Laboratories outside Japan have validated the results. Marine radioactivity levels from the nuclear disaster have fallen, but questions remain years after the meltdown. Continue reading IAEA Affirms Japan’s Fukushima-Related Radioactivity Monitoring
by WHOI Media Relations
Published 2 October 2017
Scientists have found a previously unsuspected place where radioactive material from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster has accumulated—in sands and brackish groundwater beneath beaches up to 60 miles away. The sands took up and retained radioactive cesium originating from the disaster in 2011 and have been slowly releasing it back to the ocean.
“No one is either exposed to, or drinks, these waters, and thus public health is not of primary concern here,” the scientists said in a study published October 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But “this new and unanticipated pathway for the storage and release of radionuclides to the ocean should be taken into account in the management of coastal areas where nuclear power plants are situated.”
The research team—Virginie Sanial, Ken Buesseler, and Matthew Charette of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Seiya Nagao of Kanazawa University—hypothesize that high levels of radioactive cesium-137 released in 2011 were transported along the coast by ocean currents. Days and weeks after the accident, waves and tides brought the cesium in these highly contaminated waters onto the coast, where cesium became “stuck” to the surfaces of sand grains. Cesium-enriched sand resided on the beaches and in the brackish, slightly salty mixture of fresh water and salt water beneath the beaches.
But in salt water, cesium no longer “sticks” to the sand. So when more recent waves and tides brought in salty seawater from the ocean, the brackish water underneath the beaches became salty enough to release the cesium from the sand, and it was carried back into the ocean.
“No one expected that the highest levels of cesium in ocean water today would be found not in the harbor of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, but in the groundwater many miles away below the beach sands,” said Sanial.
The scientists estimated that the amount of contaminated water flowing into the ocean from this brackish groundwater source below the sandy beaches is as large as the input from two other known sources: ongoing releases and runoff from the nuclear power plant site itself, and outflow from rivers that continue to carry cesium from the fallout on land in 2011 to the ocean on river-borne particles. All three of these ongoing sources are thousands of times smaller today compared with the days immediately after the disaster in 2011.
The team sampled eight beaches within 60 miles of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant between 2013 and 2016. They plunged 3- to 7-foot-long tubes into the sand, pumped up underlying groundwater, and analyzed its cesium-137 content. The cesium levels in the groundwater were up to 10 times higher than the levels found in seawater within the harbor of the nuclear power plant itself. In addition, the total amount of cesium retained more than 3 feet deep in the sands is higher than what is found in sediments on the seafloor offshore of the beaches.
Cesium has a long half-life and persists in the environment. In their analyses of the beaches, the scientists detected not only cesium-137, which may have come from the Dai-ichi plant or from nuclear weapons tested in the 1950s and1960s, but also cesium-134, a radioactive form of cesium that can only come only from the 2011 Fukushima accident.
The researchers also conducted experiments on Japanese beach samples in the lab to demonstrate that cesium did indeed “stick” to sand grains and then lost their “stickiness” when they were flushed with salt water.
“It is as if the sands acted as a ‘sponge’ that was contaminated in 2011 and is only slowly being depleted,” said Buesseler.
“Only time will slowly remove the cesium from the sands as it naturally decays away and is washed out by seawater,” said Sanial.
“There are 440 operational nuclear reactors in the world, with approximately one-half situated along the coastline,” the study’s authors wrote. So this previously unknown, ongoing, and persistent source of contamination to coastal oceans “needs to be considered in nuclear power plant monitoring and scenarios involving future accidents.”
By Jay T. Cullen
@JayTCullen and @FukushimaInFORM
The purpose of this post is to report results from two recently published studies on plutonium releases from Fukushima to the Pacific Ocean. The post contributes to an ongoing series where results from peer-reviewed studies on the impact of the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichii nuclear power plant on the health of the Pacific ecosystem and residents of the west coast of North America are reported. A frequently asked question of those involved in monitoring the health of the North Pacific is why more measurements of the long lived, alpha-emitting isotopes of plutonium (239Pu half-life 24,100 years; 240Pu 6,570 years) are not being made given the potential for these isotopes to pose radiological health risks. Previous work indicates that 239+240Pu releases from Fukushima were about 100,000 and 5,000,000 times lower than releases from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and 20th century weapons testing respectively. Initial measurements of Pu isotopes in seawater and marine sediments off the coast from Fukushima indicated no detectable change occurred in Pu inventories in the western Pacific after the disaster. These two most recent studies monitored the activity and isotopic composition of Pu in seawater and marine sediments off of Japan from 2008-2013. Similar to earlier work these studies find that the release of Pu isotopes by the Fukushima accident to the Pacific Ocean has been negligible. The Fukushima signal is not detectable in the ocean off Japan relative to legacy sources from atmospheric weapons testing in the 20th century. Given these accumulating results 239+240Pu from Fukushima is unlikely to negatively impact the health of the Pacific Ocean ecosystem and levels in the environment from Fukushima will not pose a danger to the population of North America.
Continue reading Most Recent Measurements of Plutonium in Pacific: Fukushima Fallout Undetectable
This post reports on a recently published peer reviewed study by Steinhauser and colleagues in the journal Science of the Total Environment (behind pay wall) comparing the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents. The post is part of an ongoing effort to communicate the results of scientific studies into the impact of the Fukushima disaster on the environment. A majority of the radioactivity released from both Chernobyl and Fukushima can be attributed to volatile radionuclides (noble gases, iodine, cesium, tellurium). In contrast, the amounts of more refractory elements (including actinides like plutonium), released by Chernobyl was ~four orders of magnitude (10,000 fold) higher than releases from Fukushima. The most cited source term for Chernobyl is 5300 PBq (excluding noble gases) while a review of published studies of Fukushima carried out by the authors above allow an estimate for the total atmospheric source term of 520 (a range of 340–800) PBq. Monitoring of air, soil and water for radionuclides after the respective accidents indicate that the environmental impact of Chernobyl is likely to be much greater than the Fukushima accident. The post is relatively information dense as I have provided data tables for those who are interested in the estimates and the peer-reviewed studies from which they come. Apologies up front to those who find such information tedious. Continue reading Comparing the Environmental Impacts of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Disasters
This post reports on the most recent study of plutonium releases from Fukushima to the Pacific Ocean. The post contributes to an ongoing effort to report peer-reviewed studies on the impact of the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichii nuclear power plant on the health of the Pacific ecosystem and residents of the west coast of North America. Plutonium is an alpha-emitting isotope that carries significant radiological health risks if internalized with risk of exposure increasing with the activity of Pu isotopes in the environment. Previous work indicates that 239,240-Pu releases from Fukushima were about 100,000 and 5,000,000 times lower than releases from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and 20th century weapons testing respectively. Initial measurements of Pu isotopes in seawater and marine sediments off the coast from Fukushima indicated no detectable change occurred in Pu inventories in the western Pacific after the disaster. More recent and more expansive work supports earlier studies drawing the conclusion that up to two years after the accident the release of Pu isotopes by the Fukushima accident to the Pacific Ocean has been negligible.
A paper by Bu and colleagues was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology which investigated the activity of Pu isotopes marine sediments collected within 30 km of the Fukushima reactor sites. 239,240,241-Pu and radiocesium isotopes (134-Cs and 137-Cs) were measured. Given that Pu is a particle reactive element that would tend to be concentrated in sediments such measurements should help to determine the extent and degree of Fukushima derived Pu in the marine environment. Sample collection sites are indicated in the map below.
While initial releases from the plant and ongoing releases due to groundwater infiltration and terrestrial runoff have been negligible thus far according the authors they rightly point out that significant inventories of Pu are insecurely stored at the Fukushima site. So far estimates suggest that about 2.3×10^9 Bq of 239,240-Pu or 580 milligrams of the isotopes have been broadcast to the environment from Fukushima. Bu et al. (2014) estimate that contained within the roughly 270,000 tons of radioactive liquid waste stored in large tanks at Fukushima there exists approximately a further 1×10^8 Bq of 239,240-Pu. Given that future earthquakes or other events could mobilize this Pu, continued monitoring of Pu isotopes in the marine environment is necessary and prudent.