Archive for March, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Nuclear Power Plant

March 21, 2014

On April 9, 2008, 450 of the 500 employees at the Point Beach nuclear power plant – owned by FPL Energy of Florida and located in Two Rivers, Michigan – were evacuated because a store clerk misinterpreted a sound bite.

It started like this: a 23-year-old man walked into a local convenience store on the morning of April 8 to ask directions to the nuclear plant. It was his first day on the job and the day had already started badly. He was lost, running late, and trying to make a good first impression. In his nervousness, he probably started to babble. I know I do when I’m stressed.

He got his directions and added, “I hope I won’t blow up the place. They don’t allow me to push any buttons, anyway.”

A clerk overheard him and went into panic mode. The clerk is a 10-year veteran of the Kwik Trip, and likely knows everyone in the area by face, if not by name. A stranger’s face coupled with trigger words like “blow up” pushed her into that state of acute paranoia which has overtaken many Americans since 9/11. She called the Two Rivers police.

The Two Rivers police called in the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI. Surveillance tapes from the convenience store led to the stranger’s car, a Milwaukee rental, parked in the employee lot at the nuclear power plant. The car was searched, but nothing was found that would indicate terrorism.

The clerk’s statement was considered a “credible threat”, according to plant spokesperson Sara Cassidy. An “Unusual Event” was declared at 8:16 a.m., and the plant evacuated. The “Unusual Event” status is the least critical of four radiological emergency classifications established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to deal with, and inform the public about, problems occurring at a nuclear power plant. The next category, in terms of criticality, is an “Alert,” followed by a “Site Area Emergency,” and finally, a “General Emergency,” which is when things get really hairy.

Non-essential plant employees were removed to the Point Beach Energy Center nearby while the three agencies unraveled the plot. The new employee, a former resident of Hull, Mass., was interviewed by the FBI and clarified the misrepresented statement. The event status was lifted at 12:26 p.m.

At this time, no charges are being pursued against any of the players in this bizarre drama, according to the Two Rivers police, who agree with plant representatives that the clerk acted in a responsible manner. According to Cassidy, the new contract employee did not have a site badge and had no access to the plant’s secure area in any case.

“This has never happened before,” said Lauretta Krcma-Olson, energy center supervisor, speaking to the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, a local newspaper.

I say, “Welcome to 21st Century America.” We are as vulnerable as our weakest link, and the size and diversity of this country leads to weak links in every area, every demographic, and every vital facility.

We can’t protect everything, or everyone, everywhere. This is why it is essential to end our warmongering overseas. We are no safer now than we were on September 10, 2001, and it behooves us to remember that the 12-year-old boy carrying a gun in Iraq or Afghanistan is a future terrorist, physically armed by our military/industrial complex (the U.S. is the world’s leading arms exporter), and emotionally armed by the murder of his family at the hands of strangers he considers infidels.

This was a non-event. The next one, aimed at the heartland of America and bearing nuclear or biological signatures, may be real. I don’t side with the Neocons, who see America as the sole arbiter of political and social justice worldwide; our own record isn’t good enough to support that pretension.

On the other hand, being a pacifist is not the same as being passive. We have a right to defend our borders. We do not have a right to extend them – or our philosophy and way of life – wherever we deem suitable, at the expense of civilian populations. We can not call ourselves a Christian nation when our hands are red with the blood of innocents.
(This post originally appeared in The Panelist at: http://thepanelist.com/Opinions/Opinions/_20080414926/

Ancient Bacteria, Global Warming and Future Pandemics

March 4, 2014

Last week, scientists reported discovering living and fully viable bacteria in the ice of a Greenland glacier.

The bacteria, called Chryseobacterium Greenlandensis, is one of about 10 new species found in melting polar ice and glaciers, and has survived more than 120,000 years in extreme cold and pressure in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere with limited food supply.

Distantly related to bacteria found in marine mud, as well as the roots of some plants and fish, this new genus of Chryseobacterium demonstrates the persistence of life even under adverse conditions, and scientists are studying it to understand how cells survive by altering their biochemistry and physiology over generations.

The scientists are delighted with their find. I’m concerned. These emerging bacteria have not evolved alongside the current inhabitants of earth, including man. Consequently, none of earth’s species have developed any immunity to them. As polar ice and glaciers continue to melt, more and more bacteria will emerge. Some may be inimical to life as we know it, and all have shown themselves capable of surviving under conditions none of earth’s current inhabitants could tolerate.

To me, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, and I think I can safely anticipate the emergence, and spread, of a strain of bacteria that exhibits the potential to wipe out a species (say, fish) and then spreads transgenically to man. Interestingly enough, this article has been tagged elsewhere under Andromeda strain and whatcouldpossiblygowrong, indicating I’m not the only one anticipating doomsday scenarios from these new arrivals to the environment – arrivals which have spent the last 120 millenia (or as much as eight million years) evolving in a direction we can only call alien.

Currently, varieties of Chryseobacterium – a gram negative bacteria – have been implicated in such diseases or conditons as hepatitis and acute sepsis, infective endocarditis, septic arthritis, and chronic sclerosing osteomyelitis, this last treated with a third generation antibiotic, ciprofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone, or broad-spectrum antibiotic). Gram negative bacteria like cholera have caused epidemics in the past, and Chryseobacteria are the primary disease agents in nosocomial infections in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as among children with cystic fibrosis and people with chronic lung conditions like asthma, emphysema and COPD. They also cause meningitis (in newborns) and sepsis in burn victims.

Known Chryseobacterium strains are, for the most part, unfriendly to man. How much less friendly will they be having evolved separately from man? Add to that the increasing resistance of bacteria in general to third-generation antibiotics like the cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and carbapenems, and this convergence – of bacteria evolved to survive everything, and increasing antibiotic resistance in “native” strains of bacteria – creates the potential for cross-genus contamination leading to epidemic (or even pandemic) diseases. We already know that GM micro-organisms are capable of cross-breeding in nature, and scientists have demonstrated that bacteria can join together and exchange DNA (a process known as conjugation), which changes the genotype of the bacteria.

As the earth warms – either due to man’s activities or some natural (possibly external) cycle – more bacteria will emerge from ice or thawing permafrost. In soils previously locked by permafrost, soil bacteria will increase their activity, releasing the trapped carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and the release of even more bacteria, both native species and alien ones.

The “blowback” of this predicted runaway global warming may be more than rising oceans, erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and a rise in the lethality of existing diseases. It may lead to the emergence of entirely new diseases for which we have no weapons, and the sudden or gradual extinction of the single species held culpable in global warming. An end which, some would call, “Karmic retribution.”

This is doubly disconcerting as a similar threat was reported just this week in The Verge.

For those who would rather ignore these dire warnings, I would also like to remind the reading public that, quite recently, more degrees of MRSA (Methicillin resistant staphlococcus aureus) are being found than ever before, at exactly the same time that supplies of useful antibiotics are running low.

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

(This blog originally ran in The Panelist in 2008)