The World Today for August 11, 2023

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Opaque Waters


Chef Kazuyuki Tanioka owns a sushi restaurant called Toya in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Life hasn’t been easy for him in the past few years. China’s coronavirus restrictions nearly ruined him. Now he’s worried about another existential threat to his business: Chinese restrictions on Japanese fish due to fears of radiation contamination stemming from the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

“I’m very worried about whether we can continue,” Tanioka told Reuters. “The inability to import food ingredients is truly a life or death situation for us.”

Japan plans to dump 1.3 million tons of treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant that melted down in 2011. As the World Nuclear Association, a trade group, explained, an earthquake caused a tsunami that wrecked the plant’s safety measures.

The water was used to cool the melting reactors, wrote the South China Morning Post in a remarkable graphical story that illustrated the technical issues surrounding the water’s disposal. The water leaked into the nuclear plant’s lower levels, contaminating local groundwater. It was then pumped out of the ground and stored in tanks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that the plan to dump the water did not present a threat to public health. Much of the radioactivity will be removed from the water, which will be released over the course of years. The vast ocean will absorb much of the treated water without incident, the IAEA researchers found. Traces of tritium, a rare radioactive hydrogen isotope will remain in the effluent, but officials intend to dilute the water significantly to reduce its amount.

But other experts cast doubt on those claims. A black rockfish caught near one of the Fukushima nuclear plant’s drainage outlets contained 180 times the Japanese safety limit of radioactive cesium, for example, the Guardian reported.

South Korea has endorsed the plan, but plenty of South Koreans aren’t happy about it – some are panic-buying sea salt. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s popularity dropped to 32 percent following his declaration that Japan’s release of the tainted water would be safe, the Korean Economic Institute of America, a Washington DC-based think tank, wrote.

Other countries in the region have expressed concerns. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a regional bloc of 17 island nations, says the release of the water could have a major impact on fishing grounds that island economies rely on, and where up to half of the world’s tuna is sourced.

“Our region is steadfast that there be no discharge until all parties verify it is safe,” PIF secretary-general Henry Puna said at a meeting in Suva, Fiji, earlier this year, Reuters reported.

Even at home, there are suspicions, mainly fueled by the lack of trust in the nuclear industry, “which has a history of cock-ups and cover-ups,” the Economist wrote, citing an example of how the plant’s operator TEPCO was forced in 2018 to admit its advanced filtration process system had malfunctioned and the water would need to be reprocessed.

China, meanwhile, has been most strident in criticizing Japan. China has banned seafood from some Japanese regions and compelled radiation testing for seafood imported into the country.

“Twelve years on, Japan has chosen to shift the risk of nuclear contamination onto the whole of humanity,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at a news conference covered by NBC News.

As Chef Tanioka said, the situation is truly about life and death.


The Death Spiral


Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency Thursday, a day after the South American country was rocked by the assassination of a presidential candidate – who was vocal about ties between the state and organized crime – less than two weeks before a general election, the New York Times reported.

On Wednesday, a gunman shot and killed Fernando Villavicencio outside a high school in the capital of Quito. Authorities said the suspect died shortly after in the melee that followed, adding that nine other people were shot as they became caught in the crossfire.

Police later launched raids and detained six people in connection with the murder.

Lasso condemned the assassination and called it “a political crime” aimed at sabotaging the country’s elections on Aug. 20. He announced a 60-day state of emergency that will include the restriction of civil liberties and the deployment of security forces across Ecuador.

However, the president – who having faced impeachment proceedings over accusations of embezzlement will not run in the upcoming elections – added that the voting will proceed as scheduled.

Villavicencio, a lawmaker and former journalist, was polling in the middle of an eight-person race and was among the most vocal candidates on the issues of crime and government corruption.

His death marks the first assassination of a presidential candidate in Ecuador, which came less than a month after unknown gunmen murdered the mayor of the port city of Manta.

Between 2005 and 2015, Ecuador underwent a remarkable transformation with millions emerging from poverty thanks to an oil boom funding social programs.

However, in recent years, the nation has been overwhelmed by a powerful drug-trafficking sector. Collaboration between foreign drug cartels and local gangs has led to unprecedented violence, resulting in record-high homicide rates.

The Defiant Ones


Nigerien coup leaders formed a 21-member cabinet Thursday to serve as the country’s government, a decision that came as West African leaders met in neighboring Nigeria to decide on military action following last month’s coup, Al Jazeera reported.

Mahamane Roufai Laouali – cited as the “secretary-general of the government” – provided the names of those to serve in the new cabinet, including three generals who participated in the July 26 ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

The three individuals are set to become the ministers of defense, interior and sports.

Meanwhile, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a summit in Nigeria on Thursday to agree on a plan of action for Niger. Following the meeting, West African leaders agreed to assemble a “standby” military force, but added its use would be a “last resort,” the BBC noted.

ECOWAS leaders strongly condemned the coup and called for Bazoum’s reinstatement. The regional bloc has so far imposed a series of sanctions on Niger and threatened to intervene militarily if the democratically elected government is not restored.

But coup leaders have ignored the diplomatic overtures as well as an Aug. 6 deadline by ECOWAS to restore civilian rule.

Analysts explained that the situation is a “decisive moment” for ECOWAS, raising questions about whether the regional members will agree unanimously to launch a military intervention in Niger.

Last month’s coup was the latest in West Africa, a region sometimes called the “coup belt” with its history of military takeovers in recent years, including Mali and Burkina Faso.

The military juntas ruling Mali and Burkina Faso have warned that any intervention in Niger will be a declaration of war on them also.

Observers cautioned that any escalation could exacerbate instability in West Africa’s Sahel region, one of the globe’s most impoverished areas. Ongoing violence from armed groups has displaced millions and stoked a hunger crisis.

The Gag Order


Iraq ordered all news organizations and social media platforms to stop using the term “homosexuality” and instead use “sexual deviancy,” a move that prompted concern among human rights groups over the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in the Middle Eastern country, CBS News reported Thursday.

The country’s Media and Communications Commission issued a decree banning the words “homosexuality,” “homosexual” and “gender,” noting that such terms hold undesirable connotations within Iraqi society.

The commission explained that the decision is aimed at protecting societal values and public order, adding that it plans on imposing a penalty for violating the decree, the Hill wrote.

Although Iraq does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality, its penal code has a provision that bans “immodest acts” in public that judicial authorities have used to prosecute people for same-sex acts.

Because of the legal ambiguity, Iraq’s LGBTQ community has faced discrimination, abuse, and deadly assaults: A report by Human Rights Watch in 2022 found various armed groups abducted, raped, tortured and killed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, while the government did nothing.

LGBTQ issues in Muslim-majority nations are influenced by cultural and religious factors, with Islamic texts presented to condemn same-sex relationships. In seven nations, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, and the United Arab Emirates, homosexual acts are still punishable by death.

On Thursday, Malaysia – a Muslim-majority country – banned all Swatch products with LGBTQ-related designs and threatened jail terms of up to three years for anyone wearing them, according to the Associated Press.

The Malaysian government’s decision came months after authorities raided the Swiss watchmaker’s stores in the country and confiscated more than 160 watches from its Pride Collection – some of which featured rainbow colors. The Home Ministry said the products promote the LGBTQ movement and are unacceptable to the public.

Same-sex relationships are illegal in Malaysia, with punishments ranging from caning to 20 years in prison for sodomy.


This week, Russia launched a massive missile and drone strike targeting western Ukrainian cities in response to Kyiv’s alleged bombing of a Russian tanker over the weekend, the New York Post reported. The counterattack killed at least six people and resulted in widespread destruction across a number of cities. Ukrainian officials reported shooting down 26 drones during the attack and also launched successful strikes on bridges connecting Crimea to Russian-occupied cities. At the same time, Russia’s defense ministry on Thursday reported shooting down 11 Ukrainian drones near Crimea and intercepting two drones headed for Moscow, according to Agence France-Presse. The ministry said two drones were downed near Sevastopol, while nine others were suppressed through “electronic warfare” and crashed into the Black Sea.

Also this week:

  • Belarus started military exercises near its borders with Poland and Lithuania, causing heightened tensions following the arrival of Russia-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in the region, the Associated Press wrote. Both Poland and Lithuania have reinforced border security after the Wagner fighters entered Belarus under a deal to avoid charges over the group’s short-lived rebellion in Russia in June. Belarusian authorities denied allegations of border violations with their helicopters. The drills, based on tactics from Russia’s war in Ukraine, are taking place near the Suwalki Gap, a strategic region connecting the Baltic states with NATO. Some reports suggest more Wagner fighters are due to arrive in Belarus, which has sparked concerns in the West. On Thursday, Poland announced it would deploy 10,000 additional troops to the border with Belarus, France 24 added.
  • Talks in Saudi Arabia aimed at resolving the Ukrainian-Russian war were described by a senior Ukrainian official as productive, Reuters added. However, Russia, which was excluded from the talks, dismissed the meeting as a futile attempt by the West to gain support for Ukraine. More than 40 nations, including China, India, the US, and European countries participated in the talks. Ukraine and its allies aimed to secure broad international backing for its peace terms, which include the withdrawal of Russian troops and the return of Ukrainian territory.
  • Ukraine arrested an informant involved in a plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week, accusing her of collaborating with Russia, NBC News reported. The woman was reportedly collecting intelligence about Zelenskyy’s activities during his recent visit to the southern Mykolaiv region, and was caught passing intelligence to Russian agents. Ukrainian intelligence is investigating her ties to alleged Russian spies and her involvement in identifying strategic assets for a planned airstrike in the Mykolaiv region.
  • A new schoolbook approved by Russian authorities is providing justification for the war on Ukraine, while accusing the West of trying to dismantle Russia, the BBC wrote. This history textbook, called, “Russian History, 1945 – early 21st century,” co-authored by Vladimir Medinsky, a presidential adviser, portrays Putin’s military operation in Ukraine as necessary to prevent a potential global catastrophe. The book attempts to reinforce Kremlin propaganda by depicting Ukraine as an aggressor manipulated by the West, and distorts events such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea.


Snow White’s Worms

Scientists recently revived an unknown species of roundworm that had been frozen in the Siberian permafrost for tens of thousands of years, CNN reported.

Researchers initially found the ancient worm five years ago, buried more than 130 feet below the permafrost. The minuscule invertebrates came to life again when the researchers simply put them in some water.

In their paper, they wrote that the nematodes belonged to a whole new species, which they named Panagrolaimus kolymaenis. A radiocarbon analysis also showed that the worms had remained in a state “between death and life” for around 46,000 years.

The team explained that the creature survived because it remained in a dormant state known as cryptobiosis. Organisms that can pull such a feat are able to survive without water and oxygen, as well as endure extreme temperatures and salty conditions.

However, other cryptobiotic creatures that have been revived have only survived decades, not millennia.

The authors believe that the survivability of P. kolymaenis could be connected to its unique genes: A genetic study found that it shared with Caenorhabditis elegans – another roundworm often used in scientific studies – “a molecular toolkit” that could allow it to survive cryptobiosis.

Specifically, both worm species produced a sugar called trehalose that could allow them to withstand freezing and lack of water.

Co-author Philipp Schiffer noted that studying these new organisms could provide some new insights into conservation efforts.

“By looking at and analyzing these animals, we can maybe inform conservation biology, or maybe even develop efforts to protect other species, or at least learn what to do to protect them in these extreme conditions that we have now,” he said.

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