Tag Archives: nuclear energy

Radioactive Fish and Birds: Dangers from Japan?

Over the weekend the Japanese Science Ministry released data from midweek showing large amounts of radioactive iodine had been discovered in seawater off the coast. According to NHK, “The detected level of iodine-131 was 79.4 becquerels per liter, twice the legal standard for water discharged from nuclear plants.’’

This information follows other news that has been coming out in dribs and drabs, reporting there is a crack in the plant, and radioactive seawater in the plant and in the ground beneath the plant. While the danger of radioactivity in Japan and elsewhere has generally been played down, these discoveries raise several potentially significant questions both for the Japan itself , for the central and northern Pacific, and in the United States, primarily for Alaska, Washington, and Oregon.

The first involves fish.  The Pacific currents running along the  Japanese coast go north up the Asian coast before turning towards the Bering Sea, and on down through the Gulf of Alaska to the U.S. northwest coast. These currents mainly move from West to East. Fish are influenced by these currents, and in particular the great stocks of tuna along the warmer waters on, above, and below the equator and in the central Pacific.

In describing the migratory patterns in its Fish Watch report, NOAA writes:

Pacific albacore (sometimes referred to as `white tuna’)… typically begin an expansive migration in the spring and early summer in waters off Japan that continues through the late summer into inshore waters off the U.S. Pacific coast, and ends in late fall and winter in the western Pacific Ocean…

Almost all of the albacore harvested in U.S. commercial fisheries comes from the Pacific, mainly from waters off Washington and Oregon. Much of this catch is exported to foreign markets including Spain, Japan, and Canada. The rest is sold in U.S. markets, along with imported albacore, primarily from Thailand and Indonesia.

This raises the possibility that radioactive fish might begin turning up in canned and frozen fish products imported into the US from Asian markets, as well as from  from Alaska and thePacific Northwest.

Birds are another issue. Consider this, from the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau – Japan Committee (IWRBJ):

At least 404 species of waterbird are recorded in the Asia-Pacific region. Of these, 243 species, by virtue of their nature, undertake annual migrations between their breeding areas and nonbreeding grounds, along several different flyways. They visit at least 57 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific region. A few of these species undertake some of the greatest non-stop flights in the world, covering at least 6,000 km in one step…

Waterbirds play an important role in several spheres of human interest: culturally, socially, scientifically and as a food resource. Several species, such as cranes, swans, geese and ducks, are revered. Waterbirds are an important component of most wetland ecosystems, as they occupy several trophic levels in the food web of wetland nutrient cycles. Birds harvest and regulate the abundance and diversity of several species of wetland flora and fauna. Many species also play a role in the control of agricultural pests, whilst some species are themselves considered pests of certain crops…

Experts and scientists in the United States, appearing on television and in the general press, have assured everyone the radiation hazards are insignificant or minimal at best. But fish and birds can be harbingers of possible problems ahead.

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After BP’s Disaster and Obama’s “Malaise,” Coal Is the Big Winner

No sooner had Obama made his Oval Office energy speech last week  than the pundits were comparing him to Jimmy Carter, saying his Debby Downer message was just like the so-called “malaise speech” in which Carter tried to wise up the populace to the energy mess. The Sunday morning pontificators were falling over each other to make the comparison yesterday, and even Der Spiegel ran an article asking “Will Obama Be the ‘Jimmy Carter of the 21st Century’?”

I’m not even going to try to weigh in on that question. But I am old enough to remember the “malaise speech,” which was not quite the speech that’s now being depicted by the pundits. Carter’s speech in July 1979 decried American reliance on foreign oil and proposed fresh departures into alternative energy. One of its main points was to seek creation of a new energy corporation to back alternatives fuels. There were some nods to solar energy and other renewable sources, but the real push was toward the oxymoronic “clean coal” in the form of coal gasification and liquefaction, along with the mining of oil shale, which is one of the most environmentally destructive energy extraction methods ever invented.

Carter’s speech followed the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and as much as anything else was occasioned by the pressure he was under from the public outcry which followed that near-catastrophe. In addition, the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s was still a not-too-distant memory. So nuclear energy was effectively shelved, oil held more or less steady, and the biggest winner was the cheap and plentiful homegrown energy source: coal. Once scorned for its destructive strip-mining and filthy emissions, coal suddenly didn’t look so bad when compared with the risk of radiation poisoning–especially if it could be greenwashed and rebranded as a “clean” energy source.

The upshot of it all was hardly an energy “malaise’,” nor did it result in a major change in energy policy. Instead, it was a slight shift in strategy–a reshuffling of the cards. And in the end, it was the same old same old: The fossil fuel solution in a slightly different package. 

There, most likely, is where we’ll see a real parallel between Carter and Obama: If the BP spill is Obama’s Three Mile Island and the Iraq War his OPEC embargo, his reaction to these crises will probably echo Carter’s: coal, coal, and more coal. The president has long declared himself a fan of  coal, and back in February–before BP’s well exploded–he issued a presidential memorandum ordering a special task force to move forward with the questionable technologies that are supposed to render coal “clean.” As David Sassoon wrote at the time on SolveClimate:

Obama’s executive office memorandum looks like a big victory for the coal industry, which was already handed $3.8 billion in last year’s stimulus act for carbon capture and storage (CCS) research and development and deployment. He did not simultaneously order a similar plan for a big roll-out of solar or wind energy to level the playing field.

Making good on campaign promises, the president is throwing the full weight of his administration behind a moonshot effort to make coal the “clean” energy technology of choice and open a federal pathway to a profitable future for one of the nation’s most polluting industries.

Three factors have cemented Obama’s support for carbon capture and sequestration technology: political necessity, economic opportunity and the backing of some of the most powerful mainstream environmental organizations operating inside the Beltway.

If Obama’s support for coal was “cemented” before the BP disaster, I’d be willing to bet he loves it even more after spending some time with the dead birds and tar balls on the Gulf Coast.