Perfecting Detection of the Bomb

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on 'Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation' at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo introducing the panel discussion on ‘Citizen Networks: The Promise of Technological Innovation’ at SnT2015 in Vienna, June 2015. Photo credit: CTBTO

By Ramesh Jaura
VIENNA, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

An international conference has highlighted advances made in detecting nuclear explosions,tracking storms or clouds of volcanic ash, locating epicentres of earthquakes, monitoring the drift of huge icebergs, observing the movements of marine mammals, and detecting plane crashes.

The five-day ‘Science and Technology 2015 Conference’ (SnT2015), which ended Jun. 26, was the fifth in a series of multi-disciplinary conferences organised by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), which has been based in the Austrian capital since 1997.

The conference was attended by more than 1100 scientists and other experts, policy makers and representatives of national agencies, independent academic research institutions and civil society organisations from around the world.“With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the [Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty] CTBT’s entry into force” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

SnT2015 drew attention to an important finding of CTBTO sensors: the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013 was the largest to hit Earth in at least a century.

Participants also heard that the Air Algérie flight between Burkina Faso and Algeria which crashed in Mali in July 2014 was detected by the CTBTO’s monitoring station in Cote d’Ivoire, 960 kilometres from the impact of the aircraft.

The importance of SnT2015 lies in the fact that CTBTO is tasked with campaigning for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which outlaws nuclear explosions by everyone, everywhere: on the Earth’s surface, in the atmosphere, underwater and underground. It also aims to develop reliable tools to make sure that no nuclear explosion goes undetected.

These include seismic, hydro-acoustic, infrasound (frequencies too low to be heard by the human ear), and radionuclide sensors. Scientists and other experts demonstrated and explained in presentations and posters how the four state-of-the-art technologies work in practice.

170 seismic stations monitor shockwaves in the Earth, the vast majority of which are caused by earthquakes. But man-made explosions such as mine explosions or the announced North Korean nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 have also been detected.

CTBTO’s 11 hydro-acoustic stations “listen” for sound waves in the oceans. Sound waves from explosions can travel extremely far underwater. Sixty infrasound stations on the Earth’s surface can detect ultra-low frequency sound waves that are emitted by large explosions.

CTBTO’s 80 radionuclide stations measure the atmosphere for radioactive particles; 40 of them also pick up noble gas, the “smoking gun” from an underground nuclear test. Only these measurements can give a clear indication as to whether an explosion detected by the other methods was actually nuclear or not. Sixteen laboratories support radionuclide stations.

When complete, CTBTO’s International Monitoring System (IMS) will consist of 337 facilities spanning the globe to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions. Nearly 90 percent of the facilities are already up and running.

An important theme of the conference was performance optimisation which, according to W. Randy Bell, Director of CTBTO’s International Data Centre (IDC), “will have growing relevance as we sustain and recapitalise the IMS and IDC in the year ahead.”

In the past 20 years, the international community has invested more than one billion dollars in the global monitoring system whose data can be used by CTBTO member states – and not only for test ban verification purposes. All stations are connected through satellite links to the IDC in Vienna.

“Our stations do not necessarily have to be in the same country as the event, but in fact can detect events from far outside from where they are located. For example, the last DPRK (North Korean) nuclear test was picked up as far as Peru,” CTBTO’s Public Information Officer Thomas Mützelburg told IPS.

“Our 183 member states have access to both the raw data and the analysis results. Through their national data centres, they study both and arrive at their own conclusion as to the possible nature of events detected,” he said. Scientists from Papua New Guinea and Argentina said they found the data “extremely useful”.

Stressing the importance of data sharing, CTBTO Executive Secretary, Lassina Zerbo, said in an interview with Nature: “If you make your data available, you connect with the outside scientific community and you keep abreast of developments in science and technology. Not only does it make the CTBTO more visible, it also pushes us to think outside the box. If you see that data can serve another purpose, that helps you to step back a little bit, look at the broader picture and see how you can improve your detection.”

Photo credit: CTBTO

Photo credit: CTBTO

In opening remarks to the conference, Zerbo said: “You will have heard me say again and again that I am passionate about this organisation. Today I am not only passionate but very happy to see all of you who share this passion: a passion for science in the service of peace. It gives me hope for the future of our children that the best and brightest scientists of our time congregate to perfect the detection of the bomb instead of working to perfect the bomb itself.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the tone in a message to the conference when he said: “With a strong verification regime and its cutting edge technology, there is no excuse for further delaying the CTBT’s entry into force.”

South African Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, pointed out that her country “is a committed and consistent supporter” of CTBTO. She added: “South Africa has been at the forefront of nuclear non-proliferation in Africa for over twenty years. We gave up our nuclear arsenal and signed the Pelindaba Treaty in 1996, which establishes Africa as a nuclear weapons-free zone, a zone that only came into force in July 2009.

Beside the presentations by scientists, discussion panels addressed topics of current special interest in the CTBT monitoring community. One alluded to the role of science in on-site inspections (OSIs), which are provided for under the Treaty after it enters into force.

This discussion benefited from the experience of the 2014 Integrated Field Exercise (IFE14) in Jordan. “IFE14 was the largest and most comprehensive such exercise so far conducted in the build-up of CTBTO’s OSI capabilities,” said IDC director Bell.

Participants also had an opportunity to listen to a discussion on the opportunities that new and emerging technologies can play in overcoming the challenges of nuclear security. Members of the Technology for Global Security (Tech4GS) group joined former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry in a panel discussion on ‘Citizen Networks: the Promise of Technological Innovation’.

“We are verging on another nuclear arms race,” said Perry. “I do not think that it is irreversible. This is the time to stop and reflect, debate the issue and see if there’s some third choice, some alternative, between doing nothing and having a new arms race.”

A feature of the conference was the CTBT Academic Forum focused on ‘Strengthening the CTBT through Academic Engagement’, at which Bob Frye, prestigious Emmy award-winning producer and director of documentaries and network news programme, pleaded for the need to inspire “the next generation of critical thinkers” to help usher in a world free of nuclear tests and atomic weapons of mass destruction.

The forum also provided an overview of impressive CTBT online educational resources and experiences with teaching the CTBT from the perspective of teachers and professors in Austria, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Pakistan and Russia.

With a view to bridging science and policy, the forum discussed ‘technical education for policymakers and policy education for scientists’ with the participation of eminent experts, including Rebecca Johnson, executive director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy; Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies; Ference Dalnoki-Veress of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies; Edward Ifft of the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown; and Matt Yedlin of the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia.

There was general agreement on the need to integrate technical issues of CTBT into training for diplomats and other policymakers, and increasing awareness of CTBT and broader nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy issues within the scientific community.

Yet another panel – comprising Jean du Preez, chief of CTBTO’s external relations, protocol and international cooperation, Piece Corden of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Thomas Blake of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, and Jenifer Mackby of the Federation of American Scientists – looked ahead with a view to forging new and better links with and beyond academia, effectively engaging with the civil society, the youth and the media.

“Progress comes in increments,” said one panellist, “but not by itself.”

[With inputs from Valentina Gasbarri]

Edited by Phil Harris    

The writer can be contacted at headquarters@ips.org

Toilets with Piped Music for Rich, Open Defecation on Rail Tracks for Poor

Children investigate their community's newly improved toilets, one of UNOCI's “quick impact projects” (QIPS) which supported the rehabilitation of schools and toilets in Abidjan. Credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

Children investigate their community’s newly improved toilets, one of UNOCI’s “quick impact projects” (QIPS) which supported the rehabilitation of schools and toilets in Abidjan. Credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

As most developing nations fall short of meeting their goals on sanitation, the world’s poorest countries have been lagging far behind, according to a new U.N. report released here.

The Joint Monitoring Programme report, ‘Progress on Sanitation and Drinking Water: 2015 Update and MDG Assessment’, authored by the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO), says one in three people, or 2.4 billion worldwide, are still without sanitation facilities – including 946 million people who defecate in the open.“We cannot have another situation where we appear to be succeeding because the situation of the comparatively wealthy has improved, even as millions of people are still falling ill from dirty water or from environments that are contaminated with faeces.” — Tim Brewer of WaterAid

“What the data really show is the need to focus on inequalities as the only way to achieve sustainable progress,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF’s global water, sanitation and hygiene programmes.

“The global model so far has been that the wealthiest move ahead first, and only when they have access do the poorest start catching up. If we are to reach universal access to sanitation by 2030, we need to ensure the poorest start making progress right away,” he said.

Pointing out the existing inequities, the report says progress on sanitation has been hampered by inadequate investments in behaviour change campaigns, lack of affordable products for the poor, and social norms which accept or even encourage open defecation.

Although some 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation since 1990, the world has missed the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target by nearly 700 million people.

Today, only 68 per cent of the world’s population uses an improved sanitation facility – 9 percentage points below the MDG target of 77 per cent.

Still, the world has made “spectacular progress” in water, Jeffrey O’Malley, Director, Data, at UNICEF’s Research and Policy Division, told reporters Tuesday.

In 2015, 91 percent of the global population used an improved drinking water source, up from 76 percent in 1990, while 6.6 billion people have access to improved drinking water.

The total without access globally is now 663 million, almost a 100 million fewer than last year’s estimate, and the first time the number has fallen below 700 million.

As the MDGs expire this year, the goal on water has been met overall, but with wide gaps remaining, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The goal on sanitation, however, has failed dramatically. At present rates of progress it would take 300 years for everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa to get access to a sanitary toilet, said the report.

Tim Brewer, Policy Analyst on Monitoring and Accountability at the London-based WaterAid, told IPS the MDG goal on water was met largely because of those who were easiest to reach.

“The poorest are often still being left behind. What we need to do in the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), now under negotiation, is to make sure that progress for the poorest is made the headline figure.”

“We cannot have another situation where we appear to be succeeding because the situation of the comparatively wealthy has improved, even as millions of people are still falling ill from dirty water or from environments that are contaminated with faeces,” he noted.

Brewer said monitoring is key: “We need to measure basic access for the poor, as well as measuring other indicators such as whether water is safe and affordable, and whether wastewater is safely treated.”

“This is the only way to make sure we reach everyone, everywhere by 2030 and hold governments accountable to their promises,” he argued.

In countries like Japan and South Korea, according to published reports, sanitation is far beyond a basic necessity: it has the trappings of luxury with piped in music, automatic flushing, and in some cases, scenic window views — even while millions in developing nations defecate openly in nearby rural jungles or on rail tracks (with their bowel movements apparently being coordinated with train schedules, according to a New York Times report.)

The practice of open defecation is also linked to a higher risk of stunting – or chronic malnutrition – which affects 161 million children worldwide, leaving them with irreversible physical and cognitive damage.

“To benefit human health it is vital to further accelerate progress on sanitation, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” says Dr Maria Neira, Director of the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

Asked if it would be realistic for sanitation goals to be rolled into the proposed SDGs with a target date of 2030, UNICEF’s Wijesekera told IPS that an even more ambitious sanitation target is suggested for the new SDG agenda – to eliminate open defecation and achieve universal access to sanitation.

“I think the goal of achieving universal access to sanitation by 2030 is possible, but only if we start focusing on the poorest and most vulnerable right now (rather than waiting for the wealthiest to gain access first, as has historically been the case).”

He said: “We can also learn from the successes of the past 25 years, and especially the last 15. A number of countries have made rapid gains during the MDG era.’

For example, he pointed out, Ethiopia has reduced open defecation rates by 64 percentage points and Thailand has closed the gap in access between the richest and the poorest.

This shows what is possible when countries recognise the importance of tackling inequalities in access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), thus unlocking wider benefits in health, nutrition, education and economic productivity, he noted.

Asked how the sanitation problem can be resolved, Wijesekera told IPS: “Sanitation is not rocket science; most developed countries take it for granted.”

“But our experience on the ground in developing countries shows that it is not just a question of governments investing money and technology. It is also about changing ordinary people’s attitudes and behaviours, and this takes time,” he said.

Sanitation can best be addressed by countries establishing and investing in people and systems at a local level to change people’s behaviours, and to get the private sector engaged in providing affordable and good quality products and services for the poor.

This, he said, needs to be led by countries themselves, and donors, international organisations and the private sector all have a role in providing financing and expertise.

He also said there is a growing awareness of the importance of sanitation as a foundation for human and economic development.

World leaders – from the U.N. Secretary-General, to the President of the World Bank, to the Prime Minister of India – are all talking about it.

“We need to translate this high level political support into action in order for all people to have access to what is theirs as a human right: clean drinking water and adequate sanitation,” said Wijesekera.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com