07 Apr 2011: Report

Radioactivity in the Ocean:
Diluted, But Far from Harmless

With contaminated water from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear complex continuing to pour into the Pacific, scientists are concerned about how that radioactivity might affect marine life. Although the ocean’s capacity to dilute radiation is huge, signs are that nuclear isotopes are already moving up the local food chain.

by elizabeth grossman

Over the past half-century, the world has seen its share of incidents in which radioactive material has been dumped or discharged into the oceans. A British nuclear fuels plant has repeatedly released radioactive waste into the Irish Sea, a French nuclear reprocessing plant has discharged similar waste into the English Channel, and for decades the Soviets dumped large quantities of radioactive material into the Arctic Ocean, Kara Sea, and Barents Sea. That radioactive material included reactors from at least 16 Soviet nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers, and large amounts of liquid and solid nuclear waste from USSR military bases and weapons plants.

Still, the world has never quite seen an event like the one unfolding now off the coast of eastern Japan, in which thousands of tons of radioactively contaminated water from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are pouring directly into the ocean. And though the vastness of the ocean has the capacity to dilute nuclear contamination, signs of spreading radioactive material are being found off Japan, including the discovery of elevated concentrations of radioactive cesium and iodine in small fish several dozen miles south of Fukushima, and high levels of radioactivity in seawater 25 miles offshore.

Click to enlarge
cs137 levels Japan

International Atomic Energy Agency
Seawater concentrations of cesium-137, March 23 to March 30.
How this continuing contamination will affect marine life, or humans, is still unclear. But scientists agree that the governments of Japan, the United States, and other nations on the Pacific Rim need to ramp up studies of how far this contamination might spread and in what concentrations.

“Given that the Fukushima nuclear power plant is on the ocean, and with leaks and runoff directly to the ocean, the impacts on the ocean will exceed those of Chernobyl, which was hundreds of miles from any sea,” said Ken Buesseler, senior scientist in marine chemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “My biggest concern is the lack of information. We still don’t know the whole range of radioactive compounds that have been released into the ocean, nor do we know their distribution. We have a few data points from the Japanese — all close to the coast — but to understand the full impact, including for fisheries, we need broader surveys and scientific study of the area.”

Buessler and other experts say this much is clear: Both short-lived radioactive elements, such as iodine-131, and longer-lived elements — such as cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years — can be absorbed by phytoplankton, zooplankton, kelp, and other marine life and then be transmitted up the food chain, to fish, marine mammals, and humans. Other radioactive elements — including plutonium, which has been detected outside the Fukushima plant — also pose a threat to marine life. A key question is how concentrated will the radioactive contamination be. Japanese officials hope that a temporary fishing ban off the northeastern Japanese coast will be enough to avert any danger to human health until the flow of radioactive water into the sea can be stopped.

But that spigot is still running. Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting damage to the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, huge quantities of water have been poured on four stricken
The key question is how concentrated will the radioactive contamination be.
reactors to keep them cool. Thousands of tons of radioactively contaminated water have then been released from the Fukushima complex into the ocean. And even though the Japanese this week stopped a leak of highly radioactive material from the badly damaged Reactor No. 2, the water used to cool the reactor cores continues to flow into the sea. In addition, atmospheric fallout from the damaged reactors is contaminating the ocean as prevailing winds carry radioactivity out over the Pacific.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has reported that seawater containing radioactive iodine-131 at 5 million times the legal limit has been detected near the plant. According to the Japanese news service, NHK, a recent sample also contained 1.1 million times the legal level of radioactive cesium-137.

Studies from previous releases of nuclear material in the Irish, Kara and Barents Seas, as well as in the Pacific Ocean, show that such radioactive material does travel with ocean currents, is deposited in marine sediment, and does climb the marine food web. In the Irish Sea — where the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield in the northwestern United Kingdom released radioactive material over many decades, beginning in the 1950s — studies have found radioactive cesium and plutonium concentrating significantly in seals and porpoises that ate contaminated fish. Other studies have shown that radioactive material from Sellafield and from the nuclear reprocessing plant at Cap de la Hague in France have been transported to the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. A study published in 2003 found that a substantial part of the world’s radioactive contamination is in the marine environment.

Click to enlarge
cs137 levels Japan

Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images
A sign inside a Hong Kong supermarket assures shoppers that the sushi for sale is not of Japanese origin.
But what impact this radioactive contamination has on marine life and humans is still unclear. Even the mass dumping of nuclear material by the Soviets in the Arctic has not been definitively shown to have caused widespread harm to marine life. That may be because containment vessels around some of the dumped reactors are preventing the escape of radiation. A lack of comprehensive studies by the Russians in the areas where nuclear waste was dumped also has hampered understanding. Two events in the early 1990s — a die-off of seals in the Barents Sea and White Sea from blood cancer, and the deaths of millions of starfish, shellfish, seals and porpoises in the White Sea — have been variously attributed by Russian scientists to pollution or nuclear contamination.

How the radioactive materials released from the Fukushima plants will behave in the ocean will depend on their chemical properties and reactivity, explained Ted Poston, a ecotoxicologist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. government facility in Richland, Washington. If the radionuclides are in soluble form, they will behave differently than if they are absorbed into particles, said Poston. Soluble iodine, for example, will disperse rather rapidly. But if a radionuclide reacts with other molecules or gets deposited on existing particulates — bits of minerals, for example — they can be suspended in the water or, if larger, may drop to the sea floor.

“If particulates in the water column are very small they will move with the current,” he explained. “If bigger or denser, they can settle in sediment.”

If iodine-131, for example, is taken up by seaweed or plankton, it can be transferred to fish, which are in turn eaten by larger fish, as has been seen in the Irish Sea. Fish can also take in radionuclides in the water through their gills, and radionuclides can be ingested by mollusks. But Edward Lazo, deputy division head for radiation protection at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said, “This is not a fully developed science and there are lots of uncertainties.”

Radioactive iodine is taken up by the thyroid in humans and marine mammals — or in the case of fish, thyroid tissue — and is also readily absorbed by seaweed and kelp. Cesium acts like potassium and is taken up by muscle. Cesium would tend to stay in solution and can eventually end up in marine sediment where, because of its long half life, it will persist for years. Because marine organisms use potassium they can also take up cesium. “Cesium behaves like potassium, so would end up in all marine life,” said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Maryland. “It certainly will have an effect.”

Tom Hei, professor of environmental sciences and vice-chairman of radiation oncology at Columbia University, explained that the mechanisms that determine how an animal takes in radiation are the same for fish as
How the radiation accumulates depends on the degree of exposure and half-life of the element.
they are for humans. Once in the body — whether inhaled or absorbed through gills or other organs — radiation can make its way into the bloodstream, lungs, and bony structures, potentially causing death, cancer, or genetic damage. Larger animals tend to more sensitive to radiation than smaller ones. Yet small fish, mollusks and crustaceans, as well as plankton and phytoplankton, can absorb radiation, said Poston. How the radiation accumulates depends on the degree of exposure — dose and duration — and the half-life of the element, said Hei.

Depending on its chemical form and by what organisms it is taken up, radiation can also concentrate when it moves through the food chain. A 1999 study found that seals and porpoises in the Irish Sea concentrated radioactive cesium by a factor of 300 relative to its concentration in seawater, and a factor of 3 to 4 compared to the fish they ate.

So far, the Japanese government and TEPCO have provided only limited data on marine contamination from the Fukushima plant. Given the emergency situation, independent monitoring along the coast is difficult, said Jan Beránek, director of Greenpeace International’s nuclear energy project. On April 5, the Japanese government set its first standards for allowable levels of radioactive material in seafood. A number of countries have banned seafood imports from Japan. The U.S. has barred food imports from the prefectures closest to Fukushima and the Food and Drug Administration says it is closely monitoring imported food products, including seafood, for radiation contamination.


Anatomy of a Nuclear Crisis:
A Chronology of Fukushima

Anatomy of a Nuclear Crisis:
A Chronology of Fukushima
The world’s worst nuclear reactor mishap in 25 years was caused by a massive natural calamity but compounded by what appear to be surprising mistakes by Japanese engineers. The result has been a fast-moving disaster that has left officials careening from one emergency to the next.
“This is not an imminent health concern, but we haven’t seen the end of it,” said Theo Theofanous, professor of chemical and mechanical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it is not conducting any monitoring of the marine environment for radiation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is monitoring airborne radiation, but its spokespeople were unable to say whether the EPA was monitoring the marine environment as well.

Experts such as Buesseler of Woods Hole, as well as activists like Beránek, said an international effort should quickly be launched to sample and measure radionuclides in the ocean, seafloor, and marine life, with close attention paid to which direction ocean currents can be expected to transport water potentially contaminated by Fukushima.

POSTED ON 07 Apr 2011 IN Energy Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Asia North America 


I have a question : What is the quantum of radioactivity ( in curies per ton) in the 11,500 tonnes of radioactive sea water which has been released into the ocean at Fukushima ?

What is the quantum of radioactivity in the 60,000 tons of contaminated sea water which is stored at the Fukushima site ?

Posted by Vivek Monteiro on 07 Apr 2011

Get the brilliant scientists,nuclear physicists, biochemists, toxicologists, cellular biologists and marine biologists together and work on the problems and protocols. My husband is three of those and no one asks him a darn thing. A network specialist could recruit them.

Posted by marilyn on 07 Apr 2011


the answer to both of your questions is 'it depends'.

I don't think that anyone really knows the concentration of radionuclitides in the water that is escaping the plant. They are measuring very high levels of those elements in the sea water just outside the plant, so the water coming from the plant must have even high concentrations.

But I don't think we'll be hearing about the radioactive molar content of the contaminated water in the plant anytime soon. Even if they could figure it out, TEPCO has not created a great standard practice of providing that type of informing to the public so far.

Posted by maxwell on 07 Apr 2011

What kind of extent are we talking about here? I live on the coast about 200km south of Fukushima and dig for clams at the end of April every year. Is that likely to be a problem?

Posted by Fred on 07 Apr 2011

After effects of radioactivity are serious and long lasting. This calls for stringent safety measures at nuclear reactors.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 08 Apr 2011

The exposure depends on the degree of exposure, the half-life of the element, and the biological half-life (how long an element stays in the body before leaving the body). The biological half life is a quite important consideration.

The author ought to ask not only whether biomagnification might occur, but that it might occur to a level that might affect fish or marine mammals' health, or the health of people who ate fish. The information to answer those question is, in part, out there ...

So why isn't in this story?

Posted by crf on 09 Apr 2011

Whatever has been released into the ocean will soon be diluted or decayed away. Getting accurate numbers will not have any effect on this non-problem. Now let's focus on the destruction that killed 25,000 people and set this nuclear hysteria aside.

Posted by Martin Bensky on 09 Apr 2011

I resent that a relatively few big shots in Japan (TEPCO, gov't, and political heads) can effect policies which toxify the planet. I'm an American residing in Thailand and EGAT are planning to build Thailand's first 5 nuclear plants here a.s.a.p. If you think Japanese officials are blunderers, wait until you see what happens when Thailand has a nuclear mishap.

Posted by Ken Albertsen on 11 Apr 2011

I think Japanese government and TEPCO are trying to make people eat things with levels of radiactivity not IMMEDIATLY dangerous for health, but they never tell how many people are dying many years after Chernobyl disaster.

If fish and seaweeds near nuclear reactors are dangerous, how can they say fish from other areas of Japanese coast is safe? How can they make fish stay in Fukushima, how can they make them STOP from swimming in the sea. Even if the ocean makes radiation levels to be smaller, I think fishes are not safe to eat and it makes me feel sick to hear that we can eat them.

Posted by Cristina on 12 Apr 2011

In response to K. Albertsen:

The absoluteness of radioactive contamination within a foodchain as large as that of the Pacific Ocean, the potential for industrial mistakes, the long term contamination probabilitites would dictate (at least they do to me) that ALL nuclear facilities around the globe should be run by one overseeing entity which trains, oversees operations, sets construction standards etc...etc. Such an international system could give the rest of us the best possible protection from stupid mistakes such as we've seen over these past years.

Included is the absolute disregard on the part of the Soviet for the potential harm that may result from their dumping radioactive material around the globe, especially including the black sea and the Artic ocean...absolute unforgivable stupidity.

I suspect ' Pandora's box' has been open for years such that gobal food contamination is not an 'if' situation, but a 'when' situation.

Posted by Mike O'Neill on 12 Apr 2011

Elizabeth, I'm wondering if you're familiar with "Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe for Public Health" (Nesterenko, et. al.) recently released by the New York Academy of Science?

It's a meta-analysis of some 5,000 non-English research papers that have apparently not been considered by the UNSCEAR in its work that seems to indicate that, at worst, a few thousand cases of cancer resulted from Chernobyl. It states that nearly one million deaths can be statistically attributed to the impacts of Chernobyl.

UNSCREAR and other "conventional" authorities apparently concentrate on "proven" casualties only, and routinely reject statistical meta-analysis of death rates as having too many confounding variables.

This new work has been criticized, most notably by so-called environment writer George Monbiot, because the link between radiation and injury cannot be "proven," and because it included statistical increases from maladies that have no prior correlation with radiation exposure.

I find this notion that injury from ionizing radiation must be "proven" to be troubling, as the insistence that only known radiological injury "counts." Ernest Sternglass statistically documented 430 "excess infant deaths" following Three Mile Island's accident, and yet, none of those infants were likely even autopsied, let alone having little flags inside saying, "I died because of TMI!"

Sternglass's work was roundly shouted down by the nuclear industry and the nuclear regulatory authorities, for many of the reasons Monbiot objects to the new Chernobyl meta-analysis.

The conflicting claims and difficulty associating exposure to injury seem to me to be a perfect requirement to use the "Precautionary Principle."

Posted by Jan Steinman on 12 Apr 2011

Fukushima disaster, and the decision to pour millions of tons of contaminated water into the sea to save Japan, was unfortunately the right decision! the wrong attitude is to leave japan with the ability to call or call off international aides at their will!

With today globalisation, it comes clear we do need an international scientists organization manage by ONU or not but this kind of disaster can not be anymore a Japanes problem ,it became our problem the day the first nuclear reactor was in fusion..(BP oil platform offshore Louisiana state was also the same, the world was watching the news daily to wait for a final outcome with no support...because of the ego attitude each modern country display relatively often!! what a waste and a shame for the human being.)

We do need a clear communication about environmental impact and get the active operational support by any country capable to help japan asap!


Posted by matt challe on 14 Apr 2011

Since nuclear power stations pose a serious risk to life and the environment because of the radioactive materials, then why shouldn't safety measures be taken to insure public safety?

Who thinks building a nuclear power station right next to the ocean over an earthquake fault is a wise thing to do?

Solution, build the nuclear power station inside a mountain. That is easy, the same technology being used to build tunnels in mountains can be applied here.

This insures no environmental release, should an accident happen. Even terrorist cannot fly airplanes into the mountain. Even if the nuclear power station was to melt down, its a lot safer that it happens inside a mountain.

Which would the world prefer, a 4.5 million year radioactive mountain, or the next 4.5 million years radioactive food from the environment?

Since humans cannot survive when exposed to higher levels of radiation, just how much more "accidents" will it take before the background radiation levels become too high for human living?

The last I read was 600 Rads is all it takes. Every release of radiation increases the levels!

Humanity might be forced to live in biospheres sooner than we might think. As the surrounding unshielded environment will be too polluted, be radioactive or chemical, genetic GMO and nanomaterials.

It's it interesting to note, all these inventions of humankind are technological development without moral conscious?

We do it because of money, we do it because we can. Okay, but should we be doing it? Is it the right and best thing to be doing?

In Italy, they are building more nuclear power stations, that will provide about 22% more electrical energy. However, the same amount could be saved by just updating the old electrical transmission, to use superconductivity cables instead that reduce the waste of electricity by a factor of about 22% here.

The bonus would empower more methods to share energy, like sustainable clean energy such as solar photovoltaic panels.

Without a high efficient electrical network, it takes huge big nuclear power stations to provide the electrical energy instead. Who does that benefit?

Even if Italy does build all those nuclear power plants, just like China, it will NOT be the solution, because like in China the rising consumption is greater than the means to produce by nuclear means.

Since nuclear isn't the solution why push it? When other methods do exist that would and will resolve all energy issues on this planet!

Magma energy, deep current, tidal and wave energy is 365 days a year dependable. The heat of the earth last longer than any nuclear power station and without the radioactive waste and safeguarding.

Gravity drives, like the tidal and deep current (due to the density of salt in the water) will last as long as there is gravity and salt concentration in the water.

The issue isn't producing energy, there are many means to do that, it's distributing that energy and storing it to be the real challenges ahead.

Superconductivity insures better usage of sharing energy, thus reducing waste of energy. It's also safer from EMP damage and doesn't produce electromagnetic radiation.

Superconductivity is also cheaper and easier to replace current transmission lines, but even china hasn't figured this out and continues to waste huge amounts of coal fired polluting dirty energy methods.

The article was good to point out, the event isn't over, and will NOT be for many years to come. In fact, the food chain will get worse, because of the concentration that accumulates into larger lifeforms, which humans are the highest risk groups, being we eat the fish that ate the radioactive plankton.

Let's learn from this and improve our world now. No need to blame, just take right steps to correct and reform what is wrong.

We can make a different together!

Posted by Principe Rospo on 16 Apr 2011

I am just wondering if the Pacific Ocean is safe for humans to swim in? We live in Hawaii and the beach is a huge part of our every day lives.

Posted by Anonymous on 19 Apr 2011

Nations around the globe have been considering Nuclear as an option for power based on the arguments suggesting Nuclear to be Clean Energy. Researchers suggest Nuclear be the viable alternative to oil and as providing net environmental benefits. However, there are counter arguments to the ‘Greenness’ of Nuclear and more recently, in wake of Japan tragedy, to the safety of Nuclear too.

I found it compelling to highlight some of these here http://www.nainaongreen.com/2011/03/is-nuclear-green.html

Posted by naina on 10 May 2011

Hawaii is currently getting very high CPM counts, sporadic but high, especially the island of Kauai which is closest to Fukushima and receives the most rain.

For lack of timely and accurate monitoring, essentially a global blackout, citizen monitoring networks have taken over.



Update: 6/23/11, 7:50 A.M. - Kauai Station, the "Perfect Storm"

Yesterday, June 22nd, our network's Monitoring Station on the island of Kauai, within the Hawaiian island chain, broadcast yet another Radiation Alert over the Network, at 8:08 A.M. local time - a 3 minute surge of 209, 456, and 186 CPM (Counts per Minute) respectively, accompanied by a generally elevated level leading up to that, and followed by another blip at 2:52 P.M. The Kauai station indicates it was raining at the time, so we believe the precipitation brought down Fukushima fallout from the atmosphere.

This detection follows a similar, sustained elevated radiation level from the Kauai station on June 10th - see the Update below dated 6/11/11. Other than this, since the nuclear disaster in Japan, the stations on our Network that we believe to have detected Fukushima radiation in significant and noticeable levels have been limited to a couple of high altitude stations in Colorado, and an obvious one in Japan itself. So the question is, "What is so special about the Kauai station?". In answer, I think we what have here is "the perfect storm":

First, of all the US stations on our network, Kauai is about the closest to Japan, some 3,500 miles away (Anchorage, AK is, too). And as mentioned before, within the Hawaiian chain, Kauai is the "remote outpost" farthest north and west toward Japan, as compared to our stations on Maui and the Big Island. Having said this, while proximity is important, weather patterns are of at least equal importance when considering radiation fallout.

And speaking of weather, the Kauai station, situated on the north shore in the community of Princeville, is in a very rainy place, getting about 60 to 80 inches per year. Some other parts of the island are in a rain shadow.

The radiation detector on the Kauai station is an external probe model, and the wand itself is mounted outdoors, protected under the overhanging eaves of the structure, but readily available to "sniff" the air, which in this case is often quite wet and occasionally contaminated, apparently.

Beyond that, the Geiger-Mueller tube used in the probe is of the same pancake design as in the Inspector line of instruments, with a nominal 2" diameter, finished out with a thin mica end window, categorizing this as an ultra-sensitive Geiger counter capable of detecting low levels of Alpha and Beta radiation, along with Gamma radiation.

Posted by Bruce Conway on 15 Jul 2011

I've found that debri from the tsunami will be hitting west coast in a week, maximum two weeks, and it will be really nasty, you can see pics and videos here: http://www.thetruthsource.org/wake-up/the-great-pacific-garbage-patch-to-get-hit-with-debris-from-japanese-tsunami

Posted by barcode on 29 Feb 2012

We may assume that a fair percentage ~ 20 percent of these nuclear cores could end up in the oceans, either through spillage of coolant or by air deposition. But will this increase natural radioactivity by any meaningful amount?

How many exabecquerels of potassium-40 exist in the oceans. I also believe that about 5 billion tons of U-238 float naturally in the seas.

You could probably dump an entire large reactor core in the oceans and a year later, detect barely a 1 percent rise in total oceanic radioactivity, diminishing steadily with time. Heavy metal contamination is to be avoided anyway, but the radioactive scare is exaggerated.

Posted by Chris on 12 Mar 2012

Radioactive pollution due to Tritium and other radio-nuclides will surely get into the sea and while they get diluted to some extent,they also get concentrated in biological lfe by what is known as Bio-magnification. Hence the routine and accidental discharges from nuclear plants, waste disposal plants are bound to contaminate the fisheries in sea and lakes and also the rivers. Hence no honest scientist will have any doubts on food contamination by prawns and fishes brought from sea, river and lakes contaminated by routine pollution discharges from nuclear plants and waste disposal systems.

Prof. T. Shivaji Rao, director, Centre for Environmental Studies, Gitam Universitry,
visakhapatnam, India

Posted by prof.T.Shivaji Rao on 19 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
elizabeth grossmanABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and other publications.



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