Blue Marble - March 2011

A Few Nuclear Nuts and Bolts

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:23 PM EDT
Rusted bolt.

I wrote last week about the issue of saltwater corrosion, referring to the less-than-stainless nature of stainless steel. I heard back from a knowledgeable reader who reminded me:

Stainless steel has two nominal positions on the electrochemical series. In the absence of [oxygen] the alloy becomes highly active and thus subject to very high rates of corrosion, including fatigue corrosion. Heated water, particularly boiling water, [off]gasses latent [oxygen] almost immediately, thus stainless steels in such an environment rapidly corrode due to both becoming active and being at an elevated temperature.

Sounds like a nasty brew in a boiling-water reactor. More alarmingly, this reader told me that a hot reactor doused with seawater would likely drive flanged bolts—particularly stainless-steel bolts—to failure in as little as months, and that steam plants are pegged together with thousands of flanged volts.

Meanwhile, authorities in Japan are finally voicing the reality that the situation at Fukushima is going to need babysitting for years.

 

Example of a spent fuel pool. Credit: DOE via Wikimedia Commons.Example of a spent fuel pool. Credit: DOE via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In this week's issue of Science, Eli Kintisch takes a chilling look at the realities of reactor #4 at the Fukushima plant—especially in light of the fact that the reactor was offline at the time of the quake. Its spent fuel rods were still cooking though in their spent-fuel pool.

Concerns among scientists amp up because there are more than 350 reactors worldwide with spent-fuel pools too, and no one knows why #4 has behaved as badly as it has:

The pool held the entire complement of fuel rods from the reactor's core, which had been emptied 3 months before the 11 March earthquake and tsunami struck. And yet on 15 March the building exploded, apparently fueled by hydrogen, leaving nuclear engineers to speculate about the source. Adding to the confusion are reports of fires in the pool, a worst-case scenario that had never before occurred in a working nuclear plant.

The problem at #4 might be related to the zirconium alloy tubes holding the spent fuel rods.

Lab experiments have shown that zirconium can burn either with steam or with oxygen. Both reactions progress rapidly at roughly 800°C [1,472°F]; the former, crucially, releases hydrogen. The hydrogen explosion at reactor #4 points to the steam reaction, which releases less energy and therefore melts the fuel more slowly. But knowing which reaction dominated could help scientists quantify how much radioactivity was released from pool #4. A 2006 study by the U.S. National Research Council said that a heat up after a loss-of-water event could melt the spent fuel, allowing the escape of volatile radionuclides, including "a substantial fraction of the cesium," into the air.

 An alga from the genus Closterium. Credit: 	  ja:User:NEON / User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.An alga from the genus Closterium. Credit: ja:User:NEON / User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Richard A. Lovett at Nature reports on a presentation yesterday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on the power of a humble alga, Closterium moniliferum, to remove the element strontium from water and then deposit it in crystals inside its own cells.

Minna Krejci, a materials scientist at Northwestern University, believes Closterium might have a talent for cleaning up the radioactive isotope strontium-90—a dangerously carcinogenic isotope that infiltrates milk, bones, bone marrow, blood, and other tissues.

The algae don't actually target strontium. Instead, they incidentally collect strontium as they go about the business of gathering barium. But that could work in our favor cleaning up radioactive water.

Krejci's research has found that it is possible to enhance the uptake of strontium by tailoring the amount of barium in the algae's environment. This, she says, means that it might prove possible to seed nuclear waste, or a spill of radioactive material, with barium to encourage the algae to grab the strontium—easy to do, she says, because "it would only be a small amount" of barium. It might also be possible to improve the process by tinkering with sulphate levels in the environment, thereby changing the amount of sulphate in the vacuoles. "Once we learn about how the cells respond to conditions, we can think of more elegant ways to manipulate them," says Krejci. Once isolated by the bacteria, the strontium could be sequestered in high-level nuclear waste repositories, while the rest of the waste could go to a less expensive lower-level repository, saving space and money. Currently, Krejci says, there are hundreds of millions of litres of stored nuclear waste in the United States alone, much of which contains strontium. "So we know it's a big problem," she says.


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Obama's Snoozefest of an Energy Speech

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 6:10 PM EDT

The Obama administration has had terrible luck when it comes to energy. A year ago tomorrow President Obama called for increased offshore drilling, only to have the Deepwater Horizon explode a few weeks later and unleash the worst oil spill in US history on the Gulf of Mexico. In this year's State of the Union he called for a "clean energy standard" that included, among other things, nuclear power—only to have a bunch of reactors malfunction in Japan. I do feel a little bit bad for the administration for that reason. But it's worth noting that the administration didn't change courses on those two issues at all in Obama's energy speech on Wednesday. In fact, Obama only dug in further on both oil and nuclear.

This is especially uninspiring given the context in which he gave the speech. The upheaval in a number of Middle Eastern nations has raised concerns about our dependence on the region for oil. Rising gas prices are making Americans anxious. Japan is still in the middle of a nuclear disaster. The first anniversary of the Gulf spill is upon us. And the Senate is currently considering several measures to block the EPA from acting on greenhouse gas emissions, an issue inextricable from our energy concerns.

There were a few good promises in the speech on the energy front. You can read his remarks here or read more on the Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future. In them, Obama calls for a one-third cut in oil use in the next 10 years, in addition to the goal of drawing 80 percent of our energy from "clean" sources 2035 that he outlined earlier this year. You should read David Roberts at Grist for more detailed griping about the speech.

But the administration's energy and climate agenda is probably on the back burner for the foreseeable future, so I'm having a hard time really getting too worked up about the speech. I have very little faith that the House and Senate can come to an agreement on even minor policy on this—even if Obama had said all the right things in the speech.

I will point out, though, that it would have been nice if he'd lent some support to the Environmental Protection Agency's work on greenhouse gas regulations in the speech, given that the Senate may well vote this week to block the agency from acting. Reaffirmation of the administration's support for those rules would have been useful today of all days.

Nebraska Denies Prenatal Care to Undocumented Women

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 5:01 PM EDT

So much for being pro-life. Nebraska, the state that outlawed nearly all abortions past 20 weeks, eliminated prenatal care for about 1600 Medicaid patients last March. A year later, the results are stark: at least five babies have died and more women are foregoing prenatal care, with sometimes tragic consequences. As the Lincoln Journal Star reports

At least five babies have died. Women are traveling 155 miles to get prenatal care. Babies have been delivered at clinics, in ambulances and hospital emergency rooms... About half of the women dropped from the program are undocumented. Those babies are U.S. citizens as soon as they are born and will automatically qualify for Medicaid health services upon delivery.

At the Good Neighbor Community Health Center in Columbus, the number of female patients has doubled, and the income for the prenatal program has dropped drastically, said Rebecca Rayman, executive director. Women are coming to the center from 22 counties. Even with shifting money from other programs, the clinic finished 2010 losing $167,530. Four infants died in utero at the Columbus health center, she said. In the previous seven years, the clinic had never had an in utero death.

A bill currently on the Nebraska state floor would reinstate Medicaid prenatal coverage for all Nebraska "pre-citizens", regardless of the legal status of their mothers. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Campbell, states that "ensuring prenatal care for more children will significantly help reduce infant mortality... and will spare many infants from the burden of congenital disabilities and reduce the cost of treating those congenital disabilities after birth." However, a similar bill sponsored by Campbell failed in 2010 because Campbell could not get enough votes to pass it in the Senate. Part of the lack of support came from increased pressure by anti-immigration groups, but a threatened veto by Gov. Dave Heineman was key.

Pro-life groups have been divided on the issue of providing care to undocumented pregnant women in Nebraska. The Archdiocese of Nebraska endorsed Campbell's bill reinstating prenatal coverage, but Nebraska Right to Life continued to endorse Gov. Heineman even after he decided that not all unborn children are created equal. It's ironic that although Gov. Heineman has been rabidly anti-abortion, his anti-immigrant views may be creating more terminations. Some low-income women reportedly told their doctors they would be getting abortions rather than go through pregnancy and birth without any prenatal care. As Caron Gray, an OB/GYN practicing at the Creighton Medical Center in Omaha, told a reporter: "It comes down to a pro-life issue. If you are pro-life, then you would be doing all you can to provide care for the unborn US citizens."

 

h/t Wonkette

Chernokids: Chernobyl's Cartoon Heroes

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 2:14 PM EDT

Chernokids (english subtitles) from Les Chernokids on Vimeo.

 

This video is disturbing, tragic, hopeful, and oddly beautiful. It's hard to watch. Kinda queasy-making, with hints of exploitation. But also kinda gorgeous. From Chernokids, a French crew. See what you think.

And, yeah, there are cartoon superheroes—at about 04:30.

 

Did BP Spill Kill Hundreds More Dolphins?

| Wed Mar. 30, 2011 12:32 AM EDT

Killer whales. Photo by Pittman, courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.Killer whales. Photo by Pittman, courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in Conservation Letters calculates that the numbers of whales and dolphins killed in BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster could be 50 times higher than the number of carcasses found.

The authors—a high-powered list of renowned cetacean researchers from Canada, the US, Australia, and Scotland (including Scott Krause, who I filmed years ago for a documentary about North Atlantic right whales)—write of a general misperception of the Deepwater Horizon impact:

Many media reports have suggested that the spill caused only modest environmental impacts, in part because of a low number of observed wildlife mortalities, especially marine mammals.

Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Bmatulis, via Wikimedia Commons.Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Bmatulis, via Wikimedia Commons.

Compared to the 1989 Exxon Valdez, with its iconic oiled otters and high body counts, the Deepwater Horizon seems, well, not so bad. The authors point out that "only" 101 dead cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) were found in the Northern Gulf of Mexico as of 7 November 2010. The number's misleading though.

The issue arises when policymakers, legislators, or biologists treat these carcass-recovery counts as though they were complete counts or parameters estimated from some representative sample, when in fact, they are opportunistic observations. Our study suggests that these opportunistic observations should be taken to estimate only the bare minimum number of human-caused mortalities.

Humpback whale. Photo by Whit Welles Wwelles14, via Wikimedia Commons.Humpback whale. Photo by Whit Welles Wwelles14, via Wikimedia Commons.

So how many more whales, dolphins, and porpoises actually died? That problem is tough to figure to begin with and is compounded by a dearth of data in the Gulf—a fact that will work greatly in BP's favor when the time comes to levy fines.

The Gulf of Mexico is a semi-enclosed subtropical sea that forms essentially one ecosystem with many demographically independent cetacean populations. Some of these cetacean populations, such as killer whales (Orcinus orca), false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens), melonheaded whales (Peponocephala electra), and several beaked whale species, appear to be quite small, are poorly studied, or are found in the pelagic realm where they could have been exposed to oil and yet never strand. Small, genetically isolated populations of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) could have experienced substantial losses either inshore or offshore.

Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Bmatulis, via Wikimedia Commons.Atlantic spotted dolphins. Photo by Bmatulis, via Wikimedia Commons.

Two methods of extrapolation could shed light on how many cetaceans BP's disaster killed:

  1. Compare abundance before the disaster to abundance after—but since we don't know the population size of whale and dolphins species in the Gulf before hand we're unlikely to notice anything short of "the most catastrophic decline" and maybe not even that.
  2. Count the number of carcasses recovered—knowing that many will evade our count, having sunk, decayed, been scavenged, or drifted away. So adjust the counts upward to estimate total mortality. This approach is used to estimate bird deaths at power lines, where, in at least one instance, we now know that bird body counts underestimate total actual deaths by a whopping 32 percent.

The authors worked the two methods as best they could and added something more.

Given the magnitude of the spill and complexity of the response, quantifying the ecological impacts will take a long time. To contribute to this effort, we examined historical data from the Northern Gulf of Mexico to evaluate whether cetacean carcass counts in this region have previously been reliable indicators of mortality, and may therefore accurately represent deaths caused by the Deepwater Horizon/BP event.

Sperm whale. Photo courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.Sperm whale. Photo courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Their methods and analysis suggest that an average of 4,474 cetaceans died in the northern Gulf every year between 2003 and 2007 from all causes, human and natural. Yet since an average of only 17 bodies were found in those years, the body count represented only ~0.4 percent of total deaths.

Consider, for example, one sperm whale being detected as a carcass, and a necropsy identified oiling as a contributing factor in the whale's death. If the carcass-detection rate for sperm whales is 3.4%, then it is plausible that 29 sperm whale deaths represents the best estimate of total mortality, given no additional information. If, for example, 101 cetacean carcasses were recovered overall, and all deaths were attributed to oiling, the average-recovery rate (2%) would translate to 5,050 carcasses, given the 101 carcasses detected.

Those are chilling numbers. Period. But also in light of the relatively tiny populations of cetaceans in the Gulf. Especially since most if not all cetaceans are highly social, and since oil and chemical dispersants likely injured, sickened, or killed entire clusters, schools, pods, matrilines, or groups at the same time—and may still be doing so.

The authors describe the near-lethal affect of the Exxon Valdez disaster on one well-known and well-studied pod of killer whales in Alaska.

In the first year after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the AT1 group of "transient" killer whales experienced a 41% loss; there has been no reproduction since the spill. Although the cause of the apparent sterility is unknown, the lesson serves as an important reminder that immediate death is not the only factor that can lead to long-term loss of population viability.

Pilot whale mother and calf. Photo by Clark Anderson via Wikimedia Commons.Pilot whale mother and calf. Photo by Clark Anderson via Wikimedia Commons.

The paper:

  • Williams. R, Gero. S, Bejder. L., Calambokidis. J, Kraus. S, Lusseau. D, Read. A, Robbins. J. Underestimating the Damage: Interpreting Cetacean Carcass Recoveries in the Context of the Deepwater Horizon/BP Incident. Conservation Letters. Wiley-Blackwell. March 2011, DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00168.x

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Books: Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 12:21 PM EDT

If you think green energy is a 21st century breakthrough, think again: In 1900, roughly one-third of automobiles were electric; the first megawatt wind turbine was built in 1941; and today's wave-power startups can trace their roots to the Wave-Power Air-Compressing Company, which claimed "one of the greatest inventions of the age"—in 1895. In Powering the Dream, Madrigal, The Atlantic's tech editor, delves into alternative energy's past to glean its future. A master at autopsies of promising yet deceased technologies, he argues that some of them flopped due to lack of funding, while others, like the early '40s wind turbine, were too far ahead of their time (another turbine of its size wouldn't be built for 40 years). As Madrigal smartly shows, tackling the climate crisis takes more than inventing the next killer app: You also have to convince people to use it.

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Ohio's "Heartbeat" Abortion Bill Moves Forward

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:26 AM EDT

As our own Kate Sheppard has reported, Ohio is considering an abortion bill that would be one of the most restrictive in the nation. The law, HB 125, would outlaw all abortions (except in medical emergency) after a heartbeat could be detected: roughly 6 to 8 weeks after conception. This is so early in pregnancy that many women would not even know they were pregnant before the chance for abortion had passed... which is undoubtedly the point. Attacking first-trimester pregnancies is important for anti-abortion activists because 88% of all abortions occur before 12 weeks gestation.

HB 125 is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, and that's exactly what supporters like the Ohio pro-life group Faith2Action are hoping. But state legislators and some supporters aren't so sure now's the time. Ohio's House Health and Aging Committee delayed the vote on HB 125 last week, with Committee chair and sponsor Lynn Wachtmann saying the bill "wasn't quite ready." (One could argue that just because the bill isn't quite ready doesn't mean it shouldn't be considered the same as one that is, kind of like how an embryo at 8 weeks should be considered just as viable as a fetus at 40 weeks, but that would be silly.) Ohio Right to Life director Mike Gonidakis told the Springfield News-Sun that while he agrees with the sentiments of the bill, he fears it could be struck down as unconstitutional and would thus become precedent for later anti-abortion laws. "(It’s) going to be another precedent setting decision by the Supreme Court we’re going to have to overcome in the future," Gonidakis said.  A vote is expected on the bill this Wednesday.

Does Energy Efficiency Matter?

| Tue Mar. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

It's a reversal of the old fallacy, "spend more and you'll save more." When it comes to household energy use, we're saving more and then using our savings to buy more stuff. At least that's one way to interpret the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration's Residential Energy Consumption Survey.  

Since 1978, household appliances have gotten way better. Most notablly, heating used to account for 66 percent of our collective residential energy use. Nowadays, thanks to cleaner-burning furnaces and energy-efficient construction and window design, that number is closer to 40 percent. Not only that, the total energy devoted to heating houses has dropped by 38 percent, even though we have 45 percent more houses to heat. Hey, impressive!

Yeeeeah, but the thing is, we're now buying so many of these very-efficient appliances that we suck up as much power as we used to. In other words, we're channeling all that efficiency into better lifestyles. Behold some EIA stats...

  • The number of US households grew by 34.5 million from 1978 to 2009
  • The share of households with central air conditioning nearly tripled, from 23 percent in 1978 to 61 percent in 2009
  • The share of households with clothes washers increased from 74 percent to 82 percent
  • The share of households with dishwashers increased from 35 percent to 59 percent

Here's a chart illustrating the trend. (Being a clunky government agency, the EIA is still using 2005 data, but it's close enough.)

Not that I would begrudge anyone a washer. But unless you've been living in a Faraday cage for the past decade, you're aware that rechargable gadgets and big-screen TVs have proliferated as well—and I might actually begrudge you a few of those. The EIA breaks it down...

  • In 1978, personal computers were expensive and not typically used by US households. In 2009, 76 percent of US homes had at least one computer, eight percentage points more than just four years prior, and 35 percent had multiple computers.
  • In 1978, most households had only one television. In 2009, the average household had 2.5 televisions. Over 45 percent of homes have at least one television with a screen size of 37 inches or larger. Screen size and average energy consumption per television have continued to grow over time.
  • DVD players and Digital Video Recorders (DVRs), which did not exist 15 years ago, are now widespread. As of 2009, 79 percent of homes had a DVD player, and 43 percent had a DVR. Nearly a third of all households also had at least four electronic devices, such as cell phones, plugged in and charging at home.

Hey, I want five-plus televisions, too! (One for the cat!) Now children, don't forget to tweet this item from your smartphones as you stream The Social Network via your Wii consoles to your personal Sony wide-screens.

The Radioactive Ocean

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 8:15 PM EDT

The "Baker" explosion at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.The "Baker" explosion at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on 25 July 1946. Credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

 
The compass of news the past few days has swung to a new North—to the rising measurements of radioactivity in the waters off Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant.
 
The transmission of radionuclides through the physical and biological webs of ocean and atmosphere is dynamic and far-reaching, since the contamination is carried by waves and winds and life itself. You can see an illustration of how this works at my blog Deep Blue Home.
 
Radioactive pollution in the ocean is nothing new. We've been loosing the stuff offshore since 1944. Here's how.
 

1) Nuclear weapons tests:

  • For example, at Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958, the US detonated 23 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests, including the first hydrogen bomb, which exploded far more violently than predicted and contaminated a swath of ocean 100 miles/160 kilometers away from the epicenter. The fallout affected inhabited islands, fishing boats and fishers at sea, and, obviously, a lot of marine life. The map below shows where contaminated fish were caught, or where the sea was found to be excessively radioactive, after the 1955 hydrogen bomb test at Bikini=X marks. B=original "danger zone" announced by the US government. W="danger zone" extended later. NE, EC, and SE are equatorial currents. Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Y. Nishiwaki, 1955, for the government of Japan, via Wikimedia Commons.

 
  • France exploded 193 nuclear tests in the atmosphere and in the waters of French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996. The tests began after the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawing detonations in the air. I wrote about this in my book THE FRAGILE EDGE:
The [first] bomb was exploded aboard a barge in the [Moruroa's] lagoon, sucking water into the air and raining dead fish, corals, cephalopods, crustaceans, mollusks, and all the once living components of the reef onto Moruroa’s motu [islands], where their radioactive forms decayed for weeks. Confounded by this result, the French hastily arranged to explode their second bomb seventeen days later from an air plane 45,000 feet above the featureless South Pacific, some 60 miles south of Moruroa. Without people or equipment to witness, record, or analyze this distant blast, virtually no data was collected, making its detonation more an act of pique than science. Two days later, as described by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
An untriggered bomb on the ground [at Moruroa] was exposed to a “security test.” While it did not explode, the bomb’s case cracked and its plutonium contents spilled over the reef. The contaminated area was "sealed" by covering it with a layer of asphalt.
 
 Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit for both: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.Top: Moruroa Atoll. Bottom: Fangataufa Atoll, French Polynesia, sites of French nuclear tests. The dark blue waters in the upper lagoon of Fangataufa mark the deep crater created by bomb explosions. Credit for both: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
2) Sinking of nuclear-powered submarines:

 

  • So far, eight nuclear-powered submarines have sunk or been scuttled: two American, four Soviet; two Russian.
  • Four in the North Atlantic, three in the Barents Sea, one in the Kara Sea north of Siberia.
  • Another accident in 1968 in the North Pacific 1,796 miles / 2,890 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Oahu led to the sinking of a diesel-electric Soviet sub sank carrying nuclear ballistic missiles.

 

Salvaged wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, via Wikimedia Commons.Salvaged wreck of the Russian nuclear submarine K-141 Kursk, via Wikimedia Commons

 
3) Spacecraft and satellite failures, including:
 
  • The launch failure in 1964 of an American navigation satellite with an onboard radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG)—an electrical generator fueled by radioactive decay. This fell into the ocean near Madagascar and deposited a quantity of plutonium-238 equal to half the amount of plutonium-238 naturally present in the entire World Ocean.

  • The failed Apollo 13 mission (1970) jettisoned its Lunar Module Aquarius with the intention that it would crash into the sea and plummet into the Pacific's Tonga Trench—one of the the deepest places on our planet—since it was still carrying its RTG with plutonium dioxide fuel. So far no plutonium-238 has been recorded in nearby atmospheric and seawater sampling, suggesting the cask is currently intact on the seabed. 
  • At least four other RTG-powered spacecraft have fallen to Earth, including one into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel off California in 1968. 
  • Between 1973 and 1993, at least five Soviet/Russian RORSAT satellites failed to eject their nuclear reactor cores prior to falling back to Earth. One fell into the Pacific north of Japan (1973), another over Canada's Northwest Territories (1978), another in the South Atlantic (1983). The successfully ejected cores are in still orbit, destined to plummet back to Earth someday.
 
 
The Apollo 13 Lunar Module, Aquarius, just after jettisoning on 17 April 1970. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.The Apollo 13 Lunar Module, Aquarius, just after jettisoning on 17 April 1970. Credit: NASA, via Wikimedia Commons. 
 
4) Discharges from nuclear reprocessing and power plants:
 
  • Britain's Sellafield (aka Windscale) is a nuclear storage site, an erstwhile nuclear weapons production plant, nuclear reprocessing center, and nuclear power plant, currently in the process of decommissioning. Due to accidents, chronic emissions, and overflows at Sellafield, the nearby Irish Sea is deemed the most radioactive sea on Earth.
  • The Hanford Site in Washington—home to the world's first plutonium production reactor—purposely released radionuclides down the Columbia River from the 1940s to the 1970s. The contamination travelled hundreds of miles into the Pacific Ocean. Today the radionuclides are used as markers by oceanographers tracking sediment movements on the continental shelf.
 
Salmon spawning in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, at the site of 30 years of radioactive releases. Credit: US Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.Salmon spawning in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, at the site of 30 years of radioactive releases. Credit: US Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.
 
 
5) Ocean dumps:
 
  • Dump sites for radioactive waste were created in the northeast Atlantic (1 site), off Europe (3), off the US eastern seaboard (1), and off the US Pacific coast (1).
  • Between 1946 and 1970, the US dumped ~107,000 drums of radioactive wastes at its two sites, including some 47,800 in the ocean west of San Francisco, supposedly at three designated sites. However drums actually litter an area of at least 1,400 square kilometers/540 square miles, known as the Farallon Island Radioactive Waste Dump, which now falls almost entirely within the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The exact location of most drums is unknown. At least some are corroding.

 

A drum of radioactive waste dumped off San Francisco. Credit: USGS.A drum of radioactive waste dumped off San Francisco. Credit: USGS.

 
A 1996 paper in Health Physics described some of the radionuclides found in the tissues of deep-sea bottom-feeding fishes—Dover sole, sablefish, and thornyheads—plus intertidal mussels in the waters around the Farallon Islands:
 
Concentrations of both [plutonium-238] and [Americium-241] in fish tissues were notably higher than those reported in literature from any other sites world-wide, including potentially contaminated sites. These results show approximately 10 times higher concentrations of [plutonium-238+240] and approximately 40-50 times higher concentrations of [plutonium-238] than those values reported for identical fish species from 1977 collections at the [Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Dump Site].
 
Of course the fallen satellites, the sunken submarines, the leftovers from nuclear bomb tests, and the dumped drums of waste are all subject to saltwater corrosion and the same destructive tectonic forces that triggered the March 11th Sendai earthquake and tsunami.
 
In an upcoming post, I'll take a look at what might lie ahead for Japan's troubled waters and beyond.
 
Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

 

Small But Mighty

| Mon Mar. 28, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Sometimes the smallest of things can have the greatest of impacts. We've all woken up to find we've no milk in the fridge and got to wondering how we ever did without it! Well, as strange as it may sound the Pacific herring is a little like that.

Commonly referred to as "the silver of the sea," these oily little fish have proved to be the most commercially important part of the fishing industry. Being a staple part of the human diet since at least 3000 B.C. Although, it's not just humans who have developed a taste for these delicate bait bits. With a list of predators as long as your arm, it’s not surprising that they have developed a way of breeding which ensures their survival.

Ecological biomass is a term used to describe how living biological organisms group together to defend their species against the many predators they face, there is after all power in numbers! This isn't an uncommon technique, and we see similarities in the breeding habits of many animals, particularly those who live in herds. What is truly spectacular however is how a species can be pushed to its absolute limits, and come back again in full force! Although clearly hardy, herring remain a sensitive species being affected by overfishing in general, overfishing of its young as well as environmental events. Thankfully, scientists and fishermen are making efforts to rebuild and protect stocks, assuring that humans and animals can enjoy this vitamin rich fish for years to come! These silver fellows don't just rely on us for help though. They have an incredibly effective camouflage that uses embedded crystals within their bodies to create a glistening effect, keeping them concealed in the surrounding water. However some predators have worked out a very clever way of overcoming this feature, as you can see in this video below.

Three against one seems hardly fair, but then again that's the circle of life. In a few weeks time, the adult herring will have reached their shallower waters and will begin to breed. In just two weeks the eggs produced, that have been sheltering near rocks or on seaweed, will flood the coastlines in numbers over 800 billion! Not only will this ensure that the next generation will be stronger than ever before, but also that resident predators will get the much-needed meal and by the time this arrives there's quite a queue for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You'll probably find sea lions, seabirds, dolphins, sharks, porpoises, seals, whales, tuna, halibut and cod to name a few on an almost endless list.