Authors Lower Fukushima Cesium in North Pacific By Order of Magnitude

By Jay T. Cullen


One of the goals of the InFORM project is to make measurements of radionuclides in the North Pacific Ocean to determine maximum activities that will determine impacts on the marine ecosystem and residents of the west coast. The purpose of this post is to bring to the attention of readers a recently published correction to a prominent model that predicts the activity of Fukushima derived Cesium-137 (137-Cs, half life ~30 years) in seawater of the North Pacific. The diary is part of an ongoing series aimed at discussing research addressing the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on the health of the North Pacific Ocean and inhabitants of North America’s west coast. Predictions of a model by Rossi and colleagues published in Deep-Sea Research in 2013 of the evolution of the plume of seawater contaminated by the Fukushima triple meltdowns are an order of magnitude too high. Rather than a range of ~1-30 Bq/m^3 reported previously maximum activities off the west coast of North America are likely to be ~3 Bq/m^3 or about more than 25 times lower than maximum activities measured in the Pacific in the mid-20th century resulting from atmospheric weapons tests. These activities are not likely to represent significant radiological health risks to the North Pacific ecosystem or residents of the North American west coast.

A paper by Rossi et al. (2013) used a Lagrangian model to predict the temporal and spatial evolution of the seawater plume contaminated by the Fukushima nuclear disaster beginning in March 2011. The model predicted a range of 10-30 Bq/m^3 137-Cs in waters off the coast of North America at 49 degrees North latitude as demonstrated in the figure shown below:

Activities of 137-Cs predicted by the Rossi et al. (2013) model on the continental shelves of North America at two latitudes and off Hawaii over time.

This model predicted higher maximum 137-Cs activities in seawater in the North Pacific compared with a similar model published by Behrens et al. (2012) that had maximum activities off of North America reaching only ~1-2 Bq/m^3.

Recently, after comments from Professor Michio Aoyama of Japan, Rossi and colleagues recognized an error in their model and have published a correction to their 2013 study here. The error resulted in a factor of 10 overestimation of maximum activities of 137-Cs in the Pacific such that maximum 137-Cs off N. America will likely be between 1 and 3 Bq/m^3. The corrections to the model do not affect the conclusions of the study and results from the 2013 study are easy scaled to the more accurate values given the Langrangian approach used by the authors in the original work.

The figure below shows the time evolution of the plume at various latitudes along the international date line and compares the model output with measurements made by Aoyama et al. (2013) along the international dateline at about 40 degrees N in 2012.

Activities of 137-Cs predicted by the Rossi et al. model along the international dateline in the N. Pacific over time at various latitudes.

The factor of 10 lower activity correction better agrees with the Behrens et al. (2012) modeling study and measurements of 137-Cs in seawater made by Japanese and North American scientists.

Maximum activities of ~1-3 Bq/m^3 as the heart of the contaminated plume reaches the North American coast in the coming 2 year period are roughly 25-fold lower than 137-Cs activities in the North Pacific circa 1960 resulting from atmospheric weapons testing. Therefore, it is unlikely that 137-Cs activities of 3 Bq/m^3 or associated radionuclides released at lower total activities from Fukushima will represent significant health risks to the North Pacific ecosystem.

Ongoing monitoring of radionuclide activities in the North Pacific is required to ground-truth models of Pacific Ocean circulation and plume evolution and to provide the best information to determine likely impact to residents of North America.


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