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.
The amount of 137Cs released from the plant was ~50-fold less than the fall out from nuclear weapons testing in the 20th century and ~5-fold lower than that released from Chernobyl in 1986. Total releases from Fukushima are similar to the discharges of 137Cs from the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Sellafield in the UK
Initial releases in the weeks to months after the disaster which began on March 11, 2011 dwarf those from aggregated ongoing releases from the plant site
The majority of radionuclide releases ended up in the Pacific Ocean with most deposition and input occurring close to the FDNPP
Current range of estimates of the total 137Cs ocean source term are 15-25 PBq (PBq = 1015 Becquerel where a Bq is one nuclear decay event per second). While many other radionuclides were released from FDNPP, the most likely isotopes to represent a health risk to the marine ecosystem and public are those of Cs given their longer half-lives for radioactive decay (134Cs = ~2 yrs; 137Cs = ~30 yrs) and higher relative abundance compared to other isotopes of concern in the FDNPP source term
Because Cs is very soluble it rapidly dispersed in the ocean after the disaster given mixing, transport and dilution by ocean currents. Peak levels of 137Cs occurred close to the plant in 2011 where activity concentrations near FDNPP was tens of millions of times higher than before the accident. By 2014 137Cs concentrations in the central North Pacific was about six times the remaining weapons testing fallout and about 2-3 times higher than prior fallout levels in the northeast Pacific near to North America. Most of the fallout remains concentrated in the top few hundred meters of the ocean. Measurements being made by the Fukushima InFORM project indicate that maximum 137Cs levels off the North American coast are likely to occur this year before declining to levels associated with background nuclear weapon testing before the accident by about the end of this decade
There are unlikely to be measurable effects on marine life with the exception of coastal areas very close to FDNPP immediately after the disaster. Monitoring of fish species in Fukushima Prefecture show that about 50% of samples in coastal waters had radiocesium levels above the Japanese 100 Bq kg-1 limit, but that by 2015 this had dropped to less than 1% measuring over the limit. High levels continue to be found in fish around and in the FDNPP port
Given levels in seawater and marine organisms measurable impacts to human health through contact with the ocean and the consumption of seafoods are very unlikely
There are many informative graphics and moderately technical summaries of available studies found in the new paper. The authors highlight the difficulty of monitoring radionuclides in the ocean given the dynamic nature of the sea and logistical challenges presented by the temporal and spatial scales and low levels of FDNPP derived contamination going forward. In addition to providing ongoing assessments of risk to the environment from the disaster it is likely that useful information about ocean circulation will be obtained through continued monitoring efforts.
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:
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.
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.