technology that would enable them to make enough impact. The current technologies, even with the best will and motivation in the world, will not get the job done. No amount of Paris Agreements can change that. It’s like agreeing to try to fly to the moon on a bicycle.
The Paris Agreement 2015 was a setback in the sense that it fueled the illusion that the problem of climate change can be solved by government regulation in each individual country. It can’t. It’s not that kind of problem.
The Only Viable Solution
The human race didn’t succeed in handling big challenges in the past by upgrading yesterday’s technologies or passing new laws. The Internet didn’t emerge from improving the dial-up phone or regulating phone calls. The electric light bulb didn’t appear from efforts to develop better candles or telling people to use less light. The automobile didn’t arrive by trying to breed faster horses.
The human race solved big problems through basic research that led to radically new technical solutions that changed everything.
A New Manhattan Project
So what if a massive effort in basic research with the best minds and adequate funding was undertaken to find new technology for creating non-polluting energy for the planet?
What if it was launched by one country to get it started and then other countries were invited to join it so as to make it a multinational effort.
Is there any real alternative, except denial?
When do we stop our magical thinking and work on the one thing that will sustain the human race? Is there anything more urgent or important?
In 2012, Sue Natali arrived in Duvanny Yar, Siberia, for the first time. Then a postdoctoral research fellow studying the effects of thawing permafrost due to climate change, she had seen photos of this site many times. Rapid thawing at Duvanny Yar had caused a massive ground collapse – a “mega slump” – like a giant sinkhole in the middle of the Siberian tundra. But nothing had prepared her for seeing it in person.
As you walk along you see what look like logs poking out the permafrost. But they aren’t logs, they are the bones of mammoths and other Pleistocene animals – Sue Natali
“It was incredible, really incredible”, she recalls while speaking to me from The Woods Hole Research Center, Massachusetts, where she is an associate scientist. “I still get chills when I think about it… I just couldn’t believe the magnitude: collapsing cliffs the size of multi-storey buildings … and as you walk along you see what look like logs poking out the permafrost. But they aren’t logs, they are the bones of mammoths and other Pleistocene animals.”
What Natali describes is the visible, dramatic effects of a rapidly warming Arctic. The permafrost – up until now, permanently frozen land and soil – is thawing out, and revealing its hidden secrets. Alongside Pleistocene fossils are massive carbon and methane emissions, toxic mercury, and ancient diseases.
The rapid thawing of permafrost causes “mega slumps” that puncture the landscape like the holes in swiss cheese (Credit: Sue Natali)
The organic-rich permafrost holds an estimated 15 billion tonnes of carbon. “That’s about twice as much carbon in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon than that stored in all the world’s forests”, says Natali. She explains that between 30% and 70% of the permafrost may melt before 2100, depending on how effectively we respond to climate change. “The 70% is business as usual, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, and 30% is if we vastly reduce our fossil fuel emissions… Of the 30-70% that thaws, the carbon locked up in organic matter will begin to be broken down by microbes, they use it as fuel or energy, and they release it as CO2 or methane.”
Around 10% of the carbon that does defrost will probably be released as CO2, amounting to 130-150 billion tonnes. That is equivalent to the current rate of total US emissions, every year until 2100. Melting permafrost effectively introduces a new country at number two on the highest emitters list, and one that isn’t accounted for in current IPCC models. “People talk about a carbon bomb,” says Natali. “In geological timescales this is not a slow release. It is a pool of carbon that is locked away and is not accounted for in the carbon budget to keep rises below two degrees (Celsius).”
The Northern Hemisphere winter of 2018/2019 was dominated by headlines of the “polar vortex”, as temperatures plummeted unusually far south into North America. In South Bend, Indiana, it reached -29C in January 2019, almost twice as low as the city’s previous record set in 1936. What such stories masked, however, was that the opposite was happening in the far North, beyond the Arctic circle. January 2019 also saw Arctic sea ice average just 13.56 million square kilometres (5.24 million square miles), some 860,000 square kilometres (332,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, and only slightly above the record low reached in January 2018.
Melting ice can release methane, which will exacerbate global warming (Credit: Alamy)
“We are seeing a big increase in the thaw of permafrost”, confirms Emily Osborne, program manager for the Arctic Research Program, NOAA, and editor of the Arctic Report Card, an annual peer-reviewed environmental study of the Arctic. As a direct result of rising air temperatures, she says, the permafrost is thawing and “the landscape is physically crumbling as a result… things are changing so fast, and in ways that researchers hadn’t even anticipated.”
The headline of the 2017 Arctic Report Card pulled no punches: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to a reliably frozen region”. One paper co-authored by Hanne Christiansen, professor and vice dean of education at University Centre Svalbard, Norway, studied permafrost temperatures at a depth of 20 metres (that’s 65ft, far enough down not to be affected by short-term seasonal changes) and found temperatures had risen by up to 0.7C since 2000. Christiansen, who is also president of the International Permafrost Association, tells me, “temperatures are increasing inside the permafrost at relatively high speed… then, of course, what was permanently frozen before can become released.” In 2016, the autumn temperatures in Svalbard remained above zero throughout November, “the first time this has happened in the records that we have, going back to 1898”, says Christiansen. “Then large amounts of rain came – the precipitation here is typically snow… we had mudslides crossing roads for 100s of metres… we had to evacuate some parts of the population.”
The melting permafrost is transforming Alaska’s landscapes (Credit: Alamy)
In some places in the Alaskan Arctic, you fly over a swiss cheese of land and lakes formed by ground collapse – Sue Natali
The rapid change in North American permafrost is equally alarming. “In some places in the Alaskan Arctic, you fly over a swiss cheese of land and lakes formed by ground collapse,” says Natali, whose fieldwork has moved from Siberia to Alaska. “Water that was close to the surface now becomes a pond.” Many of these ponds are bubbling with methane, as microbes suddenly find themselves with a feast of ancient organic matter to munch on, releasing methane as a by-product. “We often walk across the lakes because it’s so shallow and it’s like you’re in a hot tub in some places, there is so much bubbling,” says Natali.
The melting permafrost released anthrax in Siberia (Credit: Alamy)
But methane and CO2 are not the only things being released from the once frozen ground. In the summer of 2016, a group of nomadic reindeer herders began falling sick from a mysterious illness. Rumours began circling of the “Siberian plague”, last seen in the region in 1941. When a young boy and 2,500 reindeer died, the disease was identified: anthrax. Its origin was a defrosting reindeer carcass, a victim of an anthrax outbreak 75 years previously. The 2018 Arctic report card speculates that, “diseases like the Spanish flu, smallpox or the plague that have been wiped out might be frozen in the permafrost.” A French study in 2014 took a 30,000 year-old virus frozen within permafrost, and warmed it back up in the lab. It promptly came back to life, 300 centuries later. (To read more, see BBC Earth’s piece on the diseases hidden in ice.)
Adding to this apocalyptic vision, in 2016 the Doomsday Vault – a sub-permafrost facility in Arctic Norway, which safeguards millions of crop seeds for perpetuity – was breached with meltwater. And listed amongst the membership of The Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost, is Swedish Nuclear Waste Management who presumably also rely on a permanently frozen permafrost (when BBC Future approached them for comment on this point, they did not respond).
Long-preserved human archaeology may also be emerging, but just as quickly lost. A frozen Palaeo-Eskimo site in Greenland, preserved for some 4,000 years, is at risk of being washed away. This is just one of an estimated 180,000 archaeological sites preserved in the permafrost, often with soft tissues and clothing that uniquely remain intact but would rot quickly if exposed. Adam Markham, of the Union of Concerned Scientists has said, “with rapid, human-caused climate change, many sites or the artefacts they contain, will be lost before they have been discovered.”
More modern (and unwanted) human detritus will, however, not rot away: marine microplastics. Due to circular global marine currents, much plastic waste ends up in the Arctic, where it becomes frozen in sea ice or permafrost. A recent study of marine micro-particles demonstrated that concentrations were higher in the Arctic Basin than all other ocean basins in the world. Microplastic concentrations in the Greenland Sea doubled between 2004 and 2015. “Scientists are finding that those microplastics are accumulating across the entire ocean and being dumped into the Arctic”, explains Osborne. “This is something we didn’t [previously] realise was a problem. What scientists are trying to find out now is the composition of these microplastics, what sort of fish are feeding on these… and whether we are essentially eating microplastics through eating these fish.”
In 2016 the Doomsday Vault – a sub-permafrost facility in Arctic Norway, which safeguards millions of crop seeds for perpetuity – was breached with meltwater (Credit: Alamy)
Mercury is also entering the food chain, thanks to thawing permafrost. The Arctic is home to the most mercury on the planet. The US Geological Survey estimates there’s a total of 1,656,000 tonnes of mercury trapped in polar ice and permafrost: roughly twice the global amount in all other soils, oceans, and atmosphere. Natali explains that, “mercury often binds up with organic material in places where you have high organic matter content… organism’s bodies don’t remove it, so it bio-accumulates up the food web. Permafrost is almost the perfect storm – you have a lot of mercury in permafrost, it is released into wetland systems, those are the right environment for organisms to take them up, and then [it] heads up the food web. That’s a concern for wildlife, people, and the commercial fishing industry.”
Are there some positives of a thawing Arctic? Could a greener Arctic start to see more trees and vegetation take root, sequestering more carbon and offering new grazing land for animals? Osborne agrees that “the Arctic is greening”. But she adds that studies of animal populations actually suggest that, “warmer temperatures also increase the prevalence of viruses and disease, so we’re seeing a lot more caribou and reindeer becoming more sickly as a result of this warming climate… it is just not an environment that is suited to thrive at these warmer temperatures.” Natali also says that many areas are experiencing “Tundra browning”: the higher temperatures lead surface water to evaporate into the atmosphere, causing plants to die off. Other areas are experiencing sudden flooding due to the ground collapsing. “It’s not happening in 2100 or 2050, it’s now”, says Natali. “You hear people say ‘we used to pick blueberries over there’, and you look over there and it’s a wetland.”
Natali doesn’t want to end the conversation on a downer. There is a lot we can do, she says. The fate of the Arctic is not a foregone conclusion: “The actions taken by the international community will have a substantial impact on just how much carbon will be released and how much of the permafrost will thaw. We need to keep as much of the permafrost as we can frozen. And we do have some control of that.” Our emissions cannot remain “business as usual”. The Arctic depends on it. And we depend on the Arctic.
The U.S. military’s guided bombs brought “shock and awe” to Baghdad in 2003 when American forces invaded Iraq 16 years ago to hunt for weapons of mass destruction. They never found any. Many observers, today, consider that war a failure.
Now, half of all Americans believe the U.S. will go to war with Iran “within the next few years,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released in late May amid increased tensions between the two countries, longtime geopolitical foes.
The escalating Tehran-Washington crisis comes as the White House claims, without providing detail or public evidence, that Iran poses an increased threat to American forces and facilities in the Middle East – one year after Trump withdrew from an accord between Iran and world powers aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.
Is Iran doomed to be an Iraq redux? This is just one of the questions raised by a crisis that has eerie parallels to the missteps that led to the Iraq War in 2003, where the buildup to conflict was precipitated by faulty intelligence and confrontational foreign policymakers such as John Bolton in President George W. Bush’s administration.
To make sense of what’s happening now, here’s what happened then:
Operation Desert Storm – the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War – came to an end 42 days after a U.S.-led offensive was launched in response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Iraq’s dictator accused Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of conspiring to keep oil prices artificially low for western consumers. President GeorgeH.W. Bush declared a ceasefire on February 28, 1991, as Iraqi forces in Kuwait surrendered or fled back to Iraq. About 700,000 American service members were deployed to the Gulf for the short war; 383 were killed.
When President George W. Bush became president in 2001, Hussein was back on the agenda. “There were a number of people in the Department of Defense who wanted to pursue a certain policy course. I don’t think they ever took their eyes off of Iraq,” former CIA Director John Brennan said in a 2007 National Geographic documentary about the 2003 Iraq War. “There was still a great deal of residual feeling that we should not have stopped the first Persian Gulf War when we did, but rather continue into Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein,” ex-Senator and ex-Florida governor Bob Graham said in the same documentary.
Among the figures Brennan and Graham were referring to: Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bolton, who had worked as a lawyer for the Bush campaign to block recount efforts in Florida that led to state officials awarding the 2000 election to Bush over Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Bolton was a lifelong staunch conservative with hawkish views on foreign policy. For a start, he abhorred multilateralism. “There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States,” he said of the international organization in 1994, adding: “The secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Years later, Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the UN was blocked because of his hardline views. He would also call for the U.S. to make pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and Washington shifted the Bush administration’s focus to hunting Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban had given shelter to the al-Qaeda’s leader, who masterminded the attacks. But Iraq was also on the radar of the Pentagon’s military planners, who feared that Hussein might try to support or orchestrate an equally, or worse, catastrophic assault on U.S. soil “We’re also working to prepare our nation for the next war,” Rumsfeld said at a briefing on Afghanistan in late 2001, referring to Iraq.
In January 2002, Bush branded Iraq part of an “axis of evil” for harboring, financing and aiding terrorists, and for its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Also members of the club: Iran and North Korea. These countries, Bush said, “are threatening the peace of the world.” He cast aside more dovish voices in his cabinet who urged him to pursue a diplomatic path in Iraq, saying “we can’t wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
Around the same time, Bolton, then serving as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs in Bush’s administration, was becoming a key player in pushing for a military confrontation with Iraq, saying in a BBC radio debate that he was “confident” that Iraq had “hidden” weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons and production facilities. “The U.S. has already decided the outcome of this story – Saddam will be left with no weapons of mass destruction – but how that point is reached is up to Saddam Hussein,” Bolton said in the debate in London. He was also making unverified claims about other countries he wanted included in Bush’s “axis of evil,” testifying to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that Cuba was secretly developing a biological weapons program that could be used in warfare against American forces and civilian targets by “rogue states.” Bolton provided no details when questioned. A subsequent Senate investigation found no evidence supporting his assertions.
In the months leading up to the Iraq War in 2003, Cheney appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with a further warning: “The situation, I think, that leads a lot of people to be concerned about Iraq has to do not just with their past activity of harboring terrorists, but also with Saddam Hussein’s behavior over the years and with his aggressive pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.”
Despite not being able to produce clear “smoking gun” evidence of Hussein’s “hidden” program to acquire weapons of mass destruction, Bush, buoyed by key advisors such as Bolton, opted for war with Iraq. When he was not able to get an express United Nations Security Council mandate to do so he pursued a “coalition of the willing” that included Australia, Britain, Japan, Spain and others.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, Hussein spent nine months on the run before he was found hiding in an eight-foot-deep hole near his hometown of Tikrit. An Iraqi court convicted Hussein of crimes against humanity, for using deadly gas against Iraqi Kurds and other transgressions, and he was later executed by hanging. No evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was found. The war was viewed as a fiasco, not only of intelligence, but because it further destabilized the region, contributed to the formation of the Islamic State terrorist group and led to the violent deaths of more 200,000 Iraqi civilians and at least 4,500 American troops. It added more than $1 trillion to U.S. government debt. Iraq’s economy, security and government remain in a fragile state.
In an opinion article in The Guardian in 2013, Bolton wrote: “Overthrowing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 achieved important American strategic objectives. Our broad international coalition accomplished its military mission with low casualties and great speed, sending an unmistakable signal of power and determination throughout the Middle East and around the world. Despite all the criticism of what happened after Saddam’s defeat, these facts are indisputable.”
Meanwhile, with the failed outcome of the 2003 Iraq War still plain to see, Bolton started ramping up his outspoken criticism of Iran’s Islamic Republic. In 2009, as President Barack Obama’s administration entered into what would turn out to be almost five years of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Bolton said: “Ultimately, the only thing that will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons is regime change in Tehran.” As the deal entered its final stages, Bolton advocated in a New York Times opinion piece that the U.S. join forces with Israel: “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran,” he wrote. The articled was headlined: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
Also troubling: The Iranian opposition group Bolton was referring to in his New York Times opinion article is the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a controversial Paris-based political organization also known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK. Along with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, Bolton is long-time supporter of the exiled opposition group and has been paid to speak at its annual rallies. The MEK is often described by observers of its activities, including by humanitarian groups and even a U.S. government research document from 2012, as displaying “cultlike behavior.” The MEK’s reported abuses – vigorously denied to USA TODAY by its senior leadership who claim they result from a vicious and protracted “disinformation campaign” by Iran’s clerical rulers – range from torture and forced celibacy to holding members against their will, sometimes in solitary confinement. The MEK says its critics are often spies for the Iranian regime. Bolton’s first encounters with the MEK took place in Iraq, where for a period it had aligned itself with Hussein’s government, which was fighting a war with Iran.
When Bolton joined the Trump administration as national security adviserin 2018, replacing seasoned former Army officer Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, he continued his public saber rattling and criticism of Iran by releasing a video on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution via the White House’s official Twitter channel. In the video, Bolton calls Iran “the central banker of international terrorism” and accuses Tehran of pursuing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them and of “tyrannizing its own people and terrorizing the world.” The video ends with a direct threat to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy,” Bolton says.
Iran’s interest in nuclear technology dates to the 1950s, when it received help from a U.S.-backed program promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to share U.S. nuclear expertise with other countries for peaceful purposes, such as energy production. But after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and a U.S. hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran effectively ended relations between the two nations, U.S. intelligence agencies have long suspected, without explicit evidence, that Iran has attempted to use its civilian nuclear program as a cover for clandestine weapons development. Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord was designed to prevent that and the UN’s nuclear watchdog has repeatedly verified through inspections and other safeguards that Iran has been complying with the terms of the agreement, even after the U.S. withdrew from it and Washington re-imposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. Bolton has regularly decried those inspections as ineffectual, believes the nuclear accord was a sham and has advocated for a far bolder Iran policy that aggressively addresses Iran’s support for anti-American shia militias and Tehran’s ballistic missile program.
Most Iran experts, political scientists and many U.S. lawmakers believe that it is this – Bolton’s desire, like in Iraq, to confront Iran – that underpins a still-unexplained decision by the Pentagon to deploy warships, B-52 bombers and missiles to the Persian Gulf earlier this month in response to unspecified threats from Iran in the region. The U.S. also plans to send 900 additional troops to the Middle East and extend the stay of another 600 who are part of tens of thousands of others on the ground there. “The previous administration appeased the Islamic Republic of Iran. So we are pushing back. And when you push back, tension does increase,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Iran hawk in the Trump administration, said in response to efforts to get clarity over the moves.
In recent days, Bolton also has accused Iran of being behind a string of incidents in the Persian Gulf, including what officials allege was sabotage of oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, while Yemen’s Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels launched a string of drone attacks targeting Saudi Arabia. Iran has mostly avoided addressing the allegations, although it has said it doesn’t fear a war with the U.S. It has also signaled that its patience with the nuclear deal is wearing thin and threatened to resume uranium enrichment at levels higher than the accord permits. Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Bolton said Wednesday that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well. “Who else would you think is doing it? Somebody from Nepal?” Bolton said that there was “no reason” for Iran to back out of the nuclear deal other than to seek atomic weapons.
As for Trump’s position on Iran, nobody seems to know the president’s mind, not even, perhaps, the president. Trump has oscillated between overtly aggressive rhetoric and seemingly conciliatory statements. “We have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force,” Trump said last week at the White House. While on a four-day visit to Japan, Trump denied he wants regime change in Iran and said it’s not the goal. Some national security experts believe that Bolton’s role in pushing for war with Iran has been exaggerated, and that his influence on the president has been overstated. Still, there have been few Iran-related denials from Bolton, although just hours after the publication of this story, Bolton told a group of reporters while on a trip to London: “The policy we’re pursuing is not a policy of regime change. That’s the fact and everybody should understand it that way.”
Washington (CNN)The US narrative of a deepening threat from Iran was questioned and contradicted as senior Iranian officials warned the US against conflict and Russia’s foreign minister spoke of a “downward spiral.”
The British Ministry of Defense on Wednesday backed one of its generals who countered US claims of a heightened Iranian threat in Syria and Iraq. Lawmakers are raising questions about the administration’s military planning for Iran. Analysts are pointing to national security adviser John Bolton’s advocacy for regime change in Tehran, while the UN and US allies are expressing concern.
Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said Tehran doesn’t want a war that would devastate the region. They denied Iranian involvement in attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and on a Saudi oil station, raising the possibility of sabotage. And they charged that Washington was unnecessarily escalating tensions with Tehran.
Tehran’s full court press on the public followed a New York Times report that Bolton orderedupdates to a military plan to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack US forces or escalate its nuclear activities.
One US official told CNN that the meeting between members of Trump’s national security team to discuss military options “was driven by an interest in being ready for anything.”
The options reviewed include taking military action with more than 100,000 US forces to delay Iran’s nuclear program if it becomes a serious threat, the official said.
These reports follow Tehran’s decision to stop fully complying with the 2015 nuclear pact after several weeks of intensifying US sanctions and restrictions against Iran, as well as warnings from Washington about an increased Iranian threat to US personnel in the region.
The State Department cited those threats Wednesday when it ordered the departure of non-essential personnel from the embassy in Baghdad. Bolton also cited increased threats on May 5 when he announced the swift deployment of a Navy strike group and bomber to the Persian Gulf.
But questions about that deployment, the characterization of the threat against US troops and the tanker attacks have raised concerns that the Trump administration may be angling for a clash with Tehran.
On Tuesday, the deputy commander of the US-led military coalition against ISIS contradicted US claims that Iran was posing a heightened level of threat. “There has been no increased threat from Iranian backed forces in Iraq or Syria,” UK Major Gen. Chris Ghika told Pentagon reporters, saying threats to US and coalition forces remain steady.
His comments prompted a response from Capt. Bill Urban, lead spokesman US Central Command, who didn’t address whether the threat level had changed, but said Ghika’s comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region.”
The British Ministry of Defense backed Ghika on Wednesday, saying “his comments are based on the day to day military operations.”
Taking the bait
“I think what we’re seeing now is our own administration goading Iran into taking ill-advised and tremendously foolish actions that would provide them with justification to … use force against the Iranian regime,” said Ned Price, a former intelligence officer now with the group National Security Action.
Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, which works to end the spread and use of nuclear weapons, pointed to Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have previously advocated for regime change in Iran, as prime drivers of the dynamic.
Another factor is Bolton’s history, as part of the Bush administration team that led the US into war in Iraq, in part on the basis of false claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
“I see all the pieces being put on the table, by John Bolton primarily, setting up a situation where the United States gets drawn into war with Iran in a way that the Trump administration can deny blame,” Collina said.
Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, reacted to reports about the 120,000 troops by saying, “Bolton is methodically setting the stage for war with Iran — forcing Iran into a corner and then readying war plans for when Iran takes the bait.”
Bolton and the National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment, but administration officials have said that most instability and unrest in the Middle East can be traced back to Iran and that they intend to make Tehran change its ways.
Speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, Pompeo said that “we fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told CNN that “any attacks by the Iranian regime or its proxies against US interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive US response.”
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of Foundation for Democracies who advises the administration and Congress on Iran policy, said there’s a strategy behind the news release about the 120,000 troops.
“I imagine the administration is providing this info publicly to frighten the regime in Iran and also as part of responsible contingency planning,” Dubowitz said. “Part of the psychological operations being employed to deter further regime escalation.”
‘Spin out of control
Collina said news of the military’s plans, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, its ongoing pressure campaign to squeeze Iran economically, the US deployment to the Persian Gulf and the tanker attacks, all “adds up to a very tense escalated situation where it could easily spin out of control.”
Many critics see parallels in the current situation to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which essentially launched the US into the Vietnam War. “You have opposing forces too close together, something happens, one side gets blamed and before you know it, you’ve got an international incident,” Collina said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking alongside Pompeo, expressed concern about the situation, describing it as a “downward spiral.” He said Russia needs to consult with Europe and China “to find a way out of this crisis because the situation is getting worse and worse.”
Iranian leaders appeared to feel some pressure, as they issued a series of public statements cautioning against conflict.
Khamenei told high ranking officials and lawmakers on Tuesday that “we don’t seek a war nor do they.” Khamenei reportedly said of the US that “they know a war wouldn’t be beneficial for them.”
Iran’s diplomats made a similar case outside the country.
In London Tuesday, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, Hamid Baeidinejad, told journalists that “if the US wants to draw Iran into a military conflict, they should be aware that this will be devastating, not just for the US, but also for the whole [Persian Gulf] region.”
Iran is “not in the business of trying to create conflict in our neighborhood,” Ravanchi told CNN’s “New Day,” “because nobody is going to have benefit from such a conflict in our region except for a few … some people in Washington and some countries in our neighborhood.”
Asked about the heightened tensions during a trip to India, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed to Washington as well. “Well unfortunately, the United States has been escalating the situation unnecessarily,” Zarif said. “We do not seek escalation, but we have always defended ourselves.”
The UN and other allies are expressing discomfort. On Wednesday, UN Secretary General António Guterres urged “restraint” from all sides. The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, after Pompeo met with EU foreign ministers on Monday, that “the most relevant and responsible attitude to take is that of maximum restraint and avoiding any escalation on a military side.” And Spain has pulled a vessel from the US Navy strike group that was sent to the Persian Gulf.
Advocates for a tough approach to Iran see the recent US moves as a course correction, particularly the idea of an increased troop presence and the strike group deployment.
“An adequate force posture can actually dampen Iranian escalation prospects,” said Behnam Ben Talebu, a senior fellow at the FDD. “Weakness and irresolution can lead to more Iranian testing and meddling, not less.”
Ben Talebu said the strike group’s deployment compliments the administration’s maximum pressure campaign and makes up “for gaps in its regional force posture.”
But others, like Price the former intelligence officer, are wary. Bolton and Pompeo’s history of pushing for regime change in Iran “has given us nothing but good reason to be skeptical,” Price said.
Questions continue to mount. While Bolton characterized the deployment of the Navy strike group and bomber as a response to Iranian threats against US personnel in Iraq and Syria, US allies and Pompeo said the movements had been planned for some time.
Questions also remain about the attack on the four tankers in the Persian Gulf, two belonging to Saudi Arabia, one to the United Arab Emirates and one to Norway.
A US official told CNN that Washington has decided not to publicly voice its suspicions that Iran was behind the attack in part because of the lack of detail from the UAE and Saudi Arabia about how the ships were damaged, apart from a vague claim of sabotage.
Senior diplomatic sources told CNN there’s little information about the attack. “We don’t know who did it — although the US clearly suspects Iran,” one diplomat said.
Baeidinejad, Iran’s ambassador to the UK, denied any Iranian involvement in the attack, saying the incident “is very suspicious to us.” He also denied Iran was behind Tuesday’s drone attack on an oil pumping station in Saudi Arabia. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility.
Behnam of the FDD said the tanker attack had all the hallmarks of an Iranian operation.
“A highly deniable attack, such as the one on the hull of the tankers, would be entirely consistent with the past four decades of Iranian security strategy, which emphasizes increasing the challenges of attribution, overcoming conventional military weaknesses, and decreasing the prospects of escalation against the Iranian homeland for regime meddling,” he said.
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Michelle Kosinski, Devan Cole, Hamdi Alkhshali, Nada Altaher and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report
When the fate of the planet is at stake, a single precedent starts to seem like a blueprint.
Most Americans, as far as pollsters can tell, want the United States to honor its commitment under the Paris Agreement on climate change. According to that pact, the United States must, by 2025, cut its carbon emissions 26 percent below their all-time peak. That will be hard. To make the Paris goal, the U.S. would have to cut carbon by 2.6 percent every year for the next seven years. And it has simply never cut its emissions that fast in such a sustained way before.
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In fact, since the end of World War II, only one country has pulled off such a feat: France. Starting in 1974, France undertook an extensive build-out of its nuclear-power industry, and slashed its carbon emissions by an average rate of 2.9 percent every year from 1979 to 1988, while still growing its economy. No country has done anything like that before or since.
It has the promise of a good strategy. And last week, it’s just what the center-right commentator Andrew Sullivan ordered. Writing in New York, Sullivan argued that the United States should undertake “a massive nuclear energy program” as a “radically moderate answer to climate change.” Unlike renewables, nuclear power doesn’t cease to work when the sun sets or when the wind stops blowing. It is already technologically feasible, and it’s been quickly scaled up in the past. The ambition of a nuclear expansion could match that of the Green New Deal, except with all the twiddly socialism bits removed.
To his credit, Sullivan’s case for nuclear power includes long lists of its drawbacks. New nuclear plants are very expensive to build. Nuclear accidents, while extremely rare, are extremely expensive to remediate (if they can be remediated at all). But because the well-being of humanity is in jeopardy, these cons should bow to the pros, Sullivan says. After all, he asserts, nuclear power “can potentially meet all our energy demands.”
Isn’t it nice to think so? Sullivan’s sincere concern for the issue is welcome, and he is right to compliment the no-half-measures aspiration of the Green New Deal. He is also correct to argue that a nuclear build-out could lower the United States’ carbon emissions. But, alas, nuclear power is not a full answer—or even half an answer—to climate change. It simply cannot meet all of the U.S.’s energy demands. And by casting a nuclear build-out as a kind of moderate climate counteroffer, he reveals a misunderstanding about the Green New Deal itself—and what makes it notable.
Let there be no mistake: Nuclear power plants can generate enormous amounts of carbon-free electricity. A rapid increase in nuclear energy would slash emissions from the power sector, as the French example makes clear. Even today, France’s carbon density—its carbon emissions per capita—ranks well below that of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to the Global Carbon Atlas.
But you can’t put a nuclear reactor in a tractor-trailer or a steel plant. Nuclear can only reduce emissions from the power sector, and “the energy system is bigger than just electricity,” says Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “While I think nuclear has real potential as a means to decarbonizing electricity, you still have a lot of sectors to worry about.”
In fact, electricity makes up a smaller and smaller part of the climate problem. Right now, the power sector contributes only about a third of annual U.S. carbon emissions related to energy production. When you factor in land change and agriculture (read: deforestation and all those pesky cows), electricity is responsible for only about a quarter of annual U.S. emissions. And its share is declining. Carbon emissions from the U.S. power sector have fallen 28 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, emissions from other parts of the economy—transportation, agriculture, industry—have fallen by only 5 percent.
“Even if you figure out electricity, you still have to figure out industry. You still have to figure out transportation,” Ori told me. Although we have partial answers to some of the problems posed by those sectors—everyone could buy electric cars, for instance, and charge them off the new nuclear-powered grid—we don’t have total ones. We still have no electrified way of moving around freight. Electrified air travel remains notional. All the nuclear plants in the world could not reduce the importance of oil in steel production. Solving all these problems will require some kind of public policy, Ori said; even electric cars won’t replace their gas-powered brethren without a regulatory nudge. Sullivan’s nuclear build-out has nothing to say about such challenges.
Yet a Green New Deal does. If you look at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s actual Green New Deal resolution, you’ll see that its vision extends far beyond the power sector. It pledges to invest in U.S. industry and manufacturing so as to remove “pollution and greenhouse gas emissions … as much as is technologically feasible.” It makes an almost identical promise for the agricultural sector. The resolution is notably imprecise in how it will accomplish those goals, but it was written as a list of goals, not policies. At least it recognizes that those sectors exist. (The Washington Post editorial board’s “efficient, effective, and focused” Green New Deal also makes passing mention of them.)
So why does Sullivan believe that nuclear power constitutes a “radically moderate” counteroffer? I suspect he believes that it represents a concession on the part of environmentalists. For years, “No nukes” was the unifying demand of Big Green groups. In his piece, Sullivan claims that “nuclear power was left out entirely” from the Green New Deal, which he calls “staggering.” He links to a Popular Mechanics article that says the same thing.
The problem is that it was included in the Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal demands 100 percent “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” The watchwords here are clean and zero-emission, both coded language for nuclear power. I have covered debates over nuclear’s inclusion in the Green New Deal, and I agree that its status is shaky: The activist group Sunrise Movement has sometimes decried it and sometimes endorsed it. But the most detailed version of a Green New Deal online, from the leftist group Data for Progress, recognizes the importance of “clean sources such as nuclear.” And the author of that report told me explicitly on Twitter: “I support more nuclear.”
The fact is that many environmentalists have already made the concession to nuclear power that Sullivan demands, precisely because they believe that climate change is so dangerous as to be worth the trade-offs. And because many environmentalists are also progressives, they might also recognize the big-government allure of nuclear power.
“It is interesting to me that conservatives flock to nuclear power. They point to France! I can’t get over that,” Ori told me last week, sounding bewildered. “It’s a state-run industry in France. The way they were able to get to 80 or 90 percent nuclear is that they didn’t worry about market forces. They just did it.”
It was, in other words, industrial policy. So even if Sullivan misses the mark, the larger irony shouldn’t be lost. Once, the environmental movement rallied under the banner of “No nukes.” Now, in its hunt for precedents for the Green New Deal, it must admire Gallic nuclear appeal.
The China Syndrome refers to a scenario in which a molten nuclear reactor core could could fission its way through its containment vessel, melt through the basement of the power plant and down into the earth. While a molten reactor core wouldn’t burn “all the way through to China” it could enter the soil and water table and cause huge contamination in the crops and drinking water around the power plant. It’s a nightmare scenario,the stuff of movies.And it might just have happened at Fukushima.
Last week, plant operator Tepco sent engineers in to recalibrate water level gauges in reactor number 1. They made an alarming discovery: virtually all the fuel in the core had melted down. That means that the zirconium alloy tubes that hold the uranium fuel and the fuel itself lies in a clump—either at the bottom of the pressure vessel, or in the basement below or possibly even outside the containment building. Engineers don’t know for sure, though current temperature readings suggest that fission inside the reactor core has definitely ceased for good (i.e. there will be no further melting).
Anecdotal evidence doesn’t bode well for how far the fuel melted: Tepco has been pumping thousands of tons of water onto reactor 1 to try to cool it—yet the water level in the containment vessel is too low to run an emergency cooling system. That means the water is escaping somewhere on a course cut by molten fuel–probably into the basement of the reactor building, though it’s also possible it melted through everything into the earth.
Many experts say a full-blown China syndrome is unlikely in large part because the fuel from the type of reactors at Fukushima is designed in such a way that it probably won’t sustain “recriticality” once meltdown occurs. What’s more, boron, which slows nuclear reactions, was pumped into the cooling water of the reactor after the initial accident to prevent the core from going “critical” again.
But assuming a worst case scenario hasn’t occurred, having so much highly radioactive water sloshing around the basement is going to make cleanup even more difficult. Tepco says it will come up with a new plan to stabilize the reactor by Tuesday—and their main task will be to find a way to suck up the water and store it while simultaneously ensuring the reactor core remains cool. It’s unclear how this will be achieved, but according to press reports, a giant water-storage barge – a Megafloat – has been dispatched to Fukushima as a possible storage site for contaminated water, and will arrive at the end of the month.
Tepco also said that it has started preparatory work for the construction of a cover for unit 1’s reactor building, which had its roof blown off by a hydrogen explosion on March 12. The cover is to be built as a temporary measure to prevent the release of radioactive substances until further measures can be put in place, Nature News reported.
Meanwhile, around 5,000 residents in two towns, Kawamata and Iitate, some 30 km from the power plant—well beyond the the 20 km exclusion zone–were evacuated on Monday. More evacuations are expected in the coming days as Tepco continues to struggle with the crisis. Around 3,400 cows, 31,500 pigs and 630,000 chickens will soon be slaughtered inside the Fukushima exclusion zone as feeding them has proven to be impossible.
It’s difficult to say for sure just how bad things are at the plant itself—high radioactive levels mean that engineers can’t get close to the reactor cores themselves and can only make inferences, deductions and guesses about the extent of the damage. As Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic has pointed out, we’ve faced this uncertainty—and troubling surprises— before. Eight months after the Three Mile Island accident, “an Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist declared, ‘Little, if any, fuel melting occurred, even though the reactor core was uncovered. The safety systems functioned reliably.’ A few years later, robotic sorties into the area revealed that half the core — not ‘little, if any’ — had melted down.”
The incredibly destructive Woolsey Fire in southern California has burned nearly 100,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, killed three people, destroyed more than 400 structures, and at the time of this writing, was finally nearly completely contained.
The fire may also have released large amounts of radiation and toxins into the air after burning through a former rocket engine testing site where a partial nuclear meltdown took place nearly six decades ago.
“The Woolsey Fire has most likely released and spread both radiological and chemical contamination that was in the Santa Susana Field Laboratory’s soil and vegetation via smoke and ash,” Dr. Bob Dodge, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles (PSR-LA), told Truthout.
The fire has been widely reported to have started “near” the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site (SSFL), but according to PSR-LA, it appears to have started at the site itself.
The contaminated site — a 2,849-acre former rocket engine test site and nuclear research facility — is located just 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Cal Fire identifies the fire location as E Street and Alfa Road, a location that is in fact on SSFL. It was recently reported that the “Chatsworth electric substation” experienced a disturbance 2 minutes before the fire was reported, but that substation is in fact on SSFL, near that location. A photograph posted on Twitterfrom KCAL9’s Stu Mundel shows the fire starting Thursday afternoon near the same location [on November 8], which is only about 1,000 yards away from the site of the 1959 partial nuclear meltdown of the Sodium Reactor Experiment (SRE) reactor.
Cal Fire maps show that much of the SSFL is within the boundaries of the Woolsey Fire.
In the aforementioned press release on the crisis, Denise Duffield, the organization’s associate director, stated that, “Though we must wait for fire authorities to conclude their investigation, it is ironic that an electrical substation built for a reactor that melted down six decades ago now may now be associated with a catastrophic fire that began on the SSFL site that is still badly contaminated from that accident and numerous other spills and releases.”
There has been great concern about extensive and extremely toxic and radioactive waste at the SSFL for years.
According to Daniel Hirsch, who recently retired as director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, SSFL is “one of the most contaminated sites in the country.”
Hirsch is also president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nonprofit organization that provides independent technical assistance to communities near nuclear sites. Students working with him back in 1979, when he was teaching at University of California Los Angeles, uncovered the partial nuclear meltdown that had occurred in 1959 at the SSFL, but that had been kept secret. He has worked ever since to have SSFL cleaned up.
Hirsch explained to Truthout that the 1959 partial meltdown had been covered up for years by the Atomic Energy Commission. Meanwhile, at least three other reactors there suffered accidents.
“There were radioactive fires with high-level radioactive waste, releases from a plutonium fuel fabrication facility, and decades of illegal burning of toxic and radioactive wastes in open pits,” he said. “Other parts of the facility hosted tens of thousands of tests of missile and rocket engines, often with exotic and very toxic rocket fuels.”
While explaining how incredibly toxic the SSFL site is, Hirsch added, “Collectively, the sloppy environmental practices and lax regulatory oversight resulted in widespread radioactive and toxic chemical contamination of soil, surface water and groundwater.”
And now, given that most, if not all, of the SSFL site has burned, it is possible that the millions of people who live within a 100-mile radius of the site have been exposed to its radioactive waste and toxic chemicals that are now airborne.
In contrast with those reports, however, a November 9 statement from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the site, stated, “Our scientists and toxicologists have reviewed information about the fire’s location and do not believe the fire has caused any releases of hazardous materials that would pose a risk to people exposed to the smoke.”
Much of the corporate press has obediently parroted California’s DTSC’s claim of there being “no elevated radiation levels near the ex-nuclear test site,” as did CBS News.
But Hirsch takes strong issue with the DTSC’s claims of the situation being safe. According to him, in 2010, DTSC entered into agreements for a full cleanup of SSFL, to be completed by 2017. “We are in 2018, and the cleanup not only hasn’t been completed, it hasn’t even begun,” he said. “This is due to the too-cozy relationship between DTSC and the parties responsible for the pollution.”
“And now DTSC and the polluters are pushing to leave 98 percent of the contamination not cleaned up,” Hirsch told Truthout, adding that incoming California Gov. Gavin Newsom “needs to fix DTSC, and commit to complete and prompt fulfillment of the cleanup agreements, which require cleaning up all detectible contamination.”
Dodge was equally critical of how DTSC has handled the situation. “They have continually been trying to undermine the cleanup, as well as proposing leaving over 90 percent of the contamination on site, thus are continuing to put the surrounding communities at risk,” he said, adding that the DTSC is even considering “vastly weaker cleanup plans.”
Rain has already fallen across much of the Woosley Fire area, including SSFL, to which Dodge expressed concerns of ash and soil from the site washing down to the communities below.
Duffield, who has been working for the full cleanup of nuclear and chemical contamination at the SSFL for more than 30 years, explained that there is widespread contamination at SSFL’s soil and vegetation that, when burned, can travel for miles via smoke and ash — especially with high winds speeds as California had during the fire.
“SSFL should have been cleaned up a long time ago — the state signed Administrative Orders on Consent (AOC) agreements with DOE and NASA committing them to clean up all detectable contamination by 2017,” Duffield told Truthout. “Boeing refused to sign the agreement, but DTSC said its normal procedures would require them to clean up to a comparable level.”
This criticism of the DTSC cannot be taken lightly, given that Physicians for Social Responsibility received the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, and its international organization, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, launched the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
“If DTSC had kept its word, we wouldn’t worry about SSFL contamination being spread further due to the fire,” Duffield said. “Area residents and elected officials should be very concerned and demand the full cleanup to take place now, without delay.”
Truthout has made several requests for comment from the DTSC; on November 15, a representative from the agency said it would reply, but at the time of this writing, Truthout has not received a response.
Major Human Health Impacts
There are multiple human health impacts that have been known to stem from the site well before the Woolsey Fire began.
A study prepared by Professor Hal Morgenstern for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry studied the community surrounding SSFL and found a greater than 60 percent increase in incidence of key cancers associated with proximity to the site.
Melissa Bumstead is a mother who started a petition after her daughter was diagnosed in 2014 with an incredibly rare and aggressive form of leukemia. “Through her treatment we kept meeting other families, and we were shocked to see we lived so close to each other when childhood cancer is exceptionally rare,” she told Truthout. “After we realized we all lived within miles of the Santa Susana Field Lab we started the grassroots group Parents vs. SSFL.”
For years Bumstead and others in her group, along with groups such as PSR-LA, have been worried that a fire at the SSFL would be the easiest way for the carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive waste to reach local communities. She and other health advocates also worry that the ash and smoke from the fire at such a contaminated site could travel far and easily reach children, the most vulnerable part of our population.
She referred to a statement about abrupt spikes in childhood cancer rates made by Dr. Catherine Metayer, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, who told WebMD that, “When you see an increase [in pediatric cancer rates] like that — that fast — in a short period of time, most likely it is going to be driven by some exposure to environmental factors.”
Further, Bumstead pointed out that many of the residents she knows living in the vicinity of the SSFL complain of thyroid issues and autoimmune diseases, in addition to cancer.
Duffield explained that SSFL is contaminated with dangerous radionuclides such as cesium-137, strontium-90, plutonium-239 and tritium, and highly toxic chemicals such as perchlorate, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals, and volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds.
“An estimated 500,000 of gallons of the very hazardous trichloroethylene (TCE) were used to flush out rocket test engines and then allowed to seep into the soil and groundwater,” she told Truthout. “Exposure to these contaminants can cause cancers and leukemias, developmental disorders, genetic disorders, neurological disorders, immune system disorders, and more.”
Duffield explained that SSFL is also located on a hill, and because of this, its contamination migrates off site, even when there is not a fire. In addition to contamination in soil, vegetation and structures, SSFL’s groundwater and surface water is contaminated.
“Over 100 exceedances of pollution standards in runoff from SSFL was reported to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board, resulting in Boeing having to pay more than $1 million in fines,” she said. “Federally funded, independently conducted studies show the incidence of key cancers were 60 percent higher in the offsite population near SSFL compared to further away, and that contamination migrates off site over EPA levels of concern. We are currently also very concerned about a cluster of rare pediatric cancers near the site.”
Now, due to the wildfire, Hirsch warned of many other major health impacts the contaminated site poses to those breathing in smoke from the fires. “The … chemicals are by definition toxic to human health, capable of causing cancer and/or other health impacts such as miscarriages, birth defects in one’s offspring, neurological or immunological illness,” he said.
Speaking both to the obvious negative health effects from breathing wildfire smoke as well as the toxins from the SSFL site, Dodge added, “All wildfire smoke can be hazardous to health, but if SSFL had been cleaned up long ago as DTSC promised, we’d at least not have to worry about exposure to dangerous radionuclides and chemicals as well.”
Fox Guards the Hen House
According to its own website, the DTSC is “the lead regulatory agency overseeing the investigation and cleanup of contaminated soil and groundwater at the SSFL.” But there is wide and growing concern that the agency is not only failing to do its job, but is actively working in the other direction.
“DTSC is a classically captured regulatory agency, captured by the polluters it is supposed to regulate,” Hirsch said. “The incoming governor needs to undertake a top-to-bottom reform of that dysfunctional agency and to place a high priority [on] getting the cleanup of SSFL back on track.”
Hirsch feels strongly about the situation, which, he argued was ultimately caused by the DTSC. “If DTSC, the Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing had lived up to their cleanup obligations, the site would have been cleaned up by last year, and the fire that just happened would have not carried with it any risk of releasing radioactive or toxic chemical contamination,” he said.
Dodge feels similarly. He said PSR-LA is demanding independent testing and air monitoring for radiation and chemicals from SSFL. “Why would we believe DTSC’s statement that the fire caused no additional risk, when they know they’re the ones responsible for SSFL still being contaminated in the first place?” he asked.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) released a press release on November 13 that claimed there was “no discernable level of radiation” at SSFL as a result of the fire.
Duffield said DPH’s statement strains credulity. “Every place on the planet has some level of background radiation related to natural elements, the cosmos or atmospheric nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War. There is no excuse for such a misleading statement.” She added that their statement “does not inspire confidence in the agency.”
PSR-LA has ongoing concerns about what it sees is the DTSC’s failure to properly deal with the cleanup at SSFL. “DTSC needs to stop misleading the public about the impact of SSFL’s contamination and enforce the 2010 cleanup agreements, and keep its word that Boeing must clean up according to local governments’ land use plans and zoning decisions, which for SSFL allow agricultural and rural residential uses, which would be sufficiently protective to the offsite population,” Duffield said.
She argued that the DTSC must now “stand up” to Boeing, which she said has been pushing a “massive greenwashing campaign” that claims Boeing should only have to clean the site up to recreational standards, which “amount to almost no cleanup at all.”
However, instead of doing the right thing and forcing the polluters to clean up their mess, Duffield said DTSC is in “major damage control.”
“It knows that its own foot-dragging on the cleanup has resulted in heightened risk to exposure to SSFL contamination from the fire, so it is doing all that it can to deny the fire could have caused additional harm,” she told Truthout.
Duffield added that the agency’s statements that the site remains safe “defy logic” and “have not yet been backed up by any data.”
“They don’t even have samples back from the lab yet, and it is unconscionable for them to release statements denying risk without also revealing the data and methodology that would justify such statements,” she said. “Nearly every time we are able to see the data and methodology, we find problems, always in the interest of minimizing health impacts.”
Duffield is skeptical that the DTSC will do any of this without direct intervention from Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom, because he is the only one with the power to make it right. “Newsom must order that the SSFL cleanup agreements are enforced, and a top-to-bottom reform of the entire agency,” Duffield said. “As DTSC has also failed to protect numerous communities in California. DTSC must be fully overhauled so that it will protect people, not polluters.”
Bumstead shared similar sentiments.
“Our petition asking Gavin Newsom for the complete cleanup once he becomes governor is nearly at 500,000 signatures,” she said. “We know that our community has already suffered so much in the last two weeks, between the shooting and the fires, and we’re outraged that during this tragedy we have the fears of nuclear waste on top of rebuilding our lives.”
Bumstead called California’s DTSC a “disgrace to democracy,” and added, “Once the full extent of their negligence is revealed, from the last 15 years and the Woolsey fire, we will soon see resignations of top DTSC officials, as well as resignations at Boeing, NASA and Department of Energy.”