Windswept radiation from Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has reached at least 15 U.S. states, including six on the Eastern Seaboard, and has even made it as far as Iceland. It's just trace amounts, though, and poses no public health threat — so far, only people within a few dozen miles of the plant itself are thought to be in any danger. But for Americans anxious about nuclear fallout, the Science Times highlights an even scarier scenario than diffuse plumes from abroad: a meltdown at home.
"We can never say that that could never happen here," an executive with the Nuclear Energy Institute tells the Times. "It doesn't matter how you get there, whether it's a hurricane, whether it's a tsunami, whether it's a seismic event, whether it's a terrorist attack, whether it's a cyberattack, whether it's operator error, or some other failure in the plant — it doesn't matter. We have to be prepared to deal with those events." There are 104 operating nuclear reactors
across the U.S., and as the AP reports, many of them use technology similar to Fukushima Daiichi's. They're also vulnerable to the same problem that derailed that plant: power outages. A loss of electricity typically means workers can't keep the nuclear fuel cool, potentially leading to explosions and radiation leaks like those recently seen in Japan. Of course, the primary and backup power sources would all have to go down for that to happen, which isn't likely — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculates such an event will only happen roughly once every 17,000 years. But as the Times points out, it already happened twice in four days at two reactors in New Jersey back in 1983. And while no radiation escaped during that accident, it demonstrated that even unlikely events still sometimes occur.
Still, the U.S. gets 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, so it's worth at least trying to calculate the risks. The NRC did just that in 2003, issuing a risk assessment based on data provided by plant owners. It found that reactor No. 1 at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island faces the greatest threat of core damage, with a crisis striking once every 2,227 years (the plant's No. 2 reactor was responsible for the infamous partial meltdown in 1979). On the other hand, Illinois' Quad Cities plant is likely to go 833,000 years between core-damaging disasters, the NRC predicted. But while these huge numbers help regulators prioritize which plants need the most work, they do little to forecast the likelihood of disaster in real life. As the Times explains, that uncertainty can make nuclear power disproportionately scary: "The fact that the odds of a nuclear accident are unknowable and the risks hard to measure make it in some ways more frightening than the known — and greater — risks of driving without a seat belt or breathing the fumes from a coal-burning power plant." And as the crisis in Japan has revealed, those fears aren't entirely unfounded.
In a move that could have far-reaching repercussions for environmental disasters of all kinds, U.S. prosecutors are deciding whether to pursue manslaughter charges against BP executives in connection with the 2010 Gulf oil spill, Bloomberg News reports. Before the spill began, the explosion that rocked the Deepwater Horizon oil rig also killed 11 workers — victims who were at times overshadowed by the magnitude of the environmental crisis that followed. But they haven't been forgotten, and now the Justice Department is mulling ways to make sure they never are.
As one law expert tells Bloomberg, charging individual BP managers with manslaughter would be significant to future environmental-safety cases because it might change people's behavior. "They typically don't prosecute employees of large corporations," says University of Maryland law professor Jane Barrett. "You've got to prosecute the individuals in order to maximize, and not lose, the deterrent effect." The Justice Department announced last summer that it had opened criminal and civil investigations into the spill, and while it filed a civil suit against BP in December, it has yet to file criminal charges. Those could potentially include manslaughter, anonymous sources tell Bloomberg, if prosecutors determine that BP managers sacrificed safety in favor of speed and cost savings. The department is reportedly also considering a charge of seaman's manslaughter, which is more serious and carries a penalty of up to 10 years.
Both BP and the Justice Department declined to answer Bloomberg's questions about potential manslaughter charges, and as U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole says, the criminal investigation is still far from over. "There is a lot of investigation yet to be done," he says. "It's going to head wherever the law and the facts take it."
A virus has jumped from humans to gorillas for the first time known to science, according to researchers in the U.S. and Africa, confirming that dangerous diseases can pass from people to endangered animals. The RNA virus known as human metapneumovirus, or HMPV, typically causes respiratory disease in humans, but now it has also been linked to the deaths of two mountain gorillas in central Africa.
Humans and gorillas share about 98 percent of their DNA, putting them at an elevated risk of exchanging infectious diseases. Combined with rising conflict between the two species over the past century — from habitat loss to bushmeat hunting — this has raised concerns among many biologists and conservationists, especially since gorilla preserves in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are surrounded by the densest human populations in Africa. Even the well-intentioned practice of gorilla tourism, which aims to help gorillas by funding the parks that protect them, brings in hordes of people from nearby communities and around the planet every year.
The researchers have seen greater frequency and severity of respiratory disease among mountain gorillas in recent years, and while they can't trace the source of every outbreak, they do know that at least two gorillas died in 2009 from a typically human virus. HMPV killed one infant gorilla and apparently weakened an adult female, allowing her to be killed by a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia. "Because there are fewer than 800 living mountain gorillas, each individual is critically important to the survival of their species," says wildlife veterinarian and study co-author Mike Cranfield. "But mountain gorillas are surrounded by people, and this discovery makes it clear that living in protected national parks is not a barrier to human diseases."
Earth's ultimate power plants are also the original ones: plants. Using just sunlight, water and carbon dioxide, they provide nearly all the energy needed to sustain the planet's life. Synthesizing this ability has long been considered a "holy grail" of science, and now a scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says he's reached that elusive goal. "The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries," MIT researcher Daniel Nocera tells the Daily Mail. "Our goal is to make each home its own power station."
The fake leaf is a far cry from its natural inspiration — roughly the shape of a playing card but thinner, it's made from silicon, electronics and catalysts, materials that help spur and accelerate chemical reactions similar to those performed by real plants. Placed in a gallon of water and exposed to bright sunlight, the "leaf" can generate enough electricity to power a house in a developing country for about a day, according to Nocera. It does this by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, which are then stored in a fuel cell that uses the gases to generate electricity. This isn't a new concept, of course — the first artificial leaf was developed more than a decade ago by John Turner at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. But that version was deemed impractical, relying on rare and costly metals that left it unstable, with a life span of less than one day. Nocera's new leaf, however, is made of relatively cheap and widespread materials, works under simple conditions, and is highly stable. In lab studies, he showed that it could operate nonstop for at least 45 hours without a drop in productivity.
The secret to this breakthrough is the advent of new catalysts made of nickel and cobalt, which can split water into its building blocks much more easily than previous substances. They're so effective, in fact, that Nocera says his leaf is about 10 times more efficient at performing photosynthesis than a real leaf. And, he tells the Mail, he believes he can improve that even further. "Nature is powered by photosynthesis," he says, "and I think that the future world will be powered by photosynthesis as well in the form of this artificial leaf."
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Photo (nuclear reactors at sunset): U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Photo (Deepwater Horizon fire): U.S. Oil Spill Commission
Photo (sunlight shining through leaves): NASA Earth Observatory