Tuesday, December 17, 2013

John Muir, Melting Sea Stars, Fukushima, and William Stafford

                                           Here is a summer steelhead I caught on one of my days off when 
                                           I ran The Starfisher in Depoe Bay, Oregon.

One close friend recently asked why I dig “into this Fukushima stuff” when it is in a word, “depressing.” For this I have two answers: 1) In mainstream media, reality hasn’t had much traction in recent years and 2) Ray Bradbury wrote, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”  To that I would add, yes, writing and fishing. 

Furthermore, John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow-mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains--beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.” 

That’s what makes millions of sea stars unexplainably dying from Canada to Southern California so troubling.  In relation to Muir’s words above, while casting for steelhead into the clear waters off Whidbey Island’s west shore, I wondered, what else should we worry about?  Danielle Venton reported on December 13, 2013, in nature, the International weekly journal of science, “Among the possible causes scientists have suggested for the wasting syndrome are low oxygen levels in coastal waters, localized areas of warm water and environmental toxins.”  Okay, I would translate that to dead zones, underwater climate change, and threshold-level industrial pollutants as suspects.  The article added, “‘I’m pretty confident we’ll soon figure out what this is,’ says [ biologist Hannah] Perlkin.”

The next day a king5.com news story titled, “China bans shellfish imports from US West Coast,” noted that for the first time, China has suspended imports of shellfish from the [entire] U.S. West Coast” due to “high levels of arsenic and a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.”  It’s quite possible, maybe even likely, the sea star die-offs and Chinese shellfish ban have nothing to do with Fukushima.  Still, while not as Godzilla-sensational as Fukushima, incidents such as the underwater climate change, increasing levels of arsenic, aforementioned bleeding herring schools off British Columbia, and polar bear lesions I noted in a previous blog entry make me wonder, like Linda Perry screams in the 1992 song by 4 Non Blondes called “What’s Up?,”: “Hey, What’s Going On?”

When I had The Starfisher, before the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, my biggest concern was whether I wanted to use red hoochies or green hoochies to catch salmon.  Now, with an unprecedented scale of sea stars melting, unprecedented banning of shellfish exports from the U. S. West Coast, an unprecedented Pacific Ocean radiation disaster from Fukushima, and unprecedented information access via the Internet, I long for those simpler Starfisher days. 

Arnie Gundersen, in this Dec. 3, 2013, Real News Network video titled “TEPCO Downplays Fuel Rod Removal Risks” explains “The work needs to be done.  There is no doubt the fuel has to come out of there, but I just have no faith that Tokyo Electric has the competence and capacity to do it right. [. . . .] I built these racks when I was a senior vice president in the industry and the [temperature] tolerances are very, very high tolerance so they have to pull these things out now, and with the roof ruble in it, the friction to try to pull these out is going to be hard and I’m afraid they might snap one.”

According to the video, “Gundersen has over 40 years of experience working in nuclear power engineering, and he was a licensed reactor operator  . . .”  His bio at Fairewinds Energy Education notes, “During his nuclear power industry career, Arnie also managed and coordinated projects at 70-nuclear power plants in the US.”  Listening to him reminds me of the Russell Crowe character Jeffrey Wigand in the film, The Insider.

It must be added that Gundersen has predictable critics.  “Former Senior Vice President Nuclear Licensee” is "literally true" but Adams has concerns about the veracity of how Gundersen presents himself.   I don't know enough about the inner workings of the nuclear power industry to know the extent of danger from the rods in reactor 4.  I do know that Adams, being a self-identified "Pro-nuclear advocate," could be read beside Helen Caldicott's Nuclear Madness so readers could see both sides of fence.

To Gundersen’s credit,  international diplomat Akio Matsumura, former special advisor to the United Nations Development Program, and the Secretary General of the 1992 Parliamentary Earth Summit Conference in Rio de Janeiro, said in a Fairewinds Energy Education video “40 Good Years and One Bad Day,” “And I mentioned to former [Japanese] Prime Minister Hatoyama, I only believe in what Arnie [Gundersen] says [about the The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster.], [and] what Helen Caldicott says.”

Okay, so I’m convinced TEPCO has been incompetent in managing risk, and in releasing reliable information after the incident.  The more important issue is what may happen if a fuel rod snaps.  I hope we never find out.

Some nuclear scientists are unconcerned such as those in David P. Ball’s November 11, 2013, article “These Nuclear Physicists Think David Suzuki Is Exaggerating about Fukushima” which noted that University of British Columbia physicist Marcello Pavan said, “As scientists talking around the lunchroom, we are more or less of a unanimous opinion that the hysteria around Fukushima is grossly overblown [. . . .] “[Dr. Suzuki’s statement “It's bye-bye Japan—and everybody on the west coast of North America should evacuate.” if reactor 4 burns into the air] doesn't in any remote sense seem plausible. It's contaminated material, yes, but certainly not on a scale that would devastate Japan, nor travel all way across the Pacific and cause an evacuation."

However, Washington’s Blog noted that aforementioned “Gundersen (who used to build spent fuel pools) [ . . . . ] warns that – if the fuel pools at reactor 4 collapse due to an earthquake – people should get out of Japan, and residents of the West Coast of America and Canada should shut all of their windows and stay inside for a while. [. . . .] It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on NO.4 reactor.” 

Back to the Pacific Ocean issue, notes from the David Suzuki Foundation included: “The most comprehensive health assessment, by the World Health Organization, says radioactive particles that make their way to North America’s waters will have a limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels.” and  “It should also be noted that more reports are in the works. The UN agency charged with assessing global levels and consequences of ionizing radiation (UNSCEAR) has not yet released its full report. This is where we may find answers about the amount of radioactive material released, how it was dispersed and any repercussions for the environment and food sources."

Last week, I spoke with Mike Priddy, an Environmental Sciences Section Manager at the Washington State Department of Health, about my desire to learn about the true dangers of the Fukushima incident, or the lack thereof.  Since his team has been testing salmon and steelhead as well as razor clams and other species, I was eager to hear his report.  After our conversation, Priddy wrote me an email noting, “Because the levels are so low by the time they get here we have trouble identifying them as originating from Fukushima and not part of the global background from other sources, with the exception of the short lived isotopes." He added, "We have sampled steelhead and salmon in the fall and spring runs since the Fukushima event first occurred and plan on continuing for some time. We have seen no evidence of Fukushima contaminates in them.  We also sampled tuna caught on the west coast of the US. In one sample we saw a VERY small amount of Cs-134, similar to what has been seen in California.  It in no way poses a health risk, but does prove our detection capability.  As you know we have looked at razor clams a few times, mussels, sea water, fin fish (not tuna or salmonids) as well as water, sediment, and debris. [ . .  .] To date nothing has indicated a health risk, and since the airborne releases of 2011 [we] have had only one minor detection in a single tuna.  I should be clear that we are not doing a study of contaminants in the marine environment, but rather confirming predictive models.”

Priddy said he will get back to me with specifics about radiation tests on razor clams.

I will keep checking on Fukushima radiation but for now it seems the big issue for salmon and steelhead is global warming since these fish are so temperature-sensitive.  For humans, the safe removal of fuel from reactor 4 is either dire or inconsequential to the United States depending on whom one believes.  The sea star issue concerns me.  At the time of this writing, millions of sea stars are dying without any marine biologist reporting why anywhere I could find.  I hope, as biologist Hannah Perlkin said above, “we’ll soon figure [this] out.”  The answer may allow us to explore how sea stars are “hitched to everything else in the universe.” as John Muir wrote about what happens when “we try to pick out anything by itself.”

You know I like to end on a positive note.  This time it’s from the last stanza of William Stafford’s poem “Maybe” on page 47 of his book A Glass Face in the Rain, and it also fits the Linda Perry song above:

“The explorer turns over a stone.
Maybe those who sang
were the lucky ones.”

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