Sea stars are dying along the whole west coast of North America. Image Source: Time.
In Fukushima, Japan, there is good news and bad news. First, the good news. A 2009 report that scientists have made mice immune to radiation may find application sooner than we expect:
In other good news, the Japanese government issued a draft report on 3 December 2013; the report states that in seven years, the government expects to be able to stop dumping heavily contaminated water which TEPCO is using to cool its crippled nuclear reactors. Since March 2011, TEPCO has been dumping between 300 and 400 tonnes of contaminated water every day into the Pacific Ocean, but its officials only acknowledged that fact this past summer.In a breakthrough that could change the lives of cancer victims, pilots and nuclear power plant workers, researchers might have found a way to protect cells from radiation damage.In a study published in the new AAAS journal Science Translational Medicine ... researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute found that they could protect healthy cells from radiation injury by turning off an inhibitory pathway that regulates nitric oxide. ...Dr. Isenberg and his team made the discovery that by switching off a related inhibitory pathway that controls nitric oxide, they could give animals "near immunity to record levels of radiation," he says.
In mice, when Dr. Isenberg and his team introduced a drug that prevented a protein, thrombospondin-1, from binding to a surface cell receptor called CD47, the animals could endure almost unheard-of doses of radiation with virtually no ill effects.
In cellular studies, cells could withstand up to the tested amount: 60 Gy. And in whole animal studies, mice could endure the limit they were given: 40 Gy.
"Primarily, [on mice] people are using 5-10 Gy. This is off the scale from what they've published," he says.
Shockingly, the irradiated rodents were almost completely unharmed. Other than some mild hair loss at the site of dosage, there was almost no cell death or damage when histological samples were checked.
"There was no skin laceration or muscle loss," Dr. Isenberg says. "When we stained for cell death, we didn't even see significant loss of bone marrow, which is exquisitely sensitive...to radiation damage."
In comparison, control mice -- who didn't get the pathway-blocking treatment -- were eaten away with tissue loss and "frank necrosis of the limbs."
The utility company has also released 1,130 tonnes of contaminated water into the ground. On 2 December, Mainichi reported that TEPCO tested a ground well 40 metres from the ocean which was found to have,
strontium-90 and other radioactive substances that emit beta rays ... at a level of 1.1 million becquerels per liter (1.1 billion Bq/m³) [...] east of the No. 2 reactor. ... The national allowable emission level for strontium-90, a typical radioactive isotope that emits beta rays, is less than 30 becquerels per liter of water.
More bad news comes from different quarters. The International Atomic Energy Agency - whose officials are monitoring TEPCO's tricky removal of over 1,000 damaged spent fuel assemblies from the pool on the roof of Fukushima Daiichi Reactor #4 - today proposed that TEPCO dump all of its stored contaminated water into the ocean as well:
Noting that groundwater flowing into the complex and its reactor buildings is adding to TEPCO's struggle to store the contaminated water in makeshift storage tanks, some of which have sprung leaks causing radioactive materials to be released into the sea, Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of the IAEA's mission floated the idea of releasing radioactive water into the ocean.The chairman of the Fukushima Monitoring Committee, Dale Klein, is also the former chief nuclear watchdog in the USA. Klein gave an exclusive interview to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation in late November 2013, in which he remarked:
"Controlled discharge is a regular practice in all the nuclear facilities in the world. And what we are trying to say here is to consider this as one of the options to contribute to a good balance of risks and to stabilize the facility for the long term," Lentijo, told a news conference in Tokyo Wednesday. ...
"You cannot keep storing the water forever. We have to make choice comparing all risks involved," Tanaka said of the current and future station at the nuclear facility located 240 km northeast of Tokyo.
"At the end of the day, when the water is discharged, it will be released in a way that it's diluted. ... So there's no risk to public health and safety. But it's an emotional issue."Klein implies that the water would be decontaminated prior to dumping. However, the news stories indicate that advisers proposed the dumping precisely because there is not enough time to decontaminate the stored water. The demand for storage is outpacing the speed at which radioactive elements can be removed from water used to cool the plants.
Right now, there are about 380,000 tonnes of contaminated water stored at Fukushima. Bloomberg:
Each tank contains about 10 terabequerels, or 270 curies, of strontium-90, a radioactive element linked to leukemia that can enter the food chain by depositing into the bones of fish, Buesseler said. That is 100 times the amount of radioactivity dumped by Russia into the Sea of Japan in a 1993 incident that prompted international rules against ocean disposal.
“If only 10 of those tanks leaked it would equal all the strontium released in 2011” after the earthquake and tsunami, [Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist Ken] Buesseler said. “Once strontium gets into fish, it stays in them for months and years and it’s going to be an additional reason why they won’t be able to open up their fisheries.”
“One hundred kilometers away I can measure isotopes of cesium that are coming from the reactor” in Fukushima, Buesseler said. “They’re not at dangerous levels. The scientific question is are they at levels high enough to accumulate in the food chain and a cause for some of the fish to be above the legal limit.”Within two years, the amount of stored contaminated water at the site will be around 700,000 tonnes. Stony Brook University marine biologist Nicholas Fisher suggested that TEPCO dump the stored water in the deep Pacific, below a depth of 4,000 metres, where there is less sea life. According to nuclear industry critic Arnie Gundersen, doing this would violate a London ban on ocean dumping (read it here), imposed by the International Maritime Organization in 1996.
In other bad news, Japan's Upper House of Parliament will likely pass a State Secrets Bill this week. Bloomberg's William Pesek (via ENE Energy News):
The entire process has echoes of George Orwell. [...] if I grab a beer with a bureaucrat and ask the wrong question, could I end up in handcuffs? Ambiguity reigns. Last week, the No. 2 official in [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Shigeru Ishiba, issued a dark warning to anyone like me who might dare to question the bill. In a Nov. 29 blog post, the LDP secretary-general likened any such challenge to “an act of terrorism.” He’s since stood by his ominous statement. [Update: Read Ishiba's apology here] [...] “How can the government respond to growing demands for transparency from a public outraged by the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident if it enacts a law that gives it a free hand to classify any information considered too sensitive as a ‘state secret’?”Whatever the Upper House decides, money speaks louder than words. On 2 December 2013, the Norwegian investment fund KLP announced that it had sold its TEPCO shares, claiming, "It's been two and a half years and the situation is still not under control."
In 2012, Professor Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University remarked that under the law, 20,000 square kilometres of Japan should have been evacuated. In September 2013, Korea JoongAng Daily reported a comment from a professor in microbiology at South Korea's Dongguk University, Kim Ik-joong (via ENE):
It is true that about 70 percent of Japan’s territory is polluted [...] According to PNAS, a scientific journal published by Japanese scholars, about 20 percent of Japanese land, including Tokyo, is contaminated with highly toxic radiation. It is obvious that agricultural products are also contaminated as the land is polluted with radioactive materials. The contamination on land will last approximately 300 years.
Yellow salmon found in the Fraser River, British Columbia, Canada (30 September 2013). Image Source: Alexandra Morton on Facebook.
There are also several recent reports of strange behaviour, illnesses and mass die offs of ocean, coastal and Arctic animals; Fukushima critics - especially the news aggregator ENE Energy News - have of course married all of these reports together. They could easily have different causes (for example, along the US eastern coast this past summer, hundreds of dolphins died from a virus). With that caveat, here is a list of incidents:
- Unusually high mortality rate and odd behaviour of killer whales off British Columbia, Canada and Alaska, USA, several reports from different outlets, aggregated at ENE (October 2013)
- Rare oarfish or 'sea serpent' (which normally swims at depths greater than 3,000 feet) surfaces, Santa Catalina Island, California, NYT (13 October 2013, reported on 15 October)
- Sockeye salmon on Canada's west coast found to have turned yellow (jaundiced), some with eye deformities, several reports aggregated at ENE and Facebook (17 October 2013)
- Yachtsman reports 'dead ocean' in Pacific for 3,000 miles from Osaka to Melbourne, Newcastle Herald (Australia) via ENE (18 October 2013)
- Another rare oarfish beaches itself at Oceanside, California; when this deep sea fish comes to the surface, its arrival is traditionally feared to be an omen of an impending earthquake, Message to Eagle and National Geographic (18 October 2013, reported 22 October)
- Starfish dying from unidentified 'disintegrating' disease, Time (5 November 2013)
- Hundreds of whales, pelicans, sea lions, dolphins in unusual feeding clusters on "miles and miles of fish" near coasts of California, British Columbia, several reports from different outlets, aggregated at ENE (November 2013)
- Hundreds of dead sea birds wash ashore in Alaska, Alaska Dispatch and ENE (27 November 2013)
- Polar bears with skin lesions, similar problems for musk oxen, seals, walruses; non-viable eggs for geese, embryo mortality for geese and other bird species, USGS and ENE (28 November 2013)
- Sharks in unusual numbers off coast of California: "Capt. Kyle Daniels of the L.A. County Lifeguard Division told us previously that while there might have been two shark sightings a year in the past, this year has seen an average of two reporting sightings per day," LA Weekly (27 November 2013)
- More sea star species dying off, King5 News (2 December 2013)