Fukushima Radiation in the Pacific (Revisited)

A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant In Fukushima Prefecture. The damage was caused by the offshore earthquake that occurred on 11 March 2011.
A satellite image shows damage at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima Prefecture. The damage was caused by the offshore earthquake that occurred on March 11, 2011.

My recent post on the spread of radiation stemming from the Fukushima nuclear accident drew quite a few questioning comments. Specifically the article suggested that radiation from the accident was drifting across the Pacific at levels high enough to cause alarm. It turns out such cause for alarm was exaggerated, though there is still reason to be concerned. I appreciate the feedback. I acknowledge that I relied on sources with which I was unfamiliar and posted some information that has been shown to be incorrect. I apologize.

To all who publish online, beware. Bad news travels fast. It gives credence to the old saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on.” This is especially true on the Internet. I truly hope no one was harmed by this information. Now begins the task of earning back your trust which, though hard-earned, can be quickly lost.

I think the best way to start is to post a revised story on what is actually happening in the waters around Fukushima, Japan, as well as those farther afield.

Let’s start by addressing the points made in the original story.

For starters the initial source, PeakOil, used a bogus NOAA graphic to sensationalize the story, having carefully scrubbed out the legend showing that the colors actually represented wave heights at the peak of the tsunami, not radiation levels as the site would have you believe. I checked this image out, noticed this and chose not to use it in my post. Still, I continued to take the central thrust of the story as true.

Several people went to the generally reliable Snopes site to question the story and found confirmation of their suspicions. The blatant misuse of the NOAA chart is clearly called and tossed into the trash where it belongs. An interesting thing about the Snopes post, however, is that while the site prominently displays a text clipping stating that, “each day 300 tons of radioactive waste seeps into the ocean,” it never specifically addresses that claim.

I dug further and found that number actually comes from a quote by Yushi Yoneyama, an official with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees energy policy as quoted in Reuters (generally considered unassailable) and elsewhere. In 2013, Yoneyama said, “We think that the volume of water [leaking into the Pacific] is about 300 tonnes a day.” Of course, anyone could be wrong, but who am I to question Reuters or a Japanese government official? I don’t.

That’s not to say Japanese government officials, or officers of TEPCO, can always be counted on to tell the truth, but their interest has generally been to minimize the extent of the damage, not to embellish it.

As for that amount of leakage, that’s equivalent to about 90,000 gallons of radioactive water. That sounds like quite a bit. But compared to the volume of the Pacific Ocean, it’s not a lot at all. Still, when that much leaks out each day, over the course of a year, it adds up to 33 million gallons. And it’s been five years now.

Even today, TEPCO only acknowledges that radioactive water threatens to flood out of the plant and into the ocean. The company denied, until recently, that any water leaked from the plant at all, even when fish contaminated with high levels of radiation were found near the plant by independent researchers from the University of Tokyo, raising major concerns for local fishermen.

The story regarding radiation reaching the Canadian West Coast, which claimed levels of iodine-131 were 300 times background levels, was recently updated with an editor’s statement that the original figures were incorrect.

Reports of a wildlife biologist (Alexandra Morton) pulling hundreds of herring out of the waters off British Columbia with blood coming out of their eyes and gills have not been discredited. However, there is no evidence linking this observation directly to radiation from Fukushima or anywhere else.

The claim that radiation levels found in tuna off the Oregon coast had tripled also appears to be legitimate. However, those levels are still substantially below what would be considered a health threat.

Having sorted through that, I would summarize as follows: Contaminated water continues to enter to ocean from the Fukushima site in significant volume. Traces of radiation have been found in various locations around the Pacific. It also appears that the levels detected at this time do not indicate any immediate threat to humans outside of Japan. That being said, our knowledge of the long-term impacts of these types of radiation on the oceans, and on ourselves, is far from complete.

Upon review, most of the statements in the original piece were in fact true, but I acknowledge the overall sense was that of an exaggerated cause for concern. What this shows is how easily a group of facts taken out of context can become a convincing story — a lesson for all of us. Putting it on the Internet is like putting a match to a dry grassland.

What is far less clear is what the actual levels are and where they can be found. What makes writing about this issue so difficult, and even dangerous, is the combination of two things: It’s a frightening subject, and there is very little solid information being made available.

In my efforts to bring in some more solid facts, I reached out to Greenpeace, which is monitoring the situation carefully. The group sent me some additional information in a press release with links to reports published outside the U.S.

Greenpeace’s famed ship, the Rainbow Warrior, went out to sample the waters around Fukushima in February of this year with former Japanese Prime Minister Mr. Naoto Kan onboard. What they found was that radiation in the seabed off Fukushima “is hundreds of times above pre-2011 levels.” They also found levels in nearby rivers that were “up to 200 times higher than ocean sediment.”

Expressing concern, Ai Kashiwagi, energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan, said: “These river samples were taken in areas where the Abe government is stating it is safe for people to live. But the results show there is no return to normal after this nuclear catastrophe.”

The areas sampled include the Niida River in Minami Soma, where readings measured as high as 29,800 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg) for radio-cesium. (For those new to the subject, a becquerel is a derived unit that measures radioactivity.) More samples taken at the estuary of the Abukuma River in Miyagi prefecture, more than 90 kilometers north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, found levels in sediment as high as 6,500 Bq/kg. To put that in perspective, recorded levels in the seabed near the plant before the disaster were 0.65 Bq/kg.

Kendra Ulrich, senior global energy campaigner for Greenpeace Japan, explained: “The sheer size of the Pacific Ocean combined with powerful complex currents means the largest single release of radioactivity into the marine environment has led to the widespread dispersal of contamination.”

Greenpeace expressed concern that the order scheduled to allow people to return to these areas next March “cannot be permitted to stand.” The group claims that “these ecosystems cannot simply be decontaminated.”

Greenpeace’s report, which came out in July of this year, concludes by saying the impact of the accident will persist for “decades to centuries.”

So, while we have not yet seen the global-scale consequences some predicted, the situation is indeed bad and getting worse. TEPCO continues to build steel tanks at the rate of three per week, to house a great deal of contaminated groundwater while awaiting decontamination. But according to this PBS documentary, the company will run out of room for more tanks sometime next year. The gravity-fed water filtration system has been effective in removing most contaminants, except for tritium. Tritium is a relatively weak radionuclide with a half-life of 12.5 years, which means it will take about 100 years to fully break down.

The molten nuclear cores in reactors still remain in three reactors. And the site will not be fully stabilized until those are removed. But the radioactivity level in those reactors is far too high for people to enter. TEPCO plans to develop robots to go in and retrieve the molten fuel. The company says that retrieval is estimated to begin in 2020.

In closing, while the level of concern suggested in the prior piece was overstated, I maintain that the situation at Fukushima is far from resolved and that it remains a serious concern, particularly in Japan. I further maintain that any plans to continue expanding nuclear power must include an in-depth review of what has happened in Fukushima, with the understanding that this story is far from over.

Image credit: Digital Global, courtesy of Greenpeace.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

17 responses

  1. The problem with nuclear leaks is they continue far longer than the lifespan of not just people, but governments and civilizations, in fact they continue long enough that they will only be slightly decreased when nobody alive today would recognize the constellations in the sky, and only fade away as the galaxy reaches twice the age it is today. We MUST STOP USING FISSION. The reason is NOTHING can be safely managed for BILLIONS of years. Humans can’t even conceive of the time span of the risk.

    1. That’s not to say Japanese government officials, or officers of TEPCO, can always be counted on to tell the truth, but their interest has generally been to minimize the extent of the damage, not to embellish it.

      No, the interest of the Japanese government is definitely to embellish. On April 2, 2012 the Mainichi’s English version reported,

      “Japanese tax revenues in February increased 4.8 percent from a year earlier to 3,348.73 billion yen as rises in the receipts of tobacco, energy and other taxes more than offset declines in major components, the Finance Ministry said Monday. Of the revenues on a general-account basis, those from petroleum and coal tax expanded 12.1 percent to 39.57 billion yen due apparently to more consumption of liquefied natural gas by utilities, which have boosted thermal power generation as an alternative to stalled nuclear power following the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant …”

      In Biogeosciences, 10, 5601-5617, 2013 — “One-year, regional-scale simulation of 137Cs radioactivity in the ocean following the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant accident”, free on the web — they review all the sea surface radioactivity measurements taken near Japan in the year after the wrecks and present a becquerel estimate of how much must have got out, total, to give those measurements.

      I converted their estimate into watts: 1400 W at the time of the release, now down to 600 W.

      How does this compare to potassium and uranium, the two big natural radioactivities in the ocean? They are respectively 1.8 billion watts and 400 million watts. So the result of the Fukushima leakage is that ocean radioactivity, formerly 99.9995 percent natural and 0.0005 percent due to bomb tests, was briefly 99.9994 percent natural, 0.0001 percent Fukushima-derived, 0.0005 percent bomb-derived.

      The Fukushima contribution has since dropped below a millionth of the total.

  2. Thank you for this article. All corrections are appreciated, yet your point is irrefutable~ there is pitifully little information on this planetary crisis. Stabilizer speaks to the issue at hand on nuclear power. When international Public Relations groups are called in to falsely reassure the public with the approval of governments (corporations), the Truth is buried.

    Obama was in Peru less than 2 months after Fukushima offering assistance for construction of more nuclear power plants. Abe wants the vulnerable Japanese population to return so stipends to them can end. It is unconscionable. Mainstream media offers nothing because they are corporate controlled. We know the song. Kudos for continuing to put this tragedy before us. We can’t know what we don’t know. We need more citizen scientists, yet this should be one of the most heavily researched and funded investigations and remediations on our planet. This is not just Japan’s problem.

  3. Without radioactivity, there would be no life on this planet. Heat due to radioactive decay is a major factor in why our planetary core is molten, and not solid, like Mars’s is. The whole planet and every living thing on it are at least a little radioactive. Unless you’re cuddled up to the melted-down cores of these reactors, they present no danger to you or the environment.

    Furthermore, “radiation” is not leaking anywhere. . .radioactive material is. There is a difference. Mr. Siegel, if you don’t know enough to use the most simple of correct terminology, you should have refrained from writing scare-tactic articles. Our equipment is sensitive enough to detect the radioactive potassium in your body, right now. Are you worried about it?

    1. StrontiumDog,
      You are an obvious pro-nuclear paid shill. Extremely obvious in fact. How stupid do you think people are?? Saying we need radiation is like saying we need our holes in our heads.

      ENENEWS.COM NUKEPROFESSIONAL.BLOGSPOT.COM FUKUSHIMA-DIARY.COM

      Naturally occurring radiation is not comparable to man made radiation coming from fission death reactors and nuclear weapons. Radiation destroys our DNA. When our DNA is damaged it triggers cancers, birth defects and a wide range of irreversible health problems . Mutations triggered by nuclear reactor accidents cause genetic defects which are then perpetuated for 88 generations, or more. Nuclear is mutating our childrens’ childrens’ children…. The 3 melted down, and out of containment, reactors at Fukushima are in fact EXTREMELY DANGEROUS OVER A VAST AREA FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS!!! To this very moment, these out of control melted reactor coriums continue to spew ever more deadly DNA mutating radioactive DEATH into our environments and eventually our bodies. Thyroid cancers are rampant now. Childhood cancers of all types. Millions of babies and children have been exposed to Fukushima radiation via contaminated foods, water and air. There is no magical threshold where radiation becomes “safe.” More radiation exposure = more disease and sickness. Background radiation levels have risen over 600% since the nuclear age began in 1945. In the same time frame cancer rates, birth defects and autism have SKYROCKETED! Innumerable studies show that there is no safe amount of radiation. More radiation exposure means a direct correlation to more risk of developing cancers. Man made radiation is much more destructive than naturally occurring radioactive sources like uranium, thorium or potassium. Comparing apples to apples; one gram of radioactive cesium 137 is 18 TRILLION times more radioactive than one gram of radioactive potassium 40 which you pro nuclear paid shills so love to use as an example of natural radiation. Fission is DEATH. Shut down all reactors NOW!!!!!!!!!!

  4. It wasn’t the earthquake which caused Fukushima – it was the resulting tsunami, combined with the arrogant lack of preparation by TEPCO. Decades ago, it *might* have made *some* (economic) sense to site a nuke plant so close to an ocean coast. That decision looks much less prudent, now, doesn’t it? The corporate greenwashing of “3P” is glaring. Author RP Siegel is basically saying, “It’s NOT worse than I said it was, but it’s NO BETTER!”…. Same difference….. “people, profit, planet” are all 6 letter words, hence “666”- coincidence? – I think not….*snark*….

  5. Much better researched, thank you, but still some problems. Remember that Greenpeace isn’t a scientific organization. They are a political group and their claims are severely biased, especially when it comes to nuclear power. Scientific data about radiation levels around Minamisoma and Fukushima Daiichi are not secret. They are continuously monitored and available at this website:

    http://jciv.iidj.net/map/

    You can see that around Minamisoma radiation levels are indistinguishable from average global background radiation levels of 274 nanosieverts per hour (nSv/hr). The problem areas are in Okuma and Futuba, located within 2 or 3 kilometers of the Fukushima Daiichi powerplant . The highest measurements are 11,241 nSv/hr, about 41 times background radiation. However, within a kilometer or two, they drop rapidly to natural background radiation levels. Over time they will continue to drop as the half-life of Cesium-137, the biggest problem, is 30 years.

    Is 11,241 nSv/hr dangerous? No one knows for sure, but the latest research from MIT suggests that it is not; not even close. See here:

    http://news.mit.edu/2012/prolonged-radiation-exposure-0515

    The safety limits for radiation exposure were set decades ago based on what appear to be inaccurate assumptions. They used instantaneous exposure to massive levels of ionizing radiation that caused overwhelming damage and rapid death (like from a nuclear explosion) and mathematically extrapolated from that what they thought “safe” levels should be. However, living organisms repair cellular damage all the time, even from radiation. No one had tested what the limits of low-level, constant exposure to radiation were. In 2012, MIT scientists did just that and found that mice exposed to 400 times background radiation levels showed no DNA damage. That’s about 120,000 nSv/hr, far, far above levels currently measured around the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

    Further research needs to be done, but it’s possible that areas within a kilometer or so of the plant are habitable and safe. And the water leaking from the plant? It’s a big ocean and as they say, the solution to pollution is dilution.

    1. MIT is the leading pro-nuclear university. MIT has a direct profit motive by promoting nuclear fission. MIT has a nuke reactor on their campus; right in Boston! MIT is biased for nuclear. Learn the truth
      Enenews.com

      1. NuclearDeath, your entire idea of Nuclear anything is totally based on misinformation and propaganda and a lack of real information. In your reply to Strontidog above you say, “You are an obvious pro-nuclear paid shill. Extremely obvious in fact. How stupid do you think people are?? Saying we need radiation is like saying we need our holes in our heads.” Well, yes, we do need the holes that naturally occur in our heads, and we also benefit from background radiation. Our bodies evolved from the earliest life-forms, and there is evidence to suggest that the much higher background radiation levels on early Earth were either essential or useful to the processes that led up to living organisms. At the very least, the strong background radiation at that time did not harm or impede the process of the development of life.

        Our bodies retain the ability to repair genetic damage from any cause, including radiation. There is a study called “hormesis” that indicates very clearly that within limits, higher levels of radiation actually stimulate our natural dna repair mechanisms, and our bodies are even healthier in general at those higher radiation level than at present average background dose levels. Another fact to consider is that the LNT (Linear No Threshold) theory (that states that all levels of radiation are dangerous) was always obviously wrong – if one simply notes that in the areas of our planet where the background radiation levels are much higher than the average, people living there are not affected at all. There is no occurrence of the higher cancer levels one would expect from the LNT theory.

        You need to consider that the emotional statements you make are not persuasive, nor are they indications of serious knowledge. Rather, they are indications of an obsessive belief in the fear-and-ignorance based propaganda you have fallen into accepting as “facts”.

        I have a fair background in nuclear physics, and yet was opposed to the development of nuclear power for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, about fifteen years ago, I met a person with more understanding than I had, and was introduced to an excellent book, “Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens. At first I was inclined to deny the concepts she was presenting, but as I continued to read, I realized that she was sounding entirely reasonable, consistent, and logical, and that her experiences were accurately reported. I decided to investigate further, and found that my education and attitudes were inadequate.

        As I gained more factual information, I changed my viewpoint, and am now a full supporter of Nuclear Power, with the additional two realizations that modern PWRs (Pressurized Water Reactors – the industry standard) are far safer than the early types, but that there is an even better version of reactor that is entirely fail-safe. This is the MSR/LFTR (Molten Salt Reactor/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) that uses no cooling water at all, has a liquid fuel mixture, cannot explode under any circumstances, and can use present stockpiles of Nuclear “Waste” as fuel, solving the storage problem.

        Along with reading Cravens’ book, visit timothymaloney dot net for fascinating graphic descriptions of the MSR/LFTR and important articles on related topics.

        Then you might enjoy reading “Super Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future” by Richard Martin.

        If you will take the time to study these sources, you will be quite surprised at the new understandings you will develop. Good luck, and enjoy.

  6. Everyone responsible for nuclear plants around the world should be taken to court and stripped of all wealth the corporations have as well as their own. To think one can build anything that can withstand natures forces is a joke. Then to top it off they have no way to stop or dispose of the damage or waste that creates more damage. like its name Nu clear. What a joke “we need nuclear for clean energy and to help with the energy shortage B>S>

  7. Hello RP. I was happy to find that someone had updated the status of the Fukushima leak. I was disappointed, however, that you were apologizing for possibly overstating the risk. You need not apologize.

    This is such a cataclysmic event for the World, and as you say, no info is forthcoming from anyone. There is no doubt that the currents of the Pacific transport the radiation Eastward to North America. While doing that, it mixes and dilutes the radiation into the Pacific. However, as time goes on, the build-up of this radiation is tremendous. No one on the planet has ever had to calculate the effects of such a disaster so no one should criticize your estimate. When you see a building burning down and you shout “Fire”, you would be doing the correct thing regardless if the fire just started or was in fully engulfed. In fact, you would be better off if you yelled it earlier rather than later.
    People in the USA and around World are oblivious to Fukushima and it has become forgotten. The Governments of Japan and the USA want it that way but we cannot allow that to happen. We need to continue to shout “Fire” when it comes to Fukushima, even when it becomes fully engulfed which it will one day.
    So, please do not apologize. Keep doing what you are doing. Your critics should apologize for sitting on their butts and not helping.
    “Fire, Fire Fire!!! Would someone PLEASE put out this fire?”

  8. If nuclear is so safe then why dont they have any insurance to cover all their deadly addidents??? Nuclear energy is a front for nuclear weapons plutonium production. No reators = no plutonium. The Price-Anderson Act passed by the US Congress is what insures these insane death reactors which are giant industrial scale dirty bombs just waiting for an EMP, earthquake or flood to EXPLODE just like Fukushima reactor #3 did. Just google, “Reactor 3 explosion Fukushima”

    BOOM!!!! CANCER!!!!

    1. NuclearDeath, you have just made my day. I haven’t had such a good chuckle for hours.

      You are correct that production of Plutonium was one of the interests that led to the development of the PWR (Pressurized Water Reactor) which unfortunately became the industry standard. However, we are quite fortunate to have a dandy use for all the plutonium that is now sitting around being regarded as a huge problem. It is actually a perfect fuel to start a MSR/LFTR type reactor (Molten Salt Reactor/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor). The plutonium is entirely consumed and reduced to harmless isotopes, and the reactor then continues as a breeder reactor producing more fuel than it consumes from the fertile (not fissile) U238 and Thorium in its core. That additional fuel can be extracted and used to start the next reactor. These reactors are totally fail-safe, cannot explode, and cost about half as much to build as a standard PWR. They also do not produce any significant waste, and in addition to consuming our stockpiles of Plutonium, they can use the rest of our large stockpiles of nuclear “waste” as fuel, solving the storage problem.

      See my post above in which I give you sources of information that will change your understanding of Nuclear Power totally – for the better.

  9. I comment the author for correcting his original article, which was egregiously overstated in many aspects. I am a journalist based in Japan, and since the triple disaster I have made over fifty trips into the area starting just days after the tsunami. I have filmed two documentaries concerning Fukushima and numerous news and feature stories, and have been in the zone both legally and illegally, and inside the plant itself.

    As far as the 300 tons of water leaking into the ocean goes, it is–as far as I know correct (it may even be more)–but extensive testing in the area have revealed that most of the radionuclides contained therein have settled into the bottom sediments close to the plant. This is not to say that there is no cause for vigilance or that a problem doesn’t exist, but it helps us all not to overstate the dangers.

    After extensive study and interviews with experts both pro and con, my conclusion is that we were extraordinarly lucky with Fukushima, looking at the potential consequences that were not realized. Prime Minister Naoto Kan talks of plans to evacuate 50 million people, and that might well have been necessary if there had been different weather conditions during the first days of the accident, when there were widespread airborne releases of radionuclides. As it was, most of the releases went directly out to sea, where it was dispersed over a wide area. Yes, there are measurable increases in the Pacific, but they are not, at the moment at least, significant in terms of health threats.

    For the record I am staunchly anti-nuke, for many reasons. It has been recently shown that the probable risk analysis used by scientists in predicting nuclear accidents is faulty, and we can expect many more accidents on the level of Fukushima or Chernobyl in the coming years, especially since we insist on running aging and obsolete plants. Even with newer technologies, accidents can and will happen. Nuclear presents the conundrum of the low probability/high impact scenario, and as has been said about Fukushima, “forty good years, one bad day…”

    We can expect more bad days, and with the next one we might not be so fortunate as with Fukushima. My own feeling is that it is necessary to discuss the true perils of nuclear energy–not to pretend they don’t exist, as one side does, or to overstate them and fearmonger as the other side does. The latter does nothing but discredit the critics of nuclear power in the long run.

    1. Dear Kymarto, thank you for your reasonable post, and thank you for your courageous reporting. As a “staunchly anti-nuke” person, you have retained a decent level of logical thought. Since I was once “staunchly anti-nuke” myself, I have significant sympathy for your stance.

      Perhaps you would like to see information that might just move you to an even more reasonable and comprehensive understanding of Nuclear Power. See my posts above for the sources you will be interested to consider.

  10. There are some numbers available which would put the recent Pacific observations into perspective.

    I think it was your article that quoted someone who reported 11 Bq per cubic meter of Caesium (from Fukushima) in mid Pacific (quote – it was the largest number theyd found). People need to realize that the ocean contains 12000 Bq per cubic meter of naturally occuring potassium 40. Fish have been living in this for half a billion years with no noticeable harm received. So the idea that radiation from Fukushima on the Canadian shore could harm fish looks a bit fishy. The natural radiation is a thousand times larger.

    Furthermore, Potassium in living things is around 10 times more concentrated than in sea water. It varies among species, and in humans probably with fat content. But in general, humans have about 56 Bq per pound of K-40 in their bodies. From birth and for their whole lives. That’s about 124 Bq/Kg. And between 120000 and 130000 Bq per cubic meter (a cubic meter weighs round about 2200 pounds, whether it’s sea water or human flesh — remember the old saw “A pint’s a pound the world round”, a very good approximation).

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