With news this week of additional radioactive leaks from Fukushima nuclear power plants, the impact on the ocean of releases of radioactivity from the plants remains unclear. But a new study by U.S. and Japanese researchers analyzes the levels of radioactivity discharged from the facility in the first four months after the accident and draws some basic conclusions about the history of contaminant releases to the ocean.
The study, conducted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution chemist Ken Buesseler and two Japanese colleagues, Michio Aoyama of the Meteorological Research Institute and Masao Fukasawa of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, reports that discharges from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plants peaked one month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that precipitated the nuclear accident, and continue through at least July. Their study finds the levels of radioactivity, while quite elevated, are not a direct exposure threat to humans or marine life, but cautions that the impact of accumulated radionuclides in marine sediments is poorly known.
The release of radioactivity from Fukushima—both as atmospheric fallout and direct discharges to the ocean—represent the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history. Concentrations of cesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half life, at the plants’s discharge point to the ocean, peaked at over 50 million times normal/previous levels, and concentrations 18 miles off shore were much higher than those measured in the ocean after the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago. This is largely due to the fact that the Fukushima nuclear power plants are located along the coast, whereas Chernobyl was several hundred miles from the nearest salt water basins, the Baltic and Black Seas. However, due to ocean mixing processes, the levels are rapidly diluted off the Northwest coast of Japan. Read more