Correction: Yikes. As some commenters noted, I blundered by attributing the energy losses shown in the chart below entirely to electricity lost during transmission. That was careless, and I've corrected it below. In fact, a lot of the losses are due to heat lost in the generation process. Transmission losses, as the fine print indeed noted, were estimated at 6.5 percent. On the other hand, that's still an enormous amount of lost power. In retrospect, I guess I'd have to agree with the commenter who says we need a mixture of distributed and centralized power to meet our needs. But I still contend that utilities have actively resisted distributed power generation, and that's counterproductive. What's more, companies need to do more to reduce heat losses. Here's a great piece from the Atlantic on that very topic.  

In response to Japan's nuclear crisis, the US green-building group, Architecture 2030, sent out a couple of emails last week fact-checking media assertions that nuclear power accounts for roughly 20 percent of US energy consumption. In fact, the group points out, nuke plants provide about 21 percent of US electricity consumption, but less than 9 percent of overall US energy consumption.

It's a wonky distinction, but the accompanying chart shows something more striking, in case you didn't know it: The way we make and deliver electricity is incredibly inefficient. "Electricity consumption," in utility jargon, is the sum of the power we actually use plus the power lost as heat during generation and transmission of electricity through cables to our homes and businesses. If you were to completely ignore this massive waste, nuclear accounts for just 3 percent of actual energy use, and 17 percent of actual electricity use.

The chart above suggests that just 26 percent of nuclear-generated electricity makes it to customers, versus 32 percent for all generation sources combined. And that's before factoring in the staggering capital costs (requiring tens of billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees), the very scary problem of what to do with spent fuel rods (which has also sucked up billions of tax dollars), and the fact that the US government has had to insure the nuclear industry against disasters because no private company will assume that risk.

In essence, this chart is a reminder that we would benefit from a big increase in distributed power generation—a fancy way of talking about electricity produced at small facilities closer to where it's used, rooftop solar being the ultimate example. Trouble is, the private utilities that own the reactors and coal plants and gas turbines (as well as many transmission lines) have fought tooth and nail to shut smaller companies and residential power generators out of the grid. After all, they wouldn't want their Edsels to lose value.

Solar power in the United States faces an uncertain road ahead, despite the sizeable gains it made last year. Spurred by federal stimulus funds, the US market jumped from $3.6 billion in 2009 to $6 billion in 2010 according to a new report by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. But the country fell further behind European solar leaders like Germany and Spain, whose governments have their own aggressively funded programs. And, as MoJo's Kiera Butler explains, the speedy expansion of US solar into California's Mojave Desert is raising important concerns about ecosystem damage.

Those concerns have put environmental groups in a tricky spot between their support for renewable energy and habitat protection. Most of the Mojave projects are still moving forward, but lawsuits from green and tribal groups could trip up some of them. The near-term future of solar power in the US will also depend on whether President Obama's stimulus money keeps flowing. For now, energy companies have until the end of the year to qualify for funding. Meanwhile, some solar advocates are suggesting alternatives like installing panels on urban rooftops. New Jersey, which ranks second behind California in solar power generation, has made progress with that strategy.

Saltwater rust.

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard and Josh Harkinson write, bad things seem to be happening at the reactor number 3 of the Fukushima I Plant, including the possibility of a core breach. Reactor 3 is the one that uses a mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel made in part with highly carcinogenic plutonium.

There's also the potential that the problem stems from the seawater being pumped in to cool the reactors and spent fuel rods. The saltwater is at least partially vaporizing in the process, leaving behind salt encrustations. Anyone who's ever worked on a boat at sea knows firsthand the unbelievable power of saltwater to corrode anything and everything, particularly metal, including stainless steel.

The New York Times reports that a former chief safety researcher at General Electric when the company installed Fukushima's boiling-water reactors estimates that 57,000 pounds of salt have accumulated in Reactor No. 1 and 99,000 pounds apiece in Reactors No. 2 and 3—and that was a couple of days ago.

[Salt] crusts insulate the rods from the water and allow them to heat up. If the crusts are thick enough, they can block water from circulating between the fuel rods. As the rods heat up, their zirconium cladding can rupture, which releases gaseous radioactive iodine inside and may even cause the uranium to melt and release much more radioactive material.


Earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Digital Globe via Wikimedia Commons. Earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Digital Globe via Wikimedia Commons.


Another New York Times piece reports on how just how radioactive some of the waters in the plant have become, whether from a core breach or saltwater corrosion or both, unknown:

The National Institute of Radiological Sciences said that 3.9 million becquerels per square centimeter of radiation had been detected in the water that the three workers stepped in—10,000 times the level normally seen in coolant water at the plant. The injured workers’ dosimeters suggested exposure to 170 millisieverts of radiation. But the institute said that the actual amount of radiation the workers are thought to have been exposed to in the water is 2 to 6 sievert. Even 2 sievert is eight times the 250 millisievert annual exposure limit set for workers at Daiichi.

Radioactivity levels from Fukushima are now approaching Chernobyl levels. Via New Scientist:

Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors—designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests—to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.


Near-realtime radiation monitoring map. Credit: GEBWEB.Near-realtime radiation monitoring map. Credit: GEBWEB.


On the positive side, Daniel Clery writes in the current Science that newer reactors have benefited from greatly improved safety designs.

The Fukushima I reactors are very old reactor designs, direct copies of "the hairy edge of the first commercial plants in the U.S." in the 1960s, says nuclear engineer Tony Roulstone of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. The new machines, using so-called Generation III+ designs, "have the benefit of 50 years of design evolution and operational practice," Sherry says. Modern reactors have multiple layers of defense, use natural forces such as gravity and convection to move cooling water rather than rely on pumps, and employ automatic valves that kick in extra measures if necessary. Their manufacturers claim the reactors can be left for days and not overheat. "You can walk away from [such a reactor]. It's designed to cope with decay heat," Sherry says.

On the down side, the The Fukushima I reactors were no doubt the pinnacle of safety in their day and marketed as "foolproof." Turn on your light and forget about it.


Tsunami damage. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, courtesy the US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.Tsunami damage. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd, courtesy the US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.


Then there's the human corrosion factor: Safety will be compromised in the interest of profit. Especially over time, like rust. How many times do we have to process those data?

Plus, business is habitually resistant to the warnings of scientists. In Tokyo Electric Power Company's case, they apparently ignored warnings from seismologist Yukinobu Okamura that the area is susceptible to far larger tsunamis than Fukushima I was built to withstand. New research proved it. Did TEPCO care? From the Financial Times:

Mr Okamura said he was angry that Tepco had not acted on the evidence that tsunamis in the area could be bigger than their designs had allowed for. "I don’t know if all the damage could have been prevented, even if they had responded immediately when I pointed this out, but I do think they should have responded," he said.


A satellite image of shows damage after an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in quake-ravaged Japan.

This was originally posted on Saturday, March 12 at 2:01 PM EST and is being updated regularly. Some of the information at the top is very basic; if you're familiar with the outlines of the problem, you can jump straight to the latest updates.

Fears of a potential nuclear catastrophe are high in northern Japan, where multiple explosions have occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and the cooling systems at four separate reactors are suffering problems. Officials have reported that a partial meltdown has likely occured at three reactors, though the extent of the damage to their cores is not yet clear. Spent fuel rods at a fourth reactor also threaten to melt down. The emergency at the plant comes on top of the devastation caused by an 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 33-foot tsunami.

What is wrong with the plant? There are six boiling-water reactors on the site, though only three were in operation at the time of the earthquake. These systems, designed by General Electric, rely on an influx of water to cool the reactor core. But the water systems require electricity that was cut off by the earthquake. It also appears that something—the initial quake, the tsunami, or aftershocks—knocked the site's back-up generators offline. Without the cooling system bringing in water, the core of a reactor will start to overheat—which in turn heats up the water already in the system and causes more of it to turn to steam. Emergency responders have been forced to vent some of the steam, releasing radiation, in order to prevent the containment domes from exploding. They are in a race against the clock to bring in new water supplies before the reacting nuclear fuel heats up beyond control.

It is believed that all of units have already suffered a partial meltdowns of their reactor cores—the uranium fuel rods where the nuclear chain reaction happens—and four of the plants have been damaged by explosions or fires. There was a blast on Saturday March 12th at Unit 1, followed by explosions at Unit 3 the following Monday and Unit 2 on Tuesday along with a fire at Unit 4, where spent fuel rods may have boiled off all of the water in their cooling pond.

Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owner of the plant, has been flooding the reactors with a mix of sea water and boric acid, which is used to slow down the chain reaction. They have encountered multiple problems, however, with keeping water levels up. Leaving the rods exposed causes them to heat up faster and increases the risk of a meltdown.

How large is the area affected by radiation? Trace levels of radiation from the plant are expected to travel thousands of miles. Of course, radiation powerful enough to pose a health threat will cover a much smaller area. The Fukushima plant is about 160 miles north of Tokyo, and residents within a 12.6-mile radius have been evacuated. However, US officials have advised Americans in Japan to evacuate to at least 50 miles from the plant. British authorities are recommending that their citizens leave Tokyo and the whole of northern Japan. It's still unknown how large an area will be seriously affected.

On March 13th, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is docked at the US naval base in Yokosuka 200 miles south of the reactors, detected "low levels of radioactivity" on its decks. The ship's commander recommended the military personnel limit outdoor activities. A 17-man Naval helicopter crew flying a relief mission about 60 miles from the reactor passed through a radiation plume that exposed them to a month's worth of radiation within one hour. A US Navy spokesman told Bloomberg that low-level radiation exposure will probably become "a fact of life" for military personnel flying relief missions in the area.

Levels of radiation more than four times the legal limit have been found in milk more than 40 miles from the plant. Radiation has also contaminated local crops and tap water.

The IAEA reports that officials are working in the most affected areas to distribute iodine tablets, which are used to block the absorption of radiation.

Will the radiation reach the West Coast of United States? Yes, but experts don't think the levels will pose any danger. MoJo's Julia Whitty has a rundown of the latest modeling and key uncertainties.

How many people have been killed or injured as a result of the disaster? As of Sunday, 8,277 people are dead and more than 12,000 are missing in the aftermath of the earthquake. The precise impact of the nuclear accident is unknown, and its worst-case impacts could ultimately be longer-term health problems such as cancer. According to the New York Times, five Tokyo Electric workers "have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3." 

Hundreds of Japanese soliders and firemen have been working to cool the reactor units. On Thursday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expressed fears that many of them will suffer lethal radiation doses, despite their protective gear. On March 19th, Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) raised the radiation threshold for workers responding to the crisis from 100 to 150 millisieverts. Earlier in the week, the Japanese government had raised the legal limit to 250 millisieverts. The typical person is exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation a year. The International Commission of Radiological Protection recommends no more than 50 millisieverts of radiation a year for nuclear recovery workers. However, it offers no restriction in a crisis when "the benefit to others clearly outweighs the rescuer's risk." 

Where can I learn more about the science and health effects of radiation exposure? Here and here.

We'll be providing updates on this developing story below:

Animals at Play

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

Throughout the theme Life Is... New, we've observed countless young animals being supported by their parents to survive the first few difficult days of existence and become strong enough to join the race of life. But what happens after that? The most important skills, such as those that teach us exactly how to survive can only be learned one way... through play! Interestingly enough, skills are not the only thing that can be achieved through social activity, especially in the case of the elephants!

Here are ten animals that use play to get more out of life.

1. Playing mum: Langhur Monkey

Studies have found that while juvenile female monkeys do enjoy equal amounts of male to female social activity, when an infant appears within the group their attention will be almost immediately focused on any opportunity to touch, cuddle, carry, or groom the new arrival. This leaves the new mother with quite a fan club.












2. Playing it safe: Tiger

Although they love water, tigers will go to any lengths not to get it in their eyes. So much so that they will enter backwards to avoid any chance of it happening.













3. Playing dirty: Horned Lizard

A lizard with more than one trick! Not only can this lizard fake its own death by flipping onto its back when a predator appears. But if attacked, it can assert enough pressure in its sinuses to burst the blood vessels in its eyes, effectively squirting its attacker with blood!











4. Players not fighters: Grizzly Bear

From afar, bear's play-fighting can sometimes look a little like real confrontation. But the best way to tell is by looking at the hairs around the neck and shoulders. If it lies flat, then it's harmless fun. However if it's erect, then that's the signal to move well away!














5. Water sports: Red Lechwe

It’s clear to see that the red lechwe of Botaswana enjoy running and jumping for fun. But for survival it's actually the swimming they rely upon, choosing in the heat of the chase to take to the water rather than try and outrun their pursuer.











6. More than play: Elephant

Elephants been studied for their ability to, and enjoyment of, playtime. But it's also been discovered that they cry, have remarkable memories, and laugh.

7. Playmates: Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are well known for their love of diving and breaching, and their general acrobatics in the water. But did you know that there's a considerable amount of sea-life that love their behavior too? Dolphins and pilot whales are just two examples of gentle giants appreciators who will swim and play alongside them for no other reason than the joy of each other's company.











8. Play... or else: Eider Duck

The Eider duck is so keen to be part of a flock, that it actually suffers if it lacks companionship or social activity. Also, ducks raised in captivity have been found to start believing that the humans that are around them and care for them; are their flock.











9. Really wild playgroup: Wild Dogs

African wild dogs are such sociable animals that they not only play, but live in groups of up to 20 dogs! Playing games, wrestling, and hunting all go hand in hand within the life of a pack.











10. Just for fun: Dusky Dolphins

It's not just in play that these dolphins exert wild and free behavior, but in mating too! In fact, a large majority of mating between the adult males and females takes place simply as a means of socializing and having fun.


News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Family Values: GOP wants to cut food stamps, Medicaid to save money.

Where's the Beef: New ad mocks Republican attacks on food safety agencies.

Stand-Up Guy: A Republican stands up in support of Planned Parenthood.

Baby Steps: Public opinion of the health care bill has changed little.

Caged Beasts: Cats are responsible for many bird deaths, but not all of them.

Scent of Fear: Nuclear power kills fewer people than coal, but it's more feared.

Looking Back: Kids should stay in rear-facing car seats longer, says the AAP.

Wind Fall: Wind power installments are tumbling.

Open for Business: Oil and gas drilling gets re-started in the Gulf of Mexico.

Backwash: Oil and tarballs are washing up on the Louisiana coast again.


Honeybee (Apis mellifera) collecting pollen.

Culled from the latest science journals, two papers about reproductive helpers—bees for food crops, fish for fruit trees.

First, an interesting paper in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science on the relationship between human welfare and bee welfare. The authors set up the premise in their opening sentences:

During the last 50 years, the human population increased 128% from 3.0 to 6.9 billion people, whereas cultivated area and crop yield increased globally by 33% and 57%, respectively. Concomitantly, natural habitat cover decreased, and global stocks and flows of water, nutrients, and pollinators were altered, reducing the capacity of many ecosystem services to support human activity.

This team of researchers from Argentina, Germany, Australia, and Canada took a look at how crops that are dependent on animal pollinators, like bees, have fared in a world where human growth is exponential, yet crop yield is not. To do this, they employed a 47-year data set collected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization between 1961 and 2008.

Background points:

  • About 70% of 1,330 tropical crops benefit from animal pollination.
  • About 85% of 264 crops cultivated in Europe benefit from animal pollination.
  • Pollinators can increase farm production of about 75% of the 115 most important crops worldwide (as measured by food production and economic value).
  • Crop pollination is not managed to the extent that farmers manage their crops for weeds, herbivores, and pathogens. In most cases it's not managed at all.

What emerged was the realization that, generally speaking, those crops which depend on animal pollinators provided less stable yields from one year to the next between 1961 and 2008—and this was despite a worldwide increase in most crop yields during that period. What also emerged was the realization that those lower yields drove farmers to compensate by converting nonfarmlands—wildlands, rangelands, semi-natural areas—into farmlands.

That's a recipe for a nasty positive feedback loop.

The authors discuss their findings and suggest a solution:

Historically, demand for increased crop production has been satisfied by expansion of cultivated area and yield improvements through genetic innovation, increased external inputs (e.g., fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides), and new agricultural practices. However, this combination of approaches imposes tradeoffs for agricultural production, such as between cultivated area and habitat for wild bees, between pesticide application and pollinator health, and between monoculture and diversified resources for pollinators... [Y]ield and its improvement should benefit considerably from more active management of wild pollinators and their habitats, the use of honey bees as pollinators rather than as honey producers, and increased application of other managed pollinators for specific crops. Such practices would weaken the feedback between environment quality and crop productivity, as the resulting improved yield may alleviate the need for increased cultivation.


Amazonion tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum). Credit: Thorke Østergaard via Wikimedia Commons.Amazonian tambaqui fish (Colossoma macropomum). Credit: Thorke Østergaard via Wikimedia Commons.


Second, a fascinating paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on the relationship between fruiting trees in the Amazon basin and fruit-eating fishes, like the tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum). The habitat of the fish expands hugely during seasonal floods, as the tambaqui swim through forests noshing on fruit. In the course of their travels, they disperse the fruit seeds. No one knew how far. The authors investigated that question:

Our mechanistic model predicts that Colossoma disperses seeds extremely long distances to favourable habitats. Modelled mean dispersal distances of 337–552 meters [1,105-1,811 feet] and maximum of 5495 meters [3.41 miles] are among the longest ever reported. At least 5 percent of seeds are predicted to disperse 1700–2110 meters [1.05-1.31 miles], farther than dispersal by almost all other frugivores [fruit-eaters] reported in the literature.

The problem here is that hunting of these large, fruit-eating fish by human fishers has led to the fish getting smaller and breeding earlier—a classic response to overfishing. Now we know something of how those effects might ripple through waters and forests:

Thus, overexploitation probably disrupts an ancient coevolutionary relationship between Colossoma and Amazonian plants.



The papers:

  • ♥ Lucas A. Garibaldi, et al. Global growth and stability of agricultural yield decrease with pollinator dependence.  PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1012431108
  • Jill T. Anderson,et al. Extremely long-distance seed dispersal by an overfished Amazonian frugivore. Proc. R. Soc. B :10.1098/rspb.2011.0155

I ♥ open-access papers.

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, which until last summer's BP disaster was the worst oil spill in US history. And to mark it, this week we have another oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.

The slick reportedly stretched for 30 miles, with oil washing ashore along Louisiana's Grand Isle. When it was reported earlier this week in the Times-Picayune, officials were puzzled about the source. Then on Tuesday night, the responsible party 'fessed up. From The Lookout:

Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners issued a statement last night expressing "surprise" that what it claimed was a minor leak from a well that's been out of use for some time could have produced miles-long slicks that garnered national media attention. The company has been in the process of permanently plugging the well -- located in a shallow area about 30 miles southeast of Grand Isle, La. Anglo-Suisse owned a cluster of five platforms in that area that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Times-Picayune reported that the company said it only leaked 5 gallons of oil. But as The Lookout's Brett Michael Dykes points out, that's more than a little questionable given the size of the slick and the amount of oil people were reportedly finding on the beaches.

Of course, the oil was "nowhere near the volume of Deepwater Horizon but still significant enough," as Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry said earlier this week (via the Wall Street Journal). But it was a good reminder of something that we reported on last year in the middle of the BP spill, when evidence of additional leaks nearby came to light. Even when there's not a massive spill underway, there may we be leakage from other wells that isn't monitored very closely. Companies are required by law to report their spills to the National Response Center, Coast Guard or Environmental Protection Agency if there's a "visible sheen," but that requires them to notice the leak, actually report it, and be honest about how much oil has spilled.

It's probably not too surprising, given the constant attention it's been getting in the press recently, but the Japanese nuclear crisis has turned more Americans off to nuclear power. Two new polls released Tuesday found that 58 percent of those polled said they are now less supportive of expanding nuclear power here in the US.

The poll, conducted by ORC International on behalf of the Civil Society Institute (CSI), found that two-thirds of respondents said they would protest the construction of a new nuclear reactor within 50 miles of their homes. Fifty-three percent said they support "a moratorium on new nuclear reactor construction in the United States" and would prefer energy efficiency and renewables. (It's worth noting, though, that among those that already supported of nuclear power, 24 percent now said they are actually more supportive now.) The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press also released a new poll on Tuesday that found nuclear support had taken a nose-dive.

As for funding these new nuclear plants, 73 percent in the CSI poll said they don't think taxpayers should "take on the risk for the construction of new nuclear power reactors" with federal loan guarantees. The Obama administration has made expanding the loan guarantees a major part of its energy agenda, but there have been plenty of concerns about forcing taxpayers to foot the bill if something goes wrong.

When Gallup last polled Americans on nuclear power in 2009, it found support at a new high—59 percent of the public favored it. It had been years since a nuclear accident was all over the news. But as I noted last week, the last major nuclear power accident in the US was enough to turn Americans off from it for a generation. I ventured then that this latest situation in Japan may have a similar effect. Given that the latest polls were conducted in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, it's unclear what their conclusions mean for the future of nuclear power. What will be interesting is the longer-term influence on public opinion once Japan's nuclear emergency fades from the news.

State governments are grappling with massive budget deficits, overburdened social programs, and mountains of deferred spending. But never mind all that. For some conservative lawmakers, it's the perfect time to legislate the promotion of creationism in the classroom. In the first three months of 2011, nine creationism-related bills have been introduced in seven states—that's more than in any year in recent memory:


1. Texas

Legislation: HB 2454 would ban discrimination against creationists, for instance, biology professors who believe in intelligent design. Defending his bill, Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler told Mother Jones, "When was the last time we’ve seen someone go into a windstorm or a tornado or any other kind of natural disaster, and say, 'Guess what? That windstorm just created a watch'?"

Status: Referred to Higher Education Committee.


2. Kentucky

Legislation: The Kentucky Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act (HB 169) would have allowed teachers to use "other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner." Kentucky already authorizes public schools to teach "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation." The state is home to the world-renowned Creation Museum and it may soon build the Ark Encounter, the world's first creationist theme park.

Status: Died in committee. 


3. Florida

Legislation: SB 1854 would amend Florida law to require a "thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution." In 2009, Florida state Sen. Stephen Wise, the bill's sponsor, rhetorically asked a Tampa radio host: "Why do we still have apes if we came from them?"

Status: Referred to Senate Committee on Education Pre-K-12, which Wise chairs.