It turns out the Japanese are not the only ones worried about radiation exposure one year after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plants flooded and melted down. Californians are now number two on the list.
Such worries have pushed many in Japan into the arms of hucksters pushing instant “cures,” so far debunked.
“Still, with elevated levels of radiation showing up in everything from beef and rice to fertilizer and concrete, anxious Japanese want to know what exactly is building up in their bodies”
A pair of new studies, from the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, question just how dangerous the radioactivity is while simultaneously making clear that the impacts of the accident on human and marine life are spreading across the Pacific Rim.
Highlights from the two studies:
1. Scientists now say that concentrations of radioactive cesium in marine life are higher farther away from Japan’s coast than near it, by as much 100 to 1,000 times.
2. At the same time seaweed along California’s coastline is already measuring 500 times higher in radioactive iodine.
3. Government monitoring stations in Anaheim have recorded new highs of airborne concentrations of the same element.
4. Since the Japanese have burned much of the materials made radioactive by the meltdown, rather than disposing of or burying it, “radioactive rain” is already falling across the Pacific.
5. That giant mass of seaborne flotsam/jetsam resulting from the 2011 tsunami is said to be composed largely of non-biodegradable plastics that will most likely have longer-term effects on humans and the marine ecosystem than nuclear radiation.
While the NAS study, conducted by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, found radioactivity in zooplankton, tiny crustaceans, shrimp, and fish, it says the levels were below what is allowed in food in Japan.
Its authors also suggest that the risk of swimming in the waters off the coast of Japan are extremely minimal given the evidence that artificially-produced radionuclides near the shoreline are no higher than the levels of naturally produced ones.
Still, with elevated levels of radiation showing up in everything from beef and rice to fertilizer and concrete, anxious Japanese want to know what exactly is building up in their bodies. A rash of curatives have found their way to the marketplace in Japan (coming soon to California!).
According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, many of these faux treatments are rightfully being questioned by authorities:
* One company claims that for $100 it can measure an individual’s internal radiation accumulation using a machine that reads “electromagnetic aura” from snips of hair.
* Another advertises a suit that can allegedly help wearers “sweat out” radiation; the government has dubbed the process “suspect.”
* Japan’s consumer-watchdog agency has also questioned bathtubs selling for $6,500 that propose to “suck radiation out.”
* A plethora of homeopathic remedies have been advertised, and questioned, as has the process of X-raying your drinking water. “X-rays are just light,” said one critic, “even after the process, what you’re left with is just…water.”
It’s one thing for faraway environmental groups and governments to call for more transparency from the Japanese regarding exactly how much radiation was leaked in the days after the March 11 tsunami/earthquake. But when the prominent Oceanographic Society of Japan (OSJ) demands more details, you’d hope officials would comply.
Photo: Toru Hanai/Reuters
The concern is that government and big business are rushing to normalize as a way to prop up a devastated economy. It’s exactly what we witnessed in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill: States rushed to “okay” and reopen fisheries before testing was satisfactorily completed. Japan’s hurry to stabilize its economy is understandable; seafood counts for half the country’s food exports. In 2009, the country’s annual catch of 5.3 million tons of fish was a $17.4 billion business. (Fukushima prefecture alone was responsible for 830,000 tons.)
Like most countries, Japan does not have a centralized system for checking radioactive contamination. The testing is left up to individual prefectures and local farmers. So far, radiation has been found in “spinach, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, tea, milk, plums and fish” more than 200 miles from the accident site. The OSJ—with a membership of 1,860 marine scientists—called last week for a slow, measured investigation. Its demand was triggered by reports of food arriving in Japanese supermarkets and restaurants with high cesium levels directly linked to the March nuclear spill.
“In Chernobyl’s case, it took about six months to a year for cesium concentrations to peak,” one OSJ member told Bloomberg, adding that the leaking of radioactive material into the coastal waters of Japan was “unprecedented.” Last week, Japan’s biggest supermarket chain reported that more than 9,000 pounds of highly radiated beef had “inadvertently” been put on sale at 174 of its stores. Though the government had banned cattle shipments from the area of the nuclear spill, where livestock had been feeding on contaminated hay, some animals had already been slaughtered and shipped.
Similarly high readings were taken from shiitake mushrooms already on the shelves, and a testing of boxed seafood showed 68 cases of fish and marine life with radiation levels exceeding the government’s safety limits.
“The scope of testing needs to increase, especially in the prefectures neighboring Fukushima,” a professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology told Bloomberg.
According to tests that were performed last week by the Tokyo Electrical Power Co., seawater near the site of the accident—where more than 12,000 tons of contaminated water were dumped into the sea—are still 30 times the allowable level five months after the tsunami/earthquake. Though the ocean is expected to disperse the leaked radiation into its vastness, increased levels of cesium have been found in fish 50 miles from the accident.
While Japan’s economy has taken a big hit, fish mongers in Australia and South Korea, which export seafood to Japan, have benefited. Japan’s food imports are up nearly 18 percent over one year ago.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it continues to screen everything coming into America from Japan, though “everything” does not include all seafood. According to Food & Water Watch, less than 2 percent of all seafood arriving in the U.S. is properly inspected. Imports from Japan are down since the March accident, but they haven’t stopped completely. (In 2010, Japan exported about $557 million in food and agriculture products to the U.S. and an additional $235 million in seafood.)
Fuji Electric has pulled a silver lining out of the edible radiation: the company has developed a gadget that can detect radiation in fish, meat, fruit and vegetables in just 12 seconds, or about 200 cardboard boxes filled with food in an hour. The device is expected on the market next month. The company hopes to sell 500 of them by year’s end, at $56,000 each.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to takepart.com)
Continued fallout from leaking nuclear reactors in Japan has put the atomic energy industry on hold in the Western world, just when nukes were staged to make a comeback.
Photo: Nicky Loh/Reuters
India and China are plunging ahead with plans to build several nuclear plants to energize human populations soaring into the billions, but Germany and others have shelved new proposals and halted site construction since the accidents in Japan. President Obama had previously voiced a desire for more nuclear fuel in the U.S., but the administration hasn’t mentioned that option during the past two months.
Now comes news that a faulty plant—nicknamed Nukey Poo, for its leaky reputation—may have contributed to cancer among many of its government employees during a shortened, 10-year history.
Where was this now-notorious facility—formally known as PM-3A—located? In Antarctica, at the big U.S. base of McMurdo.
Authorized and funded by a 1960 act of Congress, the McMurdo plant was switched on in March 1962 and managed by the U.S. Navy. It worked, more or less, for 10 years, but hundreds of malfunctions, shutdowns and, ultimately, a leak marked its history. Still, PM-3A wasn’t closed because the Navy couldn’t live with its well-documented inefficiencies. The site was shut because operating—and fixing—a nuclear plant in such a remote part of the world proved too expensive.
The idea for building a nuclear plant in Antarctica originated in the mid-1950s. The Eisenhower Administration considered atomic energy a cost-effective way to power a permanent Antarctic station, where shipping fuel oil was both difficult and expensive—$1 to $3 per gallon (equivalent to $7 to $22 today). While the Antarctica Treaty—written in 1959—forbids testing of nuclear weapons or burying nuclear waste on the continent, the pact allowed the generation of nuclear power.
Apparently, Eisenhower seized on the idea as a way to “sell” domestic nuclear power to the American public, through a 1950s program dubbed “Atoms for Peace.”
A “portable” nuclear plant was sent by ship to Antarctica. The plant was intended to provide power for the research station—the biggest in Antarctica, today with a summertime population of 1,500—and to distill water. But operating the novel facility in one of the most forbidding places on the planet proved tricky. Power failures were common, as were cracks. The Navy documented 438 official “malfunctions” during the plant’s life. The 1972 discovery of a leak caused by cracks throughout the reactor forced its shutdown.
Typically, a decommissioned nuclear plant is encased in cement and walked away from. But the Antarctic Treaty forbids dumping nuclear waste on the continent.
Officially shut down in 1972, Nukey Poo was disassembled during 1973′s Operation Deep Freeze. Its reactor would be shipped back to California, along with 101 drums of radioactive earth. Years later, another 11,000 cubic meters of contaminated rock were removed; it took until May 1988 for the site to be declared officially decontaminated.
That could have been end of story, except for a human element. Navy workers employed at the facility are now dying, some with horrific cancers. Navy man Charlie Swinney, who died in Cleveland a year ago, was said to have 200 cancerous tumors. His widow, and other Navy men, suggest the radiation-contaminated soil around the facility led to his cancers.
A retired Navy veteran from San Diego, Bill Vogel, believes Swinney’s cancers—like those of other veterans based at McMurdo—are related to Operation Deep Freeze, in which 1,500 Navy men worked more than 10 years on or near the malfunctioning plant.
The Navy’s 1973 final report on the plant cites increased levels of radioactivity in both air and water, especially during 1971. The 89-page report concludes: “Acting on the Contractor’s recommendations and in view of the cost ($1,298,000), time (26 months) and exposures (40-60 Rem) involved … and the uncertainties involved in accomplishing the inspection and repair … the Officer in Charge recommends the PM-3A be removed.”
There’s not been another nuclear plant built on the continent. McMurdo switched back to diesel power, still in use today. Nukey Poo’s workers came home, many impacted forever.
As the world’s attention rushes from one natural disaster to the next—tornadoes, 100-year floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis—let’s not lose track of all the radiated water that continues to leak into the ocean along the Japanese coast.
Photo: Ho New / Reuters
While natural disasters are bad by definition, it’s the continued leaking of the Fukushima nuclear plant that may have the most long-lasting environmental impact due to the partial meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and fires that released unmeasured amounts of radioactive contaminant into air and water.
The plant’s operator, TEPCO, initially dumped 11,500 tons of highly contaminated water on land, which quickly made its way to the ocean. In just the first six days of the spill, which began on April 1, more than 520,000 tons of high-level radioactive water is believed to have reached the sea. That’s 20,000 times the annual allowable limit.
Efforts to cool the reactors with seawater and fresh water continue to poison the ocean more than six weeks after the earthquake—as does fallout, precipitation runoff, and newfound leaks.
At this point no one knows exactly how much contaminated water has been dumped or how truly degradading the spill will be in either the short or long-term.
In separate reports issued this week, Greenpeace and the Japanese government say that samples collected near the plant have shown elevated levels of radiation. Both suggest “containment” is next to impossible.
According to Greenpeace, 10 of 22 seaweed samples collected showed levels five times higher than the standard set for food in Japan. “Radioactive contamination is accumulating in the marine ecosystem that provides Japan with a quarter of its seafood, yet the authorities are still doing very little to protect public health,” Greenpeace radiation expert Ike Teuling said in a statement. So far radiation has only been found in one fish species, the Japanese sand lance.
Any such statistics must be worrying to Japanese citizens, for whom seaweed is a dietary staple.
The government’s report was based on studying the radiation levels of garbage, which at one point after the spill spiked to 85 times the allowable levels of radioactive Iodine-131.
Why is the garbage so laced? The government thinks it’s related to rain carrying radiated water into gutters, storm sewers, and dumps.
Oceanographers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are on the scene in Japan and suggest the groundwater around Fukushima and sediments in the seafloor nearby “will likely be contaminated for decades.” At this point the long-term impact on marine life, fish, and other marine animals can only be guessed.
One of those guesses suggests that the radiated water will only impact the coast of Japan; Woods Hole is readying a research ship to begin observing there.
The leak of contaminated water offers researchers a unique opportunity to test both currents and the longevity and dilutability of a variety of radioactive isotopes. Several types of long-living isotopes will be tracked as they move across the Pacific Ocean (Technetium-99, for example, which is thought to have a half life of 210,000 years and Iodine-29, which has a half-life of 14 million years).
The general current sweeps west from Japan across the Pacific towards the west coast of the U.S.; it’s expected the contaminated water will reach Hawaii in about a year and California in two to three years. By that time it should be “significantly” diluted.
As the growth of nuclear energy continues to expand around the globe during the twenty first century—and as inevitable accidents continue — governments will most likely get better at assessing and tracking radioactive contamination…just as they did pesticide pollution during the 20th century.
Since leaking nuclear radiation is hard to visualize, the lasting images of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami are still those from its very first day: Walls of rushing seawater pushing cars and fishing boats like matchboxes, men and women swinging in high tree branches, and fast-moving ocean water swallowing farm fields, parking lots and airport runways.
The single most-powerful image to me is the intact roof of a solitary house afloat in the Pacific Ocean, 10 miles off the coastline. After seeing his wife swept to sea, the house’s owner had clung to the shingles for two days.
Where will that house end up? Washed back into shore somewhere in northern Japan? Sunk to the ocean bottom? Or ripped asunder by waves, its pieces destined to float on the ocean forever, caught up in an endlessly spinning gyre? Will the rafters maybe one day wash up on a far shoreline, in a distant country? Say the U.S.
The last scenario may be the most accurate preview of events.
U.S. Navy spotter planes over the Pacific have documented vast fields of floating debris—one measured 70 miles long, covering 2.2 million square feet—heading slowly eastward. Shipping traffic is being encouraged to go around the floating masses, rather than attempt to cut through. The mass includes cars, parts of the 200,000 buildings that were washed out to sea, capsized boats of varying sizes, even tractor trailers. The junk could take a couple of years to reach Honolulu, and another 12 months before washing up in Los Angeles.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii, using real time satellite info, have constructed computer programs to estimate the debris’s path. The model suggests the wreckage will eventually land on beaches from Alaska to Baja. The biggest and most buoyant remains will arrive first: tires, ropes, roofs of houses. A fair amount of Japan’s junk is predicted to eventually bounce off the west coast of the U.S., head back to Hawaii and mesh with the flotsam in the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Sadly, as it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, much of the debris will be ingested by curious marine creatures.
Some Hawaiians feel that their beaches have become a focal point to study all floating ocean pollution.
“We live in Hawaii on the edge of the biggest dump site in the world,” says Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center. “We live in paradise on the edge of hell.”
In 2005, I visited Malaysia and the Maldives just weeks after tsunami waves washed from Indonesian shores all the way to the east coast of Africa. Detritus arrived quickly in the Maldives, in the form of super-valuable, eight-foot-round mahogany trees. Locals considered the trees treasure. Fights broke out between island governments and landowners over who “owned” the rights to mill and sell the wood. (Ultimately, I think, they agreed to split the found lumber 50/50.)
So maybe there will be a silver lining in Japan’s clouds of debris. They might provide a treasure trove to scientists a few decades in the future.
Journalist Donavan Hohn recently published, to good critical review, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The reporting follows the January 10, 1992, spill of rubber ducks off a Chinese cargo ship that was tossed about in 36-foot seas in the North Pacific. By tracing the path of the ducks, which wind, waves and current carried literally around the world, from the Arctic to the Atlantic, the North Pacific to Antarctica, the book proves that what looks like ocean trash to some may be scientific—or economic—gold to others.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
For all the incredible technology, brainpower, manpower and money that are poured into extracting natural resources from the earth—multi-billion dollar oil rigs, nuclear plants, coal mines, natural gas wells—when those efforts go wrong, we resort to basic, primitive tools to try and make things right.
Remember Transocean and BP’s so-called junk shot that failed to cap the spewing well in the Gulf? The rupture was billowing tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day into the ocean. The best effort Transocean and BP could come up with was to cram the well full of old tires and golf balls, a process the corporate spokespersons equated to “clogging up a toilet.”
Now, in Japan, slightly different tactics are being employed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company to try and stanch the damaged Fukushima Dai-Chi nuclear complex as it spreads radiation across the country and into the seas.
Before pumping 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean over the weekend, workers vainly tried their own “junk shots” to clog up the radiation escaping from the plant:
1. After the plant was damaged and power lost due to the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the very first effort to cool the spent fuel rods was to flood the complex with seawater. That created millions of gallons of radiated saltwater with no place to go but back into the sea;
2. Next, Tokyo Electric tried dumping sea water from helicopters— a failure;
3. This past weekend, cracks were discovered in the facility, forming open channels into the ocean for the radiated seawater. Tokyo Electric attempted to fill the cracks with cement. No luck. Plant managers admitted that the saltwater surging back into the sea was 500 times the legal limit for radiation, but assured reporters that they were not concerned about impacts on local seafood and that any harmful water would be quickly dispersed.
4. When the cement didn’t work, plant managers tried a “special blend” of plastic mixed with sawdust and shredded newspaper to sop up the mess. Failed.
5. Next up? Screens of polyester fabric to somehow keep the contamination separate.
6. Finally on Monday, as a way to identify and track the radiated water, Tokyo Electric dumped milky white bath salts on the border of the leak … which failed to show the path.
TEPCO argued that it’s better to disperse the highly contaminated water into the wild ocean than to let it roil and boil in containment tanks, which would increase its radioactivity. Better to release the poison, and let Mother Nature soak up of the problem.
Once again, man rationalizes that the ocean is big and wild and can absorb the abuse. But time may tell another story, one of dumping millions of gallons of radiated water impacting marine life and people living along coastlines from Japan to California.