Did you enjoy your trip? If you were alive during the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, you received an extra dose of radiation equal to that received on a roundtrip flight from Vancouver to Tokyo. This is the result according to research presented by Nikolaos Evangeliou of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research at the annual meeting of the European Geophysical Union earlier this year.
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
Citizen science usually isn’t this personal. In 2011, roughly 65,000 Japanese citizens living near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant started measuring their own radiation exposure in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. That’s because no one, not even experts, knew how accurate the traditional method of estimating dosage—taking readings from aircraft hundreds of meters above the ground—really was. Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, scientists analyzing the thousands of citizen readings have come to a surprising conclusion: The airborne observations in this region of Japan overestimated the true radiation level by a factor of four.