Nuclear power becomes critical to Arctic dominance


Small Modular Reactors could become crucial to power remote outposts and vessels as the Arctic race heats up.

For many, the Northeast Passage through the Arctic could one day be a ‘Northern Suez Canal’. While icy waters have frozen such dreams, recent advances in nuclear technology might finally unlock the full economic potential of the once-daunting Arctic waters.

There is no shortage of interest in the High North. In October, the Trump administration in the US approved a project to extract oil from beneath the Beaufort Sea, though melting ice has since forced changes to those plans. That same melting ice, while raising major environmental concerns, simultaneously creates other possibilities: among them, the prospect of dramatically shortened sea routes between Europe and Asia which could cut transit times by two weeks compared to the Suez Canal passage. Those reduced travel times translate to savings of 40 percent on both fuel and shipping costs, while lowering CO2 emissions by 52 percent.

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However, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian Arctic coast – a key leg of the Northeast Passage – has historically been traversable only from July to October. It has mainly been used by domestic Russian players, and requires the use of icebreakers and specially equipped ‘ice class’ vessels. In short, a thriving NSR has been nothing more than a dream, even with the melting ice, because it’s simply impossible to sail in the region for most of the year.

Going nuclear

New technologies, however, present one possible solution: nuclear-powered ships.

The concept isn’t new. Russia, for instance, has used nuclear power on its icebreakers since the 1970s. However, the reactors of these early ships (at 90-170 MWt) weren’t strong enough to allow bigger ships to power through the thickest ice sheets. The icebreakers were just 30 meters wide at most, with a displacement of 25,000 tonnes, and could only clear the way for small freighters of up to 70,000 tonnes.

But a new generation of icebreakers could break through those limitations. These ships can leverage 175-315 MWt of energy and are almost 50 meters wide, with a displacement of 70,000 tonnes that would meet the needs of the biggest tankers. These ships will make the passage navigable all-year round.

Read more on Morgan Stanley slashes oil price forecast for 2019

Some of these new icebreakers could be operational as early as 2020. The technology they rely on – small modular reactors (SMRs) – could also help solve the second big problem of traversing these waters: a lack of coastal infrastructure. The reactors generate about 110MWe, compared with the 1GWe of classic reactors, and don’t require power lines which are practically impossible to construct across hundreds of miles of Arctic terrain.

A boon to trade?

Designed “for efficient operation and enhanced safety”, SMRs have the potential to become economically competitive. They can power ports and isolated communities, while supporting search and rescue posts. This shift to mobile nuclear power generation is already underway: the Akademik Lomonosov, the first functional floating nuclear power plant, is set to become operational in 2019 and provide energy for the remote port town of Pevek in Chukotka in Russia’s far east.

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Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation, says its nuclear-fuelled icebreaker fleet has already escorted as much as 7.3 million tonnes of cargo through the NSR, and projects up to 80 million tonnes transported annually by 2030. These figures are a far cry from the Suez Canal (which welcomes one billion tonnes of cargo per year), but the promise of fewer days in transit along with “no queues and no pirates” would create new opportunities for Asia in terms of importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia and facilitating exports to Europe.

According to the UK Government Office for Science, the NSR would also create commercial opportunities for British ports, which could serve as transit hubs to transfer goods from conventional ships to ice class vessels.

The West is missing out on the Arctic Age

But despite this British interest, Western countries are some way behind. China and Russia are investing billions in the development of the NSR, with similar progress not being seen in the alternative Northwest Passage off the coast of Canada. While a Danish ship, the Vesta Maersk, was the first of a new 42,000 ton ice-class vessel to sail the NSR in late September 2018, the Chinese have been sending smaller cargo vessels of up to 19,000 tons through the passage since 2013.

Russia occupies a leading position in small nuclear technologies more generally, and is already marketing its on-shore and floating plants based on 55MWe and 6.6MWe SMRs. China is expected to come up with its own indigenous floating 50 MWe SMR by 2020 and on-shore 100 MWe systems in the coming decade. These countries will have a head-start once the scramble for the Arctic begins in earnest.

The new Arctic Age presents opportunities, but it also raises serious concerns.

Read more on The dangers of China’s growing oil demand

Nuclear power could help address the environmental challenges that are causing the ice to melt in the first place. The authors of ‘The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World’, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study published in September, say that unless nuclear energy is meaningfully incorporated into the global mix of low-carbon energy technologies, the climate change challenge will be more costly and difficult to solve.

The study analyses the reasons behind the stall of nuclear energy capacity, which accounts for just five per cent of global primary energy production. Nuclear’s potential is essential for a decarbonised energy future in many regions, said Jacopo Buongiorno, study co-chair, TEPCO Professor and associate department head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

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“Incorporating new policy and business models, as well as innovations in construction that may make deployment of cost-effective nuclear power plants more affordable, could enable nuclear energy to help meet the growing global demand for energy generation while decreasing emissions to address climate change,” he said.

More than any other region, the Arctic is being transformed by the real and tangible impact of climate change. With the ice sheets retreating and SMRs becoming a staple of ice-breakers, using low-carbon nuclear energy to make the NSR accessible year-round offers a responsible means of unlocking a shorter global shipping routes.

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Swedish MPs to vote on new coalition of Social Democrats, Greens


Sweden’s Parliament will vote on Friday whether to set up a ruling coalition made up of the Social Democrats and Greens, according to the speaker. However, the combination is unlikely to get enough support from lawmakers, Reuters said. The situation “is still deadlocked,” parliamentary speaker Andreas Norlen said on Wednesday. The country has been without a government since September, when an election delivered a hung parliament. It has already rejected both Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven and the leader of the four-party, center-right Alliance as prime minister.

Indian PM Modi’s party loses 3 key state elections in its Hindu stronghold


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party has suffered an embarrassing defeat in three state elections in its Hindu stronghold, months before national elections, AP reports. The Election Commission said on Wednesday that the opposition Congress party was the clear winner in Chhattisgarh state, and fell one seat short of a majority in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. With a regional party offering support, the Congress party is set to rule all three states, replacing Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Voting in the three states was spread over the past two weeks. The setback to the BJP is expected to revive the political fortunes of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi, the 48-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who took over as party president from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, a year ago. He had campaigned extensively for his party in the three states.

‘I will contest vote with everything I’ve got’: UK PM May to face vote of confidence in leadership


Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May will now officially face a vote of no confidence after the necessary threshold to potentially oust her was reached by the ruling Tory party’s 1922 Committee.

The move follows a week of chaos and speculation after May’s proposed Brexit deal was openly derided in the Houses of Commons.

“In accordance with the rules, a ballot will be held between 18:00 and 20:00 on Wednesday 12th December in committee room 14 of the House of Commons,” Graham Brady, the Chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee said.

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Brady’s statement added that the votes would be counted immediately and an announcement made at the earliest possible opportunity.

The threshold of 48 letters, 15 percent of parliamentary party members, was reached when former cabinet minister Owen Paterson tipped the balance in favor of the long-rumored move to oust May as Prime Minister. 

READ MORE: May cancels MPs’ Christmas, Brexit vote will now happen ‘before Jan 21’

May caught many MPs unawares Monday when she delayed the parliamentary vote on her widely panned Brexit deal, arguing that she wanted to avoid defeat and return to the negotiating table with the EU.

She will be removed as Prime Minister of Britain if 158 of 315 Conservative lawmakers vote against her Wednesday evening.

Speaking outside her Downing Street office after it was announced that the vote had been triggered a bullish May pledged to contest the vote with everything she’s got.

Several leading Tories including Party Chairman Brandon Lewis, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Home Secretary Sajid Javid, have expressed their support for May.

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“The last thing our country needs right now is a Conservative Party leadership election,” Javid tweeted.

“Will be seen as self-indulgent and wrong. PM has my full support and is best person to ensure we leave EU on 29 March.”

The UK leader was due to travel to Dublin to speak with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday however that trip has been cancelled.

There are now less than four months until Britain exits the European Union on March 29, 2019.

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German police tighten border control after Strasbourg attack


The number of those injured in the shooting at a Christmas fair in Strasbourg has risen to 13, AFP reported on Wednesday, citing the local prefecture. A police operation was underway early on Wednesday around Strasbourg Cathedral near the location where a gunman killed three people and wounded 13 others on Tuesday evening. On the opposite side of the Rhine, there is also tightened border control, according to officials. The gunman, who is believed to have been injured by security forces, is on the run. France has raised its security threat to the highest alert level and strengthened border control, Reuters reports. The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put on lockdown after the attack.

‘Leaping out of the grave’: Rare Iron Age chariot with horses is an ‘unparalleled’ find


Archaeologists have uncovered a “spectacular” Iron Age chariot, two horses, and man buried as though they were ready to take off, in an area in Yorkshire where a different chariot was discovered last year.

The amazing discovery was found in an Iron Age grave in a building site in Pocklington by MAP Archaeological Practice. “This is a new burial rite which has never been seen before,” Paula Ware from MAP Archaeological Practice told the Yorkshire Post.

The two horses buried with the chariot look as though they are “leaping upwards out of the grave,” and archaeologists believe they may be have been buried standing up, with their heads potentially left above ground. They were positioned in the grave with their hooves off the ground and back legs bent.

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“It looked as though their skulls were removed centuries ago,” Ware explained.

“Possibly the heads were coming out of the graves. Did they go in alive, who knows? There’s no evidence of a ramp.”

Inside the chariot, a man in his late 40s was buried, and his remains were found in the fetal position. His head was surrounded by the bones of six piglets, likely an offering, and he was buried with a shield and brooch.

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Pig bones aren’t an unusual find in a grave like this, but the large amount suggests the man was extremely important. “Normally there would be a quarter of a [pig] jaw,” Ware said. “He was someone so significant.”

Another man’s body was found nearby, which had nine spears through its chest and evidence of blunt force trauma. The significance of this is unknown, but, while some have speculated it was a kind of vampire-like ritual to ensure the man is dead, it may also have been a way to release his spirit.

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It’s official: Excessive screen time irreversibly affects kids’ brains, study finds


Parents’ worst suspicions about the effects of too much screen time on their offspring have been partially confirmed by the preliminary results of a new study – and the effects may be further-reaching than they suspected.

Kids who spend more than two hours in front of a screen every day score lower on language and thinking tests, according to the earliest results of a study from the National Institutes of Health. The first batch of data from the study will be published next year, but as a preliminary finding, these results are worrying, given that the average tweenager spends up to 6 hours a day on their phone or tablet.

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© Reuters / Brian Snyder

The NIH’s ambitious $300 million Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study has enrolled 11,874 children, ages 9-10, including 2,100 twins or triplets. They will be followed through young adulthood at 21 research sites across the US.

Not all of the early results can be fully understood until researchers have more data. For example, children who spend upwards of seven hours a day in front of a screen have been found to experience a premature thinning of the cortex compared to their low-tech peers. The cortex is the outermost layer of the brain, the site of sensory input and the higher-order functions that arguably make us human. At first glance, this premature thinning would seem like another reason to panic.

But researchers cautioned that we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this finding – correlation does not imply causation, meaning the thinning could be caused by something other than prolonged screen time. “We don’t know if it’s a bad thing,” study director Gaya Dowling points out, explaining that such thinning is usually associated with a more mature brain than those of the 9 and 10-year-old experimental subjects, and it’s unknown what it signifies in a younger brain.

Not all scientists are waiting for the results to issue guidelines for parents of small children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid digital media use altogether, except video chatting, in children under 18 to 24 months. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the lead author of those guidelines, explains that babies don’t transfer what they do on a screen to the real world.

According to a national survey by Common Sense Media, teens spend an avg. of 4.5 hours a day on their phones. Facebook and Instagram recently introduced features allowing users to monitor time spent on the apps. Apple’s new OS enables time restriction.

— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) December 10, 2018

If you give a child an app where they play with virtual blocks and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over,” he told 60 Minutes. “They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three.”

In many ways, the concern that investigators like I have is that we’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children.

Pen-pal of Charleston church shooter arrested in pipeline bomb plot sting in Ohio


An Ohio woman with a fetish for mass murderers was arrested after buying bomb-making materials as part of an alleged plot to blow up a pipeline – the second FBI bust in one weekend in otherwise-sleepy Toledo.

Elizabeth Lecron purchased two pounds of gunpowder and 665 screws “that she expected would be used to build a bomb,” according to a Justice Department press release. The 23-year-old allegedly planned to blow up a natural gas pipeline she believed was polluting the environment.

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© Pixabay / meketrefe

Lecron had only recently become interested in environmental activism, having previously sought to “attack a farm that raises pigs or cows” with a “team” of other anarchists (who were actually FBI agents, an arrest warrant reveals) but gave up after a few weeks when she was unable to locate such a farm. Still, she “definitely want[ed] to make a statement up here,” according to the FBI.

Lecron faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. She was charged on Monday with transportation of explosives and explosive material for the purposes of harming others and property.

Authorities began investigating Lecron after one of her friends reported her plans to conduct a “violent attack.” Her social media profiles glorified mass murderers like the Columbine killers, who she described as “God-like,” and Dylann Roof, currently on death row in Indiana for murdering nine black parishioners in a Charleston church in 2015. She maintained a letter-writing friendship with Roof for several months, sending him Nazi literature in the mail.

In August, authorities searched Lecron’s residence and found an AK-47, a shotgun, several handguns, ammunition, and a bag of end caps used to build pipe bombs. She was out of town on a pilgrimage to Littleton, Colorado, where the Columbine massacre took place, giving police time to conduct a detailed search, turning up a journal with detailed plans to commit an “upscale mass murder” at a Toledo bar. It’s unclear why they chose not to arrest her then, instead sending an informant to befriend her. One informant became many. By the time she was arrested, it appears all her friends were working for law enforcement.

While Lecron was obsessed with violence and seemed to hold human life in low regard – innocent bystanders, she said, were “probably a part of the problem” – transcripts of conversations with the informants show them taking the lead in the plot. After she buys the materials, she turns them over to an informant, bidding them farewell with “I guess I’ll talk to you when the deed is done.”

The FBI, however, is relieved to have taken a dangerous criminal off the streets. “Removing Elizabeth Lecron from the ranks of civilized society by virtue of arrest and prosecution thwarts her explicitly stated desire to engage in acts of death and destruction,” said FBI Acting Special Agent in Charge Jeff Fortunato, adding a tribute to Lecron’s friend who reported her in the first place: “This case is a testament to the value of an ever vigilant public, which had the courage to alert law enforcement as to the evil goals and intentions of this suspect.”

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WATCH Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police over military draft (VIDEOS)


At least 28 Jewish activists protesting against the military draft have been arrested by police in Bnei Brak after protesters disrupted traffic on the main road of the city considered the center of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

Scuffles broke out between police and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Brak as Haredi men tried to disrupt traffic in the city. “We will die and not be drafted,” activist shouted as they staged a massive sit in the middle of Jabotinsky Road. The police would hear none of it, as they proceeded to drag the protesters off the street, footage from the encounter shows. Police on horseback and motorcycles did their best to clear the main road from demonstrators who just refused to leave. At the end of the day, 28 arrests were made.

The rally organized by Yerushalmi Faction movement on Monday afternoon protested over the extension of the arrest of Yitzhak Aryeh, who was detained two weeks ago after failing to appear before the IDF draft board.

BNEI BRAK: Hundreds of Orthodox Jews came out today to protest the continued arrest of a Yeshiva Student, being held in prison for refusing to join the Zionist @IDF.

The @IL_police responded with excessive force and arrested 28 peaceful protesters.

— Jews Vs. Israel (@JewsVsIsrael) December 10, 2018

Rallying for their traditional right to be exempt from the military service, the activists also slammed the government’s proposed legislation that could change the army enlistment criteria for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Currently they can delay their conscription while they study at rabbinical institutions called ‘yeshivas’. While in school they must still, however, register at the recruitment office or face arrests.

The legislation, now being debated by the Israeli lawmakers, could allow the government to set targets for enlistment from the Haredi Jews in accordance with the recommendation of the defense minister. If the Ultra-Orthodox community fails to provide enough servicemen, the government could be allowed to introduce financial penalties on rabbinical schools. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up around 10 percent of the Israeli population, fervently oppose the changes to the legislation that could pass as early as January.

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‘White people are the best!’ Columbia probes student’s viral racial rant (VIDEO)


A Columbia physics student has become famous overnight, not for his research, but for his racially charged rant in front of a group of multi-ethnic students, prompting the university to respond and launch an investigation.

Although it is not yet clear what prompted the white student, who has since been identified as Julian von Abele, to engage in the confrontation caught on camera, the video has already been viewed over a million and half times, resulting in international media coverage and extreme social media backlash.

In the minute-long video, Von Abele, a physicist and published author, is seen shouting that “Europeans built the modern world”, “saved billions of people from starvation” and that “white people are the best thing that ever happened to the world”, at a group of multi-ethnic students outside the school’s library, who responded by yelling back and giving him the middle finger.

The clip ends with Von Abele making hysteric gestures and screaming “We are so amazing. I love myself, and I love white people”, and “F*ck yeah white people!

Although initially keeping cautious in its response, the university tweeted on Monday that the student’s statements “conflict with the University’s core value of inclusivity”, and stating that such events “have made many in our community feel less secure”.

Statements of white racial superiority conflict with the University’s core value of inclusivity as well as the educational work and research that take place on our campuses.

— Columbia University (@Columbia) December 10, 2018

The school initially responded in a statement entitled “denouncing racism on campus” on Sunday, carefully calling Von Abele’s words “painful language” and stating that the circumstances leading to the incident are not yet clear. The university also pledged to carry out an investigation of the incident pending further action.  

While some are skeptical of calling the incident “racist”, claiming that the student was engaged in free speech and simply expressing his opinion, particularly given that at one moment in the rant he exclaims “I don’t hate other people, I just love white men!” Others believe his level of aggression constitutes verbal harassment or assault. University Senator Alfredo Dominguez says that he has received an email from a group calling itself “Justice for Julian” who deny the comments were racist or aggressive.

Von Abele has yet to respond to any requests for comments on the conflict.

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