The operator of the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant began removing fuel Monday from a cooling pool at one of three reactors that melted down in the 2011 disaster, a milestone in what will be a decades-long process to decommission the facility.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. said workers started removing the first of 566 used and unused fuel units stored in the pool at Unit 3. The fuel units in the pool located high up in reactor buildings are intact despite the disaster, but the pools are not enclosed, so removing the units to safer ground is crucial to avoid disaster in case of another major earthquake similar to the one that caused the 2011 tsunami.
TEPCO says the removal at Unit 3 will take two years, followed by the two other reactors, where about 1,000 fuel units remain in the storage pools.
Removing fuel units from the cooling pools comes ahead of the real challenge of removing melted fuel from inside the reactors, but details of how that might be done are still largely unknown. Removing the fuel in the cooling pools was delayed more than four years by mishaps, high radiation and radioactive debris from an explosion that occurred at the time of the reactor meltdowns, underscoring the difficulties that remain.
Workers are remotely operating a crane built underneath a jelly-roll-shaped roof cover to raise the fuel from a storage rack in the pool and place it in a protective cask. The whole process occurs underwater to prevent radiation leaks.
Each cask will be filled with seven fuel units, then lifted from the pool and lowered to a truck that will transport the cask to a safer cooling pool elsewhere at the plant.
This image released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows the operation floor above a cooling pool at Unit 3 of the plant. (Tokyo Electric Power Co. via AP)
The work is carried out remotely from a control room about 500 metres away because of still-high radiation levels inside the reactor building that houses the pool.
“I believe everything is going well so far,” plant chief Tomohiko Isogai told Japanese public broadcaster NHK. “We will watch the progress at the site as we put safety first. Our goal is not to rush the process but to carefully proceed with the decommissioning work.”
About an hour after the work began Monday, the first fuel unit was safely stored inside the cask, TEPCO spokesperson Takahiro Kimoto said. Monday’s operation was to end after a fourth unit is placed inside the cask, he said. No major damage was found on the fuel unit Monday, but plant officials will closely examine if there are any pinholes or other irregularities, Kimoto said.
725 tonnes of melted fuel
The removal, however, raises a storage capacity concern at the plant because the common pool, where fuel from the Unit 3 pool heads to, already has 6,000 fuel units and is almost full. Kimoto said TEPCO has made room at the common pool for the incoming fuel by moving years-old and sufficiently cooled fuel into dry casks for safer, long-term storage, though further details are being worked out.
In 2014, TEPCO safely removed all 1,535 fuel units from the storage pool at a fourth reactor that was idle and had no fuel inside its core when the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami occurred.
Robotic probes have photographed and detected traces of damaged nuclear fuel in the three reactors that had meltdowns, but the exact location and other details of the melted fuel are largely unknown. Removing fuel from the cooling pools will help free up space for the subsequent removal of the melted fuel, though details on how to gain access to it have yet to be decided.
This image released by Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows the removal of fuel from a cooling pool. (Tokyo Electric Power Co. via AP)
Experts say the melted fuel in the three reactors amounts to more than 725 tonnes, an enormous amount that is more than six times that of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., where one reactor had a partial core melt.
In February, a remote-controlled robot with tongs removed pebbles of nuclear debris from Fukushima’s Unit 2 reactor but was unable to remove larger chunks, indicating a robot would need to be developed that can break the chunks into smaller pieces.
Toshiba Corp.’s energy systems unit, which developed the robot, said the findings were key to determining the proper equipment and technologies needed to remove the melted fuel, the most challenging part of the decommissioning.
TEPCO and government officials plan to determine methods for removing the melted fuel from each of the three damaged reactors later this year so they can begin the process in 2021.
In one Beijing supermarket, squeezed between soy sauces and Chinese vinegars, sits Canadian canola oil. It’s covered with postcard pictures of the Prairies, stamped with “Calgary” and “Winnipeg” and adorned with little red maple leaves that aren’t nearly as welcome as they were a few months ago.
In fact, just around the corner, another grocer who used to have the oil on his shelves is quick to insist there’s “nothing Canadian here!”
Last year, Canadian canola shipments to China were worth $2.7 billion. It was a flow that supplied Chinese consumers with oil and farmers with feed. But in the last few weeks, that flow has been choked off, stopped at ports where customs inspectors said they found “dangerous pests” in shipments from Canada.
In this Beijing grocery store, Canadian canola oil sits next to soy sauces and Chinese vinegars. (Saša Petricic/CBC)
As a result, ships loaded with canola sit offshore, as one Canadian company after another has seen licences to import suspended by Beijing for “non-compliance.” Manitoba’s Richardson International and Saskatchewan-based Viterra, as well as a third, unnamed Canadian company, have all been blocked.
Government spokesmen in Beijing said the problem with one company was “especially severe,” and the sudden move was required “to ensure the health and safety of Chinese citizens.”
China has offered few details, and no proof of what it calls “scientifically sound and reasonable” findings.
Officially, there is no connection between the canola ban and China’s high-profile dispute with Canada over the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last December.
But diplomats and political observers say it’s clearly part of Beijing’s strategy to put pressure on Ottawa by targeting agriculture, a sector China knows is important to Canada, both economically and politically.
Chinese food security
A hint of that bigger strategy came at the end of a statement by Chinese foreign affairs spokesman Geng Shuang at the end of March, when he suggested that the solution to the standoff over canola is for Canada to “take some concrete measures to correct its previous mistakes” in bilateral relations.
Targeting food imports is a relatively new approach for Beijing, born of a confidence that China’s years of struggling to find enough to feed its huge population are over.
Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, centre, is out on bail and remains under partial house arrest in Vancouver after she was detained Dec. 1 at the behest of U.S. authorities. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
“It’s not a problem for Chinese people to feed themselves,” said Bingchuan Hu, a food supply expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Between higher productivity at home (the ability to grow more food for its population) and higher incomes (more money to buy food abroad), Hu said food security hasn’t been an issue in China since at least 2004.
“Even if we altogether close or shut down [food] trade, China also can solve this problem,” he said.
Indeed, the UN’s World Food Programme said China has made “remarkable progress” in alleviating hunger. It met its own target of reducing the number of hungry people at home by half by 2015, and in doing so, China reduced the global hunger rate by two-thirds.
When it comes to any one product — including canola — Hu said China can always find a replacement, either by importing from elsewhere, like Russia or India, or by using other kinds of oil or feed.
“Anything can be replaced,” Hu said.
Hu knows food hasn’t always been plentiful. China’s Great Famine of the early 1960s killed more than 20 million people.
Even now, Hu thanks the Canadian government for sending grain at a time when no other western country would. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker defied a U.S.-led embargo on trade with China, negotiating a system of credit that allowed Beijing to buy several million tonnes of grain at a time when it didn’t have any other means to pay.
Canola oil is extracted from the seeds of the canola plant, which is seen in abundance in this field near Cremona, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)
But China is a very different place today. And it appears to see itself as powerful enough to use trade issues — even in food products — as a means to achieve political ends.
The Australia example
China seems to be using a similar approach with Australia, with whom it has also had strained relations lately.
Australia has angered Beijing by banning the Chinese company Huawei from its 5G networks on national security grounds. Last month, Australia enacted tough new anti-espionage laws that, among other things, make it a crime to steal industrial secrets on behalf of a foreign government.
It is also drafting legislation to limit foreign political donations, after a heated debate about money from China.
Beijing has not been pleased, accusing Canberra of having a “Cold War mindset” and targeting coal imports, a sector that’s critical for economics and politics Down Under. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and its best customer for coal, buying $7 billion Cdn worth annually.
Like Canadian canola, Australian coal has also faced increased scrutiny at Chinese ports: Extra tests, complaints about impurities and other unexplained delays.
New federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has had to contend with the trade conflict over Canadian canola. (Mike Symington/CBC)
Mark Beeson, a professor of international relations at the University of Western Australia, said China is throwing its weight around in unexpected ways.
“The message is that we’re big and powerful, you depend on us,” he said. “If you upset us or do things that are really damaging to our perceived national interest, our core interest, then we’ve got ways of hurting you.”
Beeson said “from China’s perspective, there’s not a huge amount the likes of Australia and Canada can do.”
That’s the canola conundrum.
Ottawa has proposed sending a high-level delegation or a panel of experts to China, but Beijing seems in no mood to cooperate right now.
In fact, observers here say the only way to get rid of the canola “pest” problem may be to solve the bigger political one.
U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to slap tariffs on cars produced in Mexico unless the country does more to stop migrants trying to enter the U.S.
Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday that if the “powerful incentive” but “less drastic measure” doesn’t work, he’ll go through with his standing threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Republican president had threatened last week to close the border this week unless Mexico immediately halted “ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States.” He has since praised the country for doing more.
Trump is also threatening tariffs if Mexico doesn’t halt the flow of illegal drugs across the border. He says he’s giving Mexico “a one-year warning” to comply.
“I’ll do it,” he said. I don’t play games.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi says the House of Representatives will sue to block Trump’s plan to redirect funds to building a wall along the border with Mexico. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
But he also said Mexico was working to change the situation.
“A lot of good things are happening with Mexico,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
“Mexico understands that we’re going to close the border, or I’m going to tariff the cars.”
Trump warned last Friday that he would close the U.S. border with Mexico this week unless Mexico took action to help stop the flow of illegal migrants across the frontier.
Trump said Thursday that media coverage in recent days has prompted Mexico to make moves to curb the flow of immigrants to the United States and to take other actions to ease the pressure on U.S. ports of entry.
At the same time, the U.S. House of Representatives is threatening to sue to block Trump’s transfer of money to pay for a border wall along the border with Mexico, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
Trump declared a national emergency at the border in February to secure the money that Congress refused to give him for the wall.
“The President’s action clearly violates the Appropriations Clause by stealing from appropriated funds, an action that was not authorized by constitutional or statutory authority,” Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said in a statement.
British lawmakers have once again failed to find a majority for any proposal in votes on alternatives to the government’s rejected Brexit deal, rejecting four options in votes in the House of Commons.
The votes on Monday were an attempt to forge an alternative to the government’s European Union divorce deal, which MPs have rejected three times.
The options included remaining in a customs union with the EU — which failed by just three votes — and holding a new referendum on Britain’s membership in the bloc.
Three days after the date on which Britain was originally due to leave the EU, it was still uncertain how, when or even if the United Kingdom would ever say goodbye to the bloc it first joined 46 years ago. The government says it is still trying to build support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The cabinet is set to meet Tuesday to discuss options.
Anti-Brexit demonstrators with an effigy of British Prime Minister Theresa May near College Green in London. (Jonathan Brady/PA/Associated Press)
Underlining how uncertainty is hurting business, the U.K. head of German industrial giant Siemens, Juergen Maier, said Britain was wrecking its reputation for stability.
Britain’s electorate voted by 52 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union back in 2016. A divisive start to a process that’s only unravelled further since then. Margaret Evans takes us through its roller-coaster of a timeline, and the major toll it’s taken on the nation’s psyche. 2:46
May’s government and her party, which has grappled with the schism over Europe for 30 years, was in open conflict between those pushing for a customs union with the EU and eurosceptics who are demanding a cleaner break from the bloc.
‘Worst example of ill-discipline’
May’s enforcer in Parliament — known as the chief whip — said the government should have been clearer that May’s loss of her majority in Parliament in a snap 2017 election would “inevitably” lead it to accept a softer Brexit.
“The government as a whole probably should have just been clearer on the consequences of that,” Julian Smith told the BBC in an interview published on Monday.
“The Parliamentary arithmetic would mean that this would be inevitably a kind of softer type of Brexit,” said Smith, who also said ministers had tried to undermine the prime minister.
Their behaviour, he said, was the “worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history.”
Asked about his comments, May’s spokesperson said: “The PM made it clear that there was a need to bring the country back together after the Brexit vote and that is what they [the government] are working to achieve.”
Government should have been clearer that after the 2017 election, the UK was “inevitably” heading for a softer type of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Brexit?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Brexit</a> – chief whip Julian Smith tells <a href=”https://twitter.com/bbclaurak?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@bbclaurak</a><br><br>[tap to expand] <a href=”https://t.co/XiilgZBt9t”>https://t.co/XiilgZBt9t</a> <a href=”https://t.co/CE2tr3UmFD”>pic.twitter.com/CE2tr3UmFD</a>
On the lack of discipline in government, he said Brexit brought “out strong emotions” on all sides of the debate.
Asked about the possibility of a snap election to break the deadlock in Parliament, May’s spokesperson said the prime minister has said an election would not be in the national interest.
Chief Whip Julian Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on March 26. A BBC documentary airing Monday portrays Smith as being highly critical of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinent members. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE)
In a 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 51.9 per cent, backed leaving the EU while 16.1 million, or 48.1 per cent, backed staying. But ever since, opponents of Brexit have sought to soften, or even stop, the divorce.
The Times newspaper said May had been warned by some senior ministers that she faced resignations if she agreed to pursue a softer Brexit.
Britain had been due to leave the EU on March 29 but the political deadlock in London forced May to ask the bloc for a delay. Currently, Brexit is to take place on April 12 unless May comes up with another option.
The Brexit crisis has left the United Kingdom divided: supporters of both Brexit and EU membership marched through London last week. Many on both sides feel betrayed by a political elite that has failed to show leadership.
Business is also increasingly frustrated. “Enough is enough. We are all running out of patience. Make a decision and unite around a customs union compromise that delivers economic security and stability,” Siemens’ Maier said.
“Where the UK used to be beacon for stability, we are now becoming a laughing stock,” he said in open letter to lawmakers published by website Politico.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is a politician with a current job-approval rating of less than 30 per cent. She’s survived — in the words of one political author — the most tumultuous premierships in 400 years of British history. How has she done it? 1:30
From EU officials watching from Brussels, there was one plea — make up your minds.
“A sphinx is an open book compared to the U.K.,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president. “Nobody knows where it is heading. Would like to make the sphinx talk and tell us in which direction they would like to go.”
One of Germany’s richest families, whose company owns a controlling interest in Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Panera Bread, Pret a Manger and other well-known businesses, plans to donate millions to charity after learning about their ancestors’ enthusiastic support of Adolf Hitler and use of forced labourers under the Nazis, according to a report Sunday.
In a four-page report, the Bild newspaper reported that documents uncovered in Germany, France and the U.S. reveal that Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr. used Russian civilians and French prisoners of war (POWs) as forced labourers.
Family spokesperson Peter Harf, who is one of two managing partners of the Reimann’s JAB Holding Company, said recent internal research confirmed Bild’s findings.
“It is all correct,” he told the newspaper. “Reimann Sr. and Reimann Jr. were guilty … they belonged in jail.”
The father and son, who died in 1954 and 1984, did not talk about the Nazi era and the family had thought that all of the company’s connection to the Nazis had been revealed in a 1978 report, Harf said.
But after reading documents kept by the family, the younger generation began to ask questions and commissioned a University of Munich historian in 2014 to examine the Reimann history more thoroughly, Harf said.
The expert presented his preliminary findings to the Reimann children and grandchildren, as well as Hanf, several weeks ago, he said.
Family spokesperson Peter Harf, who is one of two managing partners of the Reimann’s JAB Holding Company, said recent internal research confirmed Bild’s findings. (Soeren Stache/dpa via Associated Press)
“We were all ashamed and turned as white as the wall,” he said. “There is nothing to gloss over. These crimes are disgusting.”
In addition to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Pret a Manger, the Luxembourg-based JAB Holding Co. has controlling stakes in Keurig Green Mountain, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Caribou Coffee Co., Panera Bread and other companies.
Many German companies have acknowledged using slave labourers during the Nazi era and have conducted their own independent investigations.
In 2000, the German government approved a 10 billion-mark (about 5.1-billion euro) fund to provide compensation, with half the money coming from companies like Bayer, Siemens, Deutsche Bank, Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen and AEG.
Family donated to SS
Bild reported that even before the Nazis came to power, the Reimanns donated to the paramilitary SS.
During the Second World War, the company used forced labourers in its industrial chemicals company. It was not clear how many were used overall, but Bild said in 1943, 175 forced labourers were being used — about 30 per cent of its workforce.
In addition to Russian and other Eastern European civilians, the company used French POWs, about whom Reimann Jr. complained in a letter to the Ludwigshafen mayor in 1940 that they weren’t working hard enough.
After the war, the two were investigated by the occupying Allied powers and initially banned by the French from continuing their business activities but then had the judgment overturned by the Americans, Bild reported.
Harf said the family would donate 10 million euros ($15.22 million Cdn) to a not-yet-determined charity as a gesture, and once the historian’s report is complete, it would be released to the public.
“The whole truth must be put on the table,” he said.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Friday that recent flooding in the state has caused an estimated $1.6 billion US in damage, pushing the total costs from the devastating Midwest flooding to at least $3 billion US.
The ongoing flooding along the Missouri River has damaged thousands of homes and inundated vast swathes of agricultural land with water in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. The flooding, which followed heavy rains and snowmelt this month, has also been blamed for three deaths.
Reynolds said she sent a letter asking U.S. President Donald Trump to quickly issue a disaster declaration for 57 counties in Iowa where businesses, homes and levees have been severely impacted by flooding, including along the Missouri River. More counties may be added to the list.
More than 1,200 homes in Iowa have been destroyed or extensively damaged, while another 23,540 have at least minor damage, she said. Cost estimates indicate the flooding has caused more than $480 million US in damage to homes, while businesses have suffered $300 million US in damage. Agriculture damage is estimated at $214 million US.
Flooding in Nebraska has caused an estimated $1.4 billion in damage. The state received Trump’s federal disaster assistance approval on Thursday.
About 12.7 kilometres of levees in Iowa operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are damaged or destroyed, and the cost to repair them is estimated at $350 million US. About 281 kilometres of non-federal agriculture levees also need repair, at an additional cost of $175 million US.
We probably do need some walls — but they’re probably levees. I would say those are the kinds of walls we need.– Rear Adm. David W. Titley, climate change expert
“We need to figure out a way to secure our communities and our farmland and start to repair the agricultural levees and focus on the Corps levees that have been compromised,” said Reynolds.
Missouri officials have not yet said how much flooding has likely the cost the state.
The Missouri Department of Transportation said Friday that 120 roads were closed because of flooding, including stretches of Interstate 29 and U.S. 61. The National Weather Service said the Missouri River was expected to crest Friday at levels just short of those reached during historic 1993 flooding in Atchison, Kan., and St. Joseph, Mo.
In this March 18, 2019 photo released by the U.S. Air Force, environmental restoration employees deploy a containment boom from a boat on Offutt Air Force Base in Neb., as a precautionary measure for possible fuel leaks in the flooded area. (Delanie Stafford, The U.S. Air Force via AP)
About 1,200 residents of the Kansas town of Elwood were urged to leave, and the governor eased restrictions on large vehicles carrying relief supplies. Across the river, parts of an industrial area in St. Joseph were inundated with water.
The Missouri River floodwater surging on an air base housing the U.S. military’s Strategic Command overwhelmed round-the-clock sandbagging by airmen and others. They had to scramble to save or move sensitive equipment, munitions and dozens of aircraft.
Days into the flooding, muddy water was still lapping at almost 80 flooded buildings at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, some inundated by up two metres of water.
“In the end, obviously, the waters were just too much. It took over everything we put up,” Col. David Norton, who is in charge of facilities at the base, told an Associated Press reporter on a tour of the damage. “The speed at which it came in was shocking.”
The headquarters of Strategic Command, which plays a central role in detecting and striking at global threats, wasn’t damaged, officials stressed.
The floods were a reminder that the kind of weather extremes escalating with climate change aren’t limited to the coasts, said retired Rear Adm. David W. Titley, founder of both the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change and the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University.
“We probably do need some walls — but they’re probably levees,” Titley said, in a reference to Trump’s proposal to take money from the military construction budget to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. “I would say those are the kinds of walls we need.”
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle through floodwaters on March 20 in Hamburg, Iowa. The state’s governor estimated the cost of flooding so far at $1.6B. (Chris Machian/Omaha World-Herald via AP)
It would takes weeks or more for scientists to determine if the flooding, or any weather disaster, was caused or worsened by climate change, which is occurring as emissions from coal, oil and gas alter the atmosphere.
Under the Trump administration, unlike in previous administrations, the Pentagon has offered little public comment on climate change as a security threat. The Pentagon’s guiding star of defence planning, known as the National Defence Strategy, does not even mention climate change.
Great Lakes flood warning
Titley predicted Offutt Air Force Base would prove the latest military installation to have racked up $1 billion US or more in damage. Hurricanes struck North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in September and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in October.
The current political atmosphere discourages any big efforts building up base defences against climate change, said Titley, who also served as chief operating officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The flooding comes during a week in which the NOAA released its spring weather outlook, in which they warned more than 200 million Americans are at risk for some kind of flooding, with 13 million of them at risk of major inundation. About 41 million people are at risk of moderate flooding.
Our <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpringOutlook?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#SpringOutlook</a> 2019 is out today: Historic, widespread flooding to continue through May. Find map, highlights video & more at <a href=”https://t.co/nZD8blV1LP”>https://t.co/nZD8blV1LP</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/NWS?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@NWS</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Spring?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Spring</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Flooding?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Flooding</a> <a href=”https://t.co/0maghUkrBM”>pic.twitter.com/0maghUkrBM</a>
Major flooding now occurring in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Missouri and other Midwestern states is a preview of an all-too-wet and dangerous spring, said Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service. “In fact, we expect the flooding to get worse and more widespread,” she said.
This year’s flooding “could be worse than anything we’ve seen in recent years, even worse than the historic floods of 1993 and 2011 ,” said Mary Erickson, deputy director of the National Weather Service.
Forecasters said the biggest risks include all three Mississippi River basins, the Red River of the North, the Great Lakes, plus the basins of the eastern Missouri River, lower Ohio River, lower Cumberland River and the Tennessee River.
Halfway around the world from her home in Montreal, Sarah Moser got lost.
She hit a dead end in the tangle of new roads snaking through southern Malaysia. Off to her right was a place called Puteri Harbour, a snazzy new yacht club and luxury condo compound and one of the flagship developments in the region. To the left was a bunch of half-built villas, the makings of a ritzy suburb-to-be.
Straight ahead, just across the water, was Singapore and the island its military uses for training. A couple of decades ago, that island was the scene of a story that transfixed people on both sides of the narrow strait.
Three wild elephants, dislodged from their Malaysian jungle home, swam the 1.5-kilometre strait and landed on the Singaporean island. Headlines tracked their trail for more than 10 days as they were spotted, disappeared, eventually captured and finally returned to Malaysia.
“It’s hard to really grasp the fact that this was totally a wild area not that long ago when you look around and you see office towers and condo towers, shopping malls,” said Moser. “The environment has been very tamed in the last 10 years or so. Where those animals are now?”
She took another look around. “Not here.”
McGill University Prof. Sarah Moser runs one of the world’s largest research labs studying new cities. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)
Moser knows the area well. She spent years studying in Southeast Asia before becoming a professor of urban geography at McGill University.
She was back on the ground last October for another round of field work, checking in on southern Malaysia’s fast-paced development, or what she calls “one of the biggest land transformations going.”
Moser studies new cities. In the last 20-odd years, more than 40 countries have announced new city projects. Entire urban developments are being planned, prepped and breaking ground. They’re giving names to places that had none, redrawing the world map and promising a future that is clean, green and smart.
Whether and what they can actually deliver remains to be seen.
‘Constellation of new cities’
Moser first came across the new city phenomenon in Malaysia.
“I discovered Putrajaya in 2006,” she said of the ornate new city Malaysia built as its administrative capital.
“I thought master plan cities were kind of a 1960s phenomenon — Chandigahr in India, Brasilia in Brazil. So I went to Putrajaya for a visit and discovered that this is happening today. Then I discovered this sort of constellation of new cities that were popping up.”
More than 100 new city projects have been announced in the last two decades. Some countries have multiple projects — Saudi Arabia has five, Indonesia has 10, Morocco has 15 and Malaysia five.
Watch how a new city is promoting itself
Master-planned cities have become a development model, a way for countries in the global south — or the developing world — to jump-start economies.
“New cities are seen as a way to transition economies from agriculture or from light manufacturing or from resource-based economies into a digital era, and oftentimes real estate is a key part of this project. It’s extremely lucrative business around the world right now,” said Moser. “This is big money.”
Some, like the 1960s model, are government initiatives. Many others are public-private partnerships. At least one —- King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia (KAEC) — is a private company listed on a stock exchange.
Beyond how they’re financed, it’s who’s behind them that’s changed.
“Fifty years ago, the main players of urbanization in the world were the U.S. and European countries,” said Moser.
“Now, we’re seeing a lot of Gulf money, a lot of money from China and other parts of Asia being invested in parts of the Middle East or Asia or even Latin America.”
One of Moser’s long-term projects is creating an atlas of new cities, marking all the new dots on the world map. (Submitted by Sarah Moser)
Variously billed as smart cities, knowledge cities or economic cities, they’re similarly marketed as panaceas for all the urban problems of the global south.
“So, congestion, pollution, overcrowding, housing shortages,” Moser said. “All of these problems are very real, and they’re offering new cities as a solution to provide a clean, green modern living space for their population.”
Whether and how these new utopias will pan out is an open-ended question. It’s simply too early to tell. But Moser’s research reveals some unintended consequences.
KAEC, for instance, is “quietly subversive.” According to Moser, “the people behind it think it’s a way to change the country, create a more liberal zone.” Saudi rules related to gender segregation don’t apply there, except in areas owned by the state. Nor are the Saudi religious police allowed entry.
‘Targeted at elites’
But elsewhere, as in southern Malaysia, current indicators are perhaps less progressive than those seen in the private Saudi city.
“As we found out through many of these projects, they’re often targeted at elites. The types of units they’re creating are out of reach for the middle class, let alone the people in lower socioeconomic brackets,” Moser said.
“It’s not totally clear what the situation is, although generally it seems to be that we’re creating massive gated enclaves on a unprecedented scale.”
Towers and villas are under construction on Forest City’s Island One. Three more islands are planned, but the developer says future building will be guided by market demand. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC)
About a 20-minute drive south of the dead end near Puteri Harbour is one of the boldest new city projects.
Forest City is a private, gated city being built on four artificial islands at the tip of peninsular Malaysia. Strategically located on a key shipping channel, it’s just two kilometres from Singapore, Southeast Asia’s strongest economy.
This is a master-planned city designed for 700,000 that bills itself the “prime model of future cities.” Begun in 2014, it belongs to a consortium whose main shareholder is Country Garden, China’s biggest real estate developer.
So far, the bulk of people who’ve bought in are Chinese nationals, members of Asia’s rising middle class looking for a safe place to put their money.
“Forest City is a very unique project,” said Moser.
“They’re not claiming to relieve the population pressure from Malaysian cities. They’re claiming to be an investment opportunity, to be strategically located. They claim that they’ll have a vibrant port and a vibrant central business district. They’ll be a great place to live, it’ll be clean, it’ll be safe.”
That’s what made retired Malaysian businessman Andrew Yap buy in.
The grounds surrounding the hotel and sales gallery in Forest City are kept meticulously groomed by a battery of foreign workers. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)
Yap was on the beach one morning when Moser sidled up to him. She asked if he lived in Forest City.
“No,” he said. He lives in Singapore, but owns several apartments in Puteri Harbour and one in Forest City.
They chatted for a while, and he showed himself to be a big believer in southern Malaysia’s development spree.
“It’s a very strategic location,” said Yap. “I believe the price here in the future will be very good.”
For now, he doesn’t intend to rent his Forest City unit, but already knows he will sell it.
“The expansion of real estate as an asset class is something we’re seeing in the last decade or two globally, and it’s really driving a lot of these new cities,” said Moser.
“And the difference between creating real estate for people and real estate for investments is … it’s not necessarily creating family housing that’s so badly needed. It’s creating maybe one bedroom condos that make for a very nice currency in real estate transactions.”
Malaysian MP Wong Shu Qi says there used to be nothing but palm trees where the luxury condos and a yacht club now stand in Puteri Harbour. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC )
From a practical perspective, that means that Forest City isn’t very accessible to locals.
“Who is going to stay in a city with such expensive bungalows?” said Malaysian MP Wong Shu Qi. “I have checked myself. Obviously I cannot afford it and a lot of locals cannot afford it.”
Wong, an early critic of Forest City, didn’t believe the trade-offs were worth it. But now that part of the master plan has become a reality, she insists it must succeed, that Malaysia can’t afford the kinds of vacancy rates that a glut of investment properties creates.
“We cannot afford if the city is going to be a ghost city and nobody is going to live in the manmade island. We have already paid the environmental cost and a lot of other costs as well, and if they are not going to succeed … I cannot imagine it.”
Pivots in the project
Busloads of Chinese investor tourists arrive almost daily at Forest City’s sales gallery. A counter of cashiers stands at the end of the guided tour, prepared to take down payments by credit card before the tourists get back on the bus.
Forest City’s chief strategy officer, Ng Zhu Hann, said the developer has extended their sales strategy to markets beyond mainland China and insists Forest City is more than a residential project.
“When we talk about Forest City, we talk about it being a true city,” he said in front of one of the many models in the showroom.
“Residential is only one part of it. When it was conceptualized … they understood that for a project of this scale to succeed, there must be economic vibrancy, there must be industries, there must be job opportunities created.”
Tapping into the potential of neighbouring Singapore was always part of the equation. The focus for the next three years, Ng said, is on attracting regional headquarters.
Forest City’s chief strategy officer Ng Zhu Hann is one Malaysian who is completely on board with the development. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)
As things stand, Forest City is mostly a massive construction site, showing only the faintest signs of city life.
In August 2018, a first international boarding school welcomed 100 new students. In September, the first 150 keys to finished residential units were handed over.
Ng said that there are about 1,000 residents at any given time, but try as we might over our four-day stay, we didn’t find any.
It’s still early days, Ng said, stressing that the developer is open to change. “We always adapt because we are a private company — publicly listed, though,” he said. “Private enterprise is always dictated by economic forces. Not only that, social and political forces as well.”
And, indeed, all those forces have already compelled a few pivots in the project.
The developer has established ties with local communities and recently pledged to build affordable housing. But it also halted further reclamation work and says construction of the remaining three islands will depend on market demand.
Investor tourists stroll along Forest City’s mostly empty beach in October 2018. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)
At times, it is the emptiness in Forest City that is most arresting.
“It’s not a city,” said Moser. “It’s a project, it’s a new city project. It’s a hotel. Actually, right now, it’s kind of a resort. And so it’s going to take a long way to get to a city.”
Same goes for almost all new cities.
“Of the 100-plus cities that have been announced, very few have actually broken ground. Very few have actually year-round populations,” said Moser. “So it’s sort of a lot of splash and fancy buildings without actually becoming cities as we understand them.”
And yet, despite her doubts, there seems to be no end to the enthusiasm swirling around new cities. Even Moser is aware of that.
“I can’t imagine it happening that much more, although I’m always wrong,” she said. “I always predict that we’re at peak new cities, and then they just continue to be created.”
Boeing confirmed late on Monday it will deploy a software upgrade to the 737 Max 8 — the model that crashed on Sunday in Ethiopia and six months ago in Indonesia — a few hours after the Federal Aviation Administration said it would mandate “design changes” in the aircraft by April.
Boeing did not reference Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash in connection to the software upgrade. However, the statement did express the company’s condolences to the relatives of the 157 people who died — 18 of whom were Canadian.
The company said in the aftermath of October’s Lion Air Flight crash it has for several months “been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 Max, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer.”
The software upgrade “will be deployed across the 737 Max fleet in the coming weeks,” it said.
Ethiopian Airlines and all Chinese airlines have grounded their Boeing 737 Max 8 planes indefinitely in the wake of the crash. Ethiopian has five of the planes in its fleet and was awaiting delivery of 25 more.
Indonesia grounded 11 of the aircraft for inspections, said Polana B. Pramesti, director general of Air Transportation. Caribbean carrier Cayman Airways, Comair in South Africa and Royal Air Maroc in Morocco temporarily grounded their Max 8s.
Canada’s two largest airlines say they are confident in the safety of the aircraft.
Air Canada said its 24 Max 8 aircraft have performed “excellently” and met safety and reliability standards.
Calgary-based WestJet said it is “working with Boeing to ensure the continued safe operation of our Max fleet,” which includes 13 Max 8s.
Boeing says it is not issuing new guidance to airlines about the 737 Max 8.
A statement Monday referred questions about the grounding of planes to airlines and aviation authorities. It said “at this point, based on the information available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.”
Shares of Chicago-based Boeing slid almost 10 per cent in early trading on Monday. They ended the day down five per cent, halting a surge that has seen the value of the company’s stock triple in just over three years to a record high of $446 US last week.
Russian entrepreneurs who pour their hearts and dollars into projects learned long ago their success can evaporate in an instant on the whims of the country’s security services.
Now, foreign investors, previously seen as largely out of reach from such predation, are being confronted with the same reality.
The arrest three weeks ago of 51-year-old American Michael Calvey — Russia’s most successful foreign investor — may be a tipping point for foreigners doing business in Russia, say experts who follow the country’s increasingly uncertain business environment.
Consider this statistic reported by the Kremlin’s business ombudsman: more than 6,000 Russian entrepreneurs are now serving time in Russian prisons, many because the criminal prosecution service frequently involves itself in settling business disputes.
“It’s a story understandable by any Russian businessman for many years, but Western companies are now at exactly the same state,” says Andrei Yakovlev, a political economist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, or HSE.
“I suspect we will see some kind of flight of foreign investors from Russia in terms of selling existing assets at quite low prices and taking clear losses.”
Calvey’s supporters want him released from custody and for there to be an independent review of the case against him. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)
While it’s certainly not unheard of for foreigners to be targeted by security services such as the FSB, successor to the old Soviet KGB, until now such cases have been unusual.
Perhaps the best known example is Bill Browder, the American-born human rights campaigner who ran a wildly successful Russian investment business until he ran afoul of President Vladimir Putin in 2008.
Still, the Calvey case has clearly unnerved foreign investors.
Twenty-five years ago, Calvey launched a Russia-focused investment firm, Baring Vostok, which went on to kick-start scores of Russian businesses, including tech giant Yandex.
Supporters say Calvey scrupulously avoided politically charged bets and kept good relations with the Kremlin during his long, successful career.
The criminal case against him appears to stem from what is essentially a shareholders dispute involving a Russian bank that Baring Vostok was heavily invested in. Prosecutors have charged Calvey with embezzling money by selling another company to the bank at an inflated price.
However, many business commentators in Russia suspect the prosecution is a shakedown by people linked to the FSB. By using the agency’s wide discretion to investigate and lay charges, critics argue, investigators could potentially use their power to seize the bank or other Baring Vostok assets.
The most notorious example of this critics cite is the tax-evasion prosecution of Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the mid-2000s, which led to the break-up of his energy empire. Billions of dollars of his company’s assets were seized by state-owned companies.
In an opinion piece for Moscow’s Carnegie Centre, an independent political think-tank, former bank CEO Andrey Movchan called the accusations against Calvey “ludicrous,” noting that Calvey’s opponent, a fellow shareholder, has close family connections to the FSB.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of Putin’s Kremlin, spent years in prison for tax evasion. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Business columnist Andrey Sinitsyn went further. He suggested in Republic.ru that Russia’s “mafia state” is continuing its takeover of private business, putting Russia’s economy on track for a disastrous repeat of Soviet-style managed economy.
One of the key features of the economy of the Soviet Union was state ownership of most sectors of the economy, which led to extreme inefficiencies and stagnation.
Russia’s economy is already dominated by state-controlled enterprises — they account for up to 40 per cent of the country’s economic output, according to some estimates.
Lev Lester, a Russian-American businessman who spent two decades working for foreign automotive firms doing business in Russia and now blogs about his insights, told CBC News the business climate in the country is growing worse by the day.
“Everyone thinks that bad things won’t happen to them. Everyone thinks, ‘I’m smart and experienced and careful. Bad things will happen to others.’
“But this is a mistake.”
He will sit in jail. It will be without end. No proof. No discussion.– Lev Lester, Russian-American businessman
He predicts pleas by Calvey’s supporters for him to be released and for his case to be reviewed will go nowhere.
“He will sit in jail. It will be without end. No proof. No discussion.”
Large Canadian firms doing business in Russia are represented by CERBA, the Canada Eurasia Business Association based in Moscow. Its membership includes Montreal-based Bombardier and global mining giants Kinross and Barrick.
In a statement emailed to CBC News, CERBA chair Nathan Hunt said “the Calvey case appears to be a step in the wrong direction.”
Hunt said while Russia has made great strides in improving the investment climate over the last decade, CERBA is in favour of “strengthening the rule of law in Russia.”
The group called on Putin to conduct an independent, objective review of the Calvey case.
Five days after Calvey’s arrest, Putin used his state of the nation address to proclaim that Russian courts shouldn’t be used to settle business disputes because it’s detrimental to the economy.
But just days later, his spokesman said Putin wasn’t going to interfere in the Calvey proceedings. He’s had nothing to say about the case since.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given mixed messages about the Calvey case. (Pavel Golovkin/Pool via Reuters)
To many in the West, it may seem as though Putin is the only authority that matters in Russia, but political economist Andrei Yakovlev says the reality is more nuanced.
He says it’s more often the case that competing groups or cliques vie for influence within Russia’s ruling class, with personal loyalties and informal alliances often determining who gains Putin’s ear.
FSB becomes more assertive
Up until around 2008, Yakovlev says, an improving Russian economy, fuelled by high oil prices, created positive conditions for those within Russia’s government who favoured more openness and collaboration with Western investors and companies.
But when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year hiatus, the climate had changed for the worse.
Russians took to the streets in protest of deteriorating economic conditions. And events abroad, especially the Arab Spring uprisings, unsettled many in Russia’s leadership.
Yakovlev says the result was Russia’s security services became increasingly assertive — a trend that has grown more acute as relations with Western nations have deteriorated.
Even before Calvey’s arrest, successive rounds of European, Canadian and U.S. sanctions had worsened the investment climate in Russia.
The Financial Times reports that net direct foreign investment fell to $5.7 billion US for the first three quarters of 2018, compared to nearly $27 billion for the same period in 2017.
It’s not clear the Kremlin leadership has a plan to make up for the lost opportunities.
Instead, Yakovlev says, the thinking may be that Russia’s enormous state corporations that preside over the country’s vast oil and gas wealth can provide Russia with the economic muscle it needs to grow its economy.
“It’s a dangerous illusion,” Yakovlev said.
That go-it-alone approach failed for the Soviet Union, and he predicts it won’t work for modern Russia either.
In an all-woman workspace on the west side of Los Angeles, a group of female executives mingle, waiting for a workshop to start. They’re here to learn how to grab one of the most prestigious — and male-dominated — perks of the corporate world: a seat on the board of directors.
A new law in California means hundreds of companies could soon be hunting for female directors. And it’s about time, said Anne Nadel, chief operating officer of a Los Angeles-based plus-sized clothing company.
“I’m definitely a person who loves to jump in and have a trial by fire,” said Nadel. “Hopefully I’ll be granted the opportunity to be of service.”
Late last year, California passed a law requiring all publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to include at least one woman on the board of directors by the end of 2019, and between one and three female directors based on the size of their boards by 2021.
Amid celebrations of International Women’s Day on Friday, supporters say the new law is a step in the right direction for increasing diversity among senior executives in the corporate world.
“Initially, I feel sad that there has to be such a mandate,” Nadel said. “And yet I’m also very hopeful that the mandate will allow people to open their minds and they’ll see what can come from it. And if that’s what it took, then I’m very grateful.”
If companies don’t comply, they’ll initially be fined $100,000 US, and face a $300,000 US fine for subsequent violations. It’s the first example of a state-mandated gender quota of its kind in the U.S.
‘Inching towards parity’
Among publicly traded companies in California, women hold only about 15 per cent of board seats, and more than a quarter of boardrooms have no women at all, according to Board Governance Research, an independent research firm.
Shannon Gordon, CEO of theBoardlist, a San Francisco-based networking platform connecting female business leaders with opportunities to serve on company boards, said without the law it would have taken California more than 40 years to reach gender parity among corporate directors.
A group of female executives attend a workshop run by theBoardlist in Los Angeles to prepare women to join a corporate board. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)
“There have been measures in place in Europe very similar to this legislation for nearly a decade now, and the numbers in Europe have moved dramatically,” Gordon said. “They’re inching towards parity and much of that is attributed to the legislation they have put in place there.”
Gordon dismisses concerns that the new gender quota might lead to female board members being perceived as tokens.
“It’s probably the most common misperception,” Gordon said. “There is definitely not a shortage of qualified female candidates. The issue is more one of awareness and exposure to those candidates.”
But some research suggests the law’s impact may be underwhelming. A paper by a researcher at Stanford University suggests the law, if applied correctly, would only apply to about 72 California companies. The one Fortune 500 company affected — Apple — would only have to add one more woman to its board by 2021.
However, the most serious issue with the law may be its constitutionality. Even many legislators who support the law acknowledge it’s on shaky legal ground.
“There have been numerous objections to this bill, and serious legal concerns have been raised,” wrote former California Gov. Jerry Brown when he signed the bill into law. “I don’t minimize the potential flaws that indeed may prove fatal to its ultimate implementation.”
UCLA law professor Neil Wertlieb, an expert in corporate governance, doesn’t believe the law will survive a legal challenge on constitutional grounds. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)
“There are several bases under which this law could be challenged,” said Neil Wertlieb, a law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who specializes in corporate governance.
“Essentially what the law purports to do is to some extent limit or disenfranchise shareholders from their right to elect to public company boards those directors that they think are most qualified.”
The first problem, Wertlieb said, is the gender quota itself, which may violate equal protection by discriminating based on sex.
The second constitutional minefield is that the law applies to all companies headquartered in California, even if they’re incorporated in other states. This potentially runs afoul of the so-called “internal affairs doctrine” which requires that internal company affairs be regulated by only one jurisdiction.
“So, for example a lot of public companies are incorporated in Delaware,” Wertlieb said. “And those that happen to have their executive offices based here in California will, at least as the law is written, be subject to gender based diversity on their boards of directors.”
Wertlieb believes the law has a “noble goal” but it may ultimately be doomed.
“I think there’s a substantial risk that this law will not survive a challenge,” he said.
Hopes for broader change
Advocates believe even if the courts water down the law it will still send a powerful message, which could prompt change in other states or even other countries.
In Canada, women represented just over a quarter of board directors on the FP500, the list of Canada’s 500 largest corporations, according to 2018 statistics from the Canadian Board Diversity Council.
Montreal native Katheline Coleman says it’s hard for women to get appointed to boards because companies hire from their existing — and largely male — networks. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)
Montreal native Katheline Coleman, who now works for Google in Los Angeles, said trying to crack the “boys’ club” can be frustrating on both sides of the border.
“People are going to reach out to people that they know, and oftentimes, you know, people that are similar to you,” Coleman said.
Coleman hopes California’s new law will inspire a similar mandate in Canada, which could even be expanded to require visible minorities on boards too.
“I’m a big fan of experiments,” she said, “trying to change the law and then see what happens.”