Do we need to worry about Fukushima contamination in the ocean? (part 1)

In a word, no – though it isn't a good idea to eat the bottom fish feeding within a few kilometers of the Daiichi harbor. And if you made your living fishing in the ocean right around Daiichi, your livelihood has been destroyed until the cleanup is completed. While there are serious threats that deserve our intense focus, Fukushima is not anywhere on my list, which starts with antibiotic resistance, energy poverty, and climate change. But turn on a TV anywhere and you will soon see newsreaders talking about radiation leaking from Fukushima Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean. If there are any numbers mentioned they will be Very Big Numbers voiced to make it clear these are unbelievably scary.

On the other hand, talk to any scientist familiar with radiation health physics: they will be unconcerned, but monitoring. Why is it that the level of fear is inversely proportional to understanding? In brief, it is because with understanding comes the appreciation that life is adapted to the levels of ionizing radiation common around the planet. Those background levels vary by more than an order of magnitude, and surprisingly, residents of the areas with highest background radiation do not have elevated levels of cancer. So radiation is not scary, unless the dose exceeds the tolerance of our DNA repair systems. To put the numbers and units in an easy to grasp frame, please spend some time absorbing the brilliant relative radiation chart developed by XKCD. For reference, keep in mind an annual dose limit of roughly 50 mSv (here is some background on exposure limits at the Health Physics Society).

Since the current focus of fear is Fukushima I've gathered a few science resources that I hope will help the reader lose at least those particular fears. First we have scientist Ken Buesseler, with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Ken maintains a Woods Hole website FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima. Ken's most recent update is 28 August:

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake—one of the largest ever recorded—occurred 80 miles off the coast of Japan. The earthquake created a series of tsunamis, the largest estimated to be over 30 feet, that swept ashore. In addition to the tragic human toll of dead, injured, and displaced, the earthquake and tsunamis badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, eventually causing four of the six reactors there to release radiation into the atmosphere and ocean.

Since mid-2011, I have worked with Japanese colleagues and scientists around the world to understand the scope and impact of events that continue to unfold today. In June 2011, I organized the first comprehensive, international expedition to study the spread of radionuclides from Fukushima into the Pacific, and I or members of my lab have participated in several other cruises and analyzed dozens of samples of water, sediment, and biota. In addition, I began my career in oceanography by studying the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea. These are a few of the most common questions that people have been asking me lately.

-Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

What is the state of fisheries off Japan and along U.S. West Coast?

The coastal fisheries remain closed in Japan near Fukushima, where there is a concern for some species, especially the bottom dwelling ones, which are being tested and many have been found to be above the Japanese government's strict limits for cesium in seafood. These contaminated fish are not being sold internally in Japan or exported. Because of the dilution that occurs even a short distance from Fukushima, we do not have a concern about the levels of cesium and other radionuclides in fish off the West Coast of the U.S.

More about the state of Japanese fisheries (pdf).

Are fish such as tuna that might have been exposed to radiation from Fukushima safe to eat?

Seawater everywhere contains many naturally occurring radionuclides, the most common being polonium-210. As a result, fish caught in the Pacific and elsewhere already have measurable quantities of these substances. Most fish do not migrate far from home, which is why fisheries off Fukushima remain closed. But some species, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna, can swim long distances and could pick up cesium in their feeding grounds off Japan. However, cesium is a salt taken up by the flesh that will begin to flush out of an exposed fish soon after they enter waters less affected by Fukushima. By the time tuna are caught in the eastern Pacific, cesium levels in their flesh are 10-20 times lower than when they were off Fukushima. Moreover, the dose from Fukushima cesium is considered insignificant relative to the dose from naturally occurring polonium-210, which was 1000 times higher in fish samples studied, and both of these are much lower relative to other, more common sources, such as dental x-rays.

More about the dose and associated risk (pdf) of radiation from Fukushima to marine life and humans.

(…)Is radiation exposure still a concern?

Is radiation exposure still a concern? I stood on a ship two miles from the Fukushima reactors in June 2011 and as recently as May 2013, and it was safe to be there (I carry radiation detectors with me) and collect samples of all kinds (water, sediment, biota). Although radioactive isotopes in the samples and on the ship were measurable back in our lab, it was low enough to be safe to handle samples without any precautions. In fact, our biggest problem is filtering out natural radionuclides in our samples so we can measure the trace levels of cesium and other radionuclides that we know came from Fukushima.

Where does radiation from Fukushima go once it enters the ocean? The spread of cesium once it enters the ocean can be understood by the analogy of mixing cream into coffee. At first, they are separate and distinguishable, but just as we start to stir the cream forms long, narrow filaments or streaks in the water. The streaks became longer and narrower as they moved off shore, where diffusive processes began to homogenize and dilute the radionuclides. In the ocean, diffusion is helped along by ocean eddies, squirts, and jets that broaden, mix, and continue to dilute the cesium as it travels across the ocean. With distance and time, radionuclide concentrations become much lower in the ocean, something that our measurements confirm.

More information about our oceanographic studies off Fukushima (pdf).

Are the continued sources of radiation from the nuclear power plants of concern?

The site of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is an ongoing source of radionuclides (pdf) in to the ocean “something I've seen evidence of in my data and published about since 2011. Although the numbers sound large (300,000 gallons of water leaked or 20 trillion bequerels per liter), we calculated in 2011 when radiation levels were much higher than today that the dose to someone on a ship or in the ocean was not of concern. For the workers at the site, direct exposure from leaking storage tanks is of greater health concern because exposure from these concentrated sources is much higher. For the general public, it is not our direct exposure, but uptake by the food web and, hence, the potential for human consumption of contaminated fish that is the main health concern.

Will radiation be of concern along U.S. and Canadian coasts? Levels of any Fukushima contaminants in the ocean will be many thousands of times lower after they mix across the Pacific and arrive on the West Coast of North America some time in late 2013 or 2014. This is not to say that we should not be concerned about additional sources of radioactivity in the ocean above the natural sources, but at the levels expected even short distances from Japan, the Pacific will be safe for boating, swimming, etc.

Is debris washing ashore on the US/Canadian West Coast of concern? Debris washed out to sea by the tsunami does not carry Fukushima radioactive contamination”I‚Äôve measured several samples in my lab. It does, however, carry invasive species, which will be of serious concern to coastal ecosystems on the West Coast.

Have there been increased deaths as a result of radiation from Fukushima?

Reports of increased deaths are simply not true. Read this reasoned response in Scientific American to the most often-cited “scientific” paper about erroneously linking deaths to radiation from Fukushima. That article ends “This is not to say that the radiation from Fukushima is not dangerous (it is), nor that we shouldn't closely monitor its potential to spread (we should).” I agree with that statement.

Where can people go for reliable information?

Here are some other links I have passed to others. Fukushima's Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/08/130807-fukushima-radioactive-water-leak/

Latest Radioactive Leak at Fukushima: How Is It Different? http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/08/130821-fukushima-latest-leak-how-is-it-different/

See also following article from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (w/ links to many others) http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/viewArticle.do?id=167749&sectionid=1000 From the special issue of Oceanus Magazine devoted to the cause and impacts of Fukushima: http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/series/fukushima

Consider supporting our new Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity and check out CMER public education links, such as ABCs of radioactivity http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=119836

Last updated: August 28, 2013

I'm working on a followup post that is intended to provide a reference set of resources to help readers get comfortable with radiation and risk.

 

2 thoughts on “Do we need to worry about Fukushima contamination in the ocean? (part 1)

  1. James Greenidge

    Very good article!! Why can’t schools get cool, calm and cerebral stuff like this??

    Re: “What is the state of fisheries off Japan and along U.S. West Coast? The coastal fisheries remain closed in Japan near Fukushima, where there is a concern for some species, especially the bottom dwelling ones, which are being tested and many have been found to be above the Japanese government’s strict limits for cesium in seafood.”

    A great addition to this article’s not just putting radiation dosage/effects in perspective, but examining Japan’s oft-cited as extrememly excessive radiation (in)tolerance standards. It was once a going joke at JFK airport where my brother once worked that outgoing tourists on JAL lines should shuck any radium dial watches or else you’d be turned away. Would homesteading Fukushima be any less injurious than doing same with Love Canal?

    (BTW, I’d happily purchase Fukushima produce if someone had the guts to ship it!)

    Keep up the good work!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    1. Steve Darden Post author

      >Japan’s oft-cited as extrememly excessive radiation (in)tolerance standards.

      Putting the Japan standards in the safety + international standards would help. At least for those who are interested in what the numbers mean.

      Hey that’s a good article for you to write:-) I need to finish what I’m writing on the weekly Sea Area Monitoring.

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