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SMC Heads-Up: Fukushima leak, White Island eruption

SMC Heads-Up: Fukushima leak, White Island eruption and science in the southern snow

Issue 245 23 -29 August 2013

Fukushima's leaking worsens

Radioactive water is leaking from holding tanks at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

Minor earlier leaks have been reported but this latest breach, confirmed on Wednesday, is believed to be the worst so far, with an estimated 300 metric tons of contaminated water escaping.

The plant's owners, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) have previously confirmed that groundwater with low level radiation has seeped into the Pacific Ocean. However the water lost in the most recent leak carries more radiation and poses a much greater threat to marine life if it reaches the ocean.

Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority has called for the severity of leakage to be upgraded from a level one "anomaly" to a level three "serious incident" on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC contacted experts for comment on the leaks.

Prof Neil Hyatt, Professor of Nuclear Materials Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, said:

"To keep up with the rate at which radioactive cooling water is accumulated, TEPCO have opted to use containment tanks incorporating plastic seals. Seepage from these joints was the cause of the latest leak of radioactive water.

"TEPCO need to develop a strategy to remove the residual contamination from this water so that it can be safely discharged under environmental regulations, and prevent it from accumulating in storage tanks."

Prof Andrew Sherry, Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, University of Manchester, said:

"The approach taken by TEPCO to drain the tank, pump leaked water to temporary storage, and protect the drainage of contaminated water to ground water, is entirely sensible.

"However, this incident does highlight the importance of an effective inspection programme for these many hundreds of storage tanks, and the need to consider replacing bolted or sealed storage tanks, which were relatively quick to build and were urgently needed, with a more robust welded design that has a longer design life."

You can read further expert commentary here. Ongoing updates on the leak can be found on the Tepco media site.

Eruption part of prolonged activity

Volcanic activity on White Island appears to have quietened down - for now.

An eruption on the island on Tuesday morning was the latest burst of activity in a sequence that that started a year ago and saw a flurry of eruptions in January and February earlier this year.

At the time of the eruption, the column of steam and ash rising 4km into the sky, could be seen from the Bay of Plenty coast.

Immediately following the eruption GNS Science issued an orange 'level 2' alert (on a zero to five scale). This has now been downgraded to a 'level 1' yellow alert, indicating minor eruptive activity.

You can watch spectacular footage of the eruption on the GNS Science Volcano Blog.

Duty Volcanologist Nico Fournier said on Wednesday that "there is presently no clear indication that [Tuesday's] eruption is leading to a large eruption, but eruptions similar to those in the last year cannot be excluded over the days or weeks to come."

The immediate question of whether the volcanic activity was linked to the recent Seddon quake was quickly answered by GNS scientist Caroline Little who noted, "research in this area, both here and overseas suggests that earthquake can sometimes have an effect on volcanoes. However, with the data at hand, there is currently no clear evidence that the Cook Strait earthquakes impacted on White Island and caused the eruption."

Dr Little also rated the chances of a tsunami or linked volcanic activity elsewhere as highly unlikely.

GNS Science volcanologist Craig Miller took part in an NZ Herald live chat immediately following the eruption, providing answers to numerous questions from the public, which you can view here.

GNS Science continues to monitor the situation and plans to fly over the island today to sample gases to gain more information about the current volcanic activity.

You can keep up to date with developments on the GNS Science Volcano blog.

On the science radar this week...

Ostrich eggs, frogsicles, ancient spices, extreme science jobs and literal mindreading.

Sun, snow and science at QRW 2013

Scientists from around the globe will next week descend on the resort town of Queenstown for numerous scientific conferences -- and perhaps a spot of skiing - as Queenstown Research Week kicks off.

The line up of conferences includes:

• the 31st International Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research (AWCBR),

• the Medical Sciences Congress (MedSci) 2013,

• the annual scientific meeting of Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacologists and Toxicologists (ASCEPT) and

• the Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting (QMB) and its (many) satellite meetings.

As of this week, the total number of registrations sits at over 1,000, surpassing last year's count by 300 and promising a very busy week for event organisers.

Between sessions, all Queenstown Research Week delegates come together for refreshments, interdisciplinary discussions and networking. And of course there is ample opportunity for a bit skiing, jet-boating, bungy jumping, paragliding, hiking, rafting...

The Minister of Science and Innovation, the Hon Steven Joyce, will be opening Research Week this year and is tipped to be making an important announcement regarding science funding.

Satellite meetings associated with QMB cover arrange of topics including: epigenetics, heart research, redox biology and enzyme engineering and evolution.

QMB highlights include a meeting on Genomic Medicine organised by Prof Cris Print and featuring Prof Mark Henaghan, both of whom spoke on the issue at an SMC briefing earlier this year, and the Of Microbes and Men session organised by Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Deborah Williamson, focusing on 'medically important microbes - both old foes and those newly emerging.'

Writing about the meeting on SciBlogs, Dr Wiles took the opportunity to lament the lack of recognition of infectious diseases research in the recent National Science Challenges announcements, noting it could be "something we can ask Minister Steven Joyce about when he opens the main QMB meeting!"

Dr Wiles and other twitter-literate scientists will be live tweeting from Queenstown using the hashtag #QRW13, and updates will be posted to the Queenstown Research Week

Facebook page.

The peer review system - how it works

The third in a series of articles from the new edition of the SMC Desk Guide for Covering Science which is available in full here.

Scientists spend a lot of time writing up, revising and publishing their research. It's an extremely important part of the scientific process, because it allows other scientists to offer feedback and test the research for themselves to verify its accuracy. Publishing is also an important measure for many scientists of their output.

Before a study can be published in a reputable journal, it must be peer-reviewed. In a process which can last months, the study is sent to scientists working in the same field, who are best positioned to be able to decide whether the methods used were appropriate, and the conclusions make sense.

These 'peer reviewers' offer journal editors advice on the quality of the paper, whether or not it should be published and what changes should be made if it is to be published.

While peer review acts as an internal check on the quality of research, it isn't infallible.There is potential for bias among reviewers and not all mistakes are identified. Peer review is based on trust that the data are real and cannot identify fraudulent results.

The evaluation of research doesn't end after peer review.

Once published, a study may receive further critique from other scientists through letters to the editor of the journal, commentary articles or further research attempting to replicate the finding of the original study - science is an ongoing process.

Peer-reviewed Journals - Quality may vary

Scientific journals are ranked according to various measures of their impact.

• Prestigious, multidisciplinary journals (Nature, Science, etc.)

• Field-specific journals (e.g. physics, agriculture) with varying degrees of selectivity

• Wide assortment of less well-known journals that may be narrow in scope or unselective

Publication in top journals is incredibly competitive, while more obscure journals may struggle to get enough submissions to fill their pages. Some journals require researchers to pay for publication, while others rely on subscription fees.

Quoted: Waikato Times

"We have a moral right as academics to give our opinions on this"

University of Waikato Chemistry Lecturer Dr Michael Mucalo responds to demands that the Chemistry dept. remain 'publicly neutral' on Fluoride.

New from the SMC

Reflections on Science:

Fluoro-fight: In the Waikato Times, Mike Mather reports on the conflict between campaigners and academics in the lead up to referendum on fluoridation.

In the News:

Hep C drug: PHARMAC has announced it will fund a new hepatitis C drug targeted to patients who carry a particular gene variant.

Stewardship land: The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is calling on the government to fix up policy regarding a poorly protected category of the conservation estate.

Experts respond:

Suicide in the blood: independent experts are cautious about over-interpreting research identifying potential biomarkers for suicide risk.

Fukushima leak: UK experts comment on the latest radioactive water leak at the damaged Fukushima power plant.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Dr Kelly Brogen and the case of the misplaced science - Helen Petousis Harris critiques some rather audacious claims about the theory of vaccination.

Diplomatic Immunity

Hope and the Science and Society Challenge - Elf Eldridge lambasts the lack of action on National Science Challenge calling for more engagement between science and society.

Just So Science

100% useless: NZ government announces pathetic 5% emissions target - The latest climate targets are firmly in Gareth Renowden's sights.

Hot Topic

How old is a piece of string? Alison Campbell spins a yarn about the archaeological and evolutionary history of... string.

Bio Blog

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Birds adjust to road speed limits: Scientists, it seems, are never off the clock. Biologists driving home from the lab have, over the course of year, collected data on the behaviour of local birds, providing an insight into the impact of roads on species conservation. They found that birds living in areas with high road speed limits were more spooked by far away cars (travelling at any speed) in comparison to birds living in low speed areas, which wait until a car is closer before flying away.

Biology Letters

Out-of-this-world jewellery: Using high tech scanning methods, researchers have shown that a set of 5000 year-old ancient Egyptian iron beads were hammered from pieces of meteorites, rather than iron ore. The metal- working techniques predate the emergence of iron smelting by two millennia and reveal a historical underestimation of skills in ancient metal working.

Journal of Archaeological Science

Wikipedia predicts movie success: Applications of 'big data' are about to hit the silver screen. In a new study researchers show that that the popularity of a movie can be predicted well before its release by measuring and analysing the activity level of editors and viewers of the corresponding entry to the movie in Wikipedia, the well-known online encyclopedia.

PLOS ONE

Midwifery works: Maternity care that involves a midwife as the main care provider leads to better outcomes for most women, according to a new comprehensive systematic review analysing data from over 16,000 women involved in 13 large studies from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the UK. Women who received continued care throughout pregnancy and birth from a small group of midwives were less likely to give birth pre-term and required fewer interventions during labour and birth than when their care was shared between different obstetricians, GPs and midwives.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews

'Flu vaccination lowers heart risk: The flu jab seems to almost halve the risk of heart attacks in middle aged people with narrowed arteries, according to an new Australian study which compared heart attack patients with a control patient sample. Curiously, actually having the 'flu did not increase heart attack risk but vaccination against the infection did seem to be protective, decreasing the risk of a heart attack by 45 percent Australia, like NZ, provides free flu jabs to those aged 65 and over but the authors suggest extending this to 50-64 year olds.

Heart

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

MERS: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been added to the Ministry of Health's schedule of notifiable diseases, meaning any cases must be reported.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Queenstown Research Week - 24-30 August, Queenstown.

Enough - the challenges of a post-growth economy - Public Lecture from Jeanette Fitzsimons - 26 August, Dunedin.

Non-invasive prenatal testing using fetal DNA in maternal plasma: from dream to reality - Public lecture from Prof Dennis Lo (Hong Kong) - 26 August, Auckland; 27 August, Wellington.

Safety of herbal medicines: from patient to population - University of Auckland Winter Lecture with Prof Jo Barnes - 27 August, Auckland.

Today's Research: Tomorrow's Health - Heart health public lecture with Profs Greg Jones and Alistair Young - 28 August, Queenstown.

Teeth and the rest of you - University of Otago Winter lecture with Dr Jonathan Broadbent - 28 August, Wellington; 29 August, Auckland.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

ENDS

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