Japan's nuclear crisis worsened even further Wednesday, with a second reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant reportedly rupturing and spewing radioactive steam. The leak at the No. 3 reactor came a day after Fukushima's out-of-control No. 2 reactor also cracked open, and together they began to unleash dangerous levels of radiation. The risk was so great that officials temporarily evacuated even the last-ditch skeleton crew of 50 workers, while an unorthodox plan to dump seawater on the reactors from a helicopter was aborted for safety reasons. Underscoring how grave the situation has become, 77-year-old Japanese Emperor Akihito gave his first-ever nationally televised address, saying he is "deeply worried" yet hopeful the country can "overcome these difficult times."

It remains unclear how seriously the No. 2 reactor has ruptured, but any new radiation leak would be a huge setback in the struggle to prevent a full-blown nuclear meltdown. The Fukushima plant has a total of six reactor units, four of which have now broken down to some degree, and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. says it can't always know what's going on because it's too risky for workers to approach some of the reactors. But even though Tuesday's blast wasn't outwardly visible, it may have been worse than previous explosions because it potentially opened an escape route for bottlenecked radiation inside the reactor tube. Experts say radioactive steam is most likely building up between the reactor tube and its containment building, creating pressure that could blow the entire structure apart. "They're putting water into the core and generating steam, and that steam has to go somewhere," one veteran nuclear engineer tells the Washington Post, adding that the steam "has to be carrying radiation."

Plus, on top of breaches and leaks, officials are also nervous about spent fuel rods heating up in containment pools, since they're essentially exposed to the atmosphere if the surrounding water boils away. While the scope of radiation released probably still wouldn't rival that of Chernobyl in 1986, experts are having to frequently recast their warnings given the rapid pace of problems developing at Fukushima. If the containment effort fails, Reuters reports that a radiation plume could reach Tokyo, the largest city in the world. And as the AP adds, the events at Fukushima don't bode well for a long-touted "nuclear renaissance" in the U.S. "This accident has the potential to tamp down any nuclear renaissance that we're poised to experience," says one pro-nuclear utility regulator in Georgia.

(Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, Associated Press)


The tsunami that devastated Japan last week also affected people living on coastlines thousands of miles away — in Hawaii, for example, Gov. Neil Abercrombie says it caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. But humans weren't the only ones to suffer: Thousands of seabirds were also killed on Midway, a small, remote atoll northwest of Hawaii. According to U.S. wildlife officials, at least 1,000 adult and adolescent Laysan albatross died from the tsunami, along with thousands of chicks.

Many of the birds were drowned or buried under debris as waves up to 5 feet high bombarded the low-lying atoll four hours after the earthquake, the AP reports. The species isn't in danger of extinction, with an estimated 1 million Laysan albatross living at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, making it the world's largest colony of the birds. But as U.S. wildlife refuge official Barry Stieglitz points out, the widespread die-off could still put a dent in the birds' population. "We may see just a slight decline in breeding birds next year, next year and the year after that," Stieglitz says. "There will be a gap in the breeding population when these birds that would have grown up this year, would have matured and started breeding for the first time."

Albatross weren't the only wildlife victims of the tsunami. Ground-nesting bonin petrels in Midway were also hit hard, since their underground burrows were heavily flooded by the inland rush of seawater. Stieglitz says their death toll is likely in the thousands as well, although he hopes many of them were out foraging at the time, since they are night feeders and the tsunami hit before dawn local time. Wildlife typically bounces back from natural disasters, Stieglitz says, although this one could prove different — unchecked releases of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant could potentially enter the food chain, Reuters reports, adding another level of concern.

(Sources: AP, Los Angeles Times, Reuters)


Alaska native John Baker won the Iditarod Sled Dog Race Tuesday, becoming the first Inupiaq Eskimo to win in the race's 38-year history. Not only did Baker prevail in the 1,150-mile slog, but he also set a new record: eight days, 19 hours, 46 minutes and 49 seconds, shattering the previous record by more than three hours. It's the 12th top-10 finish for Baker, but the first-ever Inupiaq victory went beyond any personal accomplishment. The win unleashed "raw emotional Alaskan pride," CNN reports, with cheers and native drums thundering loudly at the Iditarod finish line.

"I feel good. ... I'm just so happy to be here and see everybody," Baker said to his supporters after the race. "I'm just enjoying the moment. ... This is the way life is supposed to be." The Iditarod's finish line is located in Nome, along the Bering Sea coast and in the heart of Inupiat country, populated by an Eskimo group that still relies on a traditional lifestyle involving subsistence hunting, fishing and whaling. The race is also based on the native Alaskan mushing tradition, making it all the more unusual that an Inupiaq had never won. In addition to becoming the Iditarod's first victorious Inupiaq, Baker is also the first Alaska Native champion in 35 years. 

Despite his historic accomplishment, Baker remained humble after the race, thanking his fans and celebrating with his dogs as they licked their feet in the snow. "I didn't figure I had the race for sure. I didn't allow myself to think like that," he tells the Anchorage Daily News. "I just needed to take care of my own business. Take care of running the dogs. Make sure that they could arrive here in the quickest possible way and being fair with them, not asking too much of them." Baker received a new Dodge pickup truck from a local dealership, as well as a first-place paycheck of $50,400.

(Sources: Anchorage Daily NewsCNN)


Speaking more than one language literally changes the way a person sees the world, according to a new study by researchers at Newcastle University. It may come as no surprise that being bilingual affects a speaker's perceptions of culture, but the researchers found that it affects his or her perception of color, too.

"We found that people who only speak Japanese distinguished more between light and dark blue than English speakers," says lead author Panos Athanasopoulos. "The degree to which Japanese-English bilinguals resembled either norm depended on which of their two languages they used more frequently." Different languages define colors differently, and a person's perception of these colors appears to be heavily influenced by linguistic definitions — in Japanese, for example, there are two extra terms for light blue ("mizuiro") and dark blue ("ao") that aren't found in English. And having additional words for colors determines how someone mentally categorizes the hues, Athanasopoulos concludes.

While people typically focus on logistical issues like ordering food or asking for directions when learning a new language, Athanasopoulos points out that broadening one's linguistic horizons can have much deeper benefits, too. "As well as learning vocabulary and grammar, you're also unconsciously learning a whole new way of seeing the world," he says. "There's an inextricable link between language, culture and cognition."

(Source: ScienceDaily)


An oil spill fouls the English Channel, "The China Syndrome" is released, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant): DigitalGlobe Imagery

Photo (Laysan albatross): U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center

Photo (Iditarod winner John Baker with lead dogs Velvet and Snickers): ZUMA Press

Photo (Japanese language instruction book): oxborrow/Flickr

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.