High levels of radiation have been detected in trenches outside Japan's troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Kyodo News reports, as officials say radiation may also be seeping into nearby seawater and soil. Water leaking out of the complex has tested at about 100,000 times the normal amount of radiation, according to plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., and airborne radiation outside Unit 2 now exceeds 1,000 millisieverts per hour — more than four times what the government considers safe for workers. Meanwhile, radiation from the plant is raining down as far away as Massachusetts, albeit in trace amounts too small to affect public health, U.S. authorities say.
Fukushima Daiichi has leaked radiation for 17 days now, ever since a magnitude-9.0 earthquake spawned a tsunami that flooded the complex on March 11. Plant workers are risking their lives in a dramatic struggle to prevent a full-blown meltdown, although a series of leaks, fires and explosions have hindered their efforts. Radiation spikes have also forced the workers to evacuate several times, and at least two of them were hospitalized last week with beta-ray burns. Emergency crews were back on the job Monday, though, racing to pump out radioactive water even as capacity dwindles in storage tanks. The workers are trying to restore full power to the reactors so they can keep them cooled down, but the soaring radiation levels outside the plant suggests there is some kind of leak from one of the reactors' fuel rods, the New York Times reports, or a breach in the pressure vessel that contains the rods. As nuclear engineering expert Gary Was tells the AP, that will continue to disrupt efforts to get the reactors back under control. "Battling the contamination so workers can work there is going to be an ongoing problem," he says.
Yukiya Amano, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, echoed Was' forecast over the weekend, telling the Times that Japan is "still far from the end" of the disaster. He cautioned that a lack of precise information about what's going on isn't entirely the government's fault — although Tokyo has been widely criticized for too little transparency. Many monitoring instruments remain offline, Amano points out, and radiation levels are preventing people from getting close enough to key parts of the complex. Workers can now only be near the radioactive water for 15 minutes, for example, before they become ill. "There are areas where we don't have information. We don't, and the Japanese don't, too," Amano says, although he warns against underestimating the gravity of the situation. "This is a very serious accident by all standards," he says, "and it is not yet over."
Tigers in India are staging an improbable comeback, the Guardian reports, with Indian officials reporting a 10 percent rise in wild tiger numbers since 2008. Tigers overall are still in dire straits
— having suffered a 97 percent population drop across Asia in the past century — and scientists remain worried they won't survive the next 100 years. But the possibility that India's tigers are clawing back from the brink offers renewed hope for the big cats, experts say — assuming the numbers are accurate.
"A 10 percent increase is good news and very significant – but you can always fudge the figures if you want to, whatever counting method you use," MK Ranjitsinh, the chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, tells the Guardian. Other conservationists have also expressed skepticism about the new figures, arguing that the methods used allowed the same tiger to be counted more than once. India's tiger population fell to roughly 1,000 individuals in the 1970s, triggering a widespread effort to set up wildlife reserves and boost protection of the big cats. Tigers have since become a significant tourist draw for the country, spurring further attempts to return them to India's national parks.
But even if the new numbers are correct, Indian tigers are still far from being out of the woods. They face a barrage of threats from an encroaching human population, including indirect assaults like habitat loss as well as more direct, literal attacks from their anxious human neighbors. "The human population continues to grow and that means reduction of prey, threats to the isolation of the tiger habitat and increasing danger of direct human-tiger conflict," Ranjitsinh says. "We may have won a battle, but you have to win the war."
Cancer is already a horrible disease affecting millions of people around the world, but what if it was also easily contagious? That's the problem facing Tasmanian devils, a feisty and eccentric marsupial that was once reviled in its native Australia. As the Los Angeles Times reports, however, Australians and animal lovers around the world are now rallying behind a unique creature whose survival is at risk from a rare, contagious form of cancer.
Tasmanian devils were already teetering dangerously close to extinction when wildlife biologists began noticing the illness 15 years ago, the Times reports. They had long attributed it to a virus, but last year geneticists made an alarming discovery: Tasmanian devils are being killed not by a virus, but by a highly infectious kind of cancer, one of just three communicable cancers known to science. And with 90 percent of the known Tasmanian devil population already dead, experts are worried that the species overall could die off within five years. For people in the Australian state of Tasmania, this harkens back to another dark moment in local natural history: the extinction of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which died off at the Hobart Zoo in 1936. "No one, politicians to scientists, wants to lose the devil on their watch," says Kathy Belov, a molecular geneticist at the University of Sydney who's working to save the species. "Everyone is really desperate to make sure it doesn't happen."
Wildlife officials have already created a "Devil Ark," sending groups of uninfected devils to zoos and sanctuaries around the country as a safeguard against extinction. But in the race to save devils from dying off, a secondary search is also under way to grasp the secrets of contagious cancers. The devils' disease takes the form of face-disfiguring tumors, which eventually render the animals unable to eat or drink, killing them indirectly. While this unusual cancer is unlikely to spread to humans, scientists hope that as they struggle to find a cure, they'll also learn something in case an infectious cancer ever appears in humans.
An Egyptian cobra is on the loose at the Bronx Zoo, forcing officials to close the reptile exhibit as they try to track down the venomous escapee. "The World of Reptiles is closed today," read a sign on the door to the exhibit over the weekend. "Staff observed an adolescent Egyptian cobra missing from an off-exhibit enclosure on Friday." As the New York Times reports, the Egyptian cobra is favored by snake charmers, featuring the iconic dark, narrow hood, and is also the species that Cleopatra reportedly used to kill herself.
Egyptian cobras are native to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and are packed with venom so deadly it can kill a full-grown elephant in three hours, CNN reports, or a person in roughly 15 minutes. The venom attacks nerve tissue throughout the body, and causes paralysis and death via respiratory failure. Egyptian cobras can grow up to 2 yards in length, but zoo officials say the missing snake was only about 20 inches long.
While the idea of a loose, poisonous cobra understandably had some zoo visitors on edge, officials insist the cobra is probably still inside the reptile exhibit building somewhere. Plus, it's in the species' nature to avoid open spaces and confrontations with people, so there's little risk of anyone being bitten. "To understand the situation, you have to understand snakes," Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny said in a written statement. "Upon leaving its enclosure, the snake would feel vulnerable and seek out a place to hide and feel safe. When the snake gets hungry or thirsty, it will start to move around the building. Once that happens, it will be our best opportunity to recover it."
Three Mile Island nuclear crisis begins, U.S. formally rejects the Kyoto Protocol, and more
Photo (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex): ZUMA Press
Photo (tiger looking through underbrush): ZUMA Press
Photo (Tasmanian devil at Sydney's Taronga Zoo): Mark Baker/AP
Photo (Egyptian cobra at Zambian zoo): Wikimedia Commons