Radioactive Fish Near Fukushima Suggest Ongoing Contamination
The findings suggest that contaminated water is still leaking from the stricken power plant, the sea bottom itself is now laced with radionuclides, or both. Concentrations in the ocean water itself remain below any human health concern but they do pass into fish that swim through those waters.
"When fish 'drink' they take [cesium] and other salts up from the water they are swimming in, that accumulates in the muscle tissue," explains marine chemist Ken Buessler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who compiled the analysis of publicly released Japanese fisheries data and published it in Science on October 26. But the fish also shed that cesium if they swim in uncontaminated waters, as has been seen in tuna that migrated from near Japan to near San Diego, suggesting that levels in fish should decrease over time. For this reason, most of the fish caught off Japan's northeastern coast are not radioactive. But roughly 40 percent of bottom-dwelling fish, such as flatfish or halibut, caught off the coast adjacent to Fukushima bear radionuclides above the Japanese food safety standard of 100 becquerels per kilogram.*
According to a response to questions from Scientific American that was prepared by staff at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ingesting fish at that level "would only produce a dose that is a small fraction of the dose that people receive from natural levels." For example, as Buessler notes, fish caught off Japan in June 2011 boasted levels of potassium-40—a naturally occurring radionuclide—10 times higher than those of radioactive cesium from Fukushima.
Radioactive cesium decays by emitting what's known as a beta radiation, a negatively charged particle that is easily blocked by metal, plastic or wood—but not skin. In particular, ingesting beta-emitting radioactive elements is "a concern," according to the NRC. "Beta particles released directly to living tissue can cause damage at the molecular level, which can disrupt cell function." Plus, beta particles are small enough to travel far in the body, causing damage far and wide.
U.S. safety guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration permit foods to bear 1,200 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium, but the FDA declined to comment for this article. "The more restrictive action taken by the Japanese seems reasonable for the population living close to Fukushima because they receive radiation doses from other sources, including non-fish food, drinking water and land surface contamination," the NRC staff writes. "Based on the FDA and [World Health Organization] recommendations, eating fish contaminated at 100 Bq/kg would result in a small and acceptable exposure to radioactive cesium."
Japan & France Move Away from Nuclear Power, is it the Endgame?
On 14 September, bowing to public opposition, Japan’s government joined Germany andSwitzerland in turning away from nuclear power after the March 2011 earthquake unleashed a tsunami that destroyed Tokyo Electric Power Co Incorporated (TYO:9501)’s six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi NPP complex. The decision represents a major about-face by the Japanese government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, which before Fukushima stated that the nation’s energy policy would increase the country’s share of atomic energy to more than half of the country’s electricity generation. Noda’s government intended to ramp up by 300 percent the country’s share of renewable power to 30 percent of its energy mix. Noda’s decision earlier this year to restart two NPPs to avoid potential summer power outages, flying in the face of public opinion, energized anti-nuclear protests.
Noda’s government’s decision to phase out the country’s NPPs by both refusing to extend nuclear plant operating licenses beyond 40 years and committing to building no new ones provoked an immediate and predictable backlash from Japan’s powerful nuclear energy lobby, which argued that the short sighted decision would boost electricity prices, making industry uncompetitive and complicating efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly fifty years ago, when the U.S. led the way in deploying civilian nuclear electricity NPPS, proponents excitedly maintained that soon electricity would be “too cheap to measure.”
But, while this advertising slogan never panned out, a second nuclear power reality overlooked by proponents of its centrality to a nation’s power generation base is the uncomfortable fact that it was in fact born from the stupendously expensive U.S. “Manhattan Project,” which produced the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in august 1945, which both ended World War Two and inaugurated the Cold War. The nexus between civilian electrical power generation and weaponry have existed uneasily since then, as evidenced by the recent international campaign against Iran.
So, what to make of Japan’s tepid decision to downsize its nuclear energy commitment? Thoughtful analysts might note that Europe’s leading technological powerhouses, Germany and Japan, have apparently decided to pursue energy alternatives to nuclear while France, Europe’s leading user of nuclear energy, is also rethinking its position.
Do Berlin and Tokyo know something that other nations do not? Whatever occurs, expect a vigorous rear-guard action by the global nuclear power industry, as it attempts to preserve its multi-billion dollar industry, starting with them suddenly joining the climate change bandwagon by emphasizing that NPPs generate zero greenhouse gases.
Which, of course, is why former Fukushima residents outside the NPP’s 12 mile exclusion zone breathe so much more easily.