The damage done to the tsunami-stricken nuclear power station in Japan may change the ecology of the ocean around it permanently.
An AFP article quotes a French nuclear expert:
""Highly radioactive water is flowing inside the buildings and then into the sea, which is worrying for fish and marine vegetation," said Olivier Isnard, an expert at France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety.
"One hypothesis is that the reactor vessel is breached and highly radioactive corium is coming out."
Very few news agencies other than the New York Times and a handful of European papers are reporting much detail about damage that the water spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan into the Pacific Ocean is causing. We lack scientifically-trained reporters, and what is being done to the environment and to the global fisheries is complex, profound, and difficult to explain to the general public.
The other problem is that what is done to the environment by dumping thousands of gallons of tainted seawater back into the ocean is still largely unknown. There are not measurements that tell us how other than human life is specifically affected.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported:
Earlier on Monday, workers' efforts to plug a leak of contaminated water from the nuclear plant by using sawdust, shredded newspaper and an absorbent powder appeared to be failing.
Water with high amounts of radioactive iodine has been leaking directly into the Pacific Ocean from a large crack discovered Saturday in a six-foot-deep pit next to the seawater intake pipes at the No. 2 reactor. Experts estimate that about seven tons an hour of radioactive water is escaping the pit. Safety officials have said that the water contains one million becquerels per liter of iodine 131, or about 10,000 times the levels normally found in water at a nuclear plant.
After an unsuccessful attempt to flood the pit with concrete to stop the leak, workers on Sunday turned to trying to plug the apparent source of the water -- an underground shaft thought to lead to the damaged reactor building -- with more than 120 pounds of sawdust, three garbage bags full of shredded newspaper and about nine pounds of a polymeric powder that officials said absorbed 50 times its volume of water.
The Iodine-131 that makes up a good chunk of the nuclear material going to sea apparently has a half-life of eight days, which means it dissipates in about that time when mixed with sea water. A physicist friend tells me that nuclear materials are highly soluble, so they can break down quickly in the ocean. The salts in the sea water apparently aid in its dissipation. Measures of water for that substance further out to sea have shown a huge drop off.
Nothing to fear, right? This stuff all dissolves into cotton candy after a week or so. Uh, no.
Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) also reported that caesium-137, with a half life of about 30 years, was found in the waters just a few hundred meters from the crippled nuclear plants at almost 80 times the legal maximum. That is just an estimate. The numbers, given the leakage of water from the No. 2 reactor area, could make that reading jump hundreds or thousands of times over the coming days.
Both radioactive substances cause cancer if absorbed by humans, and can do so in very small amounts of exposure. In fish and other sea life it can be much worse.
Other than the general story of nuclear material in the air and water scaring us, most of us aren't getting a full understanding of the impact that this is going to have on our oceans and our food supply for generations.
We need to get smart.
An article in "Risk Science Blog," sponsored by the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan, lays out a lot of it in terms that even science-illiterates like me can understand.
Exposure numbers are not like feet, meters, or pounds. All of the numbers being bandied about involve the release of alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation by radioactive materials. The rate at which they do that, the number of times per second atoms within them undergo radioactive decay, is where most radiation measurements start.
Ionizing radiation is the byproduct of many nuclear materials' decay. Why it's dangerous to living things is that it breaks the chemical bonds of the stuff that everything is made of at the atomic level. It knocks electrons out of their orbits. Neutrons can physically collide with an atom.
All of that messes with the DNA of all living things that cross its path. The radiation causes single or double strand breaks of the structure of DNA, the little coded strands that make you you and a fish a fish. Scientists say that there is also possibly an indirect effect when free radicals, produced by the ionizing radiation, attack and modify the bases of a DNA strand.
The measure being used in the media is a micro Sievert, which is how much of this damaging radiation the body can "safely" absorb. The general readings were established from a baseline of victims from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings during WWII, then extrapolated upon for other radioactive materials.
Sieverts, then are supposed to give you some idea as to how radiation really impacts the human body. We know little about anything else.
Problem At Sea
The tolerance levels for fish and ocean mammals? There really is not a direct measurement for that. The microbiology of the ocean, its plankton, and other small bits of sea life on which so many sea creatures depend for their daily diet, can be devastated by any amounts of radioactivity being spilled into the vast Pacific.
TEPCO, the operators of the plant, say that there is nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, they really have no clue how much water is really flushing into the ocean. Then you should might want to start worrying.
NISA, and the company's estimates, have been off just a bit off. The New York Times reported on 3/31/11:
Workers prepared more tanks on Thursday to transfer radioactive water from the turbine buildings at Reactor Nos. 1, 2 and 3 to keep it from flowing into the ocean. But readings taken in the sea near the plant showed that levels of the radioactive isotope iodine 131 have continued to rise, testing at 4,385 times the statutory limit on Thursday, nearly four times higher than on Sunday, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. That rise increases the likelihood that contaminants from the plant are continuously leaking into the sea, he said.
Most of the readings in the sea water are being taken by TEPCO or Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). According to a NISA document obtained from their website on 31-March-2011 that shows data for the prior day, there is only one monitoring station at the base of the plant (MP7) where drains for the plant spill out. The readings there on the 30th were 3,750 micro Sieverts per hour. To give you an idea of how bad that is, on Saturday March 12, the International Herald Tribune reported radiation levels outside the plant as 1.2 micro Sieverts per hour(µSv/h).
Fish exposed to radiation at thousands of times the annual dose for humans will either die, or it will radically affect their DNA in the area around the plant where the concentrations are highest.
It will cause all kinds of code-breakages with changes to their evolutionary pattern that are unknown, but DNA damage is a certainty at the levels in the ocean that grow by the day within miles of the plant.
Most affected will be plankton, small sea creatures, kelp and mollusks and shellfish with short ranges of motion. The bigger problem, though, is that these are food sources to fish which do not have much sense of "boundaries." They tend to swim where they will. So when the Japanese tell us that it's localized to a few miles of their waters, you have to wonder if they've put up a big net, or if they've just told the fish to stay home and not venture out.
Smaller fish that are local to the shores of the area are consumed by bigger fish that school a bit farther. They in turn can be consumed by tuna or shark with much greater ranges. It is only a matter of time, then, before either the radioactivity itself, or the genetic damage that it creates, are passed along to the food chain in the Asian Pacific. From there it finds its way in smaller changes to the Pacific as a whole.
Some of these changes could be very small. Mutations caused by these DNA rewrites could be as harmless as a nice rainbow color in the scales of one species of fish, to the starvation of whales if the plankton changes character, or develops difficulties in proper reproduction, to the extreme of evolution of new species or off-shoots of species because of their "rewiring," by the nuclear fuel floating around in the Pacific.
The Black Hole of Information on Ocean Damage
Interestingly, this story grows worse by the day, has far more potential long-range impact on our oceans than even the massive BP oil spill, and yet is garnering next to no news coverage.
There is not much independent verification of the volume of radiation being put into the ocean by the crippled nuclear reactors, or how specific it is to an area. Testing at greater distances is only just beginning, weeks after the accident to see how sea life is being affected.
The Japanese fishing industry is dead or near dead, as a result of the spill. The question that no one wants to answer is: How much of the rest of the ocean is the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster killing?
The perception alone can mean that hundreds of tons of fish that normally find their way to market won't even be hauled out of the sea. That can cause Japan, a fish-hungry nation, to push up the spot market prices of seafood world-wide, as they will be forced to compete with other buyers, including the U.S. to acquire non-tainted, or non-perceptively-tainted seafood sources. Prices of seafood will rise.
One fish. Two fish. Radioactive fish, new fish.
Someone in our government, the world's other nuclear-savvy governments and marine biologists need to let the world know how bad this spilled water really is going to be on our oceans, our food supply, and our future.
My shiny two.Updated by Brian Ross at Tue Apr 05, 2011 at 08:33 PM PDT
The Los Angeles Times full story at the L.A. Times' website.