National Geographic

Glowing in the Dark

Aerial views of TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage thanks. Photo Credit: Reuters

Aerial views of TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its contaminated water storage tanks. Photo Credit: Reuters

“Radioactive Plume in the ocean” is the kind of headline that ensures people will pay attention to the news story that follows.  Given that the subsequent information that a watery plume of radioactive material from the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima would begin reaching the west coast of the United States in 2014, it seems natural to become alarmed about what is going on with the Pacific Ocean, potential radioactive harm, and healthy oceans. And of course, to crack the inevitable jokes about improved nighttime surfing or fishing for glow in the dark prey.   However, it is also important to make sure that we address specific concerns based on good data, rather than the understandable, but largely emotional response akin to panic that the release of any amount of radioactive material can generate.

The beginning of September was to mark the first time fishermen of the northeast coast of Japan could prepare to go back out to sea since the 2011 earthquake and subsequent problems with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.  Radioactivity levels in nearshore waters had proven too high for too long to permit fishing—finally declining to within acceptable safety levels in 2013.

Unfortunately, those plans for recovering part of the devastated region’s historic connection to the ocean have been delayed by recent revelations of significant radioactive water leaks from the damaged plant.  Millions of gallons of water have been used to keep the three damaged nuclear reactors cool since the earthquake.  The radioactive water has been stored on site in tanks that were not, apparently, designed for long-term storage.  While more than 80 million gallons of water are stored on site at this point, it is still disturbing to think of a minimum of 80,000 gallons of contaminated water, per day, leaking into the ground and into the ocean, unfiltered, from one of the most damaged water tanks.  As officials work to address this somewhat newer problem and ever more costly containment schemes, there is the continuing issue of the initial releases following the events in the spring of 2011.

When the nuclear accident happened at Fukushima, some radioactive particles were simply carried across the Pacific though the air in a matter of days—fortunately not at levels considered dangerous.  As for the projected plume, radioactive material entered Japan’s coastal waters in three ways—radioactive particles fell out of the atmosphere into the ocean, contaminated water that had collected radioactive particles from the soil, and the direct release of contaminated water from the plant. In 2014, that radioactive material is due to show up in U.S. waters—having long since been diluted to levels below those the World Health Organization deems safe. The traceable element is known as Cesium-137, a remarkably stable, identifiable isotope that will be measurable in decades as well as next year, with relative certainty about its origin, no matter how diluted the contaminated water that leaked into the ocean has become.  The powerful dynamics of the Pacific will have helped disperse the material through the patterns of multiple currents.

North Pacific Gyre Illustration via Wikipedia

North Pacific Gyre Illustration via Wikipedia

The newest models appear to show that some of the material will remain concentrated in the North Pacific Gyre, that area where the currents create a low movement zone in the ocean that attracts all kinds of human debris.  Many of us who follow ocean issues know it as the location of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the name given to that area where the flow of the ocean has concentrated and gathered debris, chemicals, and other human waste from distant places—most of it in pieces too small to readily see.  Again, while researchers will be able to identify the isotopes that came from Fukushima—it is not expected that the radioactive material will be at dangerously high levels in the Gyre.  Likewise, in the models that show the material will eventually flow as far as the Indian Ocean—it will be traceable, but not noticeable.

Ultimately, our concern is intertwined with our wonder.  Our concern rests with the continued displacement of Japanese coastal fishermen from their livelihood, and the loss of the coastal waters as a source of recreation and inspiration.  We are concerned about the effects of such high levels of radioactivity over time in coastal waters on all of the life within.  And we are hopeful that officials will be careful to assure effective filtration of the new contaminated water before it is dumped into the ocean, because the tank-based storage system is failing to protect the ocean.  We remain hopeful that this is an opportunity to really understand the effects of these accidents, and learn ways in which such harm can be prevented in the future.

Our wonder remains this:  the global ocean connects us all, and what we do in what part of the ocean will affect parts of the ocean far beyond the horizon.  The powerful currents that give us our weather, support our shipping, and increase the ocean’s productivity, also help dilute our worst mistakes.  Changing ocean temperatures may shift those currents.  Dilution does not mean no harm.  And it remains our challenge to do what we can—prevention as well as restoration—so that our legacy is not just the traceable cesium-137 in two decades, but also an ocean so healthy that the cesium-137 is just an oddity for those future researchers, not a compounding insult.

Even as we wade through a lot of misinformation and hysteria that is not science-based, Fukushima is a lesson to us all, especially when we think about siting nuclear power generation facilities on the coast.  There is little doubt that the radioactive contamination in Japan’s coastal waters is serious and may be getting worse.  And so far, it seems that the ocean’s natural systems will be ensuring that other countries’ coastal communities do not suffer similar contamination from this particular challenge.