The World Today for August 28, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

RUSSIA

‘Chernobyl on Ice’

Chernobyl has been a real tourist draw lately. “The Ukrainian government is promoting the Exclusion Zone as a tourist destination,” wrote a Boston Globe correspondent, referring to the area evacuated permanently after the 1986 nuclear disaster. “I had to go.”

Visitors must wash their shoes, clothes and backpacks, scrubbing away radiation, after they leave, noted China Daily, adding that more people are going despite the risks. Even staffers at 92Moose.fm in Maine have shared details on how to visit Chernobyl.

It’s ironic that while one former Soviet republic is capitalizing on its nuclear disaster, another crisis appears increasingly possible in another, Russia.

The Akademik Lomonosov, a floating nuclear power plant, recently left the Russian port of Murmansk in the Barents Sea on a journey to an Arctic town 4,000 miles away, NBC News reported. Russia says the plant will supply energy to new communities in that remote region.

Critics called it “Chernobyl on ice.”

“Nuclear reactors bobbing around the Arctic Ocean pose a shockingly obvious threat to this wild and fragile environment,” the conservationist organization Greenpeace wrote in a statement. “Nothing is invincible. The problem is that this nuclear Titanic has been constructed without any independent experts checking it. In Chernobyl, there was a similar lack of oversight.”

Russian officials scoffed at comparisons of the Akademik Lomonosov and Chernobyl. They said the reactors aboard the floating plant are more like those on the nuclear-powered icebreakers that ply the country’s cold northern coast. “They’re going overboard,” Vladimir Irminku, a chief engineer of the project, said of the plant’s critics in an interview with the Guardian. “If they say there is a possibility of an accident with the reactor then they have to present evidence.”

Floating reactors aren’t the only threat to the environment of the region.

On August 8, five nuclear scientists and two military personnel died in a mysterious explosion at a naval weapons testing facility on the White Sea near Arkhangelsk. Now, doctors who treated some of the survivors fear they have been contaminated, the BBC reported. The explosion emitted radiation spikes detected as far away as Norway. Russian officials said the contamination was not enough to cause sicknesses. On Monday, the Russian meteorological agency identified four specific radioactive particles released in the explosion as isotopes of strontium, two types of barium and lanthanum – which are formed from radioactive gasses released during nuclear fission, according to the New York Times.

The navy researchers were likely testing a new nuclear-powered missile that the Kremlin-controlled news agency Tass described as having “unlimited range.” The New Republic argued that even testing such a missile was absurd, saying that while it was designed to defeat an American missile defense system, it was more a vanity project of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Floating reactors might or might not suffer accidents. All bombs are meant to go boom.

WANT TO KNOW

IRAN

On-Again, Off-Again

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday he would not meet for negotiations with US President Donald Trump unless Trump first lifts the sanctions imposed on Tehran after he pulled America out of the nuclear deal.

“Without the US’s withdrawal from sanctions, we will not witness any positive development,” Rouhani said in a televised address, walking back his suggestion a day earlier that there was a “really good chance” of face-to-face negotiations following a surprise intervention by French President Emmanuel Macron, the Associated Press reported.

Rouhani also cast aspersions on Trump’s motivations with a thinly veiled allusion to his high-profile meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, saying, “If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible.”

Previously, he’d said a meeting would be worthwhile even if the odds of success were as low as 10 percent. Trump, too, had said at a joint news conference with Macron that a meeting with Rouhani could happen within weeks, the Washington Post reported.

ARGENTINA

Breaking the Rules

Argentina’s central bank sold $302 million in reserves to shore up the peso on Tuesday, exceeding the guideline limit on such sales associated with the $57 billion standby agreement it negotiated with the International Monetary Fund.

The deal, which was set when the exchange rate was above 51.5 pesos to the dollar, limits Argentina’s central bank to sales of $250 million in reserves per day, Reuters reported.

Overall, the bank has sold more than $1 billion of its reserves to try to prop up Argentina’s currency since its value plunged earlier this month following a victory by the left-wing opposition in a primary vote for the October presidential election.

Meanwhile, beleaguered President Mauricio Macri said Tuesday that inflation will accelerate again this month after slowing for the fourth consecutive month in July. And with IMF officials in town to evaluate whether or not to keep doling out cash, the party of opposition presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez again blasted the fund for the country’s economic troubles, saying, “Those who have generated this crisis, the government and the IMF, have the responsibility of putting an end to and reversing it.”

SYRIA

Safe Zone

The Kurdish YPG militia that was an essential US ally in Syria will pull its troops and weaponry out of a strip along Syria’s border with Turkey that Washington and Ankara have agreed to establish as a “safe zone,” according to an official in the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The development hints at progress in the US-Turkey dispute over the future role in the region of the Kurdish group, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization connected with the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, Reuters reported.

The YPG has already withdrawn from the Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain border positions in recent days, the Kurdish-led authority in north and east Syria said.

It remains unclear how far the so-called “safe zone” – the dimensions of which have been a matter of dispute for months – will extend into Syria. But an SDF spokesman said the Kurdish troops would vacate an area 3 to 9 miles from the border, which would then be patrolled by Turkish and US-led coalition troops based inside Turkey.

The progress in the dispute comes amid America’s spat with Turkey over its purchase of Russian weapons systems – with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attending the opening of an annual Russian air show as a guest of President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

DISCOVERIES

On the Same Page

It’s time to ditch that highbrow disdain for audiobooks.

Neuroscientists have discovered that in terms of brain areas activated, listening to an audiobook is the same as reading a physical copy of that book, the Telegraph reported.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley wrote in their study that the same cognitive and emotional parts of the brain are stimulated, regardless of whether a person is reading words or listening to them.

In an experiment, nine participants listened to several stories from a podcast and were then asked to read the same stories. Scans showed that the participants’ brain activity was nearly identical in both reading and listening.

“We knew that a few brain regions were activated similarly when you hear a word and read the same word, but I was not expecting such strong similarities in the meaning representation across a large network of brain regions in both these sensory modalities,” said lead author Fatma Deniz.

The results might put an end to audiobook snobbery, but they also showed that words – depending on their meaning and form – activate certain parts of the brain.

Scientists hope that the latter takeaway can be used in clinical applications, such as comparing language processing in people suffering from dyslexia, brain damage or epilepsy.

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