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Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France. Photo: Stefan Kühn/Wikimedia Commons

Though the coverage of Japan’s crisis rages on, the question of whether the United States should rethink nuclear energy has resurfaced. Just as the nuclear industry was “settling back into the public conscience” as a safe form of energy, one of my professors noted.

This made me wonder: Am I aware of nuclear plants surrounding me?

Mother Jones has a nifty article listing cities closest to nuclear power plants. I’m unsure of people’s familiarity with nearby power plants, but I’d dare to say many already know, especially if the construction of the plant was contested or highly publicized.

The closest plants to Madison are outside of Manitowac, Wis. — a city 130 miles northeast of here on Lake Michigan.

Kewaunee plant, one of two nuclear plants located outside of Manitowac. Photo: U.S. NRC/Wikimedia Commons

Manitowoc lies within 13 miles of two nuclear power facilities and is approximately 80 miles north of Milwaukee. These plants generate 20 percent of the state’s total power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Other sources of energy include coal, natural gas, petroleum and hydroelectricity.

My home state of Georgia currently has four nuclear plants within 30 miles of two cities, according to Mother Jones’ nice graphic (which draws from NRC data).

But we’re not in the same position as other cities, where nuclear plants are viewed by some as being too close for comfort. For instance, New York’s governor has advocated shutting down the Indian Point nuclear plant roughly 40 miles from New York City, according to the Wall Street Journal. Currently, the plant provides the city with a quarter of its power.

But shutting down this plant would violate federal standards stating that power sources should not be minimized in such a way to make a grid vulnerable to a significant blackout once every 10 years. Experts say getting rid of the plant would increase the vulnerability of blackouts to once every three years.

In addition, people are concerned about the Governmental Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to keep evacuation standards at 10 miles from nuclear incidents, even though Japan has evacuated everyone within 19 miles and the U.S. government has encouraged Americans within 50 miles of Fukushima to evacuate, according to the article.

If the United States were to adopt a 50-mile evacuation radius — as Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones smartly points out — NYC would have to come up with a plan to evacuate some 21 million people living in the city.

Below is a map of America’s nuclear presence (through 2008).

Photo: Energy Information Administration

But the question of whether America should reduce reliance on nuclear energy isn’t an easy one. After all, we’re the highest consumers of energy, using 11,040 kilowatt-hours per household per year, when compared to 3,500 kilowatt-hours in Europe, as suggested by Europe’s Energy Portal. We’re also one of the few countries that has smacked a partisan label on climate change, where collectively reducing emissions is viewed as a gimmick for some — sadly.

So what makes us think we — industry and domestic consumers — can settle for less energy? I don’t know enough about the intricacies of nuclear plants to weigh the pros and cons. But I suspect we’re still far away from getting everyone on the same page.

Do you think Americans would be ready to nip nuclear power? Do they know the effects it would have on their energy use, or would they even be willing to comply with energy restrictions if need be?

Opinions welcome.

More background: My colleagues Eric and Erin have blogged about the basics of power planthood and what went down in Fukushima. Also my geologist-turned-science-writer colleague, Tim, compares the quake in Japan with his experiences covering tectonic activity in Seattle. And for reference, Bloomberg has a quick rundown of how radiation works and travels for anyone interested.

Veterinarians and zoo workers didn’t know how to treat Mumbali, a sick female gorilla at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Trying anything, vets anesthetized Mumbali to give her another gorilla’s blood.

The team was taking stabs in the dark — it didn’t know whether the two primates had the same blood type, whether the transfusion would work or whether Mumbali would even survive the ordeal.

Mumbali’s story, along with countless others, reveals the lack of data on great ape blood types. But researchers and veterinarians are catching on, as they assist captive primates much in the same way humans help one another — with blood banks.

After Mumbali’s primitive last-minute transfusion, Kathryn Gamble and Jill Moyse started opportunistically drawing blood from other great apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo when the animals were anesthetized during routine checkups.

Last September, the same team announced it had created a project to study the blood types of great apes in captivity. Incorporating this science into animals’ Species Survival Plans, zoos around the world have provided data on roughly 680 captive bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

These efforts highlight a conclusion long suspected, but never explored in its entirety: the striking similarities between human and nonhuman primate blood.

And no, we’re not talking about King Kong’s theatrical operation.

Like humans, apes have distinct immune antigens called agglutinogens on the surface of red blood cells. Blood is not interchangeable between humans and primates, but apes still possess a diversity of blood types similar to humans, including A, B, AB and O. Essentially, this means that some primates have a specific agglutinogen on the surface of the cell, while others have a mixture of A and B or no antigens at all (O type). Because some people and nonhuman primates possess red blood cells with no antigens, their blood is less likely to be rejected by another animal’s immune system, even if that animal has a different blood type.

University of Utah

When vets perform a blood transfusion with little knowledge of the donor and recipient’s blood type, the procedure can end tragically. If there’s no match, the recipient’s immune system will launch an attack on the foreign cells, which will cause the blood to clot and limit the flow of the vital oxygen needed throughout the body.

So far, scientists know that bonobos have Type A blood, whereas orangutans express a range of A, B, AB and O. Unfortunately, genetic sequencing cannot reliably characterize the blood types of gorillas at this time. This type of work isn’t new, but has mostly been limited to species of primates used for biomedical research — such as the rhesus macaque.

The project’s emphasis on collating blood data for the health of the animals, not necessarily humans, makes it unique and heartfelt. As of 2010, approximately half of the primate species in the world faced extinction, according to an International Union for the Conservation of Nature report. It’s clear that ensuring the health and stability of captive populations is necessary for the species’ survival in the long-run.

Losing apes from illnesses — both environmentally-induced and congenital — is not unusual in captivity or in the wild.

For instance, researchers recently discovered that the Simian Immunodeficiency virus (SIV) — the nonhuman primate version of HIV — has spread to nearly 25 percent of chimpanzees inhabiting the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. This is the same population first studied by Jane Goodall.

It will be interesting to see where these data come into play in the future.

Sadly, Mumbali succumbed to her illness on the operating table five years ago. Her transfusion was unsuccessful, but that may not be the case for other apes in the future.

Zoo keepers and researchers now have a starting point for blood transfusions in the future — there’s no more taking stabs in the dark.

Gorilla photo by Dozyg/Wikimedia Commons

Blood surface photo by the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center

Photo: Heart of an Artist

Chances are if we’re acquainted, you’ve tolerated me bringing up animal-related topics in daily conversation.

I’m interested in everything — what may start as a rant about ethical food choices or enrichment may shift to tool use and conservation in a matter of seconds. It’s fair to say I’m fascinated with the animal welfare side of things ( note: not necessarily “rights” in this context).

Yet what I don’t understand is this. The story, reported from my alma mater (sadly), details animal cruelty allegations against a student who is accused of killing mice for an art project. I think it’s safe to say that most people would label his actions disturbing and wrong.

But while reading, I wondered…

What distinguishes his act from people using mouse traps to kill mice in their homes?

Although one can argue differences of intentionality, I’m not sure what to think. This guy allegedly used a wooden board to achieve his goal. Most homeowners looking to get rid of their mousy friends use spring-loaded mouse traps.

Do you consider the two comparable? Is it fair to say that both cases required planning and forethought?

I definitely don’t defend this student’s actions, and I don’t think people who use mouse traps are evil (even though I support more humane alternatives to eradicating mice that use contraptions along these lines). I’m just wondering if anyone else finds this ethical comparison strange.

Why does a veil of cruelty make one case inherently wrong, while the other is seen as socially acceptable?

Do you think killing mice with mouse traps is ethical?

Any thoughts?

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About Me

Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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