Blue Marble - July 2012

Fukushima a "Manmade" Nuclear Betrayal: Japan Panel

| Thu Jul. 5, 2012 2:27 PM EDT

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team examines tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Giovanni Verlini / IAEA via FlickrInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team examines tsunami damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant:Giovanni Verlini | IAEA via Flickr

Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters. But the fustercluck at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was an epic man-made fail arising from a deeply-ingrained mindset among Japanese industry, government, and people, including a cultural reluctance to question authority.

That's the conclusion of a 600-page Japanese parliamentary report that draws on interviews with more than 1,000 people and hearings that lasted 900 hours. From the the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission report (English version here):

"It was a profoundly manmade disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly "manmade." We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to 11 March 2011. The accident occurred because the plant operator TEPCO didn't take these measures, and because the regulatory bodies NISA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) went along with that:

They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization's self interest, and not in the interest of public safety.

 

Layout of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: The Fukushima  Nuclear Accident Independent  Investigation CommissionLayout of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: 

The causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to 11 March 2011, the report concludes. Yet Fukushima was unprepared and therefore incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami. The people and organizations in control failed to develop the most basic safety requirements, including:

"If Japan had implemented measures in the B.5.b subsection of the US security order that followed the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Fukushima accident may have been preventable."
  • Assessing the probability of damage
  • Preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster
  • Developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a serious radiation release.

The government, regulators, and TEPCO also failed to:

  • Implement structural reinforcements needed to conform to new guidelines
  • Create regulations to minimize the known risk of core damage from large tsunami waves
  • Take any measures to address a known risk of a total electricity outage from large tsunami waves
  • Act in any way on the known risk of a loss of seawater pumps from large tsunami waves, therefore setting the stage for reactor core damage

Timeline of people in nuclear evacuation zone learning about nuclear disaster: The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation CommissionTimeline of people in nuclear evacuation zone learning about the nuclear disaster: The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission

The report also analyzes when and how people in the nuclear evacuation zone learned about the nuclear disaster (image above). It quotes from several residents on the complicating effects of unpreparedness:

"If there had been even a word about a nuclear power plant when the evacuation was ordered, we could have reacted reasonably, taken our valuables with us or locked up the house before we had left. We had to run with nothing but the clothes we were wearing. It is such a disappointment every time we are briefly allowed to return home only to find out that we have been robbed again."

"We wanted to hear clearly that we would not be able to return for awhile. I couldn't bring my valuables with me. In particular, because records of medical treatment were left at home, my parents’ conditions worsened during evacuation."


Damage to Fukushima prefecture: Hajime NAKANO via FlickrDamage to Fukushima prefecture: Hajime NAKANO via FlickrThe tone of the report is simultaneously self-searching and scathing:

The Commission believes the root causes of this accident cannot be resolved and that the people's confidence cannot be recovered as long as this "manmade disaster" is seen as the result of error by a specific individual. The underlying issue is the social structure that results in "regulatory capture," and the organizational, institutional, and legal framework that allows individuals to justify their own actions, hide them when inconvenient, and leave no records in order to avoid responsibility. Across the board, the Commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety. We found a habit of adherence to conditions based on conventional procedures and prior practices, with a priority on avoiding risk to the organization. We found an organization-driven mindset that prioritized benefits to the organization at the expense of the public.

The report casts system-wide blame, reinforcing doubt about the wisdom of Japan's restart of its nuclear reactor in the town of Ohi in Fukui prefecture on Sunday—the first restart since all reactors were shut down post Fukushima.

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Janet Napolitano Connects Wildfires to Climate Change

| Wed Jul. 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Obama administration official Janet Napolitano discusses climate change at a press conference in Colorado Springs.

After President Obama declared Colorado an official disaster area, making federal aid available to two counties suffering the devastating aftermath of the High Park and Waldo Canyon blazes, members of his cabinet, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, visited Colorado Springs yesterday to assess the wreckage—and answer this lingering question from Climate Desk reporter James West:

Is this recent onslaught of extreme weather indicative of climate change?

"It could be a lot of different things," Napolitano said at a press conference at Coronado High School. "You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer. You can always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there's a pattern here."

Here's a video of Napolitano speaking to James at yesterday's press conference.

Feds Announce Record Fine for Michigan Oil Spill

| Tue Jul. 3, 2012 5:21 PM EDT

Just ahead of the two-year anniversary of the giant oil spill in Michigan, the federal government has handed down a $3.7 million fine and a notice of 24 violations to the Canadian company responsible for the pipeline.

The July 2010 incident dumped upwards of 20,000 barrels of diluted bitumen—a heavy form of petroleum—into the Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it is the largest fine the office has ever assessed. The company was also cited for failing to address corrosion in the pipeline, and for not responding fast enough to the spill.

But as Anthony Swift, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out, even that record fine probably isn't enough to make pipeline operators fix problems:

At $3.7 million, federal pipeline regulators are proposing the largest fine in the agency’s history for noncompliance with minimum safety standards – and yet it’s a tiny fraction of what compliance will cost Enbridge. Nearly a year after the Kalamazoo River spill, Enbridge announced that it would finally replace 75 miles of corroded pipeline on its Line 6B pipeline at an expected to cost $286 million. In this context, the PHMSA fine hardly amounts to a slap on the wrist, amounting to a small cost of doing business than a meaningful incentive to make the business decision that protects the public and environment.
Of course, the cost of the Kalamazoo spill, at over $750 million, far exceeds both PHMSA’s paltry fining authority as well as the cost of replacing corroded pipe and complying with regulations. However, remember that the Kalamazoo River tar sands spill was an order of magnitude greater than the worst case spill scenario anticipated by Enbridge. Overly optimistic risk assessments seem to permeate the pipeline industry. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found overly optimistic risk assessments to be one of the causes of the tragic, and preventable, San Bruno explosion which killed eight people.

For more on the Enbridge spill, see Inside Climate's excellent three-party series on the incident and its lasting impacts or this piece from Ted Genoways on a whistleblower who has been on a crusade to get the company to clean up its act. It's also worth noting that Enbridge has a history of spills in the US. Will a record fine lead to any changes at the company?

Aerial Firefighting Capacity Declines as Wildfires Grow

| Tue Jul. 3, 2012 2:09 PM EDT

C-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsC-130 air tanker dropping water: Technical Sergeant Rick Sforza, United States Air Force, via Wikimedia CommonsThe US Air Force, which grounded the remaining seven of its eight C-130 air tankers after a crash in South Dakota on Sunday, has cleared the fleet to fly again today.

The downed C-130 was from an Air National Guard wing in Charlotte, North Carolina. Four of six crew members are confirmed killed, reports MSNBC.

The Air Force C-130s are are called upon when US Forest Service can't adequately fight wildfires with private and commercial fleets. This year all eight Air Force tankers were activated simultaneously to fight wildfires in the West. The last time that happened was in 2008.

Current large wildlfires underway in the US: USDACurrent large wildfires underway in the US (click here for larger version): USDA

You can see in the map above the location of large fires in the US as of 03 July 2012. Until the seven remaining USAF C-130s get back online, all 55 of these fires will be sharing 14 civilian air tankers for air support.

That's a sharp decline in aerial firefighting resources since a decade ago when 44 tankers were devoted to firefighting. Today only nine air tankers are flown exclusively on US Forest Service contracts, reports the Guardian:

President Barack Obama signed a bill last month hastening the addition of seven large tanker planes to the nation's rundown aerial firefighting fleet, at a cost of $24m, but the first planes won't be available until mid-August.

Further hampering the US fleet, another aerial firefighting plane, a Lockheed P2V, crashed in Utah recently, killing two pilots. Another crash-landed in Nevada with no loss of life.

 

Fire probability maps based on ensemble models of mean change (click for larger version): Max A. Mortiz, et al, EcosphereFire maps showing mean change (A, C) and degree of model agreement (B, D) for the periods 2010-2039 (top) and 2070-2099 (bottom). Click for larger version: Max A. Moritz, et al, Ecosphere Meanwhile a paper published last month in Exosphere, the open-access, peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, forecasts big increases in wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere this century as global temperatures continue to rise.

As you can see in the map above (image D), the intermountain West of North America, large portions of Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, northern Scandinavia, plus most of Central Asia and Siberia are predicted to suffer 90 percent more fires between 2077 and 2099. Most of the rest of the Northern hemisphere is forecast to experience 66 percent more wildfires.

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: The National Guard via FlickrThe two trends—declining aerial firefighting capacity and increasing wildfires—makes for a highly combustible future.

Toss in the match from a recent paper in PNAS showing how wildfire suppression in the American West beginning in the 20th century created a monster build-up of combustible fuels, combined with a spread of fire-prone species and increased tree mortality from insects and warming temperatures...

Well, it looks like we're in danger of losing control of "the control of fire"—the only thing that truly separated us from other animals in our early evolution.

I wrote more about the PNAS paper here.

72 Percent of the US Is Experiencing Dry or Drought Conditions

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 3:21 PM EDT

High Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via FlickrHigh Park Wildfire, Colorado: USDA via Flickr

The extreme weather that began in June (see Deanna Pan's MoJo coverage here) has rolled over into July.

Yesterday—only the first day of the month—was brutal enough to shatter 27 records and tie 24 records for the highest ever July temperatures (map below).

US monthly highest maximum temperature records set on 01 July 2012 NASA | National Climatic Data CenterUS monthly highest-maximum-temperature records set on 01 July 2012: NASA | National Climatic Data Center

More amazingly, the first day of the month also broke 6 and tied 11 records for the highest ever recorded temperatures on any date at sites in Georgia (Rome: 108°F), Kentucky (Barren River Lake: 108°F), North Carolina (Tapoco: 106°F), and South Carolina (Grnvl Spart Intl Ap: 107°F).

Extreme drought conditions fueling heatwave and wildfires: NOAAExtreme drought conditions fueling heat wave and wildfires: NOAAPart of what's fueling the insane heat are the same extreme drought conditions feeding the wildfires out west. (Tim McDonnell's MoJo wildfire explainer here.)

As you can see in the map above, 72 percent of the lower 48 is now classified as experiencing dry or drought conditions. And don't expect things to get better soon. 

 

July to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterJuly to September temperature and precipitation predictions (click for larger version): NASA | Climate Prediction CenterNOAA's Climate Prediction Center's drought monitor (above) shows drought, plus anomalously high temperatures, persisting for the next three months. 

Only the Pacific Northwest is expected to harbor below normal temperatures. Seattle, expect a tourist boom.

500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012. As high temperature dome slides into the Southeast another is developing in the Southwest:Note that another dome of high pressure is developing in the southwest again: NOAA500 mb chart for 0700 30 June 2012: NOAA The good news is that the high-pressure ridge that brought so much misery to the eastern US is slowly sliding westward.

The bad news is that another one is building behind it in the Southwest.

Heat index: NOAA via WikipediaHeat index: NOAA via Wikipedia

Making matters worse, the extremely high temperatures in the East are abetted by extremely high humidities. Aberdeen, Mississippi suffered 104°F temperatures yesterday. But its dewpoint of 84° at 3 pm made for a heat index (air temp + relative humidity) of a paralyzing 136.

 Sea surface temperatures anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAASea surface temperature anomalies on 02 July 2012 (click for larger version): NOAA

As you can see in this map of global sea surface temperature anomalies, the ocean is considerably warmer than average in most of the Gulf of Mexico, and scarily above average off the Eastern Seaboard. That's like gasoline to the flames of humidity.

(Note also the Mediterranean's crazy hot water temps and correlate with Spain's epic heat and wildfires currently underway.)

Tropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAATropical Storm Debby rainfall totals: NOAAThe only force that's likely to cool off US waters off anytime soon is a tropical cyclone.

The waters around Florida are currently cooler than average (see sea surface temps map, above) thanks to the devastation of Tropical Storm Debby last week.

Fire and brimstone? Or flood and havoc? Doesn't seem to be a whole lot of comfortable middle ground anywhere these days.

How Wildfires Are Just Like Premarital Sex

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Where there's smoke, there's fire...and a lot of hot air.  Sgt. Jesica Geffre/US Army Where there's smoke, there's fire...and a lot of hot air. The National Guard/FlickrIn the wake of the behemothic Colorado Waldo Canyon wildfire that has razed hundreds of homes, blighted thousands of acres, and forced more than 35,000 people to flee for their lives, the Colorado-Springs-based evangelical group Focus on the Family thoughtfully reminds us a savage inferno isn't the only thing ragin' in these woods. (via Right Wing Watch)

In a blog post titled "Dig Deeper: Same Wisdom Applied to Sexual Risk Avoidance as Wildfire," published Wednesday on CitizenLink, the news and political arm of Focus on the Family, abstinence education analyst Chad Hills breaks it down. (My comments are in bold.)

Today, in the state of Colorado, we are breathing smoke from a number of wildfires burning out of control. As of this morning, near Focus on the Family, it's being reported that 15,000 acres have been consumed by fire and some 34,000 people evacuated by the Waldo Canyon fire. More to come, I'm sure.

Ah, yes. A body count.

Huge plumes of smoke and fire are billowing upward from our pine-covered mountains, as whimsical winds drive the fires on dangerously unpredictable paths. All the while, exhausted firefighters and police work feverishly to close roads and evacuate homes that could be overtaken. Check out a couple of photos showing the devastation, below:

Or here.

Questions begin to fester in our heads: So many fires have started in such close, uncanny sequence in Colorado, with Waldo Canyon being more recent…Would any sane person intentionally start a series of fires (arson) that would destroy other people's lives? Could someone be so reckless or careless as to start a campfire, disregarding the extremely dry conditions, risks and a state-wide fire ban that is in effect? Or could it be nature, such as lightning, absent of rain?

Wouldn't we all agree that it's better to prevent a forest fire, if and when possible, than treat the immense damage in its aftermath?

These questions are similar to what the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) is asking Congress and state legislatures about our nation’s approach toward pre-marital sex…Certain questions arise: Why aren't our schools, our states and our nation placing a clear and unquestionable priority on sexual risk avoidance (SRA)?

See A, B, and C.

Why are we intentionally spending billions of dollars handing kids matches (condoms), which result in careless (sexual) "fires" and treating victims who have been unnecessarily burned by sex (STDs, pregnancy)? Wouldn't prevention be cheaper and healthier?

"Safe" sex education—or promoting casual sex, while handing out condoms and birth control to kids—is analogous to passing out matches to kids in school, and telling them, “Be sure you play safely with these in the forest and, above all, have fun!”

It's irresponsible messaging that encourages high-risk behavior at a great cost to families and our entire nation. 

Yet our federal government currently pours nearly 16 times as much money into "safe" sex education than it does into helping kids learn how to avoid starting fires in the area of sexuality or SRA. Perhaps this is why we have so many uncontained "fires" caused by sex outside of marriage.

What can we learn?

  • Neither adults nor children should ever play carelessly with matches or fire, especially in forests. Safe places exist to enjoy the warmth of a contained fire in the right context at the right time—started and monitored by responsible adults.
  • Neither adults nor children should carelessly play with sex, especially outside of marriage. A safe place exists to enjoy sexual bonding within the right context at the right time—when a responsible, adult man and adult woman are able sustain a lifelong, commitment to each other within the context of marriage.
  • Don't get burned by fire or sex; both can get out of control quickly, and both have the potential to harm you—and to hurt many other people, as well. Keep fires in the fireplace, and keep sex inside of marriage.

BOOM, baby.

Sadly, impressionable minds will continue to fester with…questions because CitizenLink has scrubbed Mr. Hills' lucid wisdom from the annals of the interwebs. Here's a screen shot of his original post.

"Dig deeper," people! SOULS ARE AT STAKE! CitizenLink.com"Dig deeper," people! SOULS ARE AT STAKE! CitizenLink.com

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Should You Leave the AC On for Your Cat or Dog?

| Mon Jul. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Hot kitty.

I've been told that in the Mother Jones DC bureau last week, a debate raged over whether or not it's only crazy cat ladies who leave the air conditioner on all day for pets. I can see both sides: Sure, it's pitiful to see dogs pant and cats make themselves as flat as possible to beat the heat, especially during gnarly heat waves. And yes, it's true that pets are unable to doff their fur coats.

On the other hand, their ancestors lived outside for eons before we domesticated them, so surely they must be heartier than we give them credit for. What's more, round-the-clock AC is exorbitantly expensive and contributes significantly to climate change, as the New York Times recently reported. Because of the soaring demand for air conditioning worldwide, and because the gases emitted by modern cooling equipment are extremely potent planet warmers, scientists estimate that AC units could account for a staggering 27 percent of global warming by 2050.

So is it really necessary to chill Fido all day long? I decided to call a few veterinarians to settle the argument once and for all. Dr. Helen Myers, veterinarian at the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center, had this to say in an email:

When the temperature and humidity rise, it becomes crucial to keep our pets comfortable and safe. Animals cool themselves by panting, a process of exchanging warm air from their lungs for the cooler air outside. This cannot happen when it is hot and humid, which leads to increased risk for heat stress and exhaustion. Leaving the air circulating with fans or, better yet, leaving the air conditioning on will help to keep pets cool and healthy. Thermostats should ideally be set at 78-80 degrees, an appropriate comfort level for most pets. Basements are typically cooler than the rest of the house, so if your basement is a comfortable place for your pet to be, having them spend time down there during a heat wave is also an option. Pets should also always have access to fresh water, as they can get dehydrated.
 
Both cats and dogs are susceptible to excessive heat and humidity, but cats are more likely to control their activity so as not to add heat from muscle activity. Elderly, overweight, and pets with heart or lung diseases should be carefully watched, as they are highly susceptible to heat stroke. Pets with short muzzles like pugs, bulldogs and Persian cats are at a higher risk of becoming overheated because they cannot effectively pant. These pets should be kept in rooms with air conditioning so they can stay cool.

Kimberly May, a veterinarian and spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medicine Association, added that it's important to observe your pet and adjust the indoor temperature according to its particular needs. "Keep an eye on your pet and see where your pet hangs out," says May. "If your dog is constantly by the AC vent, you probably shouldn't turn it off. But if you see the dog sitting in the sunlight, you might have a little more leeway." As a general rule of thumb, cats are often slightly more heat-tolerant than dogs, and for both species, the longer the fur, the more uncomfortable the animal will be in extreme heat.

As for the argument that animals don't need AC since their forebears dealt with heat just fine, May doesn't buy it. "We've domesticated them and ruined all that," she says. "It's not smart to make an assumption about their needs based on their ancestors. We've changed their diets; we've changed a lot of things."

A few other tips from May: You can try putting ice in your pet's water bowl, but only if your animal is comfortable with it; some cats and dogs are freaked by ice and won't drink ice water at all. Some dogs like the pricey cooling pads sold at pet stores and on the internet (this one is $79.99 on eBay) but others won't go near them. Walk dogs in the early morning or evening, and keep the walks short. Don't go running with your dog, since dogs will keep going, even if they're overheating.

How can you tell if your animals are hot? Why, compare them to pictures of sweltering critters on the internet, of course. A few to get you started:

These cats are eagerly awaiting the unveiling of their cooling station:

cuttlefish/Flickrcuttlefish/FlickrDog in a cooler:

Inspire Kelly/FlickrInspire Kelly/FlickrHere's a hot cat hanging out by a window:

Muffet/FlickrMuffet/FlickrCat meets fan:

Photo by Kate SheppardPhoto by Kate Sheppard

Three-dog heat wave:

Tobyotter/FlickrTobyotter/FlickrHere's a hot cat in Tokyo:

Tata_Aka_T/FlickrTata_Aka_T/FlickrAnd here's one who finds a potted plant cooling:

Violette79/FlickrViolette79/Flickr