Coastal Management Coordinator, Surfrider Foundation
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Not the end of the world? Photo: Shutterstock


The Inertia

Mike Misslewitz’s article Mother Fukushima does a good job of describing the nuclear disaster in Japan and continuing concerns regarding the difficulty in removing fuel rods from the damaged reactors and stopping the release of contaminated cooling water and groundwater to the Pacific Ocean.

Mike then completely goes off the tracks (jumps the shark?) by blaming the release of radioactive water to the ocean for a bewildering array of events and environmental conditions, both in the ocean and on land, in Hawaii, along the Pacific Coast, and even in places like Minnesota and Montana. Let’s look at each of those claims.

Radiation in Bluefin Tuna and Concerns About Radiation in Other Seafood:

Bluefin Tuna are a pelagic species that migrate across the entire Pacific Ocean. They made the news when samples of tuna caught off Southern California were found to contain radioactivity traceable to Fukushima. Scientists were excited about this – not because of concern about the radioactivity – but because the radioactivity demonstrated that bluefin tuna do routinely travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean. The amounts the fish carried were minuscule — far less, ounce for ounce, than the amount of naturally occurring radiation in a banana — but enough for scientists to gain insight into animal migration. The detected concentrations of cesium-134 and cesium-137 were well below safety limits set by the most stringent government regulations. But, it’s probably a good thing if this finding gives you another reason to avoid consuming this endangered species. Here’s a blog post by Miriam Goldstein at Deep Sea News that further explains why we shouldn’t be concerned about the detections of radioactivity in bluefin tuna.

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A November 2013 article published at Oregonlive.com contains further additional evaluations of the health risk of consuming West Coast seafood from several scientists in Oregon, including Christina Mireles DeWitt, director of Oregon State’s Seafood Research and Education Center, Delvan Neville, a radiation health physicist at Oregon State, and Kathryn Higley, head of Oregon State’s nuclear engineering and radiation health physics department. Oregon State scientists have continued finding a slight fingerprint of radioactive particles (far too slight to register on a Geiger counter) in local albacore, which migrate throughout the Pacific. Tests on sardines and herring haven’t shown any traces. The levels in albacore are so infinitesimally low, the researchers say, that a person would need to eat 4,000 pounds of albacore a year just to increase their average annual dose of radiation by 1 percent. Fish in the 1980s and 1990s were actually more radioactive because of post-World War II weapons tests than those found today with traces of particles from Fukushima.

Further discussions of the relative health risks from eating North Pacific Ocean seafood is provided in this interview with Ken Buesseler and in this article.

Fish Hemorrhaging in British Columbia

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The report by an independent fisheries scientist of Pacific herring having a disease causing them to hemorrhage should not automatically trigger speculation about radiation being the cause. First, as noted above, tests on sardines and herring in Oregon haven’t shown any traces of radiation. Second, this is not the first time this disease has been noted. In 1993, only one-third of the Pacific herring expected to spawn in Prince William Sound (PWS), Alaska, were observed. Of these herring, 15 to 43% had external ulcers or subdermal hemorrhages of the skin and fins. A rhabdovirus identified as the North American strain of viral hemorrhagic septicaemia virus (VHSV) was isolated from affected herring. A study of this published in the Journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms concluded“These findings suggest the virus is an opportunistic pathogen that is widely indigenous to Pacific herring populations in the Pacific Northwest and that herring are a significant marine reservoir for North American VHSV.”

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Mike writes:

“…sea stars along the North American coastline are being wiped out by similar, unexplainable symptoms. Radiation poisoning is a viable cause, though its relation hasn’t been confirmed publicly.”

Sea stars along the North American coastline are being affected by Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Researchers from a number of universities, including UC Santa Cruz, Cornell, University of Rhode Island, Brown and Roger Williams are continuing to work to determine the pathogen, which is presumed to be as bacteria or a virus. Previous studies have indicated that this disease can be caused by bacteria in the genus Vibrio. As Mike notes, this condition has also been noted is some sea stars in the Northeast. Mike writes:

“What’s puzzling is similar sea star die-offs are now occurring on the Atlantic Coast in areas from Maine through New Jersey, rendering the Fukushima Daiichi correlation seemingly far fetched. “There is no direct route to get from Providence to Seattle,” noted Gary Wessel, a molecular biologist at Brown University.”

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Mike then invents a preposterous theory of radiation evaporating from ocean water in the Pacific (where it has only even been detected in waters close to Japan), being carried by the jet stream across the United States, and then re-depositing in the Atlantic in sufficient concentrations to cause sea star wasting syndrome there. I know of no researcher who is seriously considering radiation as a cause of this disease, which existed decades before the nuclear disaster in Japan. Mass die-offs of sea stars were noted in Southern California in 1983 and 1997.

Increased Shark Attacks (Hawaii) and Major Spike in Sightings of Sea Life (West Coast)

Mike explains these phenomena as sea life fleeing the advancing radiation plume. Aside from the fact that increased radiation (there is still background radiation from nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s) in the mid- or eastern Pacific has yet to be detected, what about the increased shark attacks in Western Australia? Even those animated plume models don’t show radiation traveling there. And a major spike in sea life sightings? Call me crazy, but I think maybe that’s a good sign. It’s perhaps an indication that some of our coastal ecosystems are beginning to recover now that we are reducing municipal sewage and industrial discharges, creating marine protected areas, and reigning in overfishing.

Radiation Plume Models

Computer models (not actual data) of the predicted spread of radiation across the Pacific have gotten a lot of press. One image showed the tsunami waves which did spread across the ocean, but was misinterpreted by some to be radiation. For the models that do attempt to show the radiation plume, they are, by necessity, simplified 2-d particle tracking models that typically neglect ocean depth, neglect the density of heavy radioactive particles and neglect radioactive decay. If these factors were included, the speed of plume migration and the resulting concentrations would be considerably reduced. Even taking the model output at face value, the predicted concentrations in sea water that will ultimately reach the West Coast are extremely low, well below levels of concern. In fact, the models and observations to date have indicated the concentration of radioactive material quickly drops below World Health Organization (WHO) safety levels as soon as it leaves Japanese waters.

Moose in Minnesota?  Deer in Montana?

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From Mike’s article:

“Causes for the die-offs have been attributed to epizootic hemorrhagic disease, sylvatic plague, bluetongue, brucellosis, chytrid, and chronic wasting disease.”

No reputable scientist that I am aware of has tied any of these wildlife problems to Fukushima. Yes, there was a short-lived atmospheric plume of radiation that did reach and travel across the United States within a few days of the nuclear disaster. Monitoring stations along the West Coast, including one at UC Berkeley School of Engineering did detect a spike in concentrations of radioactive iodine (I131, I132), cesium (Cs137, Cs134), and tellurium (Te132) beginning about March 16, 2011. These substances were also detected in rainwater and surface water samples collected from mid-March until about mid-April 2011. By April 4, 2011, UC Berkeley noted: “There is clearly an ongoing decay in all species, with even iodine-131 dipping very close to our minimum detectable levels.” There has been no significant spike in radiation levels detected by government or university air monitoring since that time.

Conclusions

The triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear facility meltdown) in Japan was, and continues to be, a major, distressing environmental event that should serve as a cautionary tale regarding why nuclear facilities should not be located in coastal areas near fault zones capable of creating major earthquakes and tsunamis. We clearly need to do all we can to make sure the radiation releases are stopped and the facility in Fukushima is decontaminated as soon as possible.

Despite all this, there are presently no data or scientific reports indicating that marine life along the West Coast had been impacted by radiation and there is no reason not to continue enjoying the waves and seafood there.

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We are compiling recent information on our Beachapedia wiki and will keep this article on Fukushima updated with any additional news or research.

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