Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Nuclear threat looms over Russia’s Ukraine invasion

The Russian Federation on Thursday threatened to shut down Europe’s largest nuclear plant if Ukraine doesn’t stop shooting at its forces there, which Kyiv denies doing. 

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility is located in Ukraine but currently controlled by Russian forces. 

Moscow said an incident at the plant could send nuclear waste as far as Germany, CNBC reported. 

Russia accused Ukrainians of planning a “provocation” that would lead to a meltdown and bring international blame to Russia for “creating a man-made disaster at the power plant.” Ukraine countered that Moscow could solve the problem by removing its forces. 

The military and diplomatic standoff between Moscow and Kyiv at the Zaporizhzhia facility threatens to involve Europe and the United States. 

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told his Ukrainian counterpart on Wednesday that the “United States will continue to call for an end to all military operations  at or near Ukraine’s nuclear facilities.”  

Experts told CNBC that a meltdown at the plant — likely caused by runaway heating due to a hit on one of the cooling ponds — would be “catastrophic” for nearby areas

But they added that modern reactor technology meant it would “be nowhere near as severe as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and more likely be similar in scale to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.” 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start by looking at a new technique that can break down certain types of cancer-linked “forever chemicals.” Then we’ll see when hurricane season might roll in and how bad it’s likely to be when it does. Finally, we’ll look at why the drought could be the last straw for Texas’ independent cattle farmers.

Scientists unveil method to destroy some PFAS

Scientists at Northwestern University say they have devised a method for breaking apart some of the infamously unbreakable toxins known as “forever chemicals.” 

‘Forever’ for a reason: These chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), earned the “forever” qualifier due to their propensity to linger in the human body and the environment.  

  • There are thousands of types of PFAS, none of which are naturally occurring and many of which can take decades to degrade. 
  • But a group of chemists say they have developed a simple, inexpensive method to break down two major classes of PFAS, while leaving behind only harmless byproducts. 

Making the impossible possible: The researchers published their findings — which they acknowledged as a “seemingly impossible” — in Science on Thursday afternoon. 

“PFAS has become a major societal problem,” lead author William Dichtel, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern, said in a statement.  

“Even just a tiny, tiny amount of PFAS causes negative health effects, and it does not break down,” he added.  

Why don’t PFAS degrade? These substances are usually so indestructible because they are made up of many carbon-fluorine bonds, which are the strongest such bonds in organic chemistry, the authors said. 

A key vulnerability: But the researchers said they identified a weakness that enabled them to disrupt this formidable attachment. 

  • While PFAS contain long “tails” of powerful carbon-fluorine bonds, at one end of these molecules is often a “head group” of charged oxygen atoms. 
  • By heating the PFAS in a solvent called dimethyl sulfide with a common reagent called sodium hydroxide, the scientists “decapitated the head group” — exposing the reactive PFAS tail for destruction.   

Finding the weak point: “Although carbon-fluorine bonds are super strong, that charged head group is the Achilles heel,” Dichtel said. 

The head group’s decapitation “sets off a cascade of reactions” that degrades the PFAS into “relatively benign products,” the professor explained at a press conference earlier this week. 

Does this mean we can destroy all PFAS? Not quite. Dichtel’s team successfully degraded 10 types of PFAS from two classes: perfluoroalkyl carboxylic acids and perfluoroalkyl ether carboxylic acids. 

  • That includes two of the most infamous types of PFAS: PFOA and GenX. 
  • They next plan to focus on decapitating another large class called perfluoroalkyl sulfonates, which includes the common compound PFOS. 

To find out how such an approach could potentially be integrated into real-world water purifications technologies, please click here.  

Hurricane activity could intensify soon

While hurricane season has thus far been “ominously quiet,” meteorologists are warning that this silence could be shattered in the coming weeks, The Washington Post reported.  

Awaiting a big storm: Heading into the summer, forecasters agreed that “above-average activity” would strike this season, according to the Post.  

Yet there hasn’t been a named storm in the Atlantic since Colin, which the Post described as “a pipsqueak swirl of gusty showers that scraped along the Carolina coastline” in early July.   

A reversal could come soon: But an escalation in hurricane activity may be in store for the end of August, the Post reported, citing The National Hurricane Center.  

Peak hurricane season usually occurs around Sept. 15, but late August into mid-October is considered the busiest stretch for these storms, according to the Post.  

Incoming tropical disturbance: Forecasters are tracking a tropical disturbance that is heading for the southwestern Gulf of Mexico — specifically toward Mexico and Texas, NOLA.com reported.  

  • While the Atlantic should remain quiet for the next 48 hours, an area of low pressure could form on Friday.  
  • This could cause the storm to strengthen as the storm moves northwest through the weekend.   

We could meet Danielle: The tropical disturbance has a 30 percent chance of growing into at least a tropical depression in the next five days, according to NOLA.com. 

If the system ends up becoming a tropical storm, the next available name would be Danielle, NOLA.com reported.  

All it takes is one: While hurricane activity has thus far been minimal, the Post warned that “even the quietest seasons have whipped up meteorological monstrosities.”  

  • In 1992, for example, there were only seven named storms, but Category 5 Hurricane Andrew “lay siege to South Florida,” according to the Post. 
  • “When it comes to tropical storms and hurricanes, it only takes one,” the Post said. 

Climate, pesticides batter bees 

Bees are being battered by both climate change and a widespread class of chemical pesticides, according to two new studies published this week. 

Heat, wet warp bees: British bumblebees have experienced growing deformities as their environments have grown hotter and wetter over the past century, one of the studies found. 

  • A survey of 100 years of historic bee specimens by Imperial College London determined that bees were more likely to form asymmetrical wings in particularly hot and wet years. 
  • Asymmetric wing formation is a sign that bee populations are under serious stress.  

Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat — with bees playing a disproportionate role, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Bad omens: The correlation is a bad sign for both bees and the crops that rely on them, given the likely trends through the rest of the century. 

  • “Hotter and wetter conditions [are] predicted to place bumblebees under higher stress,” coauthor Richard Gill said in a statement. 
  • “The fact these conditions will become more frequent under climate change means bumblebees may be in for a rough time over the 21st century,” Gill added.

Other threats are human-caused: A common type of pesticide impairs the ability of bees to walk in a straight line, according to a study published Wednesday in Frontiers in Insect Science. 

The common insect-killing compounds known as neonicotinoids damage parts of the insect’s brains related to balance and pathfinding, the study found. 

  • Scientists have long worried that neonicotinoids caused nervous damage in beneficial insects as well as pests. 
  • Exposure to the pesticides caused unusually high proportions of dead cells in the bees’ optic lobes, which process visual inputs. 

A broader threat: The studies suggest that human action is putting additional stress on bee populations already hard-pressed by climate change. 

The threat to bees is part of a larger decline among pollinator species that menaces the productivity of agriculture as currently practiced. 

DRIED UP: Drought hits independent ranchers

Drought in the U.S. West is ramping up pressure on the small, independent ranchers who form a key part of the American cattle economy — and accelerating the inevitable collapse of irrigation-fueled agriculture on the High Plains. 

Saul explores this burgeoning threat to the country’s food supply in the second installation in The Hill’s Dried Up series, which looks at how the West is adapting to meet the extreme stresses posed by climate change. 

Drought kills grass, feed: The immediate crisis in the High Plains comes from the way dry conditions have withered grassy pastures and wrecked harvests for the key feed crops that farmers might otherwise use to replace them. 

  • “If we can’t produce the forage and many of the local feedstuffs how viable is a local livestock industry going to be?” asked Jourdan Bell of West Texas A&M’s AgriLife extension program. “That becomes a very tough question.” 
  • With grass rare and prices for scarce feed rising, one High Plains rancher said he plans to “keep selling cows till it rains,” as reported by local station KAMR, which collaborated with The Hill on this story.   

A larger crisis looms: The drought is being exacerbated by climate change, as Zack Budryk reported last week in the first installment of Dried Up. 

But the broader crisis comes from a long-term pattern of lax regulation and overuse, which is pushing key underground water sources to their breaking points

Thursday Threats

Mediterranean countries are in hot water, a rainy island is under water restrictions and how wind turbines threaten to Wyoming’s golden eagles. 

Mediterranean endures dangerous surge in heat 

  • Scientists from Barcelona to Tel Aviv are reporting exceptional rises in summer air and Mediterranean Sea temperatures, with the latter regularly exceeding
    86 degrees Fahrenheit
    , The Associated Press reported. “We are pushing the system too far,” Joaquim Garrabou, from the Institute of Marine Sciences in Barcelona, told the AP. “We have to take action on the climate issues as soon as possible.” 

Drought puts London under water restrictions 

  • Notoriously rainy London is under drought-induced water restrictions due to the compounding impacts of “the driest July since 1885, the hottest temperatures on record and the River Thames reaching its lowest level since 2005,” the Thames Water utility announced on Wednesday. Under the new limits customers are forbidden to use their hoses to wash cars, fill pools or water plants, according to the utility.

Wind turbines may pose a threat to Wyoming’s golden eagles 

  • As wind turbines crop up across Wyoming — a hub for golden eagles — scientists fear that deaths from collisions could cause the population to plunge, The Associated Press reported. Turbine blades join a long list of threats to the birds, which are often shot, poisoned by lead, struck by vehicles or electrocuted, according to the AP. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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