New & Noteworthy: Setback at Midway; Radioactive Dangers Here?

posted in: April 2011 | 0

Setback at Midway: The tsunami that hit Midway atoll last month washed tens of thousands of albatross chicks off the island, while at least a thousand Bonin petrels were buried alive in their burrows.

The short-tailed albatross chick, whose hatching was heralded as a major breakthrough last January, survived. The location of its nest cup was well known, so the chick could be put back where its parents could locate it. As of press time, the parents had not been spotted.

But for most of the thousands of black-footed and Laysan albatross chicks rescued, volunteers and staff at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge had no way of knowing where their nest cups might have been. And unless the chicks are able to wander back to their nest site, where their parents might find them, odds for their survival are not good. The chicks are not at a stage when they could survive on their own, says Barry Stieglitz, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“If a chick can’t find its way back on its own to its nest cup,” Stieglitz told Environment Hawai`i, “my understanding is the adults will come back several times with food, look around, and if they can’t find their chick, they give up. They won’t feed just any chick that happens to be nearby. There may be a few ‘adoptions,’ but certainly that wouldn’t be widespread.”

If the short-tailed albatross adults don’t return to the chick, will the refuge managers try to hand-raise it? Stieglitz was asked.

“Normally we try to manage populations, not individuals,” he said. “But because this is the first short-tailed albatross chick to have hatched outside Japan, we might make an exception in this case.”

Other atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian archipelago were also hit pretty hard by the tsunami, including Kure and Laysan, Stieglitz said.

Radioactive Dangers Here? The earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan last month should have driven home a couple of lessons: 

The first, and most obvious, is that siting nuclear facilities near coastlines or zones of high seismic activity may not be a good idea. Hawai`i has no nuclear energy plants, but there is one proposal, still alive in the eyes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to build a cobalt-60-fueled irradiator, with more than a million curies of radioactivity, near the Honolulu airport.

Pa`ina Hawai`i, which has proposed the facility, already has a license to operate from the NRC at the airport site. Recently Michael Kohn, a principal of Pa`ina, has said he wants to add another location – in Kunia – to the license. But, as Environment Hawai`i reported last month, Kohn insists that he does not want to surrender the airport site just across Lagoon Drive from Ke`ehi Lagoon, which was heavily damaged in the March tsunami.

On March 1, the NRC released a final supplement to its environmental assessment for the Pa`ina facility. In the discussion of the potential impacts of tsunamis, the document looks only to “projected wave velocities associated with the largest historical tsunamis,” concluding that the source assembly (housing the radioactive cobalt) would remain intact. “Even an extremely large tsunami” generated by a hurricane, it states, “would not be sufficient to remove a source assembly from the bottom of the irradiator pool.” In view of the many photos revealing the force of the Japanese tsunami, it verges on silly to think the Pa`ina plant would have been unscathed were it to be hit by something similar.

That leads to the second lesson: Designers of the Japanese nuclear plants also assumed that their facilities would not have to be built to withstand more than the “largest historical” events. When historical records extend only a couple of hundred years, maybe it’s time to scrap their use as a basis for design. 

David Henkin, the attorney representing Concerned Citizens of Honolulu, which is an intervenor in the NRC proceedings concerning Pa`ina, has yet a third lesson, though this one he was happy to discuss well before the events in Japan. Given that the benefit of the Pa`ina facility is negligible, according to even the brightest scenarios in the NRC environmental documents, why should residents of Hawai`i be asked to accept any associated risk, however small, at all? he asks.

Volume 21, Number 9 April 2011