Monthly Archives: November 2013

US in Secret Talks with Hezbollah

By Keith Jones | 30 November 2013


Washington has reportedly begun secret talks with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia closely allied with Iran, and whose fighters have helped Syria’s government withstand a US- and Saudi-backed Sunni Islamist insurgency.

Britain is reportedly facilitating the negotiations. According to stories in the Kuwaiti press that were subsequently confirmed by the Jerusalem Post, British diplomats are meeting with Hezbollah representatives to apprise them of the Obama administration’s demands and deliver their responses to Washington.

This roundabout method has supposedly been adopted because the US officially designates both Hezbollah’s military and political wings as terrorist organizations, making it illegal for US officials to meet Hezbollah leaders.

The revelation of the US-Hezbollah talks comes just days after the US and its allies reached an interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Iran’s bourgeois-clerical regime and its regional allies— including Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, and the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad—have hailed this agreement as a “victory.”

In fact, Iran agreed to roll back its nuclear program and subject it to unprecedentedly intrusive inspections regime in exchange for the US and European Union relaxing only a small fraction of the punitive economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Revelations of wide-ranging US negotiations with Iran’s Middle East allies underscore that the US disputes with Iran were about far more than simply its nuclear program. Washington is moving to mend relations with various Shia populist or bourgeois nationalist forces across the Middle East in order to more effectively dominate the world’s leading oil-exporting region.

Fearing that Iran’s economic crisis could provoke working class-led social unrest, the leadership of the Islamic Republic has signaled that it is ready to make huge concessions to Washington. These include giving the US and European Union energy giants privileged access to Iran’s oil and natural gas and assisting Washington in suppressing opposition to its foreign policy across the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Lebanon.

“If in Geneva a deal was struck, doors to other deals might be possible” an unnamed “senior Iranian official” told the Washington-based Al-Monitor this week. “Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and also Afghanistan just a few weeks before the United States withdraws.” In a message clearly directed at Israel and Saudi Arabia—US regional allies who for their own strategic reasons fear a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran—the Iranian official added: “We prefer that regional powers understand new details are to be added to the equation.”

Over the past week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have launched a diplomatic charm offensive aimed at US allies in region. At the beginning of the week, Turkey’s foreign minister visited Tehran and, at a press conference with Zarif, made a joint appeal for an immediate cease-fire and political settlement in Syria. On Thursday, it was the turn of the UAE foreign minister to be welcomed to Tehran.

Iran has also announced it is considering an invitation from Bahrain to visit the capital, Manama. In an attempt to reassure the kingdom’s Sunni rulers of its support, it stressed that Iran did not instigate the popular revolt against the monarchy mounted by Bahrain’s majority-Shia population.

Rouhani’s mentor, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, has announced that he is ready to travel to Saudi Arabia to mend Tehran’s relations with Riyadh. In an interview with the Financial Times, Rafsanjani, who has repeatedly indicated his unhappiness with Tehran’s backing for the Syrian regime, said Iran “could play a better role” in Syria. He added that “we have no right to interfere” if Syrians want Assad to go.

As the interim nuclear deal was being finalized last weekend, the Obama administration let it be known that it had initiated secret talks with Iran last March and that these talks, which continued over the next six months, paved the way for the nuclear accord.

The Kuwaiti daily, Al-Rai, said the indirect talks between Washington and Hezbollah had been confirmed by senior British diplomatic sources. The Jerusalem Post cited “diplomatic sources in Washington” as saying the talks “are aimed at keeping tabs on the changes in the region and the world, and [to] prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the international community.”

The US is exploring to what extent Hezbollah is prepared to accommodate US strategic interests. Immediately at issue is Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war and its readiness to assist the US in working out a “political solution” that would see much of the US-backed, Islamist-led opposition brought into a “transitional government” in Damascus.

Less than three months ago the Obama administration was on the brink of launching war on Syria, a war that could have rapidly triggered war with Iran. Instead, it has chosen to see if it can harness Tehran to its strategic agenda, using it and its allies to help stabilize the region under US hegemony. One of its leading concerns is concentrating its military resources on the so-called “pivot to Asia”—an effort to militarily isolate, and if necessary, confront China.

Like Tehran, Hezbollah has indicated that it is looking for a bargain, welcoming Tehran’s own overtures to the US and entering into secret talks with Washington. So as not to disrupt this process, both Tehran and Hezbollah have chosen to downplay the significance of the November 19 bombing at Iran’s Lebanese embassy, which killed 6 Iranians and 17 passers-by in a Shia Beirut neighborhood dominated by Hezbollah.

Israel, meanwhile, is clearly disturbed by the reports of secret talks between Washington and Hezbollah. While there has been no official Israeli comment, within hours of the talks being revealed, the Jerusalem Post carried a report that claimed it has learned from army sources that Hezbollah “is carrying out massive preparations” for war with Israel.

The report begins: “On both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Hezbollah are quietly and intensively preparing for the next clash between them, a conflict both expect will surpass previous wars, in the scope of firepower each side will seek to employ.”

Legal Battle U.S. Reactor Licenses

Legal Battle Against Rule Crucial To All U.S. Reactor Licenses Rages On

Global Security Newswire | Douglas P. Guarino | Nov. 27, 2013

WASHINGTON — The leading plaintiffs in a lawsuit that put all licensing decisions for U.S. nuclear power plants on ice a year ago have been hinting in recent weeks that the legal battle over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s so-called “waste confidence” rule is far from finished.

In a 2012 ruling, a federal appeals court found that the commission – the federal entity through which all commercial reactors must seek permission to operate —  had not done enough analysis to justify the “confidence” it professed that radioactive waste generated by U.S. plants ultimately would be disposed of safely.

The court said that the commission had not adequately considered the prospect of catastrophic, terrorism-instigated spent-fuel pool fires at reactor sites in the interim. Nor did it thoroughly weigh the fact that the Obama administration had canceled the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada without yet identifying a replacement, according to the appeals bench.

NRC officials in September proposed a new waste-confidence rule that they assert addresses the court’s concerns. They published the proposal despite warnings from plaintiffs earlier this year that the scope of an environmental review supporting the rule was not broad enough. Criticism has since continued.

During an Oct. 30 public meeting in Tarrytown, N.Y., a representative of the New York Attorney General’s office — which led the legal charge last year — called the proposed new rule “critically flawed.” This, Assistant Attorney General Janice Dean said, is because the supporting environmental review looks at the potential consequences of spent-fuel fires through the lens of nuclear power plants “located in rural or less populated areas.”

Of chief concern to New York officials is spent fuel stored at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located in Westchester County, just north of New York City.

“The Westchester storage site has the highest surrounding population of any site in the nation,” said Dean, according to a transcript of the late-October meeting. “More than 17 million people live within 50 miles of Indian Point, and there are critical water resources and infrastructure developments close to the site.”

According to Dean, either “the NRC must conduct site-specific analysis of environmental impacts of a severe accident at the Indian Point spent-fuel pools or use the Indian Point site — and not less populated sites — as its baseline for spent-fuel pool accident risk nationwide.”

In the proposed rule, however, NRC officials reject the idea that the waste confidence issue cannot be considered generically. They say the federal appeals court, in the same ruling that rejected other aspects of the prior waste confidence proposal, validated the generic approach.

“Although the environmental impacts of spent nuclear fuel storage during the licensed life for operation may be site specific, the impacts of continued storage may be assessed generically,” the proposed rule says. “Changes in the environment around spent fuel storage facilities are sufficiently gradual and predictable to be addressed generically.”

Dean also charged that NRC officials “assumed, with no factual basis,” that all nuclear waste would be gone from spent-fuel pools by 60 years after the licensed life of a nuclear power plant.”

Given that offsite storage locations have not yet been identified, the commission “fails to meet the requirements of the [court’s] ruling by making decisions based on an unsubstantiated hope that the waste will be gone by then,” Dean said.

Industry officials, meanwhile, are looking to shift the focus of the debate away from the question of when the waste will be disposed of in a permanent, underground repository — and toward the question of whether the commission can be satisfied that the radioactive material will remain safely where it is for the foreseeable future.

During a Nov. 14 public meeting at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md., Ellen Ginsberg, vice president and general counsel for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said industry “strongly supports discontinuing the term ‘waste confidence.’

“It’s a historical artifact and it doesn’t provide any useful description of the agency’s analysis and conclusions on repository availability and the continued safe and environmentally sound storage of used fuel,” Ginsberg said.

“While the record amply supports a continued finding of reasonable confidence that disposal will become available,” she said, “to avoid confusion … the rule should be retitled to something along the lines of ‘storage of spent nuclear fuel for the period after the licensed term of reactor operation.’”

Critics have argued previously that shifting the debate away from the question of when a permanent repository will become available would be improper.

During an Oct. 1 public meeting at NRC headquarters, Janet Phelan Kotra, who worked for the commission for more than 28 years and served as project manager for the waste confidence issue for 14 years, said the proposed rule is erroneously based on the idea that the commission has confidence in the long-term safety of storage at reactor sites.

“NRC is dodging the question the public cares most about when it says disposal will become available ‘when necessary,’” Kotra said.

The commission is accepting public comment on the proposed rule through Dec. 20.


Alex Salmond softens hardline stance over Nato’s nuclear weapons

Independent Scotland would operate ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, says UK government as SNP tries to allay Washington’s fears

and The Guardian,

SNP sets out plan for independence

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond launched a 670-page white paper on independence.

Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

An independent Scotland would allow submarines and warships armed with nuclear weapons from the US, Britain and other Nato countries to dock in its ports as part of what was dubbed as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to guarantee membership of the North Atlantic alliance.

In a sign of the Scottish National party’s determination to reassure wavering voters – in the face of a commanding lead for the pro-UK camp – the Scottish government outlined a series of concessions by offering to share its military bases with the UK and even softening its stance on the timetable for removing Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.

Buried in the detail of 670-page white paper on independence, launched in Glasgow by the Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, it emerged that his government wants to qualify its staunch nuclear free policy by saying that nuclear-armed vessels from Nato countries would be free to use its ports on a confidential basis. It confirmed that an independent Scotland governed by the SNP would aim to eject Britain’s Trident nuclear fleet from the Faslane base in Argyll and Bute “with a view” to achieving this by 2020. But it softened its previously hardline position by saying this was its “aim and intention”, indicating that it was willing to compromise further.

The fresh approach suggests that British nuclear submarines will be allowed to join other Nato nuclear vessels operating in Scottish waters.

Amid concerns in Washington that a nuclear free Scotland would ban its warships and submarines with nuclear weapons from the vast Scottish territorial waters in the North Atlantic, the white paper commits an independent Scotland to follow the example of the Nato members Norway and Denmark.

It starts by stating: “It is our firm position that an independent Scotland should not host nuclear weapons and that we would only join Nato on that basis.”

But the white paper then states that – like Norway and Denmark – an independent Scotland would allow Nato to visit Scottish ports “without confirming or denying whether they carry nuclear weapons”. It added: “We intend that Scotland will adopt a similar approach as Denmark and Norway in this respect.” The UK government claimed that the Scottish government had embarked on a major dilution of its pledge to create a nuclear-free Scotland.

A spokesman said: “They buried this policy and now they’d like to bury the news. But now the truth is out. They’ve just given a green light to nuclear subs in Scottish waters – on the basis of don’t ask, don’t tell.” The signs that the SNP is willing to allay the concerns in Washington – in a move that would ease any application to join Nato by an independent Scotland – came as the Scottish government reassured voters that independence would not lead to a revolution.

In his foreword to the 670-page white paper Salmond wrote: “Scotland will remain within the Union of the Crowns with Her Majesty The Queen as our head of state, but we will have a modern, written constitution … Of course some would prefer Scotland to become a republic, to leave the EU or Nato, or to have our own currency. After Scotland becomes independent, any political party seeking to make these kinds of changes would first have to win support to do so in an election.”

As part of what is being called by the UK government a “de-risking strategy” to reassure undecided voters, who account for as much almost a quarter (24%) of the electorate, the white paper confirmed that an independent Scotland would insist on forming a sterling currency union with the remainder of the UK. The SNP had previously proposed such a union as an initial step before joining the euro.

The sterling currency union was rejected as fantasy by the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, who heads the pro-UK Better Together campaign. This prompted Salmond to warn that David Cameron would be in breach of his undertakings to the Scottish people if he rejected a currency union.

The first minister pointed out that in last year’s Edinburgh agreement, which paved the way for the referendum, the two governments agreed to respect the referendum result and to work constructively “in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom”. Salmond said: “The Bank of England and sterling are as much Scotland’s assets as London’s assets. They are certainly not George Osborne’s assets. We put forward in this paper our willingness to accept liabilities. We are also entitled to the share of assets.”

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, went even further and indicated that an independent Scotland may refuse to accept its share of the UK’s liabilities if London refuses to allow Edinburgh to form a sterling currency union. She told the BBC that the logical conclusion of declining to allow an independent Scotland to join a sterling currency union would be that “Scotland couldn’t then be expected to take a share of liabilities”.

The warning on the shared currency was dismissed by the UK government and by pro-UK campaigners. UK government sources said that sterling is an institution, rather than asset, which means that an independent Scotland would be in no position to link it to a negotiation on the breakdown of UK assets and liabilities.

Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, told the Scottish parliament: “The deputy first minister says if Scotland isn’t allowed to keep the pound we shall simply default on our debts.

“The reality is this: the SNP are asking for a divorce but they want to keep the joint bank account. So is Plan B simply to do a runner?”

The white paper offered further assurances on defence by saying that conventional military bases would be shared between Scottish and UK forces in an independent Scotland for a transitional period. This could even continue after the transitional period.

The paper said: “The negotiation of shared arrangements as a transitional measure would not preclude such arrangements being carried forward into the longer term, where both the rest of the UK and Scotland considered them the most effective means of delivering defence capabilities.”

A UK government source gave this short shrift: “There is limited capacity to share military resources and there is very little in this document on that. So no one should vote for independence on the basis of asset sharing in the future.”

The SNP will argue that its proposal to open Scotland’s waters and ports to vessels with nuclear weapons is the logical conclusion of its decision to model its Nato application on Norway. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said: “We will take our regional and collective security responsibilities seriously within NATO as a conventionally armed country.”

Strictly safe

Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who and other BBC favourites will still be on air to Scottish viewers if they vote for independence. The threat of losing the programmes was raised last week when the Sun reported that a vote for independence would mean Scottish viewers would have to pay for the BBC.

Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, challenged Alex Salmond that the white paper “asserts” that an independent Scotland would be able to keep the pound, would stay in the EU and “Scots’ viewers will be able to watch Strictly Come Dancing”.Robinson added: “Wouldn’t it be more honest to voters to add words like perhaps, maybe, fingers crossed and hope for the best or maybe the document should say if the UK treasury agrees, if the Bank of England agrees, if 27 EU member states agree, if the BBC Trust agree?”

Salmond replied: “As long as the BBC remains in public hands, which we hope will be for a long time to come, then we are entitled to have a share of the assets of the BBC.” A new Scottish Broadcasting Service would take over BBC Scotland and would form a joint venture with the remainder of the BBC in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government also suggests that BBC1 and BBC2 would still be shown with the SBS having the right to opt-out and run its own programmes.

The danger of blank BBC screens was raised in the Sun last week by Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader in Scotland. She said: “The SNP simply cannot guarantee that we’d still get Dr Who after independence. We get the best of both worlds — distinctive Scottish broadcasting and world-class BBC programmes.”

Mideast WMD Ban

Q&A: Malcolm Rifkind Sees Little Chance of Israel Discussing a Mideast WMD Ban

Global Security Newswire | Elaine M. Grossman | Nov. 27, 2013

Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, seen in London in April, said in a recent interview that Israel's continued public silence about its nuclear arsenal makes it unlikely that the country would take part in any formal conference about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images). Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, seen in London in April, said in a recent interview that Israel’s continued public silence about its nuclear arsenal makes it unlikely that the country would take part in any formal conference about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East (Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images).


WASHINGTON — A leading member of the U.K. Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, said Israel would be unlikely to participate in a proposed conference to discuss an eventual Middle East ban on weapons of mass destruction, given its continued refusal to publicly acknowledge its own nuclear arsenal and concerns about being singled out for criticism.

“The fact [is] that Israel has nuclear weapons. She’s had them for about 30 years,” the Conservative member of Parliament said in a late-September interview in his London office.

Rifkind said, though, that he does not believe Israel’s atomic arms pose a serious threat to its neighbors.

“They have not destabilized the Middle East, because it is well known that the Israelis have them as an ultimate means of their own defense,” he said.

Israel is widely believed to maintain the region’s only nuclear arsenal, numbering an estimated 80 or more warheads. Meanwhile, many suspect that Iran has sought to develop its own atomic-arms capability, a prospect that has alarmed much of the world and led to a new interim accord aimed at dialing back Tehran’s nuclear potential.

The idea of creating a special WMD-free zone in the Middle East would also extend to a regional ban on chemical and biological arms. A number of Mideast nations are believed to have carried out chemical and biological arms development over the past several decades.

A conference to discuss a potential WMD ban could be held in Helsinki as early as December, after being postponed in late 2012. Rifkind said, though, that any such gathering could simply collapse into counterproductive finger-pointing.

“If there’s one thing that unites the Arabs and the Iranians, it is to be anti-Israeli,” Rifkind told Global Security Newswire. “So the whole focus of the conference would take the heat off the Iranians and put it on the Israelis, with not the remotest possibility that the Israelis are going to say … ‘We have them and if you’d like to come and collect them.'”

For now, he said, “the Israelis are playing along, which is hoping it will go away. And for the meantime, they don’t want to make a drama out of a crisis.”

The lawmaker noted that in addressing the prospects for an Israeli role in the possible conference, he was speaking more from his mid-1990s experience as foreign secretary in then-Prime Minister John Major’s government, rather than in his current role as chairman of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.

Prior to his turn as top envoy, Rifkind served under Major as defense secretary. During a nearly 35 years in national politics, he has also held a variety of other leadership posts.

During the wide-ranging interview, the 67-year-old Conservative Party member representing the west London area of Kensington addressed questions about the U.K. nuclear posture, as well as security challenges posed by Iran and Syria.

The Edinburgh native also touched on Scotland’s upcoming referendum for independence — an idea he opposes — and explored its potential implications for British security.

Edited excerpts of the Sept. 26 interview follow:

GSN: Is it necessary for the United Kingdom to continue its so-called “CASD” policy, which allows “continuous at-sea deterrence” by keeping at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times? Some argue that the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States — Britain’s closest ally — instead could allow the United Kingdom to field fewer submarines and relax the need for 24/7 patrols.

Rifkind: I think we should continue with continuous at-sea deterrence, [or] CASD. … We have as a matter of policy over the last 25 years reduced our nuclear weapons to the absolute minimum required. …

If we were moving away from CASD, by definition that means that for significant periods of time, there would be no effective deterrent in the event of a sudden emergency.

Now people might say, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a sudden emergency and a crisis would build up.’ Probably that’s right. But [in the event of tensions] … your submarine which was based in its home berth would be seen moving out, thereby escalating what was already a crisis.

So there’s a whole series of considerations. The additional cost of CASD is insignificant. …

GSN: The junior member of the U.K. governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats, are saying that the world environment has changed, and it’s time to adjust the U.K. nuclear posture accordingly.

Rifkind: I don’t question their good faith. But they ignore two fundamental considerations. … I was defense secretary from 1992 to 1995, so I was part of [the post-Cold War nuclear reductions] process. Since the end of the Cold War, we have already made very major reductions in our nuclear-weapon capability to reflect that new situation.

In the 1990s, we had nuclear artillery, nuclear tactical weaponry. We got rid of them all. We had free-fall nuclear bombs from aircraft; we’ve got rid of that. …

Not just the government I was part of, [but also] the successive governments of both Labor and Conservative, have reduced the number of warheads that are carried in the Trident submarines.

So we have already gone about as far as you can go. So the argument that nobody’s been taking notice of what’s changed [in the] international environment simply isn’t true. The United Kingdom [has reduced percentage-wise] more than Russia, France or the United States, in terms of compared to where we started; we’ve done that in each case.

GSN: What do you see as the essential role of the British nuclear deterrent, as distinct from the nuclear umbrella that the United States continues to apply to many NATO member nations without nuclear weapons?

Rifkind: It’s a fair question. … Whatever decision we take has got to be [applicable] for 40 to 50 years. So no one knows what’s going to happen in the next 40 years.

And that’s not just a flip point or a debating point; [what] is fundamental to your defense capability is the unknown. And you can’t decide to get rid of nuclear weapons and then change your mind and expect 12 months later to have reestablished them.

Once you give them up, it takes years — if it’s possible at all, it would take a decade to recreate a nuclear-weapons capability. …

GSN: What do you see as the most serious future threats that justify Britain’s continued requirement for its own nuclear arsenal?

Being realistic … the only possible aggressor with nuclear weapons over the short to medium term would [be Russia, though it would] not be the present Russian government. … We have problems with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, but not in that sense.

But Russia is not a democratic country. It’s gone backwards over the last 20 years. It’s an authoritarian society. Mr. Putin wants to it remain that way. He doesn’t know any more than the rest of us who might rule Russia [in] 10, 20 years’ time. …

I’m not making a prediction, [but] I’m saying potentially it could be some xenophobic Russian nationalist who uses their nuclear weapons as a means of trying to dominate the countries around them. That’s been historically [the case] — Russia has always felt it can only guarantee its own security by controlling the territory around it. …

I’m not saying that will happen, but we don’t know what will happen. And therefore [it is unwise] to abandon something you’ve already got. …

Now … my answer comes to the U.S. dimension. … I have no reason to believe that NATO will not be around in 40 years’ time. I have no reason to believe that the United States will no longer be as committed to the defense of Western Europe as it’s been in the past.

However … I can’t be certain of that. America has had isolationist periods in its history. There are many in Congress that are saying, ‘What the heck are we doing defending Western Europe? These are rich, developed countries that are perfectly capable of defending themselves. You know, this is not the Cold War. This is not a Europe which was recently occupied by the Germans, by Hitler, and unable to have all of the economic wealth to defend themselves.’

I’m not saying that’s going to happen, but I can’t exclude it.

[Additionally] why should we assume that the United States would be willing to continue to guarantee by its own nuclear weapons — at risk to its own security — the security if those countries in Europe that have nuclear weapons unilaterally give them up?

[It would be wrong to] say, ‘To save money, because we don’t think they’re necessary, we’re going to give up our nuclear weapons. But America, will you please continue to provide us with the same guarantee?’

GSN: Even though the United States has continued to provide that security pledge to all NATO nations, regardless of whether they host or field nuclear weapons?

Rifkind: No, no. That was in everyone’s interests. Nobody wanted proliferation. … Because we were a single alliance and nuclear weapons underpin that alliance, the understanding is we don’t need to have 28 countries all with nuclear weapons. …

The idea that we should [disarm] unilaterally but still expect the Americans to risk their own security in order to protect us would be a gift to the isolationists. …

GSN: Turning to Iran, what signs are you looking for that would give you confidence that Tehran has turned its sights away from developing a nuclear-weapons capability?

Rifkind: … What would be real evidence of a willingness to make the necessary compromises and concessions would be, first of all, to acknowledge that they all have complete transparency and verification procedures: Open access to inspectors and not the constraints that have been imposed upon [inspections], that they should have no reason to refuse unless they have something to hide.

But secondly, what should be done with all the uranium that has been enriched beyond the civilian requirements? That should be handed over. [For] what possible reason should they [retain it]? They say they need it for medical isotopes. Well, I’m not an expert but my understanding is that medical isotopes require a tiny amount — nothing remotely comparable to what is [believed] being processed. …

The real suspicion is that the most likely intention of the Iranians — at least up till now — has not been to develop nuclear weapons but to develop the capability to build nuclear weapons, but to stop just short of it. [They could do so] in a way that would enable them at a time of their own choosing to go that last stage in a very short period of weeks or months.

And now from the point of view of stability of the region, that would be just as dangerous a position for them to adopt as actually having the weapons themselves. … Other countries will not be relaxed simply because they have adopted a self-imposed decision not to go the final step at this particular moment in time, when they could change that view at a time of their choosing. …

GSN: Over what period of time do you think it may become clear whether or not Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei intends to relinquish any capacity to develop nuclear arms?

Rifkind: … It is perfectly possible [for Iran] to say, ‘If we were satisfied that our entitlement to enrich for civil nuclear purposes and our various other fundamental interests would be respected, then we would be prepared to do XYZ.’

There are various ways, when there’s a political will, you can do that.

When people are trying to find a solution, they find a solution. When they’re trying to find problems, they find problems.

And up till now, they’ve been trying to find problems. The only question is whether we’ve moved on from that.

Just to give an example: On the chemical weapons in Syria, the Russians suddenly decide for whatever their reasons, that they want to deliver the dismantling and removal of chemical weapons.

What happens? Within 24 hours, Assad is saying, ‘Yes, Mr. Putin. Yes, I have chemical weapons. Yes, I will provide a full list to the inspectors within a week. … We’ll have to wait and see what he delivers.

But even in the words he chooses, he’s confirmed more in the space of a week and a half than he has in five years. …

GSN: In agreeing with the Syrian regime about the details of disarming its chemical stockpile, have the United States and its partners erred by recognizing the current Syrian government as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people?

Rifkind: No, certainly not. Why?

GSN: Last year, France, the United Kingdom and United States all declared that the opposition was the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The United States has since signed an agreement in which the regime acts on behalf of Syria, and some say Assad is now in a stronger position going into peace talks.

Rifkind: No, the crucial word is ‘legitimate.’ No, they’re not.

We recognize facts. We recognize the fact that there is a regime in power in Damascus, which controls a substantial part of the country and which controls the chemical weapons.

So obviously they must be involved in getting rid of these chemical weapons. But questions of legitimacy don’t come into it. …

GSN: What do you imagine the U.K. role will be going forward regarding Syria, following the late-August parliamentary vote that denied Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to participate in a military strike against the Assad regime? Going forward, do you anticipate London’s role will be essentially diplomatic, or could the U.K. military still play a supporting role if the international community at some point returns to the idea of armed intervention?

Rifkind: The vote doesn’t represent any fundamental change in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy or willingness to have an act of foreign policy. …

I supported the government, as it happens, on this particular vote. But even those who did not support the government were not calling for an isolationist United Kingdom.

There were two groups of people who voted against the government.

There were those who said at the time of the vote, ‘We are not yet satisfied the Assad regime were responsible for the chemical weapons [attack in August just outside Damascus]. We haven’t seen enough evidence that points in that direction.’

And this is all part of the legacy of Iraq — you know, the distrust of assumptions that are being made.

But there [was] also a group of MPs — quite significant number — who said, ‘Even if we were satisfied that it was the Assad regime that was responsible, we do not believe that a military strike by the United States, with or without the United Kingdom, is the proper response.’

And either because they were concerned it would suck us into the conflict far more than we should be sucked in, or because they thought it would have a destabilizing impact beyond Syria — in relations with Russia and other countries — they had various reasons.

So occasionally the United Kingdom and the United States disagree. It doesn’t happen very often, but it happens more often than people realize without damaging the fundamental relationship. …

GSN: How do you assess the prospects for U.N.-sponsored efforts to convene an international conference in Helsinki to explore the idea of establishing a ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East?

Rifkind: … What this is really about is: Are we entitled to put pressure on Iran while Israel has nuclear weapons? …

The reality is that if Israel has them — we all know Israel does have them, though she doesn’t admit it. The fact [is] that Israel has nuclear weapons. She’s had them for about 30 years and they have not destabilized the Middle East, because it is well known that the Israelis have them as an ultimate means of their own defense.

Being a tiny country, if they were faced with a successful conventional attack, that is their ultimate line of defense. And the Arab states all recognize that. And although they don’t like it, it’s never been a gut issue.

It’s only become an issue when Iran — or people who are supportive of Iran — have used it as a quid pro quo type argument.

And the concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons is nobody believes that the Iranians want nuclear weapons purely to defend themselves.

The fear — not so much of the Israelis [but] the fear of the Arabs, the Saudis, the [Persian] Gulf states — is Iran wants nuclear weapons in order to have geopolitical supremacy in the Gulf, to be able to push around the Arabs on issues where they are in disagreement, by being the obvious superpower in the region.

Now, there [are] huge problems between Israel and the Arabs, but that’s not one of them. …

GSN: So this raises an interesting conundrum —

Rifkind: What is the point of a conference — if you had a conference — first of all, the Israelis are in a quandary: Do they attend or do they boycott? And are you going to be hanged or shot?

And on this issue, the Arabs would combine with the Iranians. So the whole dynamic of a conference would be to put pressure on the Israelis.

And Iran would be sitting back, quite smug, saying, ‘Well, you know, if the Israelis concede and get rid of everything, then of course everybody else would have to be acting similarly.’

In other words, it’s a tactic, not a strategy.

GSN: Egypt has led the Arab League in calling for the conference, but Cairo has also intimated that it could develop nuclear weapons if Iran develops a nuclear-weapons capacity. How do you read that dynamic?

Rifkind: The interesting thing is [Egypt] has said that; it has never, in practice, said the same with regard to Israel.

GSN: Recently they have cited Israel’s nuclear arms —

Rifkind: I know they have. And it suits them … in terms of the Israel-Palestinian issue.

But the simple political-historical fact is that for 30 years, Israel has had nuclear weapons and the Egyptians haven’t even started [developing their own]. Because they’ve known perfectly well that their problem with Israel is its conventional strength, not its nuclear strength.

The Arab problem with Iran is different. That’s a historical rivalry between the Iranians — the Persians — and the Arabs, as to who’s going to be dominant in their region.

GSN: Can you imagine some way in which this proposed conference could actually advance the idea of Middle East peace? Israel has not ruled out that it would attend, arguing that if the agenda is agreeable, it could take part. Or is that simply a political tactic, in your view?

Rifkind: … Because Israel doesn’t even admit to having nuclear weapons, they can quite happily attend on the same basis as Jordan, as Egypt, as a non-nuclear-weapons state.

GSN: That could get a little uncomfortable.

Rifkind: We get into ‘Alice in Wonderland’ territory.

Now my main concern — and I suspect it’s the Israelis’ main concern — is that if there’s one thing that unites the Arabs and the Iranians, it is to be anti-Israeli. So the whole focus of the conference would take the heat off the Iranians and put it on the Israelis, with not the remotest possibility that the Israelis are going to say, ‘OK, we give in.’

GSN: The Israelis are unlikely to say, ‘We have them and we’ll give them up.’

Rifkind: ‘We have them and if you’d like to come and collect them –‘ End of story. That’s not going to happen.

So end of conference would be: ‘Israel refuses to budge. Israel responsible for lack of –‘ you know.

It’s entirely negative. There is no way it could have a happy ending, from an Israeli point of view.

And it’s not just that [it] would upset the Israelis. The Israelis deserve to be upset some of the time; they can do some really dumb things, very stupid things.

But on the nuclear-weapon issue, the real issue that the Middle East has to face is not Israel and nuclear weapons; it’s Iran.

Because if it were truly Israel, then the Arab states would be utterly relaxed about Iran with a nuclear weapon. …

GSN: So are you saying that Israel is playing a double game by taking part in these consultations but with no intention of attending a Helsinki conference?

A: The Israelis are playing along, which is hoping it will go away. And for the meantime, they don’t want to make a drama out of a crisis …

Do I expect anything to happen? No, I don’t. I don’t think anybody else does, either.

GSN: Finally, turning to Scotland’s referendum for independence next fall: How do you imagine that could affect U.K. security, given that the Scottish National Party has vowed to eject Britain’s entire fleet of four Trident submarines from its sole home port at Faslane if independence is achieved?

Rifkind: … The Scottish nationalists say — one of their great arguments is independent Scotland would get rid of Trident.

But an independent Scotland would apply to join NATO. And it’s being made clear to them, ‘Well, come on! NATO is a nuclear-based alliance. If you think you can make life miserable for NATO by expelling nuclear weapons from Faslane, and at the same time be accepted as a member of NATO, you’re living in Cloud Cuckoo-land.’

Now, in a small way, that is relevant to our earlier discussion about what would happen if Britain unilaterally gave up its nuclear weapons.

GSN: Because this would essentially be a forced disarmament?

Rifkind: Yeah, you know, if the United Kingdom gives up its nuclear weapons, it can’t automatically assume the United States will take on the burden by itself.

Now, the theoretical, hypothetical possibility of an independent Scotland expelling Trident while it’s [applying to join NATO]: You don’t apply to join an organization when you’re simultaneously undermining its defense capability.

GSN: Would the United Kingdom effectively exercise veto power over a Scottish bid to join NATO if British nuclear arms were evicted from bases in an independent Scotland?

Rifkind: We’d just be the U.K. I don’t know — but my guess would be that the U.S. would also say [no]. …

The American government would be very unhappy for the United Kingdom not to have a nuclear deterrent. …

GSN: What do you think about the possibility of Britain leasing the Faslane home port, as well as the nuclear-warhead storage facility nearby at Coulport?

Rifkind: … Oh, this is the Russian-Ukrainian Sevastopol option! …

Russia still has its main Black Sea naval base in what is now an independent Ukraine. … That’s where the Black Sea fleet was based during the Soviet days.

And there was a lease, which was due to run out, and the previous Ukrainian government said you will have to go.

But when [Viktor] Yanukovych won the [2010 presidential] election, he was slightly more pro-Russian, [and] he did a deal with the Russians where in exchange for favorable pricing of gas imports, he gave them 20 years or whatever it was [of] leasing.

GSN: So could something similar happen in Scotland with the U.K. Trident subs?

Rifkind: Who knows? The whole nationalist argument is, ‘We don’t want nuclear weapons on our territory. And whether you have them leased or in any other way, you still have them on [our] territory.’

So, anyway, this is all hypothetical.

GSN: Because a vote in favor of independence probably won’t happen?

Rifkind: It’s not probably. It’s not going to happen.

Fukushima fallout: Should the West Coast be concerned?

ABC | KABC-TV Los Angeles, CA | Thursday, November 07, 2013

David Ono

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit, the strongest ever recorded in Japan. And then from our televisions, we watched a monstrous tsunami annihilate the most prepared country in the world.

I saw, firsthand, the enormous devastation: Entire towns wiped out, and piles of rubble 30 feet high.

But the third part of this disaster has the potential to be the worst of all, yet the damage is almost invisible. The Fukushima nuclear power plant continues to spew radiation. It’s 5,300 miles from Los Angeles — and still not far enough.

Deformities are showing up in Japanese butterflies. The once-thriving fishing industry near the plant has been shut down. Dozens of species have been labeled too radioactive to eat.

And there’s the human toll: 160,000 families have been forced from their radioactive homes, many still paying their mortgages even though they’ll likely never live there again.

Fukushima is an enormous problem that’s getting bigger.

Nuclear Engineer Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, confirmed that ocean currents are carrying the radioactive water to the West Coast.

“There are several hundred tons of radioactive water that are pouring into the ocean at the site every day,” Makhijani said.

According to a study published in the Journal Deep Sea Research 1, it will begin arriving this March. But Makhijani says there’s no need to panic. The radiation will be diluted, and levels found on the West Coast are very low and not considered dangerous so far. But the question is, will we really know?

“I think we should be doing a better monitoring of food. I don’t think the EPA and FDA are doing a good enough job,” Makhijani said.

The scariest part of Fukushima is not what has already happened; it’s what could still happen. Every day is a desperate effort to keep the plant from melting down. What’s distressing for many is the Japanese government is not overseeing the cleanup.

The government has requested that Tokyo Electric and Power or TEPCO, be in charge of the cleanup. It is a private, for profit, company.

Japanese Nuclear Engineer Yastel Yamada came to America to shine a light on what he feels is a flawed approach. He says TEPCO is over their heads.

“The cleanup job is too large for their capability,” Yamada said.

Yamada is one of many experts who say this is a bad solution, and that a meltdown is still possible. Dr. Jimmy Hara, from Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and professor of clinical family medicine at UCLA, agrees.

“It’s like the fox overseeing the chicken coop, and it’s a huge problem,” Hara said.

Makhijani says TEPCO and the Japanese government have refused international help.

Fukushima is potentially the biggest ticking time bomb in human history. The damaged plant is in no condition to withstand another massive earthquake or tsunami. The original 19-foot sea wall was shattered when the tsunami struck and provided little protection. The tsunami flooded the plant, cut off power, and the meltdown was underway.

The plant’s defenses today are far less.

Just last week, Dr. David Suzuki, one of Canada’s top environmental scientists, stunned the audience when he described what will happen if a massive quake did hit today.

“It’s bye bye Japan, and everybody on the West Coast of North America should evacuate,” Suzuki said. “Now if that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.”

(Copyright ©2013 KABC-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

How much can a superfast algorithm tell us about Iran?

The Tehran Connection

How much can a superfast algorithm tell us about Iran? Quite a lot, actually.

Foreign Policy | KALEV LEETARU | NOVEMBER 27, 2013


Iran’s nuclear program has been one of the hottest topics in foreign policy for years, and attention has only intensified over the past few days, as an interim agreement was reached in Geneva to limit enrichment activity in pursuit of a more comprehensive deal. The details of the deal itself are of course interesting, but in aggregate the news stories about Iran can tell us far more than we can learn simply by reading each story on its own. By using “big data” analytics of the world’s media coverage, combined with network visualization techniques, we can study the web of relationships around any given storyline — whether it focuses on an individual, a topic, or even an entire country. Using these powerful techniques, we can move beyond specifics to patterns — and the patterns tell us that our understanding of Iran is both sharp and sharply limited.

In the diagram below, every global English-language news article monitored by the GDELT Global Knowledge Graph — a massive compilation of the world’s people, organizations, locations, themes, emotions, and events — has been analyzed to identify all people mentioned in articles referencing any location in Iran between April and October 2013. A list was compiled of every person mentioned in each article, and all names mentioned in an article together were connected. The end result was a network diagram of all of the people mentioned in the global news coverage of Iran over the last seven months and who has appeared with whom in that coverage.

This network diagram was then visualized using a technique that groups individuals who are more closely connected with each other, placing them physically more proximate in the diagram, while placing individuals with fewer connections farther apart. Then, using an approach known as “community finding,” clusters of people who are more closely connected with each other than with the rest of the network were drawn in the same color. The specific color assigned to each group is not meaningful, only that people drawn in the same color are more closely connected to one another. Together, these two approaches make the overall macro-level structure of the network instantly clear, teasing apart the clusters and connections among the newsmakers defining Iranian news coverage.


(For the technical readers, the software used was Gephi, the layout algorithm was “Force Atlas 2,” and the community-finding tool was Blondel et al.’s implementation of modularity finding.)

Because most names in the news occur in just a handful of articles, the visual above shows the result of filtering the network to show only those names that occurred in 15 or more articles. This eliminates the vast majority of names, while preserving names that are more likely to be directly related to Iranian affairs and still capturing a broad swath of the discourse around Iran. The purple cluster is largely the United States and its allies, with Barack Obama right in the center, while the dark blue node towards of the lower center of the entire network is Edward Snowden, capturing the way in which he has become one of the most prominent figures in discussion of U.S. foreign policy. This is a fascinating finding: While Snowden obviously has no part in the Iranian-U.S. nuclear talks, his outsized role in the global conversation about U.S. foreign policy has made him part of the context in which those talks are discussed. In particular, there has been substantial media coverage connecting the approaches Snowden used to defeat the NSA’s internal security procedures with some of those used by the United States in its attempts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear efforts. The media has also used the materials Snowden has released to reconstruct how U.S. spy agencies may have been involved in the Stuxnet attack on Iran.

The blue-green cluster in the bottom right largely consists of Israeli reporters and commentators, while the light blue cluster at top left consists of international reporters. The yellow cluster along the left side of the graph is where all of the Iranian names appear, with key figures like Hassan Rouhani, Ali Khamenei, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all playing prominent roles in bridging Iran to the other clusters. Iranian politicians like Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mohammad-Reza Aref, and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel play central roles internally to the cluster, representing their important roles within Iran, but their limited engagement and contextualization over the last several months with the rest of the world.

The fact that this network accurately distinguishes internal and external leaders is a critical finding. Such resolving power means that this approach of externally mapping the newsmaker network around a country using public news coverage is sufficiently accurate to capture the nuance between newsmakers who operate largely within a country and those who have a more external role, and the external newsmakers with whom they are most closely connected. That such a news-based network would be capable of perceiving such nuanced detail suggests this approach may have powerful applications for mapping the internal structure of countries and organizations that receive considerable media coverage, but for which policymakers lack the detailed leadership diagrams compiled for higher-profile subjects like Iran.

The visual also makes it clear that the discourse around Iran does not focus on Iran itself or its internal politics, but rather on its nuclear ambitions and how they fits into the rest of the world. In particular, there is a strong Western-centric narrative to the English-language coverage around Iran, emphasizing U.S. interests, with Iranian leaders mentioned only in passing as they relate to those interests. In other words, news coverage across the world focuses on what the United States wants from Iran and what Iran needs to do to satisfy those demands, rather than the Iranian perspective on its role in the world. This is a key finding, as it reflects Iran’s intense marginalization over its nuclear program and is in contrast to other nations like Egypt. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)

The visualization below displays the same network as above, but this time filters to include only names and connections appearing in at least 50 articles, reflecting the most dominant newsmakers in global coverage of Iran. As one might expect, this graph reflects a much simpler structure, with Iranian figures occupying the lower green segment and the United States, its allies, and related countries like Russia occupying the top yellow cluster. The orange cluster at far lower left consists of a set of major reporters and a few politicians connected back to the broader network through Edward Snowden. In a nod to Israel’s key influence, Benjamin Netanyahu is the central pink node that connects the U.S. and Iranian clusters, while other key European figures like Catherine Ashton and William Hague also reside in this interface layer. (An interactive version of this network is available here.)


In Iran, it is notable that the actual nexus of power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, does not occupy any more central of a network role than current President Hassan Rouhani or former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This reflects the fact that despite his actual ultimate authority over Iranian politics, he maintains a relatively low external profile, delegating most interactions with foreign dignitaries and formal public statements of policy. This can be used to better understand how a nation’s political elite view themselves and their internal and external roles, and especially how this may be changing over time.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that when these “newsmaker networks” are constructed for a nation, the resulting layers of the network appear to at least largely match the broad contours of the political environment in that nation. Leaders most closely connected with external nations like the United States are those representing that nation’s foreign policy efforts, while those in successively inward layers are those who occupy progressively more internal roles in domestic politics.

This, however, raises the critical question: If data mining only tells us what we already know, is it actually useful? The ability of a network diagram, constructed automatically by computers and entirely of open global news coverage, to capture at least a semblance of the internal political structure of a nation, especially the separation of internal and external layers, is remarkable in what it enables. Our deep understanding of Iran’s internal power structure comes only through the breathtaking investment by the U.S. foreign policy community of decades of intense study by vast teams of analysts. The ability of a computer algorithm to arrive at even a most remotely similar diagram in a matter of seconds based only on open news coverage represents a fundamental transformation of our ability to rapidly understand a world in constant change.


Radiation Cleanup at Park on Staten Island to Take Years


                                                                                             Brian Harkin for The New York Times

A sign at one of the closed sections of Great Kills Park on Staten Island, where radioactive material was detected in 2005.

The first sign that something was amiss at Great Kills Park, on Staten Island, came in 2005 when a police flyover of New York City detected a positive reading for radioactive material there.

The finding, part of a counterterrorism search, did not come as a complete shock. After all, the 488-acre park was the depository for 15 million cubic yards of fill in the 1940s and 1950s, including medical and sanitary waste. The fill was dumped across wetlands to turn marshy areas into usable recreation space. Some of the waste, it turned out, contained radium, a naturally occurring element that was also used for decades in medical treatments, toys, cosmetics and even toothpaste.

At first, the source of radiation appeared to be confined to a small area behind a parking lot next to a field popular for flying model airplanes. The National Park Service, which operates the park, quickly fenced it off. But in the years since, further investigations by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Army Corps of Engineers turned up more hot spots and a fuller, more disturbing picture.

“As we’re getting through this tough job, we’re finding that the contamination is not only in these discrete pockets, but is dispersed in the soil and also at the surface,” said Kathleen Cuzzolino, an environmental protection specialist for the Park Service.

This fall, after another flyover and years of excavations, the Park Service acknowledged that the contamination was more extensive than had originally been believed. Indeed, more than half of the park has shown some degree of radioactivity — virtually the entire area containing the historic fill. Park officials have fenced off 260 acres, including four ball fields, the model airplane field and a popular trail along Hylan Boulevard. Everywhere are signs proclaiming “Danger: Hazard Area.”

As a lengthy process now begins to map the contamination and devise a cleanup plan, the rhythms of family outings in this middle-class corner of Staten Island have been interrupted. Baseball and soccer leagues that used Great Kills have relocated, and so have the fliers of the model planes.

“This is potentially a very dangerous situation,” said Representative Michael G. Grimm, whose congressional district includes the park, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. “The last thing I want is to have anyone or their children get sick or hurt because of this contamination.”

Mrs. Cuzzolino said she could not predict when the closed-off portions of the park would reopen, but she cautioned that the cleanup could take years. Following federal guidelines, the National Park Service, with help from the Army Corps of Engineers, is now surveying every square foot of the 260 acres. Radiation technicians have so far scanned three-fourths of the park with detectors, a painstaking job that entailed clearing vegetation in the survey area so that the detectors could come within six inches of the ground.

The technicians suspended the survey after encountering a wide area of trees downed by Hurricane Sandy. The trees are being cleared and the work is expected to resume next month. In addition, the Park Service will remove at least 30 hot spots with the highest levels of radiation in the coming months. “Each of those will give us more information,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said.

The federal government will also undertake a “human health and ecological risk assessment,” in which soil and ground water samples will be analyzed. Then comes the eventual cleanup, which will involve a feasibility study and a public comment period. “It’s going to be several years,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said. “It’s not going to be an easy task to remediate contamination across 260 acres.”

Local blogs have lighted up with angry posts about the delays — “Staten Island parks will offer terrific choices: You can glow in Great Kills or have your sneakers melt in Freshkills,” said one post, referring to the new park also built atop a garbage dump on Staten Island — and community board meetings have drawn frustrated residents. But the National Park Service is urging patience.

“I wish it wasn’t the situation that this waste was brought to the park and the contamination is here, but it is,” Mrs. Cuzzolino said. “I look forward to getting people back out into the park safely. But we need to do this right.”


                            Brian Harkin for The New York Times

Kathleen Cuzzolino of the National Park Service said some of the hot spots had radiation levels 200 times greater than normal.

The other city parks on top of garbage dumps, including the recently completed Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx, are built on landfills composed mostly of household trash and became parks only after the city carefully capped them.

Great Kills, by contrast, took in all manner of debris. The fill was covered with clay and sludge in the late 1950s to form a layer of topsoil. The National Park Service recently identified the source of at least some of the radioactive contamination: discarded radium needles that had been inserted into cancerous tumors.

Mrs. Cuzzolino said some of the 30 hot spots that would be removed had radiation levels 200 times that of normal background levels in the environment. Still, the Park Service has tried to allay anxieties, asserting that the sections of the park that remain open, including a bathing beach and bicycle path, pose no danger.

In a primer on its website on the situation at Great Kills, the Park Service explains that radium’s “half-life is quite long (on the order of 1,600 years).” It adds that, at one time, radium sickened workers who painted watch dial faces with it so that they would glow in the dark. “They wetted their paint brush tips by mouth to make a fine point to apply the paint; by doing so, they ingested radium,” the fact sheet states.

The information bulletin ends on a reassuring note: “The areas that are open to visitation are considered safe.”