Japan issued a radiation warning for 11 types of vegetables grown near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Wednesday, and also warned of radioactive substances in Tokyo tap water. Officials say infants should not drink the capital city's water, and are urging all residents to avoid vegetables grown in several prefectures near the Daiichi plant. Meanwhile, efforts to repair the plant were set back once again Wednesday afternoon when smoke billowed from the complex, Kyodo News reports, spurring officials to evacuate workers for the second time in three days.
Workers have been racing to restore electricity to four of Daiichi's six nuclear reactors, which were damaged by the March 11 tsunami and remain at various stages of overheating. Some of the reactors have periodically released radioactive particles into the air during the crisis, contaminating nearby crops, milk and apparently even water. No spikes in radiation levels were detected after Wednesday's smoke scare, so officials don't believe any new radioactive releases occurred. That's little consolation to parents of babies in Tokyo, however, where a wave of fear followed the government's advice to avoid tap water. "Everyone is panic-buying right now," one shopper tells Bloomberg News in Tokyo, where store shelves were quickly stripped of all bottled water Wednesday. "The bigger bottles of water are nowhere to be seen."
Anxiety about radioactive crops spread across the Pacific on Tuesday, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banning the import of dairy products, fruit and vegetables from four prefectures — Fukushima, Ibaraki, Gunma and Tochigi. Japanese seafood is still allowed as long as it has been screened, although Bloomberg reports that radiation from the Daiichi plant has been detected in the ocean, potentially contaminating fish. As one pregnant mother in Tokyo tells the Washington Post, the specter of radioactive food and water has made a once-distant crisis seem much closer to home. "What to me was something that was happening far away," says 39-year-old Jinko Sato, "has all of a sudden become an immediate concern."
Some 20,000 endangered penguins are coated with heavy crude oil in the South Atlantic, the New York Times reports, following a major oil spill from a freighter that wrecked on a remote island last week. More than 800 tons of fuel oil have leaked from the Maltese-registered MS Oliva, which was bringing 66,000 tons of soybeans from Brazil to Singapore when it ran aground on Nightingale Island, part of the British-owned Tristan da Cunho archipelago. All 22 crew members were rescued, but local penguins and fishermen might not be so lucky.
"The scene at Nightingale is dreadful, as there is an oil slick encircling the island," the archipelago's conservation officer, Trevor Glass, said in a statement. Tristan da Cunho is home to about 200,000 penguins, including nearly half the world's total population of northern rockhoppers, an endangered species. Roughly 20,000 of them have been coated in oil, and because Tristan da Cunho is so remote — the most remote inhabited island group on Earth, in fact, more than 1,700 miles from the closest land — they're unlikely to all be cleaned up anytime soon. "Many of the birds have been oiled for over a week, which limits their chances of survival," the director emeritus of the International Bird Rescue Research Center tells the Times. Only one salvage vessel has arrived so far, a South African ship with limited spill-response and bird-rescue abilities, although a better-equipped ship is scheduled to launch from South Africa on Thursday.
Even if the oil doesn't kill many penguins, conservationists are also worried about rats — the soybean ship likely contained at least a few stowaway rodents, which could infest Nightingale and other ratless islands in the archipelago. "Nightingale is one of two large islands in the Tristan da Cunha group that are rodent-free," U.K. research biologist Richard Cuthbert tells the AP. "If rats gain a foothold, their impact would be devastating." The islands' human population is also at risk, experts say, since the 275 residents rely heavily on a lobster fishery that may be devastated by the oil spill.
Knut, the world-famous polar bear that mysteriously died Saturday at the Berlin Zoo, apparently fell victim to an undiagnosed brain condition, according to a necropsy performed Monday. "The preliminary results show distinctive anomalies at the brain, which could be seen as the cause of the ice bear's sudden passing," according to a press statement from the zoo. "Other irregularities on the organs could not be found from the pathologists."
The 4-year-old bear was behaving strangely Saturday as some 600 zoo visitors watched — spinning in circles until finally twitching and falling over backward into a pool of water. Onlookers gasped, and soon Knut fans around the world were mourning one of the most famous polar bears in recent memory. But mere hours beforehand, Knut's trainer says he showed no signs of illness. "There was absolutely nothing to see," Berlin Zoo bear curator Heiner Klös tells LiveScience. "I was there one hour before he died, and I saw him resting there and he recognized me and he was absolutely normal in his behavior." The necropsy is not yet finished, but Klös points out that no abnormalities were found in Knut's kidneys, liver or heart, suggesting stress didn't play a role in the bear's death. "We are absolutely sure there was no stress and no heart attack, and no broken heart, if it's possible to find something like this," Klös says.
Knut shot to global fame in 2007, just a few weeks after he was born at the Berlin Zoo and rejected by his biological mother. Zookeepers then raised him by hand, helping nurture Knut as well as his worldwide marketing phenomenon. Zoo attendance doubled during his four-year life, while Knut and Knut-themed merchandise brought in millions of dollars in revenue. But animal-rights advocates criticized several aspects of Knut's upbringing, including his hand-rearing and his forced co-habitation with other bears. Many said his premature death proved zoo life was unhealthy for him, but this week's necropsy has so far produced little evidence either way. Regardless, officials at Berlin's Natural History Museum are considering stuffing Knut's body and putting it on display, Bloomberg News reports. "It is true that our taxidermists are working on his corpse and have removed his fur," a museum spokeswoman says. "We haven't yet made a decision on whether we will stuff him and exhibit him. We have to talk to the zoo. We do of course have lots of stuffed zoo animals on show here."
Nuclear power's long-rumored comeback in America is losing steam, according to a new CBS News poll released Tuesday. Only 43 percent of poll respondents now say they approve of building more nuclear power plants in the U.S., a decline of 14 percentage points since the question was last asked in July 2008. Meanwhile, 50 percent disapprove of new nuclear construction, an increase of 16 points since 2008. The major impetus in this change of heart, it seems, is the ongoing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Overall, Americans still see nuclear power as safe — more than two-third of poll respondents said nuclear plants are generally safe, while just 22 percent said the opposite. And 47 percent believe the benefits of nuclear power outweigh the dangers, compared with 38 percent who see it as too risky. Yet those looming risks have been made more believable by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and they're clearly on Americans' minds. Sixty-five percent of respondents say they're at least somewhat concerned about a nuclear accident in the U.S., and 62 percent say they would oppose a new plant being built in their community. When asked if the U.S. government is adequately prepared for a nuclear accident, only 35 percent said it was.
This is a significant change from 2008, when 57 percent of Americans supported the expansion of nuclear power. But as the Los Angeles Times points out, the expected "nuclear renaissance" was unlikely even before Japan's recent catastrophe. The reason isn't radiation leaks or radioactive waste — it's economics. Nuclear power is still extremely expensive, especially compared with cheap upstarts like natural gas. In fact, natural gas alone likely would have kept nuclear power on the sidelines for years, even without a high-profile crisis like the one at Daiichi. "For at least a couple of decades to come, nuclear will be very uncompetitive," says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. Or, as the CEO of Exelon Corp. puts it, "natural gas is queen."
Lewis and Clark reach the Pacific Ocean, Ronald Reagan hypes Alaskan oil, and more.
Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.
Photo (tap water pouring into glass): Lukas Barth/ZUMA Press
Photo (rockhopper penguin): Olga D. van de Veer/Citizen Image
Photo (Knut at Berlin Zoo in 2007): Michael Sohn/AP
Photo (nuclear plant at sunset): Oak Ridge National Laboratory