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Straight talk about the radiation from Fukushima in the ocean

Summary: As usual, the internet buzzes with fear-mongering about the radiation released from the Fukushima reactors. Here’s a note from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute that puts this in context. It does not address the larger danger of future releases of radioactivity, perhaps on a much larger scale than the initial surge and the leaks since then. See the links at the end for more about the dangers of Fukushima


The release of radioisotopes from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in March 2011 amounts to the largest-ever accidental release of radiation to the ocean. It came mostly in the form of iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137, the primary radioisotopes released from the reactors, reported Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

All of these substances can cause long-term health problems, said Buesseler, but iodine-131 has a half-life of just eight days and so would be effectively gone from the environment in a matter of weeks. It was cesium-134 and cesium-137, with their half-lives of two and 30 years, respectively, which would remain in the ocean for years and decades to come.

In fact, most of the cesium present in today’s oceans, Buesseler noted, is a remnant of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing conducted by the United States, France, and Great Britain during the 1950s and ’60s. Lesser amounts are attributable to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 and to local sources, such as the dumping of low-level waste from England’s Sellafield nuclear facility into the Irish Sea.

… “Dilution due to ocean mixing should be enough to cause a decrease in concentration down to background levels within a short period of time,” Buesseler told his audience at the Fukushima and the Ocean conference in November 2012. “Yet all the data we have show that measurements around the site remain elevated to this day at up to 1,000 becquerels per cubic meter.”


He hastened to put that number into context. “A thousand becquerels is not a big number for cesium. Just for comparison, that’s lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for drinking water. At that level, Buesseler stressed, the cesium in Japanese coastal waters is safe for marine life and for human exposure.

“It’s not direct exposure we have to worry about, but possible incorporation into the food chain,” he said. That, and the ongoing high levels of radioactive cesium. “The fact that they have leveled off and remained higher than they were before the accident tells us there is a small but continuous source from the reactor site.”


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