The purpose of this post is to conduct a thought experiment to arrive at (I hope) a useful estimate of how much radioactive contamination might occur if North Korea detonates a thermonuclear weapon in the lower atmosphere over the North Pacific Ocean. There are a significant number of unknowns, not the least of which is the fundamental uncertainty as to whether the rogue nation has successfully tested a Teller-Ulam style thermonuclear weapon or not. I explain my assumptions and compare the resulting global release of radioisotopes that represent a radiological health concern from such a test to the amounts recently released from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) disaster, the Chernobyl disaster and aggregate atmospheric weapons testing in the last century. I invite comments and an accounting of the approach used here and how it might be improved. Continue reading North Korean Atmospheric Thermonuclear Test: How much contamination can we expect?→
The purpose of this post is to report on a recently published, peer-reviewed study that investigated the levels of Fukushima derived contamination in migratory Pacific predators. The post is part of an ongoing effort to inform interested members of the public what the scientific community is finding about the impact of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) disaster on the environmental and human health. Madigan and colleagues looked for radiocesium (134Cs, half life ~ 2 years; 137Cs, half life ~30 years) in a variety of large, predatory organisms in the North Pacific Ocean between 2012 and 2015. Their results were as follows:
Fukushima derived 134Cs could not be detected in any of the organisms with the exception of a single olive ridley sea turtle with trace levels (0.1 Bq kg-1 dry weight)
Levels of 137Cs varied in the organisms but were generally unchanged compared with levels measured in organisms prior to the FDNPP disaster (pre-2011)
Levels of 137Cs were roughly 10 to 100-fold lower in the organisms than levels of naturally occurring Potassium-40 (40K)
Neither the levels of radiocesium or 40K approach levels known to represent a significant health risk to the animal or human consumers
These direct measurements of contamination levels in marine predators suggest that assuming that Pacific organisms will accumulate detectable FDNPP contamination is unwise. Similarly, anxiety and speculation about the dangers of radiocesium bioaccumulation in the face of such data seems unfounded.
Between 2012 and 2015 a total of 91 different organisms from a variety of predatory marine groups were sampled and analyzed for the presence of radiocesium contamination and naturally occurring 40K. The human made isotope 134Cs, with its relatively short ~2 year half life, serves as a fingerprint of FDNPP contamination as all other human sources are sufficiently distant in the past to have completely decayed away in the environment. Organisms sampled and their radioisotope content are reported in the following table:
With the exception of a single olive ridley sea turtle no detectable (<0.1 Bq kg-1 dry weight) trace of FDNPP 134Cs contamination was found. Levels of 137Cs found in the organisms were similar to levels measured pre-Fukushima. In addition, the 137Cs levels were less than 0.2% of US FDA levels of concern (370 Bq kg-1 wet weight) and less than 0.05% of US FDA derived intervention levels (1200 Bq kg-1 wet weight). Simply stated levels in these organisms would have to be >1600-fold higher to be designated unfit for market. The levels and ionizing radiation dose to consumers from naturally occurring 40K dwarfed those from FDNPP radiocesium. Radiocesium derived ionizing radiation doses were <1% of those from 40K. Neither the doses from 40K or cesium isotopes approached, even remotely, those known to affect the health of the organisms or consumers of these organisms.
An interesting open access, peer-reviewed study was published earlier this year in Frontiers in Microbiology that examined how lower than background doses of ionizing radiation affected the growth of bacteria. This post is part of an ongoing series dedicated to communicating scientifically derived information related to the impacts of ionizing radiation in the environment largely in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdowns in 2011. Life emerged on our planet billions of years ago when levels of environmental radioactivity were about 5-fold higher than they are today. On average living organisms experience a background ionizing radiation dose of ~1-2 milliSievert (mSv) although there is significant geographical variation across the globe given local geology (radioisotope content of rocks and minerals) and altitude (exposure to cosmic radiation). Deviations from background occur due to proximity to medical exposure or nuclear energy or weapon related events that only act to increase the dose livings things must tolerate. Castillo and Smith (2017) conducted experiments to understand how bacteria responded when they were grown in lower than background ionizing radiation dose conditions. How did they do this and what did they find?
How exactly do you get lower than background ionizing radiation dose conditions for an experiment? Castillo and Smith were given access to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, NM which you may be aware of given an accidental release of artificial radionuclides that occurred there in 2014. The low background radiation experiment (LBRE) used the geological conditions at WIPP, radiation shielding and radiation sources to test how lower than background ionizing radiation doses affected the growth and gene expression of radiation tolerant bacteria Shewanella oneidensis and Deinococcus radiodurans. The LBRE laboratory is located at a depth of 660 m (~1/3rd of mile) inside a 610 m thick salt deposit that is naturally low in naturally occurring radioisotopes and emits significantly less radiation than other rock formations. To further lower ionizing radiation exposure experiments can be conducted in a 15 cm-thick vault made from pre-World War II (and therefore not exposed to nuclear weapons testing artificial radionuclides), low-activity steel.
Castillo and Smith incubated cells inside the vault to achieve lower than background doses of ionizing radiation (WIPP formation + metal shielding) and control cells grown in the presence of 11.5 kg of a potassium-rich salt (KCl) to generate an energy field of gamma radiation close to aboveground background levels. The WIPP facility, local geology and experimental setup with radiation doses experienced by the bacteria are shown in the figure below.
Cells were grown in the presence of lower than and at natural background radiation doses and their growth and gene expression measured.
What did they find?
The two organisms responded differently to the radiation treatments. S. oneidensis cultures did not show a significant difference in growth in response to the reduced radiation dose while D. radiodurans growth was inhibited at the beginning of its exponential growth phase and remained significantly lower than the control with normal background radiation levels. When D. radiodurans was taken from lower than normal radiation and returned to normal background ionizing radiation doses its growth returned to normal again.
So D. radiodurans was not able to grow as fast in low radiation conditions while S. oneidensis grew equally well at lower than background and background levels of ionizing radiation. The authors found that gene expression between the two species was significantly different as well. During mid-exponential phase (8 h in S. oneidensis), six genes related to oxidative stress response, DNA repai, protein folding, and a putative efflux pump that pushes metals out of the cells were turned on (blue bars in graph above). Poor growth under low radiation for D. radiodurans became clear (p < 0.05) at 34 h . The difference in gene expression for D. radiodurans was that genes related to DNA repair and protein folding activities were turned on, while genes necessary for dealing with oxidative stress and energy production were turned off. The regulation of these genes by D. radiodurans was reversed when the cells were returned to normal levels of radiation suggesting that difference was driven by the reduced amount of ionizing radiation they were exposed to in the lower than normal treatment.
What is the explanation and what does this mean?
The authors thought that S. oneidensis responded to the lack of ionizing radiation as an environmental stress and mounted a classic stress-response to the reduction of natural levels of environmental radiation allowing it to grow at its maximum rate. In contrast, D. radiodurans did not sense this stress, did not mount a stress response, and was therefore limited in its ability to grow (was less fit). Specifically, under radiation-reduced conditions, S. oneidensis increased its ability to deal with oxidative damage, repair DNA damage, and repair damaged proteins, which allowed it to continue to grow normally. In the case of D. radiodurans, it did not respond by expressing enough of these critical genes and suffered as a consequence. The authors are continuing their work to test:
why radiation deprivation may increase oxidative stress and levels of reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide, hydroxyl radical and superoxide) inside the cells.
whether or not the ability to sense and respond to the absence of normal levels of radiation is a trait that both prokaryotic (bacteria and archaea) and eukaryotic (e.g. plants and animals) possess.
This study adds to a growing body of scientific literature that suggest that some level of ionizing radiation may be required for cells to appropriately regulate their internal function and be maximally fit.
The purpose of this short post is to compare the relative amounts of radioactive plutonium released to our environment from the Apollo 13 mission in April 1970 and the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster that began in March 2011. Apollo 13 was the third mission planned to bring American astronauts to land on the moon and conduct scientific studies there. On April 11 1970 the Saturn V rocket carrying astronauts James Lovell (Commander), Fred Haise (Lunar Module Pilot) and Jack Swigert (Command Module Pilot) was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
What followed was a technical problem solving masterpiece to bring the astronauts safely back to Earth with limited power and life support systems. The rescue of Lovell, Haise and Swigert has been characterized as a “successful failure” and NASA’s finest hour.
Plutonium in the Environment from Apollo 13
A consequence of not having landed on the moon was that the descent stage of the Lunar Module (LM; which would normally have brought Lovell and Haise down to the surface and been left behind when they returned) was now being brought back to Earth. The power and life support afforded by the LM was central to the successful rescue of the crew. What is significant about this is that the power supply attached to the descent stage of the LM to be left on the lunar surface to provide electric power for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEP) was a SNAP-27 Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) containing 1,650 TBq (TBq = 1012Becquerel) or roughly 3.9 kilograms of plutonium oxide fuel. While the RTG was essential to bring astronauts home safely the high velocity reentry of the LM raised the possibility of contaminating the atmosphere and surface Earth with worrying amounts of Pu. To avoid the possibility of the RTG coming down in a populated area the flight engineers had the LM enter the Earth’s atmosphere such that the RTG would be deposited in the remote Pacific Ocean near the Tonga Trench where water depth is about 6-9 kilometers. Measurements in the atmosphere and ocean following the reentry of the LM suggested that the RTG had survived intact and little of the Pu was broadcast in the environment. Tests of the RTG casing suggest that this 3.9 kg of Pu, somewhere on the seafloor of the Pacific, will not be mobilized for another ~800 years. https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FFlightOfApollo%2Fposts%2F1121563224620322%3A0&width=500