If you read our recent series on maritime pollution and the technologies that hope to address it, you probably noticed a gaping hole. The more we wrote about trash, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals in the seas, the more we thought about the delicate species there. Also, the more we realized we were dancing around a dangerous topic.
And it’s not our style to ignore the elephant in the room.
That elephant is nuclear power and radioactive pollution. Specifically, it’s the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011 and other nuclear disasters in recent decades that affect our oceans. Today, we’ll examine the Fukushima event and its long-term effects on the Pacific Ocean. We’ll pose some questions about the future of nuclear power and attempt to weigh the benefits versus the risks.
Let’s start with some general statistics about nuclear energy.
Nuclear Energy Worldwide
Nuclear power was first developed in the 1940s. The early research focused on weapons development. But in the 1950s, research turned to the more peaceful use of nuclear fission for energy. By the 1960s, it was becoming a viable energy option.
The World Nuclear Association website says:
- Today there are 445 reactors on the planet, and they’re responsible for 10% of our power.
- Nuclear is the second-largest source of low-carbon power and generates 29% of it.
- Thirty-two nations use nuclear power for energy production.
- Fifty countries have research reactors.
The uses of nuclear tech extend beyond clean energy. It helps control the spread of disease, assists medical professionals in treating patients, and powers ambitious missions to space. So it’s an exciting topic at the heart of our efforts to achieve sustainable energy.
But it’s also very dangerous.
The Fukushima Daiichi Disaster
It Begins With an Earthquake and a Tsunami
- The quake itself was unusual and large.
- It was a rare and complex double quake that lasted three whole minutes.
- A huge chunk of Pacific seafloor — about 400 square miles — swayed 30 to 60 feet horizontally.
- Entire islands in Japan moved several feet!
- The resulting 45-foot tsunami killed nearly 19,500 people and destroyed more than a million structures.
That tsunami also disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors (and many others). The meltdown began that Friday and lasted for weeks. The World Nuclear Association says no direct deaths are attributed to the meltdown, but more than 100,000 souls were evacuated from the area.
Now, the problem with a nuclear meltdown isn’t an immediate explosion. It’s the ongoing, widespread, and long-lasting effects of radiation. It’s also the eventual release of contaminated/radioactive reactor cooler water into the seas.
Radiation Pollution in the Oceans
What Is Radioactivity?
In two words: atomic decomposition. Radioactive atoms shoot out electrons that become ions and damage atoms around them.
In science speak, radioactivity is the act of emitting radiation by an atomic nucleus that, for whatever reason, is unstable. The atomic nucleus “wants” to give up energy to shift to a more stable configuration. So radioactivity is a physical phenomenon at the atomic level. Atoms decay, blasting off energy which causes nearby inorganic and organic material to decay, as well. The phenomenon spreads outward.
- You can think of radiation as a type of energy that moves as fast as the speed of light and spreads out.
- Acute radiation poisoning, known as radiation sickness, can cause everything from nausea and hair loss to cancer and death in humans.
- A study of local infants near the Fukushima disaster in 2013 showed 40% of them had thyroid nodules or cysts.
- Over a longer time, radiation can cause congenital disabilities, genetic mutations, and infertility.
Since we’re still learning about radiation — the technology is only 70 years old — we don’t know what the effects will be in the following centuries.
The radioactivity of a sample material is measured by counting how many atoms decay each second.
- Radioactivity after a catastrophic meltdown is measured in petabecquerels (PBq).
A key concept of radiation studies is the notion of a half-life. This is the time it takes for a material to become half as reactive as it was. A good rule of thumb is that it takes seven “half-lives” for a sample to decay to 1% of its original radioactivity. But critical thinkers will recognize that radiation is never gone, only diminished by half, and half again, and so on.
Ocean Water and Half-Life
Depending on the material, a half-life can last for hours. But more often, it’s years. And the half-life of radioactive seawater is 30 years. If the ocean waters near Fukushima stayed static — if the water never moved, flowed, or evaporated into the sky — then:
- In 2041, the water would still be 50% as radioactive as at the start.
- Then in 2071, it’s 25% as radioactive.
- In 2101, 12%.
- By 2221, the local waters around Japan would have 1% of that original radioactivity (7×30 = 210 years, added to the year 2011.)
- Our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will still be dealing with radiation from the Fukushima disaster.
But ocean waters aren’t static! Radioactive water moves and spreads the radiation, which is constantly expanding out.
Ultimately, the Fukushima disaster sent unprecedented amounts of radiation into the Pacific Ocean.
How Much Radiation Was Released by Fukushima?
Fukushima University’s Institute of Environmental Radioactivity says, “The total… released was 20.5 PBq, 17 PBq to the air, and of the total, 12 to 15 PBq ended up in the Pacific Ocean,” during the meltdown.
That doesn’t sound like much. So let’s take a crack at the math and try to equate it to something we can understand in our daily lives, like the amount of radiation used to perform a chest X-ray.
- A single chest X-ray puts 0.2 mrems into a human body. That’s enough to damage our organs if we don’t protect them with a lead vest.
- There are 2.7×10^11 mrems in one PBq.
- 1 PBq equals 5,000,000,000,000 chest X-rays.
- At 15 PBqs, the Fukushima event blasted enough radiation into the oceans to do 75,000,000,000,000 X-rays in a matter of days.
**Please note, this author does not pretend to be a nuclear scientist in any way. We spent about 30 minutes messing with this math, but feel free to let us know if we’re wrong!
**And, we attempted to figure how many frozen pizzas could be cooked using this much radiation. And the answer is all of them. Forever.
Now, remember that radiation in the ocean will take 30 years to diminish by half. In 2041, we’d still be able to do 37,000,000,000,000 chest X-rays with it if it were static. But seawater doesn’t sit still. It flows and evaporates, to be dumped down again as rain, every day.
And the problem doesn’t end there!
The Ongoing Problem
Remember that oceans are affected by erosion and runoff, so more radioactive material flows into the Pacific every day from Fukushima. We have no accurate way to say how much.
We do know that 320,000 gallons — four tanker trucks worth, and only a drop in the vast bucket that is the Pacific Ocean — of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant is scheduled to be released into the ocean in 2022. This contaminated water was used to cool destroyed reactor blocks and prevent further meltdowns. Right now, it’s stored in tanks.
But we’re looking at an ongoing disposal issue for decades or even centuries to come.
Thanks to the water cycle, it’s only a matter of time before every drop of water on the planet is exposed to radiation from Fukushima and every bit of surface soil and crops exposed to mildly radioactive rains. We’ll feed our livestock and ourselves from those crops. We’ll unknowingly drink that tainted water. It will contaminate everything from the clothes we wash to our childrens’ bathwater.
But the good news is that seven generations from now, the radiation will be barely measurable.
After Fukushima: Is This the End of Humankind? Are We F**ked?
Radiation — especially intense amounts — causes ongoing problems to our physical and mental health. Since the meltdown, it’s only natural that people living near the reactors suffer from anxiety and PTSD. More recent studies connect radiation with heart problems in babies born near Fukushima in 2019. Those troubled waters have also reached the US West Coast, though scientists claim it’s diluted enough not to harm beachgoers.
What about our food sources? Did the radiation poison fish? Absolutely. But experts claim the amount of radiation in seafood today is only minimal and not nearly enough to cause damage. …Unless you eat it every day and rely on it as a primary source of dietary protein, like 40% of the global population does.
But ultimately, nuclear meltdowns like Fukushima can happen again. While our species — and every other species — will likely survive this event, there have been significant losses, and the damage will continue to spread for hundreds of years. So we probably cannot afford another disaster.