Most Recent Measurements of Fukushima Derived Isotopes in the Northeast Pacific Ocean

By Jay T. Cullen

Satellite measurements of ocean temperature (illustrated by color) from July 28th to August 4th and the direction of currents (white arrows) help show where radionuclides from Fukushima are transported. Large scale currents transport water westward across the Pacific. Upwelling along the west coast of North America in the summertime brings cold deep water to the surface and transports water offshore. Circles indicate the locations where water samples were collected. White circles indicate that no cesium-134 was detected. Blue circles indicate locations were low levels of cesium-134 were detected. No cesium-134 has yet been detected along the coast, but low levels have been detected offshore. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Satellite measurements of ocean temperature (illustrated by color) from July 28th to August 4th and the direction of currents (white arrows) help show where radionuclides from Fukushima are transported. Large scale currents transport water westward across the Pacific. Upwelling along the west coast of North America in the summertime brings cold deep water to the surface and transports water offshore. Circles indicate the locations where water samples were collected. White circles indicate that no cesium-134 was detected. Blue circles indicate locations were low levels of cesium-134 were detected. No cesium-134 has yet been detected along the coast, but low levels have been detected offshore. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The purpose of this post is to report on new results coming out the crowd-funded Our Radioactive Ocean program headed up by Dr. Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This post is part of an ongoing series dedicated to scientific inquiry into the impact of the triple meltdowns at Fukushima on the health of the North Pacific Ocean and residents of the west coast of North America. Measurements of the cesium radioisotopes 134-Cs (half life ~ 2 years) and 137-Cs (half life ~30 years) were made on samples collected on a transect between Monterey Bay CA and Dutch Harbor AK this summer. Because of its relatively short half life 14-Cs serves as an unequivocal tracer of Fukushima contamination in the environment. Fukushima derived 134-Cs was detected at offshore stations with a maximum activity of ~ 2 Bq/m^3 and total 137-Cs activities of ~7 Bq/m^3 of seawater. Measurements have yet to detect 134-Cs in nearshore waters sampled up and down the North American west coast. These activities of Cs are orders of magnitude below levels thought to pose a measurable risk to human health or marine life, according to international health agencies.


For a primer on radioactivity in the ocean and the units used to discuss radioactive elements in the environment please visit this post.

A press release from WHOI regarding these new results can be found here and details about sampling locations and activities of Cs detected are available here.

At a great majority of sites sampled along the coast and offshore the activity of 134-Cs is below detection limit (~legacy contamination resulting from atmospheric weapons testing in the 20th century. Similar to previous work by Dr. John Smith of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada the presence of the contaminated plume of seawater owing to releases from Fukushima can be detected in offshore stations (150 – 1500 km) with levels of 134-Cs approaching 2 Bq/m^3 and total 137-Cs (bomb + Fukushima) of about ~7 Bq/m^3. These levels of 137-Cs are similar to levels in the North Pacific Ocean that were present in 1990 owing to the combined effects of Chernobyl and weapons testing fallout as shown in the figure below.

Activity of 137-Cs in the North Pacific after Povinec and others (2013) http://www.biogeosciences.net/10/5481/2013/bg-10-5481-2013.html with arrows indicating the impact of Chernobyl, 2008 137-Cs activity in the Irish Sea and 2014 levels offshore of western North America post Fukushima for comparison.
Activities of these isotopes were about 10 million fold higher in coastal waters near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant off Japan in the weeks following the beginning of the disaster in March and April 2011 when rates of release and seawater concentrations were at their peak. Current releases from the plant support seawater activities on the order of 10’s-100’s of Bq/m^3 within 2 km of the plant site. The highest activities associated with the most contaminated seawater from Fukushima are predicted to travel across the North Pacific with prevailing currents and arrive in North American waters between this year and next. These offshore activities of Fukushima derived 137-Cs of ~ 5 Bq/m^3 exceed predicted activities of ~3 Bq/m^3 suggesting that offshore activities are likely reaching near peak values. The measurements being made by the international scientific community will undoubtedly help to improve our understanding of mixing and transport in the oceans.

The activities of radiocesium being detected offshore are well below levels thought to represent significant radiological health risks to marine organisms or residents of the west coast of North America. To this point no 134-Cs from the contaminated plume approaching the coast has been detected in nearshore waters. Ongoing monitoring by programs like Our Radioactive Ocean and its partner program InFORM which are making measurements of contamination in seawater and marine organisms will be key to understanding impacts of the Fukushima on our environment.

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