Short answer is absolutely not.
This post is part of an ongoing series dedicated to science education and to relate scientific findings about the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on environmental and public health. I am frequently (more than you might think) asked if or told that the decay energy from radionuclides released from Fukushima Daiichi are fueling some of the massive cyclones in the Pacific in Atlantic Oceans. This is nonsense of course but highlights some of the logic used and how misinformation can fuel incorrect conclusions with respect to Fukushima and its environmental and public health impacts.
The thought process that brings one to link Fukushima contamination to hurricanes and typhoons goes something like this:
- Fukushima released radionuclides to the environment with much of the contamination ending up in the Pacific Ocean
- Radioisotopes generate heat when they decay
- Tropical cyclones feed off of ocean heat
- Fukushima is causing or causing more intense tropical cyclones
It is likely that increasing sea surface temperatures have the potential to influence the number and intensity of tropical cyclones. However, when we examine the reasoning linking Fukushima to cyclones and add a bit of numeracy we see how this reasoning is flawed.
One of the highest activity isotopes from Fukushima remaining in open ocean surface water is Cesium-137 (half-life = ~30 years, 137Cs). Much of this contamination remains in the North Pacific rather than in the tropics where typhoons form and far away from the tropical Atlantic where hurricanes form but lets ignore this fact for the purpose of our calculation. Maximum 137Cs activities measured by the Fukushima InFORM project in the northeast Pacific are ~ 10 Bq m-3 (cubic meter = 1000 L or ~1000 kg) of seawater.
By knowing this activity and the half-life of the isotope we can calculate the mass of 137Cs in one ton of seawater to be equal to be 0.0000000000031 grams or 3.1 x 10-12 g or 3.1 picograms. This highlights why detecting such low levels of contamination in the ocean is such an analytical challenge.
Now that we know how much 137Cs we have we can look up the decay energy of this isotope as well. This energy corresponds to the difference in mass between the parent and daughter isotope and for 137Cs is equal to 0.6 Watts per gram or 0.6 W g-1 (where a Watt is equal to 1 Joule per second).
So to a first order the power added to one ton (1000 kg) of seawater from Fukushima contamination is about:
(3.1 x 10-12 g) x (0.6 W g-1) = 0.000000000002 Watts or 2 picoW
This is a very small amount of power indeed. We can compare this to the Watts added to a square meter of the ocean surface. Erring on the low side in order to be conservative lets say that the Sun adds about 100 W per square meter (W m-2) at the ocean surface (but see this link from NASA for actual data).
The ratio of the power contributed by the Sun at the ocean surface to Fukushima decay energy is 50,000,000,000,000.
Suggesting that Fukushima energy is fueling cyclone activity is, scientifically speaking, silly. Friends don’t let friends do it.
Please see the NASA website for a useful summary of how tropical cyclones are formed.