Image via Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The disaster in Fukushima still has Japan and the rest of the world reeling at the dangers of nuclear power plants. But experts believe that it's the oceans that could bear the brunt of fallout from this most recent power plant failure. In fact, one expert estimates that when it comes to the oceans, Fukushima could be worse than Chernobyl. The National Science Foundation reports, "Japanese officials recently raised the severity of the nuclear power plant incident to level 7, the highest level on the international scale and comparable only to the Chernobyl incident 25 years ago. Radionuclides in seawater have been reported from the Fukushima plant's discharge canals, from coastal waters five to ten kilometers south of the plant, and from 30 kilometers offshore."
Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Henrieta Dulaiova, chemical oceanographer at University of Hawaii have each been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences to study the issue further, looking in to concentrations of radionuclides in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Their work will provide insight into just how much radiation our oceans are bearing from the disaster and what that might mean for the environment.
Testing seawater sampled from central Pacific Ocean. Photo Credit: Henrieta Dulaiova, University of Hawaii via National Science Foundation
The researchers will be able to provide a baseline measurement that can be used later as a measure for how the ocean and atmosphere are handling the contamination. Buesseler told NSF, "When it comes to the oceans, however, the impact of Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl."
"Levels of some radionuclides are at least an order of magnitude higher than the highest levels in 1986 in the Baltic and Black Seas, the two ocean water bodies closest to Chernobyl," said Buesseler according to Environmental Protection.
That is a very troubling idea. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has a Q&A; for radiation and the oceans. It states:
How will the radioactive material released in Japan affect humans?
It's still too early to tell, but unless we learn that the type or amount of material released is larger than reported or changes dramatically it will likely have significant long-term impacts only within a few miles or tens of miles from the plant. This is because the further the radioactive material travels, the more dispersed (and the less harmful) it becomes.
Questions such as how the nuclear disaster will impact Japan's fish stocks are already being asked, though fish from most areas pose no threat according to health organizations. But larger questions, such as how this will affect ecosystems years down the road are still to be answered.
Forbes reports, "Scientists have predicted that Fukushima's longer living isotopes--such as cesium-137, with a half-life of 30 years--will reach Hawaii in about a year and the coast of California in two to three years. By that time, the isotopes should be significantly diluted from mixing with ocean water. Scientists do not expect Fukushima radiation to present a health risk in American waters--mostly because of dilution--and some of the properties of radioactive isotopes can help them understand how those waters behave."
Buesseler told Forbes that WHOI is planning a research cruise to study the waters off Japan, and also stated, "I consider this to be the largest accidental release to the ocean, even larger than Cherynobyl because of its proximity to the ocean," Buesseler said. "Merely by being on the ocean, more of that release got into the ocean immediately."
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