City officials in Toledo, Ohio, have repealed their warning about drinking impure water from Lake Erie even though toxic concentrations are not significantly lower than in early August when a ban on tap water was imposed. That advice against consuming even boiled tap water came after the discovery of rising levels of poisonous compounds from a harmful type of algae blooming in the lake.
The about-face in public-health policy is the unfortunate outcome for a municipal government that cannot feasibly supply bottled water for daily use by 400,000 area residents. Declaring lake water to be safe, however, doesn’t make it any safer. Instead of facing up to the actual causes of declining water quality, Toledo officials can only hope the blue-green algae blooms will cease before voters start to keel over with kidney damage and liver cancer.
Lake Erie’s water is being contaminated by microcystin LR, a protein-based toxin released by a harmful strain of cyano-algae (cyano is Greek for the color blue and in this case unrelated to cyanide). The medical term for microcystin poisoning, which induces headaches, fatigue and renal damage, is the Caruaru syndrome, named after a Brazilian village where inhabitants died after drinking contaminated water. Toxic blooms can occur in tropical regions and semitropical south China but are rare in temperate climes.
Convergence of Interests
For many years, activists with the local Beyond Nuclear movement have complained that algae blooms on Lake Erie are caused by unnaturally high temperatures from releases of wastewater used to cool Reactor 2 at the Enrico Fermi nuclear plant.
Fermi’s 26-year-old Reactor 2 is a GE boiling water unit identical to two reactors that melted down at Fukushima. This year’s abnormally cold weather across the Midwest shows clearly that warm-water releases from the Fermi facility are the only possible cause of heating in the southern half of Lake Erie, as asserted by anti-nuclear activists..
Plant operator Detroit Edison, a subsidiary of DTE Corporation, claims the outflows from Fermi 2 are in compliance with environmental regulations on lake temperature. Any management admission of unreported hot-water releases could ruin chances of regulatory approval of a planned Reactor 3.
The Fermi facility is located in Monroe County, Michigan, between Detroit and Toledo, at the geographic center of the massive algae blooms along the western and southern shores of Lake Erie. Satellite photos from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) show the lake water outside the facility is clear, likely due to the fact that nothing grows in overheated wastewater. Toward the west and east the lake is deeply tinted aqua-green from algae.
Algae blooms with the consistency of split pea soup is caused by two factors: the warming of fresh water and introduction of dissolved phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer residues out of the mouth of the Maumee (Miami) River in the Toledo area.
There is also contamination at the political level. The confluence of agriculture chemicals and nuclear wastewater is difficult to challenge because of converging interests of agribusiness and nuclear energy. Detroit Edison’s parent company DTE operates a political action committee (PAC) that donates to the election campaigns of Ohio and Michigan congressman, including House speaker John Boehner. The major promoter of genetically modified corn and soybeans, Cargill, has an even longer recipient list of Midwestern politicians. The smart money is not e armarked for water purity.
From the 1960s until the ‘80s, algae flourished in Lake Erie due to rising use of phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer for soybeans and corn in the Maumee watershed in eastern Indiana, northern Ohio and southern Michigan. The expansion of agribusiness and the lucrative global trade in grain through the Chicago commodities exchange were the driving force for intensive farm output achieved by spreading chemical fertilizers.
In the interval between then and now, farming methods were radically altered to lessen the effect of farm chemicals on water quality, resulting in the disappearance of algae blooms for two decades. Untreated sewage dumping into Lake Erie was also drastically reduced, belatedly following the 1978 Clean Water Act.
In summer 2008, however, cyano-algae started to reappear, and then three years later a massive bloom blotted out the southern half of the lake shore. Blue-green algae are photosynthetic and add oxygen to the water, but after dying and rotting in huge quantities form a black sludge, creating oxygen-starved dead zones.
The resurgence in algae growth is baffling because agricultural use of phosphorus and nitrogen are lower than in during historical high levels of the past. Improved farming practices such as no-tillage and crop rotation have lowered fertilizer application, on many farms by a third. Concentration of chemical residuess is also prevented by the rapid flow of water through shallow Erie, which has the shortest water-retention period of any of the Great Lakes. It takes only two years for inflows from the Maumee to exit out the N iagara River, and then past the much-celebrated falls, into Lake Ontario.
Environmental scientists attribute recent algae blooms to two trends: sediment from heavy rainfall in spring 2011; and a higher ratio of dissolved reactive phosphorus easily absorbed by algae as compared with insoluble phosphates in fertilizer.
The Heat’s On
This year’s bloom provides insights into the role of heat and isotopes from nuclear power plants as stimulants for toxic algae growth. So far 2014 has been one of 10 coldest years in Midwestern history. Water temperatures in Lake Erie off Cleveland, northeast of Toledo, have been slow to snap out of an unseasonably cold spring, rising to only the Fahrenheit 50s in June and the 60s for most of July.
Algae, in contrast, require water temperatures of 70-90 degrees F before rapid cell division that multiplies their numbers.. This differential means that hot-water flows out of Fermi must be raising surface temperatures by 10 to 15 degrees F, a huge jump considering the lake’s vast volume.
Radiation Spurs Algae Growth
Blue-green algae are biologically complex for single-cell plants due to their photosynthetic capability, which uses sunlight for energy. Though microscopic, algae are tiny engines that produce complex molecules such as ethanol and fats that can be used to produced biofuel.
Their biochemical complexity makes algae susceptible to radiation, especially in their watery environment. As in the case of marine animals of the North Pacific now being decimated by Fukushima radiation, very low radioisotope concentrations in water can have a permanent effect on species mortality. Algae respond to threats much like microorganisms, by pushing cell division into overdrive. (In higher organisms, increased cell division is expressed as gigantism.)
Among the many types of uranium decay products that escape nuclear plants, one radionucleotide produced in nuclear power plants has an especial affinity for algae. Phosphorus-32 is extracted from nuclear reactors for biological research into tracing the rate of uptake of phosphorus in the vascular system of plants.
Phosphorus-32, a beta-ray emitter, could have a role in triggering the formation of algae blooms in Lake Erie by promoting mutation of their defense mechanisms. Radiation with P-32 and other uranium products could be favoring sub-species that produce mycrocystin LR over harmless types of algae, thereby increasing the amount of toxin in Lake Erie.
Enrico Fermi nuclear plant, named after the Italian-Jewish physicist who designed the world’s first nuclear reactor known as Chicago Pile-1 and worked on the Manhattan Project, has a history of serious technical breakdowns. Fermi 1 was an early-model fast-breeder reactor, which had to decommissioned due to frequent technical failures before it could ever produce power on a commercial basis. Fermi-2, a GE Mark 1 unit, suffered a major turbine failure on Christmas Day 1993, which required lake water to be pumped into the hot w ell.
In June 2010, a tornado on Lake Erie made a direct hit on the Fermi-2 reactor, resulting in the downing of transmission lines and a power blackout for 30,000 homes. While Detroit Energy reported no damage to the reactor itself, the following year’s massive algae bloom could well have been a consequence of emergency water pumping into and out of the reactor building. Fermi-2 was again temporarily shut down in June 2012, that time by failures in the steam condenser system, a situation similar to the “corrosion” (c over word for cracks) in pipes that forced last year’s closure of Southern California Edison’s San Onfre plant.
If, indeed radioactive isotopes were released into Lake Erie, the consequences for human health and the ecosystem could already be farther-ranging than heat-caused algae blooms and biotoxins in drinking water. Already, cancer rates around Erie are higher than the national average. Citizen-based radiation monitoring is much needed for an accurate threat assessment.
Erie provides water to Cleveland and Buffalo, New York, in addition to Toledo and Detroit, meaning a nuclear accident would devastate America’s breadbasket and industrial heartland. Contamination could also reach the Lake Ontario cities of Toronto, Canada, and Rochester, New York, and even flow to Montreal. Enrico Fermi nuclear plant has been described by Midwestern anti-nuke activists as “Fukushima on Lake Erie.” As a researcher who works inside Japan’s nuclear exclusion zone, all I can say is: One Fukushima is one too many.
Yoichi Shimatsu, a Thailand-based science writer who conducts field research inside the Fukushima exclusion zone, was the founder of one of the first modern organic farms in the American Midwest and worked extensively in Indiana agriculture.