WHOI Pacific Contamination Paper, It Is In The Details

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute recently released their paper on Fukushima Daiichi related contamination in the Pacific. The full paper can be found here at PNAS.
Various media outlets used the report as a declaration that there isn’t a problem in the Pacific. What was actually found by WHOI wasn’t an “all clear” of the Pacific. It was more
of a cautious warning that more study is needed.

Some comments included in the announcement of the paper on WHOI’s website clarify the situation and the uncertainty. (emphasis added here)

Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the team found that the concentration of several key radioactive substances, or radionuclides, were elevated but varied widely across the study area, reflecting the complex nature of the marine environment. In addition, although levels of radioactivity in marine life sampled during the cruise were well below levels of concern for humans and the organisms themselves, the researchers leave open the question of whether radioactive materials are accumulating on the seafloor sediments and, if so, whether these might pose a long-term threat to the marine ecosystem.”

Despite this, analysis of samples from the study site show that the amount of radiation in the ocean fell well below EPA standards that would deem it unsafe to use as drinking water.”
** EPA standards to not declare “safe” levels, just the level where intervention would happen. EPA cesium 137 (only) in drinking water is 200 picocuries per liter. Or 7.4 bq/liter.

We knew that the radionuclides had to be moving off shore very rapidly once they entered the water,” said Buesseler. “Once they did, they quickly dispersed across a wide area and began mixing into the deeper layers of the ocean.”

As if to underscore that complexity, the group found that the Kuroshio acted as a barrier that prevented the movement of radionuclides to the south. In addition, they found the highest levels of radiation not in samples taken within sight of the reactors, but in those taken much further south along the coast of Ibaraki. The drifter tracks later revealed that an eddy, a swirling mass of water that sometimes breaks off from strong currents like the Kuroshio, had formed in the area and hugged the coast, likely drawing in contaminated water and maintaining higher concentrations of radionuclides.
As a result, radiation levels in the eddy were as much as 1,000 times higher than those before the start of the accident,”

This and other factors need to be taken into consideration when the media sees a low water contamination test at some location. It means that contamination isn’t in that spot. It doesn’t mean the Pacific is “clean”. As WHOI elaborates the cesium and other nuclides have been concentrating in various ways, not going away.

The radioactivity of the fish we caught and analyzed would not pose problems for human consumption,” said Fisher. “It does not mean all marine organisms caught in the region are perfectly safe to eat. That’s still an open question. There are still likely to be hot spots in sediments close to shore and closer to the power plant that may have resulted in very contaminated species in those areas. Further study and appropriate monitoring will help clarify this issue.”

Another open question is why radiation levels in the waters around Fukushima have not decreased since the Japanese stopped emergency cooling operations. According to Buesseler, it may be an indication that the ground surrounding the reactors has become saturated with contaminated water that is slowly seeping out in to the ocean. It may also be a sign that radionuclides in ocean sediments have become remobilized.”

This is far from “everything is great”. If this concern turns out to be the case, the entire plant area and nearby ocean areas could be a major hazard that will be difficult to clean up at best.

From the paper these calculations show the extent of the contamination:

When multiplied by the area of each, we obtained a total inventory of 1.25 PBq for the near-shore area (50,000 km2)
and 0.62 PBq for the offshore area (100,000 km2), or a total of 1.9 PBq in our study area.
Thus, for this article, we use 2.0 PBq as the measured total inventory of 137Cs in our study area.
*(petabecquerel, 1015 Bq) 

The highest 134Cs activities, 3,900 Bq·m-3 , were associated with a semipermanent eddy, seen here in the surface drifter data
centered on 37°N 142.5°E (Fig. 2B). Activities up to 325 Bq·m-3 were found more than 600 km from the NPPs.

Woods Hole’s findings are within what was expected to be found. The caveats included in addition to the paper show a very different
scenario than the “all clear” the US media was extracting from the findings. More research is needed to determine the full impact and behaviors
of the contamination on the Pacific. Areas near the plant are not decreasing, much of the contamination has found itself at lower levels of the ocean.
The implication on the ocean and on seafood remains cautious and begs for much more testing and research than is currently going on.


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