Tag Archives: FAQ

More Fukushima Question and Answer: Why don’t you measure contamination in marine algae?

By Jay T. Cullen

Diatoms under the microscope. Important marine algae that form the base of the food web in oceanic environments. From http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_images.jsp?cntn_id=128913&org=NSF

The purpose of this post is to address common questions related to Fukushima monitoring efforts being conducted by the Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring (InFORM) network in the northeast Pacific Ocean and coastal waters of Canada. This diary continues a series aimed to report the results of scientific research into the impact of the Fukushima disaster on the environment. I am asked routinely why we do not measure contamination in marine microalgae, the base of the marine foodweb, given that they concentrate radionuclide contamination from Fukushima found in seawater into their cells as they grow. The extremely low levels of contamination found from Fukushima in the northeast Pacific Ocean combined with the very small amounts of microalgae present in oceanic waters make such monitoring logistically infeasible. Follow below the fold for the detailed answer. Continue reading More Fukushima Question and Answer: Why don’t you measure contamination in marine algae?


Plutonium in the Pacific Ocean From Fukushima

By Jay T. Cullen


This post is part of an ongoing series that represents an effort to communicate peer-reviewed scientific studies of the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on the North Pacific Ocean and residents of the west coast of North America. 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 (239-Pu half-life 24,100 years; 240-Pu 6,570 years) are not being made given the potential for these isotopes to pose radiological health risks. Measurements of air, soil and water indicate that Pu was released and broadcast into the environment as a result of the triple reactor meltdowns with estimates of the source on the order of 2.3×10^9 Bq of 239,240-Pu or 580 milligrams of the isotopes. Measurements of isotope composition and activity of Pu in seawater and sediments off the coast of Japan indicate that there was no detectable change resulting from the nuclear disaster (behind pay wall). Given that the Fukushima signal is not detectable in the ocean off Japan relative to legacy sources from atmospheric weapons testing in the 20th century there is likely little information in making the same measurements in the eastern Pacific off of North America.

Members of the public are concerned about the presence of the alpha-emitting isotopes of Pu and have been asking why measuring for these elements in seawater and marine biota is not a priority of the InFORM network. The purpose of this diary is to explain why such measurements are less likely to provide information about the plume and its impacts.

A recently published paper by Bu and colleagues in the peer-reviewed Journal of Chromotography A reports the development of a new method to determine Pu isotopes in small (20 – 60 liters) samples of seawater and measurements made of these isotopes off the coast of Japan from July 2011 to January 2013 until the present. Locations where samples were collected are shown in the figure below:

Map showing seawater collection stations from the western North Pacific and Tokyo Bay since the FDNPP accident.

For all the seawater samples analyzed by Bu and colleagues, the 239-,240-Pu activities and 240-Pu/239-Pu atom ratios where found to be 0.00043 to 0.0056 Bq m^-3 and from 0.227 to 0.284, respectively. The results are summarized in Table 4 of the paper and are shown below:


Before the Fukushima accident in March 2011, Pu isotopes were being monitored off the coast of Japan to assess the radiological impact of the nuclear plants on the marine environment. The 239-,240-Pu activities before the meltdowns were below 0.0083 Bq m^−3 and 0.022 Bq m^−3 respectively, with 240-Pu/239-Pu atom ratios between 0.173 and 0.322. These ratios represent the influence of the Pacific Proving Ground nuclear weapon test site, which was characterized by a high 240-Pu/239-Pu atom ratio (0.30–0.36). Results after the Fukushima disaster were typically in the background data range, suggesting no detectable Pu contamination from the accident in the marine environment ~30 km offshore of the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex. This conclusion is consistent with findings from previous studies of Pu isotopes in marine sediments in the western North Pacific after the Fukushima accident.

Given the absence of isotopic and concentration anomalies thus far in the western Pacific resulting from the Fukushima meltdowns there is not very much information to be gained about the evolution of the contaminated seawater plume in time and space. Similarly, the impact of the Fukushima disaster on the health of marine ecosystem with respect to Pu isotopes will be difficult to quantify relative to weapons testing background levels that persist in the environment.

On the Methodology Used to Make the Measurements (If You are Interested, IYI)
The approach used by Bu and colleagues to measure Pu isotopes at such low concentrations and activities involves applying sector field high resolution inductively coupled mass spectrometry. The instrument is able to separate chemical species by their respective mass to charge ratios using a strong electromagnetic field downstream of the plasma ionization source. Great pains were taken maximize the instruments sensitivity to measure the isotopes of interest 238-U, 239-Pu, 240-Pu, and 242-Pu. To remove the seawater matrix (cations and anions that would reduce instrument sensitivity) and elements with mass to charge ratios that would interfere with Pu detection like 238-U the seawater samples were purified using ion selective resins held in columns by passing them through successive loading and elution steps. This process is summarized in the following flow diagram from the paper:

Flow chart of the analytical procedure for the determination of Pu isotopes in seawater by anion-exchange chromatography and SF-ICP-MS.

The preconcentration and sensitivity of SF-ICP-MS allows for the very low detection limits required to quantify Pu in relatively small (20 – 60 L) volumes of seawater.


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