Highlights from the Week's News

This Week in Water™ airs on community and public radio stations nationwide and is available on podcast networks. Want environmental news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.

Going Nuclear in a Small Way

November 19, 2023

U.S. to Announce International Agreement to Triple Nuclear Energy

In a major turnaround, the U.S. government is planning to announce an international agreement to triple the use of nuclear power by 2050, which involves at least ten countries on four continents, according to the Huffington Post.

Spray ponds serve as back-up cooling for plant components at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in the town of Tonopah in the Arizona desert, 50 miles west of Phoenix  |  Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

The Obama administration had an uneven record on nuclear power, supporting some small projects but canceling others and installing opponents on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Now, President Biden is promoting nuclear energy in what has been described as a whole-of-government effort to transition away from fossil fuels. A little more than a year ago, the Biden administration announced $150 million funding to enhance nuclear energy development.

Bloomberg first reported the nuclear pledge, which is also led by the UK. It’s set to be unveiled at the UN climate summit COP28 taking place in Dubai at the end of this month and follows a statement by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry that nuclear power is 100 percent part of the solution, calling it clean energy. Sweden, one of the countries reportedly involved in the pledge, announced last week that it plans to build two nuclear reactors by 2035 and that it wants to have ten new ones, some small-sized, by 2045.  

Most existing plants are cooled by water, but some of the smaller ones are being designed to use sodium instead, which, according to the New York Times, could allow a reactor to operate at lower pressure.

The resurgence of nuclear as an alternative to fossil fuels is spurring many companies to develop much smaller reactors that are cheaper and faster to build than conventional facilities. But the trend was dealt a blow recently when a project to build a small modular reactor in Idaho was terminated because of rising costs after ten years of work, which was a setback for the Biden administration following the cancellation of two major offshore wind projects.

Ken Cook, the president of the advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group, told the Associated Press that more than half a billion dollars has been wasted on nuclear power, and that money could have been spent on existing safe and renewable resources like solar and wind.

They Are Everywhere on Earth—Even in Clouds

Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size, some of which come from clothing, packaging, tires, and microbeads in cosmetics. The tiny particles had been found almost everywhere, including in drinking water, in marine organisms from plankton to whales, and even in our bodies. The plastics can affect human health by stimulating hormone disruptors and by carrying other toxic chemicals.

Sunrise viewed from Mount Tai  |  Credit: AlexHe34/Creative Commons

Microplastics can also travel through air, and according to a new study from China, they are being found in clouds over mountain areas. The research suggests that the particles originate from highly populated inland areas and that they could play a role in cloud formation and, in turn, affect weather. An earlier study found them on Japanese mountain clouds, but the new research found microplastics in Chinese cloud water 70 times the amount occuring in Japan.

The urgency of limiting plastic pollution is the focus of UN meetings that resumed last week in Nairobi, Kenya, continuing efforts that began in June when more than 170 countries agreed to create a first draft of a treaty. The goal is to get a final agreement by the end of 2024. According to the UN, 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, the equivalent weight of twice that of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

The study was published in ACS Publications.

Green Sea Turtles Face a Triple Whammy

Life is not easy for green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), which are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. First, the creatures are at risk of extinction because of poaching, collisions with boats, habitat destruction, and entanglement in fishing gear. Second, climate change is threatening the reptiles because the sex of hatchlings is temperature dependent. The warmer the sand in a nest, the more likely the embryos will develop into females. Having only females and no males could mean the end of the line.

Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)   |  Credit: Kydd Pollock, USFWS, Pacific Region

But green sea turtles now face a triple whammy. According to new research led by Griffith University in Australia, pollution from heavy metals ingested by a mother as she forages, may transfer to her eggs and also cause embryos to be female. In their study, researchers monitored 17 clutches of eggs laid at a site on Heron Island, in the southern Great Barrier Reef for sand temperature—and once the turtles hatched—for contaminants in their livers, including metals, as well as organic contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

They counted more females in the nests with warmer sand but also found that some of those nests had higher amounts of pollutants, suggesting the contaminants were compounding the problem. The authors say metals like cadmium and antimony seem to function as “xenoestrogens” that mimic female sex hormones and direct embryos toward becoming female. They add that given most heavy metals come from human activity such as mining and urban runoff, the best solution to save green sea turtles is to stop pollutants from reaching our oceans.  

The research was published in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science.

Did You Notice that 2023 Was a “Mast Year”?

Does it seem like there were a lot more nuts this fall? We don’t mean oddballs and eccentrics. We mean acorns and walnuts scattered on sidewalks, cluttering driveways, or piling up in parks. Whether you noticed or not, 2023 was a so-called “mast year” when trees go, well, nuts.

White oak (Quercus alba) acorns—one prolific tree can nearly cover the ground in a good year. Duke Forest Korstian Division, Durham North Carolina.  |  Credit: Dcrjsr/Creative Commons

Oaks, beeches, and even spruce have an on-again, off-again pattern when it comes to producing nuts and cones, and scientists aren’t quite sure why or how they all seem to be coordinating their efforts. There are several theories, including that masting is a tree’s strategy to outwit seed-eating predators—a squirrel can stuff only so many nuts in its cheeks and will perhaps bury some for later, where they eventually take root and grow into saplings.

A mast year can reverberate throughout an ecosystem with a bounty of seeds dumping extra organic matter into soils, which fuels plant and microbial growth that feeds insects, birds, and small animals, who are then eaten by their predators up the food chain.

But how do individual trees decide to sync up with their neighbors to have a mast year? Emily Moran of the University of California, Merced writes in The Conversation that weather might be a factor, especially in the spring. If there’s a cold snap that freezes a tree’s flowers, then it can’t produce many seeds in the fall. Also, a summer drought could kill developing seeds because trees might shut the pores in their leaves to save water, affecting their ability to photosynthesize.

Another possibility, she says, is that trees are talking to each other through chemical signals. There is scientific evidence of trees’ releasing compounds into the air when they’re attacked by insects to alert nearby plants, but that wouldn’t explain masting that spreads over miles. So, mast years might just remain a mystery. Would that be totally…nuts?