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
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.
Relatively high activities of 134-Cs and 137-Cs and a decay corrected ratio near 1 indicated that the sediments were indeed contaminated with Fukushima derived radionuclides.
In contrast to the clear imprint of Fukushima derived Cs on the marine sediments the activities of 239,240-Pu and 241-Pu were low compared with the background level before the accident. The Pu activity ratios (240-Pu/239-Pu and 241-Pu/239-Pu) suggested that the Pu detected was the result of global fallout and the pacific proving ground (PPG) close-in fallout resulting from atmospheric weapons testing in the 20th century. The following figure is a mixing diagram that helps to determine the relative contributions to the observed Pu contamination of marine sediments off the Japanese coast.
The mixing diagram indicates that the isotopic ratio of Pu in marine sediments is inconsistent with a significant release of Fukushima Pu to the marine environment. The isotopic composition of Pu in marine sediments is consistent with Pu deposited during atmospheric weapons testing in the last century.
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.