Radiation From Fukushima
The Disaster in Japan
In March 2011 Japan suffered a horrible “triple disaster” with a major earthquake, a resultant tsunami and a partial meltdown of one or more nuclear reactors. The nuclear reactor meltdown caused releases of radioactivity to the air and to water used to try to cool down the reactor. Some of the radioactive water subsequently was released into the ocean or seeped through the soil into groundwater. Releases of radioactive water to the ocean were evidently still continuing as of July 2013 and may be getting worse. Here's another assessment of the situation from August 2013.
Understandably, there has been international concern about the possible human health and ecological effects from exposure to the radiation. This concern is focused on the residents of Japan, primarily the workers at the nuclear power plants, the cleanup crews that continue to work at the power plant sites, and those who lived within the “fallout area” (about a 20 km radius) around the facilities. These people were exposed to airborne radiation, and were potentially also exposed to radiation from contact with soil or objects that had become radioactive. Continuing radiation exposure pathways include consumption of radioactive water (contaminated surface water or groundwater) and consumption of food (crops, meat, dairy products and seafood) that had been dosed by radioactivity. Exposure to radiation from contaminated water or food is a concern for anyone who might consume such products originating from the disaster area.
Although there have reportedly been no radiation-related deaths or acute effects observed among the workers involved at the accident site, there is concern about longer-term effects, including leukemia, thyroid cancer and other types of cancer. An article published in the NY Times on March 1, 2013 referenced a World Health Organization (W.H.O.) study which estimated health risks for those in the most contaminated areas. The article stated:
“According to the W.H.O. study, girls exposed as infants to radioactivity in the most contaminated regions of Fukushima Prefecture, where estimated doses ranged from 12 to 25 millisieverts for the first year, faced a 70 percent higher risk of developing thyroid cancer than what would normally be expected. The report pointed out, however, that the normal expected risk of thyroid cancer was just 0.75 percent, and that the additional lifetime risk would raise that to 1.25 percent.
Girls exposed to radioactivity as infants in the most heavily contaminated areas also had a 6 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, and a 4 percent higher risk of developing cancers that cause tumors. Meanwhile, boys exposed as infants had a 7 percent higher chance of developing leukemia.
The study also said that about a third of the emergency workers who remained to try to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi plant were estimated to have a slightly increased risk of developing leukemia, thyroid cancer and other types of cancer.
There would most likely be no observable increase in cancer rates for the general population in Fukushima Prefecture outside the most contaminated zones, in the rest of Japan and the world, the report said. It also said that the radiological fallout from the disaster was not expected to cause increases in miscarriages, stillbirths and other physical or mental disabilities."
An earlier (July 2012), separate study by researchers at Stanford University predicted the total cancer casualties that would eventually accrue from the Fukushima nuclear disaster as 130 deaths and 180 additional cancers. The study, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, actually presents the health risks as wide ranges: between 15 and 1,100 fatalities and between 24 and 1,800 additional cancers.
In late May 2013, the NY Times reported on the results of a further evaluation of predicted health effects in Japan by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effect of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). UNSCEAR stated:
“The additional exposures received by most Japanese people in the first year and subsequent years due to the radioactive releases from the accident are less than the doses received from natural background radiation (which is about 2.1 mSv per year). This is particularly the case for Japanese people living away from Fukushima, where annual doses of around 0.2 mSv from the accident are estimated, arising primarily through ingestion of radionuclides in food.
No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers (including TEPCO employees and contractors) involved at the accident site.
Given the small number of highly exposed workers, it is unlikely that excess cases of thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure would be detectable. Special health examinations will be given to workers with exposures above 100 mSv including annual monitoring of the thyroid, stomach, large intestine and lung for cancer as a means to monitor for potential late radiation-related health effects at the individual level.
The assessment also concluded that although the rate of exposures may have exceeded the levels for the onset of effects on plants and animals several times in the first few months following the accident, any effects are expected to be transient in nature, given their short duration. In general, the exposures on both marine and terrestrial non-human biota were too low for observable acute effects.”
It should be noted that this assessment does not say that there will be no deaths or cases of cancer from Fukushima radiation exposure, only that “it is unlikely that excess cases of thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure would be detectable” given the small numbers of highly exposed workers. Epidemiology (health effects) studies typically require large numbers of “subjects” in order to produce statistically valid results. It is clear that a significant number of people in Japan have been exposed to radiation and some may continue to be exposed through ingestion of water and food containing radioactivity.
What about in the U.S?
There are four potential ways radiation from Fukushima can get to the United States (and beyond) – through air, water, debris and sea life.
Some of the air emissions were caught by the jet stream and carried eastward across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. 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 U.C Berkeley noted: “There is clearly an ongoing decay in all species, with even iodine-131 dipping very close to our minimum detectable levels.” On April 10 they noted: “Air measurements have been updated to be current to 4/8. All species are now at our estimated detection limit.” On April 17 they noted: “We have updated our rainwater measurements with results from the rain collected on 4/13. Sharp decreases in activity are seen for all species that are still detectable.” On May 2 they noted: “There are no isotopes from Japan detected in the new spinach, kale, arugula, and seaweed samples. The new strawberry samples from 4/20 show no I-131, but Cs-134 and Cs-137 are present. The highest levels of radioisotopes detected would require the consumption of more than 3 tons of strawberries in order to receive the same equivalent dose as a cross-country airplane flight.” Regarding the health risk associated with the detected concentrations in the air, water and some food products, UC Berkeley wrote: “the risk from radiation at the levels we are measuring is still insignificant.” So, although there were detectable levels of radioactivity in air, water and crop samples collected along the West Coast beginning a few days after the release in Japan, the concentrations were not considered to represent a significant health threat and had generally declined to at or near the detection levels by about one month later.
Here's a graphic showing where radioactive iodine and cesium were detected across the United States in March 2011.
Some of the air emissions of radioactivity evidently settled on and were concentrated in kelp in California’s coastal waters. Similar to the air, water and food samples, the initial concentrations noted in kelp were undetectable in samples collected a month later.
Large amounts of cooling water containing radioactivity were (and evidently still are) discharged into the Pacific Ocean near Fukushima. In additional, some of the airborne radioactivity could be expected to settle into the ocean or be scrubbed out of the air by rain. The prevailing currents then would transport this radioactive water eastward towards the United States. Along the way, concentrations should decrease substantially (several orders of magnitude) due to radioactive decay, dilution, dispersion, and the settling of some particles to the ocean floor. This transport has been modeled and depicted in computer animations to estimate the long-term dispersion by ocean currents of a slowly decaying “tracer” (half-life of 30 years, comparable to that of 137Cs) from the local waters off the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants. The tracer was continuously injected (in the computer model) into the coastal waters over some weeks; its subsequent spreading and dilution in the Pacific Ocean was then simulated for 10 years. A summary of the computer model runs concludes:
“…the main tracer patch propagates eastward across the Pacific Ocean, reaching the coastal waters of North America after about 5–6 years. Tentatively assuming a value of 10 PBq for the net 137Cs input during the first weeks after the Fukushima incident, the simulation suggests a rapid dilution of peak radioactivity values to about 10 Bq m−3 during the first two years, followed by a gradual decline to 1–2 Bq m−3 over the next 4–7 years. The total peak radioactivity levels would then still be about twice the pre-Fukushima values.”
It should be noted that a baseline concentration of Cesium exists in the ocean due to atmospheric nuclear weapons testing conducted by the United States, France, and Great Britain during the 1950s and ’60s.
Another study was published in the October 2013 issue of the journal Deep Sea Research Part 1. The study authors conclude the plume will be harmless by the time it reaches US shores. Dr. Erik van Sebille of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales has stated:
“Observers on the west coast of the United States will be able to see a measurable increase in radioactive material three years after the event. However, people on those coastlines should not be concerned as the concentration of radioactive material quickly drops below World Health Organization (WHO) safety levels as soon as it leaves Japanese waters."
To date, no Fukushima-based radiation has been detected in ocean waters near the west coast of the United States. If and when radiation is detected, it is not expected to represent a human health or ecological concern. For more on this, listen to an interview with Dr. Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and an earlier interview with Dr. Buesseler. And here's an interview with Dr. Bruesseler in Surfing Magazine. Note that the map is a tsunami wave height map, not a radiation plume map.
Some marine debris from the disaster in Japan has already made its way across the Pacific Ocean and has come ashore in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. We can expect additional debris to continue to make its way to our shores for many years. To date, none of the Tsunami marine debris has tested positive for radioactivity. The primary reason for this is that the tsunami washed debris out to sea before the release of radioactivity from Fukushima. In addition, any radioactivity present on the debris would be subject to decay and flushing by seawater and rainwater during its journey across the Pacific. It is not expected that marine debris will represent a future health threat.
Fish and other marine life living in the coastal waters of Japan have been detected as having significant levels of radioactivity. In fact, some fishing areas around Japan remain closed due to high levels of radioactivity in bottom sediments and fish. Consumers of seafood in Japan have legitimate concerns about the long-term heath effects of consuming fish contaminated with radioactivity. An article on the website of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution explains:
“There is, however, more concern about the Fukushima radioisotopes that end up in fish and seaweed—mainstays of the Japanese diet. “Here we’re talking about accumulation in something you’re going to eat internally versus being exposed to externally,” Buesseler said at the Fukushima and the Ocean conference in Tokyo in November 2012. Monitoring of cesium in fish taken from affected areas continues to show an unexplained persistence of higher-than-pre-disaster levels, and the occasional anomalies of individual fish caught near the power plant that register sky-high numbers. Both are indications that more study is needed, and that fish from the Fukushima region can’t yet be pronounced safe to eat. To date, fisheries remain closed in those areas.
The larger health worries are those to be faced on land. As Buesseler explained, “The difference is, on land, once the radiation falls, it stays put, taken up by soils and plants. So you have a long-term source and higher direct exposure to people that doesn’t exist in the ocean, where the radiation is diluted.””
Some fish, referred to as pelagic species, roam the open ocean and can travel across oceans. One such species is the bluefin tuna, which, in addition to being an endangered species due to overfishing, made the news recently when samples of tuna caught off southern California were found to contain radioactivity traceable to Fukushima.   Scientists were exited 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. A November 2013 article published at oregonlive.com contains further contains 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.
Japan suffered a terrible disaster and many lives were lost in March 2011 when a large earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear plant meltdown happened near Fukushima. Understandably, there has been considerable concern about the effects from releases of radiation and, in some cases, continuing exposure. These concerns focus primarily on the workers at the nuclear power plant and for those living in a roughly 20 km “fallout zone” around the power plant. Thankfully, there have been no reported deaths or “deterministic effects” (health problems that include skin burns, eye cataracts, and, in pregnant women, harm to the developing fetus). It does not appear that even the more highly exposed nuclear plant workers experienced these health problems. However, concerns remain that leukemia, thyroid cancer and other longer-term effects will become evident in the coming years. A study by researchers at Stanford University predicted the total cancer casualties (worldwide, but primarily in Japan) that would eventually accrue from the Fukushima nuclear disaster as 130 deaths and 180 additional cancers.
Concern also exists among the general population regarding health effects in the United States from Fukushima releases. Radiation from Fukushima has reached the United States in two ways. Air currents carried radiation across the Pacific to the United States. Radioactive iodine and cesium were detected in air, rainwater, surface water and some food samples collected in California within a few days of the Fukushima disaster. Initial levels, while significantly higher than background, were not considered to represent a human health threat. The levels generally declined to at or near detection levels within about a month after first detection (by mid-to-late April 2011). Cesium was also detected in bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California. These fish had traveled across the ocean from Japan. No cesium was detected in local species such as yellowfin tuna. The amounts detected in the tuna were very low and were not considered to represent a health threat. No radiation from Fukushima has been detected in either marine debris reaching the west coast or in ocean waters along the west coast. Although it is possible that detectable radiation attributable to Fukushima may ultimately reach the Eastern Pacific, the concentrations will not significantly increase the existing radiation levels and should not represent a health threat.
Scientific data collected and health studies conducted to date do not provide a basis for concern by residents of the United States regarding short-term or long-term health effects from Fukushima radioactivity releases.
Radiation Health Risks - How can we assess impacts of exposures? (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Radioisotopes in the Ocean - What's there? How much? How long? (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Radioactice Iodine From Fukushima Found in California Kelp (Scientific American)
How Is Fukushima's Fallout Affecting Marine Life? (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Tale of the Tuna (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
ABCs of Radioactivity (Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity)
Additional Sources of Information
Fukushima's Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know (National Geographic)
Latest Radioactive Leak at Fukushima: How Is It Different? (National Geographic)
From the special issue of Oceanus Magazine devoted to the cause and impacts of Fukushima: