As radiation spreads from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — possibly reaching California by Friday, according to U.N. forecasts — it's being preceded by a global wave of anxiety. Foreign experts are painting an increasingly dark picture of the crisis, trying to fill in gaps left by Japan's tight-lipped government. The top U.S. nuclear regulator told Congress Wednesday that at least one reactor is more damaged than Tokyo admits, and that a spent-fuel pool may have lost all its water, raising the risk of radiation spewing wildly into the air. "We believe that the secondary containment has been destroyed and there is no water in the spent-fuel pool," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief Gregory Jaczko told lawmakers. "We believe that radiation levels are extremely high, which could possibly impact the ability to take corrective measures."
Those corrective measures have already grown desperate, with workers using police water cannons to cool down damaged reactors, and also dropping seawater from helicopters — a day after saying such a move would be too risky. While the reactors remain a concern, much of the focus has shifted to Fukushima's spent-fuel pools, since their lack of containment vessels could let fuel rods radiate uncontrollably. Yet despite these mounting dangers, Japan's government remains coy, speaking only in vague language and refusing to confirm even basic details. This has fueled speculation and panic in Japan, and has also led experts overseas to issue warnings of their own. France and Germany have both advised their citizens to leave Japan, for example, while the U.S. suggested a wider evacuation zone than Japan has established — a 50-mile radius around Fukushima. Meanwhile, the top European nuclear official warned the situation is "effectively out of control," and the head of Russia's state nuclear firm said it's "developing under the worst scenario."
The plume of radiation escaping from Fukushima Daiichi is expected to reach Alaska's Aleutian Islands sometime today, and may enter Southern California late Friday, the U.N. has reported. Its trip across the Pacific Ocean will have dissipated the plume to relatively safe levels by then, but that hasn't stopped panic from spreading. Iodide tablets are becoming hard to find in California and other Western states, and have all but disappeared from stores in China. In fact, some Chinese shoppers are so worried about drifting radiation that they're reportedly buying up table salt, under the mistaken belief that the iodine it contains will protect them.
Earthquakes like the one that rocked Japan last week are notoriously hard to predict. But according to a new study in the journal Nature, there may be a clue hidden in the Earth's crust, offering hints about why mountains form in some areas and not others — as well as where earthquakes are most likely to strike. The secret, the researchers suggest, is one of the weakest and most common minerals on the planet: quartz.
The concept of plate tectonics revolutionized geology when it was introduced more than 40 years ago, but it left one nagging question unanswered: Why does the crust crack apart in certain places? "This is one of the big questions in geoscience," lead author and Utah State University geophysicist Tony Lowry tells the Salt Lake Tribune. "We haven't had a good reason for why this would be the case." But thanks to a new remote-sensing technology known as Earthscope, Lowry and his co-authors noticed an "eye-popping" correlation between quartz deposits and geologic events like earthquakes. Because quartz is an especially soft mineral, the researchers suggest it indicates a weakness in the planet's crust that's more likely to experience geological upheavals like mountain formation, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Quartz may therefore be similar to a thin section of pie crust, offering a prime spot for hot pie filling underneath to release pressure. The mineral would also likely be responsible for continental drift, such as last week's movement of Japan eight feet closer to the U.S. Lowry tells the Tribune he's suspected since grad school that crustal composition is a key factor in plate tectonics, but it wasn't until he was armed with Earthscope data that he had evidence. "It was something I thought about for a long time, but I didn't have any proof," he says. If confirmed, the research could inform not only earthquake prediction, but also the siting of nuclear power plants and large dams.
The EPA unveiled a plan Wednesday aimed at protecting Americans from mercury, lead, chromium and other toxic power-plant emissions, drawing praise from public health officials but scorn from some industry advocates. Acting under a court order, EPA chief Lisa Jackson said the "first ever" nationwide standard "was 20 years in the making," and is a necessity under the 1990 Clean Air Act. "Today we're taking an important step forward to protect the health of millions of Americans," Jackson said, pledging that the rule would protect fetuses and children from brain damage and asthma, while preventing lifelong health damage for hundreds of thousands of Americans overall.
The EPA's plan would require coal-fired power plants to buy scrubbers and other pollution-control equipment so they could block 91 percent of coal's mercury emissions from escaping into the air. That has angered many industry representatives and sympathetic lawmakers in Congress, who warn of vanishing jobs and more expensive electricity if the new rule is approved. "EPA admits the pending proposal will cost at least $10 billion, making it one of the most expensive rules in the history of the agency," a group of utilities, the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said in a report this week. "Adaptation to all the proposed rules constitutes an extraordinary threat to the power sector — particularly the half of U.S. electricity derived from coal-fired generation." But not everyone in the power sector is so gloomy: At least one utility executive tells the New York Times the rule might actually create jobs. "We know from experience that constructing this technology can be done in a reasonable time frame, especially with good advance planning," says the senior vice president and chief environmental officer of Constellation Energy. "And there is meaningful job creation associated with the projects."
The rule's impetus has more to do with health than wealth, though — the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to identify industrial sources for 187 specific air pollutants, including mercury and others released by burning coal, and take steps to reduce them. As the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics explains, this can end up saving money in the long term. "If you think it's expensive to put a scrubber on a smokestack, you should see how much it costs to treat a child over a lifetime with a birth defect," she says.
Industrial pollution may still pose a health risk for many urban populations in the U.S., but Americans in general seem to be getting healthier — or at least they're living longer. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday, U.S. life expectancy has hit an all-time high, rising just above 78 years.
"What this means is that somebody born in 2009 can expect to live to an average of 78.2 years. This is a new record high for life expectancy," CDC statistician Kenneth Kochanek tells USA Today. "Basically, this is nothing but good news." Death rates for 10 of the country's top 15 causes of death fell significantly between 2008 and '09, Kochanek adds, including those for widespread killers such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. The reasons for these declines aren't yet clear, but Kochanek says they'll be examined when the final data are released later this year.
Although the report is generally good news, it does reveal some lingering discrepancies. White females live an average of 80.6 years, compared with 75.7 for white males, while black females typically live 77.4 years and black males live to 70.9. But infant mortality hit a record low of 6.42 deaths per 1,000 live births, a 2.6 percent drop from 2008. And with death rates also declining for a variety of major diseases, from influenza and pneumonia to Alzheimer's and diabetes, one neurologist tells USA Today the results show "our treatments and prevention programs are working." But, he adds, "death is not always the best measure of the burden of disease, since disability and quality of life are also important measures."
An Indonesian volcano erupts, the film "Erin Brockovich" is released, and more.
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Photo (workers checking for radiation on residents of Koriyama, Japan): ZUMA Press
Photo (raw quartz crystal): David Wasserman/Jupiter Images
Photo (power plant emissions): Scott Butner/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Photo (gray-haired woman flexing her biceps): Jupiter Images