Thursday, March 29, 2012

Woods Hole Scientist's Latest View on Ocean Contamination from Fukushima Accident: "We Haven't Gone Very Far" in Assessing the Extent, Damage

Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute researcher Ken Buesseler wrote a special article for CNN on March 11, 2012 about the effect that radioactive materials released from Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant have had on the ocean and marine life. He led a team of international researchers last June to survey the ocean where the contaminated water was dumped by TEPCO.

He seems more concerned now than when the initial report of the June survey was released (see my previous post).

From CNN (3/11/2012):

What Fukushima accident did to the ocean
By Ken Buesseler, Special to CNN

(CNN) -- One year ago, a series of events began with an earthquake off the cost of Japan that culminated in the largest accidental release of radioactivity into the ocean in history.

We have to be careful and say "accidental" because in the late 1950s and early 1960s, 50 to 100 times more radioactivity was released worldwide as fallout from the intentional testing of nuclear weapons. The word "ocean" is also important, since Chernobyl in 1986 was hundreds of miles inland, so it had a smaller impact on the concentrations of radionuclides in the sea than was measured directly off Japan in 2011.

One year later, we have to ask, what do we know about Fukushima's impact on the ocean and levels of radioactive contaminants in water and fish?

In many ways we were fortunate that impacts were largely confined to the ocean. Certainly, the Japanese people continue to feel devastating effects of so large a release within their country, and many people may never be able to return to their homes. But in general the winds during the height of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were blowing offshore. As a result, more than three-quarters of the radioactivity fell on the ocean. This is important, as any that lands on soil remains in place, resulting in the potential for greater human exposure and increased chances of contamination to food supplies and property.

In the Pacific, however, the strong Kuroshio Current (similar to the Atlantic Gulf Stream) helped move any contamination quickly away from shore and diluted it by mixing it into deeper water.

This allowed us to report that by June 2011, even when we sampled within sight of the nuclear power plants, levels of cesium-137 and cesium-134 in the ocean, two primary products of nuclear fission, were elevated, but still below those considered of concern for exposure to humans. They were also well below biological thresholds of concern to the small fish and plankton we sampled, even if these were consumed by humans.

Several other groups have now confirmed our findings about levels of radioactivity up to 400 miles offshore.

Other measurements show trends that are more worrisome. Levels of radioactivity found in fish are not decreasing and there appear to be hot spots on the seafloor that are not well mapped. There is also little agreement on exactly how much radioactivity was released or even whether the fires and explosions at the power plant resulted in more radioactive fallout to the ocean than did direct releases of radioactivity caused by dumping water on the reactors to keep them cool.

Japan is taking what some think of as a precautionary measure by lowering the limits of radioactive contaminants in drinking water and food supplies, including seafood, on April 1.The new level for fish will be one-tenth of the acceptable level in the United States. Will Japan's new limits build consumer confidence or raise fears and questions about why more fish are considered unsafe for consumption? And why were fish caught last year considered safe, but now are not?

Despite the announcement in December that operators of the power plant had achieved cold shut down, we know they are still using tons of water to cool the reactors and that not all the water has been collected or treated. As a result, the ground around the site is like a dirty sponge, saturated with contaminated water that is leaking into the ocean.

Marine sediments are also collecting radioactive contaminants, exposing bottom-dwelling fish, shellfish and other organisms on the sea floor to higher levels of contaminants than those in the waters above. Little is known, however, about the level of contamination in the groundwater and on the seafloor and whether these will be a source of contaminants long after levels in the ocean have become diluted to the point that only the most sensitive instruments can detect them.

We do know that we can detect cesium at very dilute levels, well below those considered harmful. Using these sensitive techniques we can track the Fukushima contaminants as ocean currents carry the peak releases across the Pacific where they are expected to reach the U.S. West Coast in 2013-2014 at levels that are much lower than we measured off Japan in 2011 and thus not of concern to human health.

Two weeks ago, we held the largest international gathering of marine scientists studying radioactive substances in the ocean originating from Fukushima. Although we shared freely what each of us has learned in the last year, what we need today is also what we needed on March 11, 2011 — greater international coordination of long-term studies of the fate and consequences of the radiation. We've done the initial assessments. Now we need to begin answering the tougher questions, building public confidence in scientific studies by having multiple, independent groups at work, and ensuring we have the resources to build comprehensive, long-term studies.

As a scientist and a marine radiochemist, I am trained to provide answers about radioactivity in the ocean—how much is out there, where it is, and what its fate is likely to be in the future. Today, we haven't gone very far beyond the first question, which was key on March 11, 2011, but hardly seems sufficient one year later.

We're no wiser one year after the accident, whether it is about:
  • the Fukushima I Nuke Plant accident itself;
  • how much radioactive materials have been released so far;
  • degree of contamination on land or in the ocean;
  • effect of radiation on heath of humans (the national government is not taking health statistics in Fukushima Prefecture), animals, and plants

The Japanese government and government researchers cannot deal with any of these effectively. The Kan administration turned down the offer for help from the US and other nations for the Fukushima I Nuke Plant accident, citing some "national security" concerns. Mr. Edano, current Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary under PM Kan, still says he, as Chief Cabinet Secretary, did not turn down the offer but told the US and others "We will consider your offer". That is, as fans of Sir Humphrey Appleby know, a bureaucrat/politician speech for "get lost". Will this change? Not very likely.

As Mr. Buesseler would know, there are different movements of seawater depending on the depth and proximity to the coast in addition to a major move by a major current like "Kuroshio". Significant amount of radioactive materials moved south along the coast, creating ever-shifting hot spots along the way, contrary to what the government researchers had assured the public (that they would be carried away by Kuroshio and disperse rapidly and evenly in the Pacific Ocean).

Mr. Buesseler may also be interested to know that squid, crab, and abalone have been found to highly concentrate radioactive silver from the ocean environment with ND level of radioactive silver (see my post on abalone). The ND levels of radioactive materials can still become harmful, because of bioconcentration.

The Chinese survey ship was finding radioactive strontium in the firefly squid 800 kilometers off the coast of Fukushima, back in August 2011. They also found radioactive silver. (See my post from August 2011.)

(H/T reader JP for CNN article)


Atomfritz said...

The scientists finally seem to begin to start realizing that this "simple" ocean contamination matter isn't simple and localized, but very complex and widespread.

Let's hope that their research doesn't suffer the usual funds cuts when they reveal things that are neither expected nor desirable. But, I am pessimistic somehow.

Anonymous said...

how much radioactive materials have been released so far; order of quadrillions
in ocean++ NBC=NuclearBiologicalChemical from tsunami->unknown reactions, actually the ocean is the area of greatest concern.
effect of radiation on heath of humans -> Bio Accumulative
NHK science sneaks programs on late night Saturday from time to time, the one they had about how the TREES interact w/ forest, bio-accumulate & spread radiation went further then what I knew. here is a like article
& every time I read your blog I always laugh thinking about what Freeman Dyson said about losing a whole generation of scientists to Wall Street, meaning no top flight scientists will be walking through the door with the "new technologies" either
Radiation has hit California seaweed tested RAD+ this week, if not before.
the current unknown is how hard it will hit the East Coast USA

Anonymous said...

Maybe the arrogant Japanese attitude also explains with the nuclear site appears to be getting worse, with unit four about to collapse (in days, weeks, months, years?) and yet Japan is too "proud" to ask for help about what to do. This is absolutely a Kamikaze nation that has no concern for anyone else as well. Truly sick, if not evil.

Anonymous said...


1) Article: "Highest Level of Radioactive Cesium to Date Found in Freshwater fish in Fukushima Village", Mainichi Daily News, March 31, 2012. []

..."The yamame, or landlocked masu salmon, caught in the Niida River in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, measured 18,700 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilogram, a reading over 37 times more than the government-imposed provisional limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

...The radiation dose detected this time exceeds the 14,400 becquerels per kilogram detected in sand eels in waters off Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, in April 2011, becoming the highest radiation dose found in sea and freshwater fish since the outbreak of the nuclear disaster."

2) Report + Video: "20 km Marine Study Around Fukushima Daiichi Finds High Concentrations of Cesium in Fish and Shellfish"; by Lucas Hixon at, March 30, 2012. []

..."TEPCO has released partial results of a marine study of fish and shellfish in the 20 km body of water around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. TEPCO released the Cesium 134 and Cesium 137 levels of 2 samples taken. The highest concentration of Cs-137 peaked at 1100 Bq/kg in two samples. Cs-134 peaked at 840 bq/kg.

...The highest levels were recorded close to the shore, both north and south of the nuclear power station. The highest levels were detected in the most southern sample taken with 840 Bq/kg of Cs-134 and 1100 Bq/kg of Cs-137."


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