Category Archives: Location

Misunderstanding Ocean Transport Models of the Fukushima Radionuclide Plume in the Pacific

by Jay T. Cullen


This post is part of an ongoing series that endeavors to provide useful and accurate information about: 1) the fate of Fukushima derived radionuclides in the Pacific Ocean, and, 2) the impact of these radionuclides on the marine ecosystem and the west coast of North America. The purpose of this diary is to draw attention to a number of poorly researched posts about a recently published study (unfortunately this study is behind a publisher pay-wall) in a Chinese journal that predicts a concentrated plume of radioactive elements from Fukushima arriving on the west coast. It is an unfortunate but common example of how news aggregation sites can misinterpret the results of a scientific study and misinform the public.

What models can and cannot say about the Fukushima plume

The study in question by Fu and co-workers published in the Journal of Ocean University of China in 2014 (behind pay-wall unfortunately) is wholly incapable of describing the behavior of dissolved radionuclides in the plume that is now arriving on the west coast of North America.

From the paper the authors themselves state in the methods that:

“In the study, the radioactive pollutant in the ocean is treated as a mixture of multiple Lagrangian particulates, and each particulate represents a radioactive element. The particulates can move in both horizontal and vertical directions, but cannot diffuse and mix with surrounding seawater.”

What this means is that rather than being allowed to mix and diffuse (or decay or sink after becoming associated with particles) the radionuclides are treated as neutrally buoyant drifters. The model, therefore, greatly overestimates the concentrations of radionuclides reaching the west coast of North America in the plume.

For those interested in models using accurate physics that will allow for an accurate prediction of radionuclide concentrations consult the following studies:

Behrens et al. (2012) and Rossi et al. (2013) (behind pay-wall)

Snapshot of the high-resolution (0.1°) model field, taken at the end of the tracer injection period (end of April, model year 0): shading indicates the thickness of the surface mixed layer (in m); contouring illustrates the surface velocity field indicated by local stream lines.
Snapshot of the high-resolution (0.1°) model field, from Behrens et al. taken at the end of the tracer injection period (end of April, model year 0): shading indicates the thickness of the surface mixed layer (in m); contouring illustrates the surface velocity field indicated by local stream lines and clearly identifies the high velocity Kuroshio and Kuroshio extension.

The Behrens et al. study is open-access while the Rossi et al. study is not. Measurements taken in the North Pacific by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and InFORM team member Dr. John Smith indicate that the Rossi et al. study predicts the arrival time of the plume on the west coast but overestimates the activity of the Fukushima derived radionuclide 137-Cs. Behrens et al. predict a too late time of arrival but with lower activities that appear to more realistic. It important to note that these models carry the own simplifications and assumptions (e.g. see section 3.4 Caveats of the Behrens et al. (2012) study) and that recent measurements suggest that some of the Fukushima plume is being dispersed to the south rather than to the east in the Pacific (e.g. Kumamoto et al. (2014) open-access; more on this study in a forthcoming post).

Articles that confuse the conclusions of the Chinese study are a good example of poor reporting on an important subject. The example here was originally spawned by Energy News who have a history of inaccurate reporting on Fukushima and then propagated through the web by uncritical followers of the site.


Looking For Fukushima Radionuclides in Fish Caught Off the West Coast of Canada

by Jay T. Cullen

The purpose of this post is to report measurements of radioactivity in fish caught off the west coast of Canada based on the work of InFORM team member Dr. Jing Chen.  A collaborative effort between Health Canada, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the University of Victoria was published in May 2014 in the peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry (link). The authors examined the activities of cesium radioisotopes (134-Cs half-life ~2 years and 137-Cs half-life ~30 years) that were released in large quantities due to the triple reactor meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 as well as a naturally occurring polonium isotope (210-Po) that can pose radiological health concerns for human consumers of marine fish. Samples of chum and coho salmon, halibutsablefish and spiny dogfish were analyzed and none were found to contain detectable levels of Fukushima derived radionuclides. Radiation doses to human consumers were determined by assuming a conservative worst case scenario where Cs isotopes were present at detection limits of the measurement and found to be 18 times lower than doses attributable to the naturally occurring, alpha-emitter 210-Po. The authors conclude that the radiation dose from Fukushima derived isotopes present in fish caught in Canadian waters represent a very small fraction of the annual dose from exposure to natural background radiation. Based on these measurements, at present, Fukushima derived radionuclides in fish do not represent a significant radiological health risk to Canadians. Continue reading Looking For Fukushima Radionuclides in Fish Caught Off the West Coast of Canada

Peak Concentrations of Radioactive Iodine From Fukushima in North American Rain Water and Seaweed

by Jay T. Cullen


The purpose of this post is to summarize results from various studies that monitored the timing of arrival and activity of radioactive iodine falling from the atmosphere in western North America following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  Determining the activity of 131-I (half life ~8 day) in rain and seaweed, which serves as a biological monitor, is important because of the isotopes short half life and its propensity to concentrate in the human body, specifically the thyroid gland. This combination of rapid energy release and biological tissue targeting can represent a potential radiological health risk. Measurements of 131-I in rain collected in the San Francisco Bay area and southern British Columbia, Canada indicate that the atmospheric transport brought contaminated air from Fukushima to North America by March 18 roughly 1 week after the earthquake and tsunami. Depending on location, activities of 131-I in rain peaked between March 20-24 and were observed to decrease to background levels in the first week of April. Peak activities in seaweed occurred later on March 28 and were observed to return to background levels in mid-May. Maximum 131-I activities in rain resulting from Fukushima were a factor of 10 lower for rainwater and a factor of 40-80 lower for seaweed compared to similar measurements made following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Observed 131-I activities suggest that the upper limit of radiation dose to the public resulting from Fukushima was similarly an order of magnitude lower than that from Chernobyl suggesting that the short and long-term impact on human health in western North America is expected to be minor.

How Scientists Talk About Radioactivity

Scientists use a variety of units to measure radioactivity. A commonly used unit is the Becquerel (Bq for short) which represents an amount of radioactive material where one atom decays per second and has units of inverse time (per second). Another unit commonly used is disintegrations per minute (dpm) where the number of atoms undergoing radioactive decay in one minute are counted (so 1 Bq = 60 dpm).

131-Iodine Releases From Fukushima

As a result of the great eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 three of six reactors melted down resulting in releases of radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to the environment. In terms of absolute activity released and potential for causing harm to organisms, 131-I (half life ~8 day) was one of the most significant. Given its volatility and the damage to reactor fuel rods large releases of ~2000 PBq (petaBequerel = 10^15 Bq) to the atmosphere and ocean occurred in the weeks following the disaster. Prevailing atmospheric circulation brought this plume of contaminated air to North America within one half life of 131-I where rain and fallout of aerosol particles delivered 131-I and other isotopes to land and coastal waters.

Monitoring of 131-I in the environment is important because as an essential nutrient when concentrated in the human body in the thyroid gland the decay of the isotope can cause damage resulting in negative health impacts like cancer. After the triple meltdowns stations in North America began monitoring the activities of released radionuclides in air, rainwater and seaweed to determine the risk to public health.

Rainwater activities of 131-I
Rainwater in the San Francisco Bay area was monitored and the results published in the open-access, peer reviewed journal PLOSOne in 2011 by Norman and co-workers. Measurements were made for the period March 16-26, 2011 on rainwater collected in Oakland, Berkeley hills and Albany, CA. Results of these measurements are summarized in the figure below:

Activity concentrations of 131,132-I, 132-Te, and 134,137-Cs in Bq/L measured in San Francisco Bay area rain water as a function of time.

This first sample with Fukushima radionuclides above background concentrations was collected on March 18 and activities peaked at 16 Bq/L rainwater on March 24.

Similar activities and timing of arrival of the atmospheric plume of 131-I were observed in southern British Columbia, Canada. Chester and colleagues published this work in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in 2013. Maximum activity of 131-I of 5.8 Bq/L was detected in the Vancouver, BC area nine days after the Fukushima disaster on March 20, 2011. The activity of 131-I returned to background by early April 2011. Results are summarized in the figure below.

Activity of 131-I measured in rainwater collected in southwestern British Columbia following the Fukushima disaster in 2011
131-I measured in seaweed

131-I levels in seaweed are known to correlate strongly with levels in rain and seaweeds are useful monitors for human made radionuclides in the environment as the concentrate isotopes from their surroundings and are geographically widespread. Seaweeds were collected along the Canadian west coast by Chester and colleagues and analyzed for 131-I following the Fukushima disaster. Results of these analyses are summarized in the figure below:

131-I activities measured in seaweed collected along the BC coast in 2011.

Maximum 131-I was detected in BC seaweed on March 22 near Vancouver and on March 28 off the west coast of Vancouver Island some 250 km to the west of the city. Peak activities were 130 and 67 Bq/kg respectively. By mid-May activities had returned to background activities in the seaweed.

Summary: Health Implications and Comparison to Chernobyl

The maximum levels of 131-I in rainwater can be compared to limits allowed in drinking water in both the USA and Canada. Maximum activities in rain were in the range ~6-16 Bq/L. For example the maximum allowable concentration (MAC) or activity allowed in Canadian drinking water is 6 Bq/L. The MAC for 131-I is calculated using a reference dose level of 0.1 mSv (where mSv = 0.001 Sv) for 1 year’s consumption of drinking water, assuming a consumption of 2 L/day at the MAC. This compares to an effective dose received by someone living in Vancouver of about 1.3 mSv. Given the short half-life of 131-I of ~8 days the actual dose attributable to Fukushima fallout in precipitation is likely to be much lower than the 0.1 mSv upper limit on which the drinking water MAC is based.

Indeed, comparing measurements in the studies above to measurements made on the west coast of North America in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 suggests that doses experienced by the public post Fukushima fallout were an order of magnitude lower. Measurements in the same species of seaweed in 1986 (behind paywall) are compared to the measurements of Chester and others here:

The calculated dose estimates to Canadians following the Chernobyl disaster were on the order of ~1 micoSievert (0.000001 Sv) (What is a Sievert, Sv?) while the peak 131-I activities present in rainwater after Fukushima suggest an upper dose of 0.1 microSv which is an order of magnitude lower dose.

These data have led health professionals in the US and Canada to expect that short-term and longer-term impact of Fukushima on public and environmental health to be very small compared to other radiological impacts from natural and legacy sources of radiation.

The Inventories at and Release Estimates for Radionuclides From Fukushima

A Twitter user interested in the InFORM network asked the following question today:

“…do you have a public list of all products in Fukushima emissions?”

It is important to realize that release estimates are not fully constrained and that estimates improve as more and more measurements are made in the environment. A useful, peer-reviewed, open access study that summarizes release estimates is Povinec et al. (2013) published in the journal Biogeosciences. Table 1 from this study is shown below and can be maximized by clicking the image:


Full references for the table are available in the Povinec paper by following the link given above.  Estimates of plutonium released by the Fukushima disaster are provided in this summary with peer-reviewed studies linked to within the document. Measurements of Pu in soil, air and water suggest that 1 to 1,000,000 fold less Pu was released from Fukushima compared to 137-Cs emissions given above.

Below we present near comprehensive inventories of radionuclides in the reactor cores of Units 1,2 and 3 and in the spent fuel pools of Units 1,2,3 and 4 at the time of the accident as reported by:

Nishihara, K., H. Iwamoto, K. Suyama. 2012. Estimation of Fuel Compositions in Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Tokai. Japan.


The following information has been modified from:

Povinec, P.P, K. Hirose and M. Aoyama. Fukushima Accident: Radioactivity Impact on the Environment. 2013. Elsevier Amsterdam.

Tables in the pdf file given just below contain information on the radionuclide, grams of radionuclide present, half-life of element, activity in Bq and ratio to 137-Cs in the core or spent fuel respectively.

Povinec Tables_Fukushima