Rebalancing the nuclear debate through education

Better physics teaching with a particular emphasis on radioactivity and radiation science could improve public awareness through education of the environmental benefits and relative safety of nuclear power generation, according to leading Brazilian scientist Heldio Villar. He suggests that it might then be possible to have a less emotional debate about the future of the industry that will ultimately reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

To environmental activists, nuclear power and environmental preservation are two antagonistic concepts. Nevertheless, nuclear power can generate huge amounts of electrical and heat energy with minimal impact on the planet, particularly in terms of much lower carbon emissions and pollution than is seen with power generation based on burning fossil fuels. Because of this cultural clash, activists have prognosticated doom for a world if we pursue the nuclear energy option, leading to public distrust of the nuclear industry and its relatives, nuclear research installations and particle accelerators.

“The introduction of the theoretical bases of radioactivity, radiation physics and nuclear power plants in the environmental education curricula will certainly result in a greater awareness of the public towards the reality surrounding radiation and radioactivity,” says Villar of the University of Pernambuco, who not surprising also works for Brazil’s Nuclear Energy Commission. “This initiative, coupled with a more realistic approach towards nuclear risks on the part of nuclear regulators and licensers, has the potential to make nuclear applications – not only in electric energy production but in other areas – more palatable to a public squeamish of another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl and the specter of nuclear weapons, rendering it more prepared to reap the benefits thereof.”

Ironically, in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear power was once hailed as the best option for an energy-starved world. Nuclear reactors were seen as modern, reliable and, above all, capable of producing electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. Into the 1970s, the oil crisis sparked the first major interest in going nuclear on a much wider scale. However, even before Three Mile Island, activist groups such as Greenpeace were sounding unwarranted alarm bells and popular movies such as the China Syndrome, which does not have a disastrous ending, were fuelling the anti-nuclear movement.

Villar points out that it is widely accepted that Brazil and several other nations, are entirely capable of launching successful nuclear power programs, given their expertise, the availability of nuclear fuel and the pressures such as a lack of coal and the rising price of oil. “Electrical energy is scarce and obviously expensive,” says Villar, “a situation seen in several other countries.” Supposed “green” solutions, such as hydroelectric power, which has already been fully exploited in Brazil, as well as gas turbines, solar and wind power, tidal power and biomass, do not represent a cheaper alternative to nuclear he asserts.

Villar, H. (2011). The ‘threat’ of radioactivity: how environmental education can help overcome it International Journal of Nuclear Knowledge Management, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IJNKM.2011.042006

Heavy metal – in and around the lake

Heavy metal pollution of lakes has a seriously detrimental impact on people and ecosystems that rely on such bodies of water. According to a study published in the current issue of Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, researchers have focused on the physicochemical properties and toxicology of water from and around Thane City of Maharashtra.

Environmental chemist Pravin Singare of Bhavan’s College, in Mumbai, and colleagues highlight the fact that fresh water bodies all over the world are becoming increasingly polluted day by day and that this represents a growing problem in the developing world and beyond. They suggest that regular monitoring is crucial for the well-being and health of the surrounding population and as such, the team has carried out a systematic study to estimate the physico-chemical parameters and level of toxic heavy metal content in the Jail Talav and Kalwa Lakes of Thane City, as perhaps being indicative of similar problems with other bodies of water.

The team’s measurements suggest that the presence of heavy metals such as iron, copper, nickel and zinc, which are essential for life at trace levels are well above permissible concentrations making them a significant threat to ecosystems and a problem for those who rely on the lakes for drinking water or crop irrigation. In addition mercury, arsenic and cadmium were all present at much higher than acceptable concentrations.

South Asia is home to more a fifth of the world’s population, the researchers say, and is facing a serious water crisis. “This region, which is in the grip of flood and drought cycles, needs a long-term strategy for management of its water resources,” the team says. Unfortunately, strategies adopted so far have all failed in India, the team asserts, this is obvious given the poor quality of the water revealed by their measurements of Jail Talav and Kalwa Lakes assuming these are typical of the region as a whole.

Food chain contamination by heavy metals has become an important issue partly because of the potential accumulation in biosystems, through contaminated water, the team adds. “A better understanding of heavy metal sources, their accumulation in water and the effect of their presence in water on plant systems are particularly impertinent in ongoing risk assessments,” the researchers say.

Singare, P., Naik, K., & Lokhande, R. (2011). Impact assessment of pollution in some lake water located at and around Thane City of Maharashtra, India: physico-chemical properties and toxic effects of heavy metal content Interdisciplinary Environmental Review, 12 (3) DOI: 10.1504/IER.2011.041819

What causes brain cancer?

Glioblastoma is the most common and most lethal form of brain tumor in people. Research published in the International Journal of Computational Biology and Drug Design offers a novel way to determine what biological functions go awry when the tumor first begins to form. Understanding the problems at the molecular level might one day reveal the underlying mechanism of carcinogenesis in glioblastoma and ultimately lead to treatments or even preventative measures.

This form of brain tumor account for more than half of all cases in which the tumor is within the tissues of the brain and a fifth of cases in which a tumor is present within the skull.

Zhongming Zhao and colleagues at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, explain how problems that occur during the transcription of the genetic code for making proteins may play a role in the formation of a glioblastoma. These might arise through changes in the genetic materials itself or alterations to the molecules involved in regulating the transcription process. In their latest research, the team has tested the possibility that microRNAs (miRNAs) and transcription factors (TFs) might somehow regulate the genes glioblastoma. With this in mind, the researchers carried out a computer search of appropriate databases to uncover any links between these components of the genetic machinery and glioblastoma.

Although cancer exists in many different forms and is not a single disease but a complex array of different diseases, there are certain characteristics that define the different forms: self-sufficiency in growth signals, insensitivity to antigrowth signals, evading programmed cell death, limitless replicative potential of cells, sustained blood-vessel growth, evasion of the immune system, tissue invasion and spreading through the body in metastasis. Insights into these processes at the molecular level is now possible thanks to the advent of vast databases of genomic and biochemical information related to different types of cancer.

The Vanderbilt team has now searched three databases miR2Disease, HMDD (human miRNA-associated disease database) and PhenomiR, to find regulatory networks specific to glioblastoma. To do so they integrated data on glioblastoma-related miRNAs, TFs and genes. They utilized a well-known target-prediction tool, TargetScan, to trawl the databases and identified 54 so-called feed-forward loops (FFLs), these are molecular control systems involved in transcription and the required signaling processes. Follow up work revealed these FFLs to have functions important to carcinogenesis as well as unique functions specific to each FFL.

“Our work provided data for future investigation of the mechanisms underlying glioblastoma and also potential regulatory subunits that might be useful for biomarker discovery and therapy targets for glioblastoma,” the team concludes.

Gong, X., Sun, J., & Zhao, Z. (2011). Gene regulation in glioblastoma: a combinatorial analysis of microRNAs and transcription factors International Journal of Computational Biology and Drug Design, 4 (2) DOI: 10.1504/IJCBDD.2011.041006