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Is Fukushima radiation polluting the entire Pacific Ocean?

Published by marco on

Take a deep breath. Step back. Does that sound plausible? Is the mighty power of the atom, harnessed by decades-old technology, likely to be able to effect such mighty change?

Because the Pacific Ocean is huge. Like, really gigantic. It has 16 times as much surface area as the entire United States of America. Hell, there’s a Pacific Garbage Patch whose estimated size is about the surface area of the US of A and we can barely even tell it’s there.

The article True facts about Ocean Radiation and the Fukushima Disaster by Kim Martini (Deep Sea News) examines a few of the more extraordinary claims made about Fukushima in recent weeks as well as their supposedly corroborating evidence that comes in the form of superficially convincing false-color diagrams and maps.

Non-absolution for TEPCO and Japan

This is in no way to say that the Japanese authorities and TEPCO are not handling the situation in a poor, if not criminal, manner. Nor is it to provide support for the nuclear industry as we find it today in its corrupt and highly subsidized and under-regulated form. Nor do I wish to offer any opinion or particular hope that we could reap the benefits of nuclear power without the heretofore unavoidable corruption engendered by any business so reliant on government largesse.

This is to provide support to the facts and avoid misinformation that only does damage to a cause that has its heart in the right place but seems incapable of controlling itself when it comes to disseminating untruthful and deliberately manipulated propaganda.

Terms and units

Before you even start talking about radiation and its effect on humans, you have to be clear on the units.

  • Becquerel[Bq] or Curie[Ci]: radiation emitted from a radioactive material (1 Ci = 3.7 × 1010 Bq)
  • Gray [Gy] or Rad[rad]: radiation absorbed by another material (1Gy = 100 rad)
  • Sieverts[Sv]* or “roentgen equivalent in man”[rem]: how badly radiation will damage biological tissue (1 Sv = 100 rem)

The exact doses that are considered dangerous to humans differ based on they type of radiation as well. If you’re more of a visual person, then check out this Radiation Dose Chart by Randall Munroe (XKCD), which does a decent job of putting the relative numbers in perspective.

Pretty maps and charts!

I already wrote about one of these shenanigans in Radiation is everywhere! (And we’re all gonna die.). It included a link to Fukushima Emergency (Snopes), which debunks one of the fancy we’re-all-gonna-die charts that’s been making the rounds.

The article by Martini[1] includes several more images, many of which I’ve seen posted on social-networking sites. As usual, the hyperbole is based on a grain of truth: “radiation probably has reached the West Coast but it’s not dangerous.”

  • A site called EnviroReporter posted a graphic that it claimed showed how radiation was spreading across the Pacific. What it actually documented was “the estimated maximum wave heights of the Japanese Tohuku Tsunami by modelers at NOAA”.
  • Another graphic actually does show “an ocean model that […] predicts where radioactive particles will be pushed around by surface ocean currents”, which sounds promising until you note that there is no legend in sight and the false colors are disavowed by the company that put out the chart as not being a “representation of the radioactive plume concentration.”
  • The bright-red map also shows “the decrease in the radioactive concentrations of Cesium-137 isotopes since being emitted from Fukushima” (Emphasis added), the upshot of which is that all of the levels indicated are not harmful to humans at all.

 Pretty colors in the Pacific Maximum wave heights of the Japanese Tohuku Tsunami Decrease in the radioactive concentrations of Cesium-137 isotopes

Seriously, how bad is it? Am I gonna die?

Instead of thousands or millions times higher radiation, the conclusion is that:

“Even within 300 km of Fukushima, the additional radiation that was introduced by the Cesium-137 fallout is still well below the background radiation levels from naturally occurring radioisotopes. By the time those radioactive atoms make their way to the West Coast it will be even more diluted and therefore not dangerous at all. (Emphasis added.)”

The emphasis draws attention to the reality that radiation is everywhere, in one form or another. But it’s at such a low dose that we will die of old age long before it has an effect on us. Therefore, this so-called background radiation is considered harmless—because it will utterly fail to kill you quickly enough to prevent something more dangerous from doing so (like texting while driving, for example).

Even 300km away, the radiation levels caused by the meltdown at Fukushima are well below the level of background radiation. Even should you find yourself swimming off the coast of Fukushima, you’d be exposed to “less than 0.03% of the daily radiation an average Japanese resident receives.”

In Los Angeles, you’re almost 30 times farther away (just over 8600km). Radiation intensity falls off at the square of the distance (Wikipedia), so the dose in L.A. is infinitesimal.

You can stay skeptical to keep those with vested interests from blowing sunshine up your ass, but don’t let that instinct lead you astray. Instead, apply a healthy skepticism for everything you hear on this complex topic instead of just the stuff that agrees with your predisposed view. Always check your sources and don’t believe every cover-up conspiracy you hear.

[1] I do not know who Kim Martini is, but I am encouraged by her inclusion of end-notes that include references to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Environmental Research Letters, the Journal of environmental radioactivity as well as references at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her short bio at the end of the article states that “Kim is a Physical Oceanographer at the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington.”