• Obama: Russia’s chemical weapons proposal may be a “significant breakthrough”

    President Obama on Monday described a Russian proposal for Syria to turn over control of its chemical weapons to international monitors in order to avoid a military strike a “potentially positive development,” which could represent a “significant breakthrough.” Obama said, though, that the proposal should be taken “with a grain of salt,” and it was viewed with some skepticism by the administration, with senior officials saying the proposal could possibly be a delaying tactic aimed to undermine Obama’s already tenuous efforts to push for a military strike. The Russian proposal called for Syria to open its chemical weapons stocks to international inspections and give complete account of its stocks; begin the process of supervised destruction of these weapons; and join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

  • New detectors for chemical, biological threats

    In the late 1990s, Sandia scientists developed a simple-to-use handheld chemical detector for the military, the MicroChemLab. Ever since, Sandia has improved such microfluidics- and microelectromechanical (MEMS) systems-based instruments that identify chemicals based on gas chromatography, or GC, and resonator-style instruments such as surface acoustic wave (SAW) detectors. The lab’s researchers are building on this sensor work to invent tiny detectors that can sniff out everything from explosives and biotoxins to smuggled humans.

  • Administration's Syria plan: limited operation with “downstream” effect

    Three leading administration officials yesterday presented, in general detail, the plan of attack on Syria. The plan emphasizes the destruction of delivery vehicles – missiles, rockets, planes and their airfields, and artillery pieces – used in the delivery of chemical weapons. The three officials – Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey — agreed that such an attack, even if its purpose would be to degrade the regime’s ability to deliver chemical weapons, would have “downstream” effect: these delivery vehicles also deliver conventional munitions, so their destruction would more generally degrade the regime’s ability to fight, thus making the battlefield between the regime and the rebels more level. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is today drafting a new resolution which would permit up to ninety days of military action against the Syrian government and bar the deployment of U.S. combat troops in Syria but permit the deployment of a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency. The White House also would be required within thirty days of enactment of the resolution to send lawmakers a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria.

  • British MPs vote against U.K. military participation in attack on Syria

    In a heavy defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron, , the British Parliament voted against British military contribution to or involvement in an attack on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons last week. The vote is an embarrassing defeat for Cameron, and a major set-back for President Obama’s plan to put together a coalition of the willing to strike military targets in Syria. The parliamentary vote has no military significance, as the British contribution to the actual military operations would have been minimal at best. The U.K. vote, rather, is a political blow to the United States as it highlights on-going skepticism among Western publics – including U.S. public opinion — about yet another Western military involvement in the Middle East.

  • UN withdraws inspectors from Syria ahead of schedule

    UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has instructed the UN weapons inspectors investigating last Wednesday’s chemical weapons attack to leave Syria by Saturday. The withdrawal of UN inspectors in the face of an imminent military campaign is reminiscent of other instances of early departures of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in December 1998. The Clinton administration tipped the inspectors off that missile strikes against Saddam Hussein’s regime were imminent.

  • Divisions in U.K. over Syria action

    A U.S.-led attack on Syrian targets in response to the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons in an attack on Sunni civilians last Wednesday may be delayed until next week in the face of strong opposition in the U.K. parliament to British involvement. Prime Minister David Cameron said MPs would be given a second vote to approve military action ahead of a Commons debate today (Thursday) on Syria, in order to defuse a parliamentary revolt. About seventy Tory MPs said they would join the Labor opposition in voting against the U.K. participating in the attack on Syria. Some of the opponents of U.K. participation say a UN approval of such an attack would be needed, while others say they want to see clear-cut proof of the Assad regime’s culpability.

  • U.S., allies prepare military strikes against Syria

    Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said that the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians last Wednesday was undeniable. He said the Obama administration would hold the Syrian government accountable for this “cowardly crime” and “moral obscenity.” U.S. political and military leaders have been holding around-the-clock discussions with allies about a coordinated military attack on Syrian regime facilities. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey said there was no need to seek a UN Security Council approval of military action against Syria, and that none will be sought. Administration lawyers have been crafting legal justifications for an intervention without UN approval that could be based on findings that Assad used chemical weapons and created a major humanitarian crisis. The U.S. Navy has moved more ships to the eastern Mediterranean, and activity has been stepped up in Britain’s air base in Cyprus.

  • Conflicting readings of possible chemical weapons use in Syria

    Rebel sources say the number of dead in a Syrian army chemical weapons attack, which targeted a dozen villages in a rebel-held area east of Damascus, is between 750 and 1,300. They say it is not possible to offer precise numbers because some areas are not yet accessible. The Syrian government strongly rejected the allegations about chemical weapons use by the Syrian army. The Israeli defense minister, in the first official Israeli reaction, confirms the Syrian military used chemical weapons. Chemical weapons experts say there are two other possibilities: the Syrian regime may have used crowd-dispersal chemicals in higher-than-usual concentration, causing death among people trapped in bunkers and shelters; or the army may have used fuel-air bombs in bombing Sunny residential areas. Such bombs, also called thermobaric explosives, rely on oxygen from the surrounding air, unlike most conventional explosives which consist of a fuel-oxidizer premix.

  • Well water contaminants highest near natural gas drilling: study

    A new study of 100 private water wells in and near the Barnett Shale showed elevated levels of potential contaminants such as arsenic and selenium closest to natural gas extraction sites. Researchers believe the increased presence of metals could be due to a variety of factors including: industrial accidents such as faulty gas well casings; mechanical vibrations from natural gas drilling activity disturbing particles in neglected water well equipment; or the lowering of water tables through drought or the removal of water used for the hydraulic fracturing process. Any of these scenarios could release dangerous compounds into shallow groundwater.

  • Lawmakers, citing shortcomings, threaten funding for chemical plant safety program

    Heads of three congressional panels urge DHS secretary Janet Napolitano to take to correct shortcomings in the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program. “As the authorizers and appropriators of this program, we write to you to express serious reservations about continuing to extend CFATS funding without evidence of substantial programmatic improvement,” the three chairmen write in their letter to Napolitano. The lawmakers pointed to flaws in the program’s risk evaluation system, compliance hurdles, implementation delays, and the failure of the program to identify vulnerable facilities.

  • Russia: Syria rebels used sarin gas

    Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, announced at a UN news conference Tuesday that scientific analysis by Russian labs of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria on 19 March concluded the attack probably had been carried out by rebels using sarin nerve gas of “cottage industry” quality. He said the gas was delivered by a crudely made missile.

  • Oil-devouring microbe communities a mile deep in the Gulf

    The Deepwater Horizon explosion on 20 April 2010, caused the largest marine oil spill in history, with several million barrels of crude oil released into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of three months. Soon after the spill began, a massive oil slick was visible from orbiting satellites, yet once the underwater gusher was sealed, obvious traces of the crude oil disappeared much sooner than nearly all observers predicted. Some of the oil evaporated; some was skimmed off. Microbes “ate” much of the oil as well.

  • Researchers highlight problem of legacy mercury in the environment

    Researchers have published evidence that significant reductions in mercury emissions will be necessary just to stabilize current levels of the toxic element in the environment. So much mercury persists in surface reservoirs (soil, air, and water) from past pollution, going back thousands of years, that it will continue to persist in the ocean and accumulate in fish for decades to centuries, they report.

  • Rapid, on-site detection of illegal cooking oils

    In recent years, illegal cooking oil incident in China caused serious food safety risks. Researchers have developed two rapid and convenient colorimetric detection methods of illegal cooking oils based on phase transfer technology.

  • New microfluidic chip useful in counterterrorism, water and food safety

    A new process for making a three-dimensional microstructure that can be used in the analysis of cells could prove useful in counterterrorism measures and in water and food safety concerns. Researchers developed a new microfabrication technique to develop three-dimensional microfluidic devices in polymers. Microfluidics deals with the performance, control, and treatment of fluids that are constrained in some fashion.