Greetings, Friends! We have a snarky title but very serious subject for today. We’ll be discussing the impact of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant on the US. Why? This was a huge ecological disaster in 2011 and there are postings about the situation that run the gamut – from “we’re all being roasted by Fukushima radiation” to “there’s nothing to worry about”. I’d therefore like to poke at this a bit and convince myself that I need to either (1) not worry about it, or (2) have a good, old-fashioned panic attack about the impending doom and move on from there.
An excellent, in-depth overview of the situation and magnitude of the clean-up was written in The Guardian, a publication from the UK:
In summary, regarding the release of radioactive water: Fukushima is the first nuclear accident to release large amounts of radioactive material directly into the ocean. Radiation levels surged in seawater after the tsunami struck, with concentrations of caesium-137 recorded at 60 million becquerels per cubic metre near the plant. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima released 89 trillion becquerels of caesium-137. The levels in the waters off Fukushima fell sharply though, as the caesium dissolved and dispersed on the ocean’s currents.
TEPCO estimates that around 300 tonnes of contaminated groundwater still flow into the Pacific each day. The levels of radioactivity are small compared with the releases in 2011. Buesseler has measured contamination in water, fish and other organisms from a ship off the coast of Fukushima since the accident unfurled. He is not worried about the immediate health risk, but says fish and other marine life will concentrate radioactive substances, making them unsuitable for consumption for years. “We’re not talking about levels that cause direct harm when I’m one kilometre offshore,” says Buesseler. “But through the uptake into the seafood and fisheries, you end up having to keep those closed, and that’s a billion dollar industry and a cultural loss for Japan.”
Finally, more mishaps are inevitable at Fukushima. The plant is wrecked and decommissioning will take decades of arduous, complex work. It is estimated that full decommissioning may take 40 years, so this story is far from over.
Ok this sounds pretty bad. Based on this situation, here are my questions:
- Should we worry about the radioactive water still being released into the Pacific?
- Are we seeing any adverse effects from the Cesium-137 released into the Pacific after ~3 years?
- What about the land in agricultural states like CA on the west coast? Has it been contaminated by fallout? (Is my Glowing Green Smoothie glowing from radioactive isotopes?)
Let’s address the Pacific Ocean first.
Clearly others have these same questions about the Pacific, so postings like the one below are cropping up on the interwebs:
At first blush, this seems possible and credible because it quotes a proper scientific body and study. However I found a posting from an Oceanographer named Dr. Kim Martini which does a good job at refuting its points in a balanced and informed way:
Dr. Craig McClain does the same:
Here also is a posting by National Geographic:
The initial gigantic deluge of contaminated water dispersed through the immediate Fukushima coastal area very quickly, according to a 2012 report by the American Nuclear Society. But it takes years for the contamination to spread over a wider area. A mathematical model developed by Changsheng Chen of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and Robert Beardsley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that radioactive particles disperse through the ocean differently at different depths. The scientists estimated that in some cases, contaminated seawater could reach the western coast of the United States in as little as five years. Buesseler thinks the process occurs a bit more rapidly, and estimates it might take three years for contamination to reach the U.S. coastline. (Which would be right about now!)
Buesseler thinks the risk is mostly confined to local fish that dwell mostly at the sea bottom, where radioactive material settles. He says bigger fish that range over long distances in the ocean quickly lose whatever cesium contamination they’ve picked up. However, the higher concentration of strontium-90 that is now in the outflow poses a trickier problem, because it is a bone-seeking isotope. “Cesium is like salt—it goes in and out of your body quickly,” he explains. “Strontium gets into your bones.” While he’s still not too concerned that fish caught off the U.S. coast will be affected, “strontium changes the equation for Japanese fisheries, as to when their fish will be safe to eat.”
=> In summary about the Pacific: These knowledgeable people indicate that there is no reason to have a panic attack because schools of highly radioactive fish are not, in fact, swimming around off the coast of CA or AK. If anyone has proof of radioactive fish off the west coast, can you let me know so that I can queue up that panic attack? I’ll put it on hold for now.
Now about the air and land on the west coast of the US.
Regarding the plumes that were released in March 2011: I found this warning about babies born along the west coast in March 2011, after the disaster, because Fukushima explosions led to clouds of radioisotope iodine-131 that floated east over the Pacific Ocean and landed through precipitation on West Coast states as well as other Pacific countries:
Here also is an entry from Wikipedia regarding fallout distribution by the air (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_effects_from_the_Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster):
The United Nations predicted that the initial radiation plume from the stricken Japanese reactors would reach the United States by 18 March 2011. Health and nuclear experts emphasized that radiation in the plume would be diluted as it traveled and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States. A simulation by the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy indicated that trace amounts of radioactivity would reach California and Mexico around 19 March 2011. These predictions were tested by a worldwide network of highly sensitive radiative isotope measuring equipment, with the resulting data used to assess any potential impact to human health as well as the status of the reactors in Japan. Consequently, by 18 March 2011 radioactive fallout including isotopes of iodine-131, iodine-132, tellurium-132, iodine-133, caesium-134 and caesium-137 was detected in air filters at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA. As of 28 April 2011, the Washington State Department of Health, one of the U.S. states nearest Japan, reported that levels of radioactive material from the Fukushima plant had dropped significantly, and were now often below levels that could be detected with standard tests.
I could not find any postings about continuing concerns about fallout or impact on the soil, maybe because the half-life of iodine-131 is only 8 days. Also Strontium-90, the bone-seeking isotope with a half-life of 28 years, was not in this mix, which is good.
Regarding a new plume in December 2013: There are reports in off-the-mainstream sites about underground explosions that started in mid-December 2013 which again released plumes of (presumably radioactive) smoke:
IF these events occurred, the west coast of the US will again be exposed to radioactive fallout in a matter of days or weeks. The composition of the plume is unknown, and so the half-life of the species is unknown. Not sure why this was not mentioned in the mainstream media? Did it not occur, or is it not being covered?
=> In summary about the air: The first round of fallout in March 2011 dissipated quickly though we may be in store for more, so it may be a good idea to take precautions.
SOOOO… after a day of crawling around the interwebs, I conclude the following:
- Fallout of radioactive iodine-131 occurred along the US west coast after the disaster in March 2011 and babies born there at that time are more at risk for congenital hypothyroidism. This appears to be the most significant and immediate health concern for the US and these parents should have their children (who are almost 3 by now) checked if they haven’t already.
- IF additional underground explosions are in progress, then again there will be radioactive fallout over the US in a matter of days or weeks and unborn and newborn babies will be at the most risk for congenital hypothyroidism.
- Radioactive water will reach the US west coast at some time between 2014 and 2016, though it should not be at dangerous levels and the seafood should be safe to eat. The largest danger appears to be for the seafood closer to Japan. However, if you are still concerned, then there are some things you can do to protect yourself. Dr. Mercola discusses the benefits of chlorella and spirulina, in addition to addressing fears about the situation: http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2011/03/25/how-to-protect-yourself-from-nuclear-radiation.aspx
- I could not find any discussion about radioactive contamination of the soil along the west coast of the US from the plume in 2011, likely because of the short half-life if iodine-131.
We don’t appear to be doomed at this point, but should be very concerned with what is happening in Fukushima, especially if additional underground explosions occurred and more fallout is headed our way. Since the complex and dangerous decommissioning effort will continue for another 40 years, and TEPCO has not shown overwhelming competence or transparency up to this point, this is a situation which does need to be monitored closely.
I think my Glowing Green Smoothie is safe for now – the “glowing” will properly refer to the youthful glow it is meant to impart. However I am concerned about additional fallout that may be heading our way.
I hope this assessment of the situation is helpful to you! Please feel free to add more insights on this important topic – I appreciate additional viewpoints!