Blue Marble - March 2011

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 18

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 7:42 AM EDT

News from our other blogs on health and the environment.

Sweet as Sugar: Get out your sugar cubes: Sharia law is like polio, says a Missouri rep.

No Cigar: A history of US nuclear "near misses" spells need for reform.

Knife Sharpening: Republicans are looking to cut the budget, and Medicaid is high on the list.

No Opt Out: Customers sue Walgreens for leaking personal data to Big Pharma.

Lab Rats?: Are we mice, or men, asks Rep. Bachmann re: Obamacare repeal.

Taken Seriously: Mercury's a health hazard, yet rule-makers continue to consider polluter-funded "studies."

City Life: If NYC had more people, it'd have lower per capita CO2 emissions, but would people still want to live there?

Reason to Panic: Just because Japan's plants are failing doesn't mean you should dismiss all nuclear power.

Reasonable Doubt: Police aren't sure when a man's dress, or orientation, make his murder a hate crime.

 

 

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Video: 5 Classic Nuclear Power Propaganda Films

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 5:58 PM EDT

Is the Japanese nuclear emergency freaking you out? Perhaps you don't appreciate just how cute and harmless the power of the atom can be—at least when it's in cartoon form. Below, a few gems of propaganda aimed at calming nuke skeptics, from the Cold War to the present day.

Nuclear Boy: Disaster goes kawaii in this adorable Japanese animation, in which the damaged Fukushima Daichii power plant becomes Nuclear Boy, a little guy with an "upset stomach." And those brave workers trying to avert catastrophe? They're shown as a doctor working "around the clock to make sure he doesn't poo."

Radiation Travel Models

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 5:12 PM EDT
Clouds travelling the jet stream. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

Wondering where that radiation's heading?

Jeff Masters at WunderBlog has used NOAA's HYSPLIT model to forecast possible travel routes for Japan's radioactive particles based on weather systems and the jet stream. You can see his forecast tracks here.

Beginning Saturday, he suggests, as the winds over Japan shift to southwesterly, radioactive emissions will begin being lifted high in the atmosphere:

Since there is less friction aloft, and the high speed winds of jet stream increase as the air moves higher in the atmosphere, this radiation will undergo long-range transport. Latest trajectory runs... show that radioactivity emitted today [Thursday] and Friday could wind up over Alaska and eastern Siberia after five days, and radioactive particles emitted on Saturday could make it to Hawaii and California by late next week.

As to how much radioactivity will be travelling across the Pacific, that's a lot more difficult to ascertain, since Japan hasn't released either measurements or estimates of the totals—numbers crucial to forecasting any potential health effects.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

A leading radiological health expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that the CDC was still confident that there would be no serious health consequences here. But CDC officials are watching the situation carefully. "We have a saying: 'Modeling is OK, but measurement is everything,'" he said.

Of most concern long distance is fallout from the Fukushima reactor number 3 and its spent storage pool, because both house fuel rods containing plutonium fuel—a risk to human health even in very small quantities. Japan's helicopter efforts yesterday were focussed on reactor number 3.

 

 

To get a sense of how weather is driving across the Pacific, you can see a near-realtime Northern Hemisphere jet stream model (above) here. FYI, this provides a view from over the North Pole, which might seem disorienting, at first. The entire North Pacific is in the lower left quadrant.

The New York Times has an interactive radiation forecast tool here.

The Canadian Weather Office has a beautiful big blue Pacific Ocean stitched satellite viewer here, from which you can infer a lot about what's coming across the water and the meanderings of the jet stream.

The Austrian Weather Service, ZAMG, is running shorter-duration radiation forecast models here.

Piggybacking on Disaster

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 2:04 PM EDT
Tsunami damage north of Sendai, Japan. Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

Every nation on Earth ought to be spooked by the failures of redundancy in Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant. Cooling systems failed, then back-up systems, then back-ups to the back-ups, and—so far—every one of the the jury-rigged fixes.

Clearly, many governments are reassessing risk at their nuclear power plants.

An interesting piece in the Asia Times by Sudha Ramachandran examines India's response. India has seven nuclear plants with 20 reactors located in the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Several  sit on the coast.

Ramachandran writes that Shashikant Dharne, the joint director at the Nuclear Power Corporation, claims Indian nuclear plant structures, systems, and equipment are designed to withstand the maximum possible earthquake at their location. And that quakes and tsunamis have done little damage to nuclear reactors in India.

The Narora plant has not been damaged in the several tremors it has experienced in the past 21 years it has been in operation, including one of 6.3 magnitude. When an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude hit Gujarat in 2001, operations at the Kakrapur plant went on uninterrupted. When the 2004 tsunami battered the Tamil Nadu coast, the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant's grounds were flooded, and the reactor went through an automatic shutdown process and did not operate for a few days. According to P K Iyengar, former chairman of the [Atomic Energy Commission], the decision to install its electrical systems 17 meters above the ground, prevented damage to the reactor.

Of course, Japan's reactors weathered many a quake and tsunami for decades too. The problem here is imagining that 21 or 41 years of good performance in any way equates to a guarantee of continued good performance in the future. This is a failure we continually commit, including with regards to climate change.

Ramachandran notes that Indian nuclear experts stress key differences between India and Japan, both in types of reactors and in where they're sited.

Unlike Japan's nuclear plants which are located in highly seismic areas (Fukushima is located in Zone 5) most of India's nuclear plants are situated in the moderately seismic Zone 3. The Narora plant is the only one located in Zone 4. Officials rule out the possibility of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake striking Indian nuclear plants since none of them are located in the highly seismic Himalayan region.

As I wrote yesterday, though, no one expected the subduction zone off Sendai, Japan, capable of a 9.0 quake. We're relearning what we think we know all the time, and much of that knowledge piggybacks on disasters.

The takeaway lesson here is that what we know now—whether about seismic stress or tsunami heights or nuclear plant redundancy systems—is not all there is to know. The dangerous systems we engineer must also have engineered into them the understanding that we only know some of the risks, not all of them, and maybe never will.

Newt Gingrich, What Happened? [WATCH]

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 7:30 AM EDT

To quote the opening credits for All in the Family, those were the days. You know, in 2008, way back when, when goils were goils and men were men—and Newt Ginrich and Nancy Pelosi got together to call for action on climate change. (Even if action in Gingrich-speak means jumpstarting clean technologies, not regulating dirty ones.)

Now Republican leaders have decided that global warming is a fairy tale that requires no effort on the part of the feds. And if states want to act, too bad—the Koch Bros have spoken. Candidate Gingrich, author of a book called A Contract With The Earth, doesn't want to take away the EPA's ability to regulate air pollutants (the GOP's current goal). Nope. He wants to eliminate the agency altogether. Because—dammit!—that's what it takes to be president.

Senators' "Sneak-Attack" on the EPA

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 3:00 PM EDT

Today the Senate will consider two bills that would clamp down on the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act. This comes on the day after the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted in favor of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) Energy Tax Prevention Act, or HR 910, which would overturn the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Today, the Senate will vote on two items: an amendment introduced by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that essentially attaches HR 910 as an amendment to an unrelated small business bill, and a bill by Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), which puts a hold on the EPA's regulatory powers for two years.

Rockefeller, who racked up $31,200 in campaign contributions from Peabody Energy from 2005 through 2010, claims he's "not for" a bill "which abolishes the EPA" and "strips them all of funding"—it's simply that Congress needs an opportunity to enact climate legislation. If last summer's fizzling of the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill is any sign, the chances of Congress doing so in the foreseeable future are slim to none. Nevertheless, Rockefeller's bill won the support of six other Democratic senators. (MoJo's Kate Sheppard has more on this.)

In essence, McConnell and Rockefeller's motions represent a "sneak-attack" on the EPA, as the Natural Resource Defense Council's Dan Lashof puts it. And according to NRDC's Pete Altman, these actions are moving forward despite strong opposition from public interest groups including the American Lung Association, the Consumers Union, and the Small Business Majority.

Meanwhile, a recent poll from NRDC found that 63 percent of likely voters agreed that Congress should not stop the EPA from updating air quality standards, and 69 percent thought that "EPA scientists, rather than Congress, should set pollution standards." And in California, where GOP members are now trying to pre-empt a strict carbon-emissions law, voters just swatted down an oil-industry-funded initiative to suspend that law by a 62 percent to 39 percent margin.

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Science of the Quake: 16 March 2011

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 2:24 PM EDT
Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant before the tsunami. Credit: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, via Wikimedia Commons.

A survey of developments in light of Japan's triple disasters: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear.

The New York Times reports the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission views Japan's nuclear problems far more bleakly than Japan, advising that because radiation levels are "extremely high" Americans should evacuate to a 50-mile radius from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Japan has imposed an evacuation order only to a 12-mile radius, and a shelter-in-place suggestion within a 12- to 18-mile radius.

The Environmental News Network notes that the massive amounts of seawater workers are pouring onto Fukushima's failing nuclear reactors and cooling ponds are afterwards flushing into the sea, presumably laden with a variety of radioactive isotopes.

On the tsunami front, the New Zealand Herald reports that tsunami waves hit every single beach and coastline in New Zealand, in places doubling wave heights. The first wave arrived 12 hours after the quake. The largest swells hit 45 to 52 hours after the quake. Even now, days later, New Zealand is recording leftover waves affecting currents in harbors and estuaries. These 6-day-old swells are the echoes of tsunamis continuing to bounce off continental shelves and coastlines around the entire Pacific Ocean basin all the way down to Antarctica.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that tsunami waves devastated seabird breeding rookeries on Midway Atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian Archipelago, killing tens of thousands of Laysan albatross, including adults and their chicks. The adults died because they don't easily abandon their chicks, and because it takes an albatross a long time to lumber across the water and get airborne. More on that in an upcoming post.

 

Laysan albatross chicks and a few parent birds. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Logico, US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.Laysan albatross chicks and a few parent birds. Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Logico, US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons.

On the earthquake front, Nature News reports on the surprise among researchers of a 9.0 temblor off Sendai:

[G]eophysicists had thought that great subduction-zone earthquakes happened only where younger oceanic crust scrapes its way into the mantle. Older crust, which is cooler and denser, was thought to slide much more readily downward, triggering smaller quakes. And the ocean crust off the northeast part of Japan, having formed about 140 million years ago, is about as old as it can get.

The Great Sumatran Earthquake of 2004 also appeared to negate the sea-floor-age hypothesis, since old subducting crust there in no way hampered a 9.1 quake. In the case of Sendai, recent data suggest the area's getting squeezed, that the Pacific plate was stuck and released in a giant lurch.

 

The Japanese Islands are situated along a line to the west of the Japan Trench. Credit: NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.The Japanese Islands are situated along a line to the west of the Japan Trench. Credit: NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

New Scientists reports on how Japan's ultra-advanced seismic monitoring system gave them speedy information—too speedy, it turns out:

Japan has a network over 800 seismic monitoring stations called Hi-net that can detect everything from the faintest tremor to the biggest temblor. It works almost too well... on Friday the Japan Meteorological Agency issued an initial warning on its website that a magnitude-7.9 quake had struck off the coast of central Honshu island. The quake ended up far bigger, but the warning came before the fault had even finished breaking.

The problem was it took about 3.5 minutes for more than 248 miles of the Japan trench to finish rupturing. The warning bells sounded too soon. Of further interest: Why do these quakes break as they do? Why not stop at a 100-mile rupture and a smaller than 9.0 magnitude? Or why not carry on for over 620 miles, as did the 2004 Sumatra quake? It's still a mystery.

Renaissance Lost?

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 10:01 AM EDT
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Many have wondered what Japen's nuclear crisis means for the nuclear renaissance that US politicians on both sides of the aisle have been pushing in recent years. The industry got a financial boost last year when the Obama administration called for tripling of a loan guarantee program for new nuclear plants to $54.5 billion. The Department of Energy says that the loans will help spur the construction of up to 13 new reactors in the US. But the big figures belie the fact that the nuclear rebirth was already facing problems.

It's been three decades since a new nuclear power plant was built in the United States. The nuclear industry has made it quite clear that it can't get back on its feet without significant backing from the federal government. And while there has been increased political interest in providing the loan guarantees, the most promising proposed plants have all faced significant setbacks.

Last October, it became clear that the proposed expansion at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland isn't going to happen any time soon. The Department of Energy was preparing to offer one of its new loan guarantees to Constellation Energy, which owns and operates the two generating units already on the site on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. The company, in partnership with French utility EDF Group, had outlined plans to build a third reactor there.

In order to get one of these loan guarantees, recipients are expected to pay a credit subsidy to the DOE to cover the risk should the project fail. The figure is a percentage of the loan based on the probability that the plant will go belly up, meant to protect taxpayers from taking on the burden of paying back investors. (I explain the high default risk and the credit subsidy in more detail here.) But when DOE offered its estimate of how much Constellation should have to pay up front last October, the company bailed—complaining that the 11.6 percent credit subsidy cost, totaling about $880 million for the $9.6 billion project, was "unworkable." EDF is now looking for a new US partner on the project in order to keep the plans to build a new reactor alive.

Meanwhile, the first recipient of a DOE loan guarantee, the Vogtle project in Georgia, has yet to obtain a permit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has cited concerns about safety shortcomings with its shield design. The NRC has been moving toward approving the design in the next few months, though an NRC engineer has still expressed concerns that the shield is not strong enough to withstand an earthquake—an issue that's gotten a whole lot more important in the past week.

Another top contender for a loan guarantee, the South Texas Project near Bay City, Texas, stalled last year after skyrocketing cost projections prompted San Antonio's municipal utility, CPS, to back out of the venture. That sparked a legal dispute with NRG Energy, the lead on the project, which then had to go looking for new investors. NRG eventually partnered up with Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)—the owner of the distressed reactors in Japan—which agreed to take on a 10 percent stake in the deal if the loan guarantee came through. The NRC is holding a hearing on whether to grant the first stage of approval for the project today. But given the situation still unfolding in Japan, it's not clear whether TEPCO will be able to follow through with that promise, making the future of an expansion in Texas once again murky.

And those are just the problems facing a few of the top nuclear candidates. So while the situation in Japan may well change the conversation about nuclear power here in the US, the reality on the ground was already looking bleak for a nuclear renaissance.

Texas Bill Would Outlaw Discrimination Against Creationists

| Wed Mar. 16, 2011 7:00 AM EDT
Why can't evolutionists and creationists get along like humans and dinosaurs did?

Unlike many other states, Texas does not ban workplace discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status. But don't be alarmed; the Lone Star State is working on that whole civil liberties thing. Last week, Republican State Rep. Bill Zedler introduced HB 2454, a bill that would establish new workplace protections for proponents of intelligent design. Here's the key part:

An institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member's or student's conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.

And you thought Berkeley was crazy. On the upside, maybe the University of Texas will be able to help a few of the folks who are falling through Texas' fraying social safety net. Out of a job? Come up with an elaborate theory about how a flying spaghetti monster created the universe. A tenured professorship awaits.

READ THE LATEST: Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler defends his creationism bill in an interview with Mother Jones.

Animation: Subduction Zone Tsunami

| Tue Mar. 15, 2011 9:00 PM EDT


This animation by Miho Aoki at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Art Department illustrates how a tsunami is generated by a subduction zone earthquake—the same type as Japan's 2011 Sendai temblor. Really big subduction zone quakes can displace massive areas of seabed and generate monster tsunamis.