UNLUCKY SEVEN 

Japan raised the severity level for its ongoing nuclear crisis Tuesday, putting it on par with the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster is now a level 7 event, the highest possible ranking on an international scale of nuclear accidents. Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency says it raised the level not because of any new problems at the plant, but because of how much total radiation has escaped since the crisis began last month. The new ranking indicates a "major accident" with widespread effects on environmental and public health, but NISA officials also point out radiation releases from Daiichi are still only about 10 percent of Chernobyl's total.

Level 7 accidents are those that release more than tens of thousands of terabecquerels of radioactive iodine-131, with 1 terabecquerel equal to 1 trillion becquerels. Daiichi's No. 1 and No. 3 reactors alone have already released somewhere between 370,000 and 630,000 terabecquerels of radioactive materials since March 11, Kyodo reports, meaning NISA had little choice but to raise the level. "Our estimates suggest the amount of radioactive materials released into the air sharply rose on March 15 and 16 after abnormalities were detected at the No. 2 reactor," Cabinet Office adviser Kenkichi Hirose said at a news conference Tuesday. "The cumulative amount of leaked radiation has been gradually on the rise, but we believe the current emission level is significantly low." A government nuclear-safety panel tells Kyodo the radiation releases have come down to less than 1 terabecquerel per hour. By comparison, Chernobyl released a total of 1.8 million terabecquerels into the air over Ukraine 25 years ago.

Yet even as officials downplayed the health risks from Daiichi's radiation leaks, they also announced plans Tuesday to widen the evacuation zone around the plant, encompassing five new communities beyond the existing 12-mile radius. And as a NISA spokesman acknowledges, the new level 7 rating only refers to airborne radiation — meaning Japan must independently assess the accident's severity by monitoring radiation in the sea and soil, too. Meanwhile, yet another strong aftershock rattled Japan on Tuesday, measuring at a magnitude of 6.0 — one day after a magnitude-6.6 quake ripped through the country and five days after a magnitude-7.1 aftershock struck.

(Sources: ReutersKyodo News, BBC News, Associated Press, TIME)

BUDGING BUDGETS 

The U.S. Congress released details this morning about last week's 11th-hour, shutdown-averting budget deal, revealing major cuts to the EPA, the Energy Department and high-speed rail projects. The cuts were less than many Republicans had been pushing for, but still represent the largest spending reductions in the country's history, the Wall Street Journal reports, at nearly $39 billion below previous levels.

The EPA's budget will be reduced by $1.6 billion, a 16 percent cut from last year's level. High-speed rail funding will be slashed by $2.9 billion, eliminating money for all new projects and reclaiming any funds that remain unspent. And the Energy Department will lose $438 million from its energy-efficiency and renewable-energy program, while the White House loses funding for a position advising President Obama on climate change. The deal also takes a heavy toll on certain public health programs, cutting more than $1 billion from efforts to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and viral hepatitis. Contributions to the U.N. will fall by $377 million under the new budget, and the country's agriculture credit insurance fund will lose $433 million.

Still, despite all the heavy cuts to environmental and public health agencies, the budget deal turned out to be less punishing than many GOP lawmakers had advocated. It didn't include any environmental riders to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, Politico reports. It also spared an Energy Department program providing loan guarantees for alternative energy projects, the WSJ reports, allowing the Obama administration to uphold commitments such as a $967 million loan guarantee to a 290-megawatt [skipwords]solar power[/skipwords] plant in Arizona. Congress is expected to vote on the budget deal this week; the 2011 fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

(Sources: Wall Street Journal, Politico)

SPRING CLEANING 

California Gov. Jerry Brown will sign a law today requiring state utilities to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources, ushering in the country's most ambitious clean-energy mandate yet. "Obviously I'm going to sign the bill," Brown told reporters in Los Alamitos, Calif., last week. "I believe we can get to 40 percent, and I think we should."

Current law requires California utilities to draw 20 percent of their energy from solar power, wind power, landfill gas, small hydroelectric plants and other renewable sources, but under the new bill, they'll have until the end of 2020 to raise that portion to one-third. Supporters say the bill will help California keep clean-energy investors' interest, fueling a much-needed growth industry in the cash-strapped state. Adding national star power to today's signing ceremony — and once again signaling that Washington has an eye on California's pioneering environmental policy — U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is expected to join Gov. Brown as he signs the bill in the Bay Area city of Milpitas. "Instead of watching from the sidelines, America needs to get back in the clean energy race, and that's exactly what California is doing," an Energy Department spokeswoman tells the AP.

But the bill has its share of critics, too, who argue it will raise electricity prices by requiring a move away from cheap fossils like coal and natural gas. "Industry in California already pays electricity rates about 50 percent higher than the rest of the country," says a spokesman for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. "With 33 percent, those rates are going to go up even more." Brown says he'll study whether the new law will increase electricity rates, but tells the AP that using more renewable power is economically wise not only for California, but for the entire country. "I know one thing: Being dependent on foreign fossil fuel is not good for our economy, it's not good for our security, and it's not good for our climate," Brown says. "We have to be bold."

(Sources: AP, Sacramento Bee)

THE KRILLING FIELDS 

Penguin populations in western Antarctica are crashing, due largely to a drop in krill, one of their main food sources, a new study suggests. Numbers of both chinstrap and Adelie penguins have been falling since 1986, according to the study's authors, mirroring a krill decline that has been linked to warming waters, loss of sea-ice cover, and increasing populations of whales and seals.

Antarctic krill are shrimp-like animals that grow up to about 2 inches long, and are considered one of the planet's most abundant species, the BBC reports, with up to 30,000 of them often swimming in one cubic meter of seawater. But because so many animals in the region depend so heavily on them to survive, even subtle changes to the krill population can kill, explains lead author and NOAA biologist Wayne Trivelpiece. "For penguins and other species, krill is the linchpin in the food web. Regardless of their environmental preferences, we see a connection between climate change and penguin populations through the loss of habitat for their main food source," Trivelpiece  says. "As warming continues, the loss of krill will have a profound effect throughout the Antarctic ecosystem."

Populations of chinstrap and Adelie penguins initially increased after some of their top competitors — fur seals, baleen whales and some fish — were nearly wiped out in the 19th to mid-20th centuries, the researchers report, and those animals' recent rebound is part of the reason the penguins are now suffering. But competition alone can't explain their die-offs, leading the researchers to make the krill connection. "We hypothesize that the amount of krill available to penguins has declined because of the increased competition from recovering whale and fur seal populations, and from bottom-up, climate-driven changes that have altered this ecosystem significantly during the past two to three decades."

(Sources: BBC News, ScienceDaily)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Strongest wind gust in history measured, Star-Kist adopts dolphin-friendlier tuna fishing, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (police search for victims in Japan's evacuation zone): ZUMA Press

Photo (wind turbines at sunset): U.S. Conservation and Production Research Laboratory

Photo (California Gov. Jerry Brown): ZUMA Press

Photo (Antarctic krill): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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