Japan’s irradiated waters: How worried should we be?

Japan’s irradiated waters: How worried should we be?

April 26, 2011|By Ken Buesseler, Special to CNN for CNN Opinion

 Twenty-five years ago, I was a Ph.D. student here in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, studying the fate of fallout in the North Atlantic from nuclear weapons testing, when an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant released large quantities of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment. My colleagues and I immediately joined other scientists tracking these radioactive contaminants, which in my case focused on the Black Sea, the closest ocean to the accident site.

A quarter-century later, I can still measure fallout from Chernobyl in the Black Sea, though fortunately at levels that are safe for swimming, consuming seafood and, if you could remove the salt, even drinking. I never thought I’d see another release anywhere near the magnitude of Chernobyl.

As we now know, the tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 caused immediate, widespread devastation on land and failure of cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. The resulting partial meltdowns, hydrogen explosions and fires at Fukushima released radioactive contaminants into the air and water. In addition, runoff from the attempts to cool the reactors with seawater and fresh water further contaminated the ocean around Fukushima.

Data released by Japanese scientists show cesium-137 concentrations in the waters immediately adjacent to the reactors at levels more than 1 million times higher than previously existed and 10 to 100 times higher in the waters off Japan than values measured in the Black Sea after Chernobyl. For the oceans, this is the largest accidental release of radiation we have ever seen.

But what do these high values mean for ocean life and human health? What will it mean 25 years from now?

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