Schools of Pacific albacore tuna will start to reach the northwest shores of the United States late this summer at the end of a long journey that is beginning near the coast of Japan just about now. The migration will continue into late fall and early winter.
As those fish feed on the coast of Japan in preparation for their journey and then make their way across the ocean, they will feast on massive amounts of smaller fish such as sardines, anchovies and squid. They will consume as much as 25% of their own weight each day.
The odds are strong that significant numbers of those Pacific albacore tuna will bring radioactive iodine 131 and/or cesium 137 from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant with them. That the radiation has been spewing into the air and water for weeks while utility and government officials try futilely to stem the flow from the devastated nuclear reactors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) promises to monitor imports of all food from Japan in the wake of the nuclear disaster. But these fish will not be imported; they will be caught in U.S. waters by U.S. companies and individuals.
A group of fishermen in Washington has asked the FDA to test these migrant tuna in the hope of reassuring the public and averting a consumer panic. But the FDA can’t test every fish and random testing of some fish is no guarantee that the next fish won’t be the one that ingested the iodine or cesium.
Millions of tons of radioactive water have been dumped into the Pacific Ocean in the desperate effort to reign in the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. While trying to avoid the ultimate disaster – a full core meltdown – workers have doused the reactor units with sea water, which was then returned to the ocean carrying radioactive particulates with it. Still more radiation has entered the ocean as fallout from releases at the plant.
At the same time, increased levels of radiation have been found in produce growing in Japanese fields, in cattle being raised in Japan, in milk produced by Japanese cows, and in drinking water supplies far from the damaged nuclear plant. Increased levels of radiation also have been found at various locations in the U.S., including as far east as Massachusetts.
And the worst is yet to come. It’s been 25 years since the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl in Russia melted down. The plant is entombed in concrete. Yet radiation continues to escape at the site. Similarly, radiation from the Fukushima plant will continue to enter the air and water for many decades to come.
This radioactivity, along with that from Chernobyl, atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, frequent releases at nuclear power plants around the world, and other sources have raised the so-called background level of radiation on Earth. It is against that ever escalating level of background radiation that we are offered assurances that each successive release at Fukushima and elsewhere is no greater than the background level to which we all are exposed in the course of daily life. Plain and simple: it’s a false and arbitrary standard.
Try as they may, utility executives and government officials in the U.S. and Japan can no longer hide the fact that radiation being released at Fukushima will impact the world’s food chain for decades – maybe centuries – to come.
In an earlier article for Table Talk atLarrys.com we asked “Will Your Sushi Glow in the Dark?” While there was a flip tone to the question, the message of that article was serious.
In the weeks since the earthquake and tsunami set things off in the wrong direction at Fukushima, we have been witness to a seemingly endless string of reassurances that there is no threat to public health, no matter how much iodine 131 and cesium 137 has been spewed into the ocean, across the agricultural land of Japan, into the drinking water, and on the vegetation upon which cattle graze.
In one recent report, Tokyo Electric Power Co., owners of the nuclear plant, admitted to finding iodine 131 in ocean water samples near the plant in concentrations 7.5 million times the legal limit. Other samples found longer-lived cesium 137 at 1.1 million times the legal limit.
The announcement was accompanied by assurances that the radioactive material “has a short half life”, would “be diluted by the ocean”, and is not a threat to human health.
Samples of fish showed equally worrisome results. Tests of sand lances caught three miles off shore from the city of Kitalbaraki, about 50 miles south of the Fukushima nuclear plant registered high enough concentrations of both iodine 131 and cesium137 to bring about a suspension of fishing for that specie. Fishing by humans may be suspended, but what about predators that feed on the contaminated fish? And what about other fish swimming in the same contaminated waters?
The whole thing led Japanese government officials to establish standards for radiation concentrations in fish for the first time. Limits on radiation in produce, beef and milk have existed previously. But when those limits were exceeded in tests, government officials issued the standard “no threat to human health” assurance. If that is so, then why have the limits in the first place.
As for the assurances that the radioactive material will be diluted by the vastness of the ocean, that just isn’t true. The material might be disbursed, but it won’t be diluted. Any individual particulate will remain toxic no matter how much water surrounds it. If the fish you are served has ingested some of that material as it feeds on plant life or other fish in the ocean it doesn’t matter how much water surrounds it or how many other fish did not ingest any such material.
All this is standard operating procedure for the nuclear power industry and government regulators. Their play book dictates: deny, reassure, minimize.
The one clearest message coming out of the deceptions, cover ups, distortions and empty assurances of safety in the aftermath of the Fukushima power plant disaster is that it’s time to put the nuclear Genie back in the bottle. The human experiment with the atom as a source of energy has failed. The risks far outweigh any conceivable benefit. There are cheaper and cleaner way to generate energy and nuclear power has absolutely nothing to do with energy independence.
Our food chain already contains levels of radioactivity far beyond what existed just 30 years ago and those levels will continue to rise. We will continue to ingest that radiation and wonder why incidents of cancer are increasing. It’s time to stop adding to the contamination of our food and water.
Even if Nuclear Energy were free, it ain’t worth dying over.
This piece should be reprinted in the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, etc. It is especially valuable because we are fed a constant diet of reassurance that distance equals dilution equals safety.
I am neither for nor against Nuclear Energy. I believe that decisions have repercussions that extend far beyond what can be known at the time the decisions is made. History has many examples of this including Gunpowder, Cocaine and solid state electronics.
I have a few core tenets:
1) Most animals are generally good where good means they are focused on the greatest good for their species.
2) Most humans have the innate cognitive ability to also consider what is in the greatest good for other species.
3) Humans, ultimately, are driven by #1 regardless of #2 because beneath that cognitive ability we are still an animal species with the sole purpose of propagating our species.
4) People generally have good intent.
5) Entities don’t make decisions people do.
6) Everything humans do is part of the natural order of things – part of the universal energy that binds everything together. Few things are inherently good or bad – they just are.
In researching my response to this post I looked at two things:
1) What the American Cancer Society has to say
2) What other similar food chain impacting things exist today
My two core sources are:
First of all, Radioactivity is not a thing. It is the emission of particles and energy by large, unstable atoms that are seeking a more stable structure.
Radiation is the “something” that unstable atoms give off as they seek stability. This can be in the form of alpha particles, beta particles or gamma “photons”.
Neither radioactivity, nor radiation is inherently bad. As a matter of fact, radiation occurs naturally in our universe. It is ionization that determines whether the impact of radiation is “bad” or “good.” But even ionization occurs naturally.
“There is little doubt that high-dose radiation exposure can cause cancer. This has become clear from studies of groups such as the survivors of the atomic blasts in Japan, where the risks of certain cancers such as leukemias and thyroid cancers were higher than normal. Some issues, however, are not as clear, such as the amount of exposure required, and the types of cancer that radiation can cause.
In the late 1970s, a higher than usual number of cases of leukemia was seen among the troops present at the “Smokey” nuclear test in Nevada in August 1957. The question arose as to whether these cases were caused by radiation from the nuclear tests. Although the rate of leukemia was higher than expected, rates for all cancers combined were actually lower than expected, making the results difficult to interpret. Some cancers are known to have a long latency period – that is, they do not appear until decades after the exposure. The reason for the high leukemia rates of the “Smokey” test remains unexplained.
To date, follow-up of troops present at other tests have not shown an overall increased number of deaths from cancer. One study compared about 1,000 veterans who received the highest doses of radiation to other veterans who were minimally exposed. The risk of dying from some blood-related cancers (certain leukemias and lymphomas) was higher in those exposed to radiation, and the risk of dying overall was also slightly higher. However, the risk was not increased for other types of cancers known to be caused by radiation, and the overall risk of dying from any form of cancer was not higher.
Studies of British troops present at similar tests have not found that they have higher cancer rates or death rates overall, although these studies have also suggested that leukemia rates might be higher.
With the possible exception of an increased risk of thyroid cancer, studies of people who worked at nuclear weapons plant sites have generally yielded similar unclear results, as have studies of people living near areas where the weapons were tested.
Overall, the results of studies looking at a possible link between cancer and low-level radiation exposure have been difficult to interpret.” – American Cancer Society
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and is also in nearly every electronic component. When our consumer society replaces these components, the old ones wind up in trash bins and ultimately in places where the mercury gets in the soil. At that point it’s in the food chain. Because of the half-life of methylmercury it doesn’t breakdown fast enough to prevent the buildup of the quantity in species as they get older and as they eat other species with high mercury content.
Mercury has been shown to cause health impacts to humans. The government has recommended pregnant women should not consume more than a single portion of tuna a week because Tuna can be high in Mercury.
What is it, besides the emotional polarization, that makes nuclear energy any different from our computers, televisions or thermometers from the 70s.
John, We wouldn’t be having this conversation if someone’s computer fell into the ocean. As a matter of fact, the tsunami probably carried a lot of computers into the ocean. This comes down to how necessary is it to take the risks involved in nuclear power. There are better ways to boil water.
I just think there are different perspectives and it’s a Risks/Rewards discussion. Impact is certainly one of those factors. I just don’t know that it’s so cut and dry – because nothing is.
If we are going to have this conversation now, why isn’t there an ongoing conversation about what Mercury is doing to the environment?
Great article, Larry.
I gotta be honest, I don’t know enough about the albacore’s migratory patterns to make an educated comment on the subject, but this has definitely sparked a desire in me to research the matter. There are new article’s every day about the concentrations being found in smaller “feed fish” off the coast of Japan and that makes me nervous. I still think it’s way too early to make any determination on the ultimate effects that this disaster will have on the food source from the Pacific, but I am in support of more vast testing given the concerns surrounding U.S. harvested fish. The problem with testing is that it will fall largely on the canneries and processors as opposed to the FDA. We’ve seen it with methylmercury. The cabability to test is an expensive venture and it is not a government requirement, just a bonus selling point for the companies that take it on. I’m sure that this will be the same with the radioactive concentrations.
If it’s not required by Federal guidelines, there’s a good chance that only the most proactive companies with deep pockets will implement testing. Many of the smaller canneries and processors won’t be able to afford to test and it will be virtually impossible to do sampling of every lot due to the high volume of fish taken in a short period of time during our West Coast tuna season. As most of this fish enters the food chain in a can, I think the feds should largely focus their energy there. It will be much easier to test contained lots of frozen fish designated for cannery than fresh fish heading to market for fresh sale.
Bottom line, I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know if anybody does, but thanks for the thought-provoking article, Larry. This will definitely be on our minds for years, decades, and possibly centuries to come.
John, I think the discussion regarding mercury has been going on for quite some time. Thus, the advisories about pregnant women and children eating tuna and limiting the portions of fish they eat each week.
Ditto regarding the data on safe radiation exposure levels – from sources other than the Nuclear Industry and Federal Gov’t. I’m not going to stop eating fish out of fear – I agree with Jim regarding testing but statistical validity will take a long time. I think I’m having issues with the “cover up” part of this – maybe it’s because I believe that people are good and would never make decisions with the intent of harming other people. Maybe it’s because I work in a corporate environment where trade-off decisions are made everyday with the best knowledge available at the time the decision is made. Are the risks different? Yes. Are the rewards different? Yes. It’s relative and decisions we make today might cost the global economy billions in a year. Is that better or worse than a decision about a nuclear power plant on an island nation with a large power need because of it’s leading industries? The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the people in Japan who lost loved ones and homes is far more real to me than the potential impact of a quantifiable amount of radiation.
Past decisions are only good for making more informed future decisions.
John, I agree with your point about people making decisions with the intent of harming other people in the context of this discussion. However, there’s a difference between intending to harm others and just overlooking the potential for harm as part of the decision making process. I have been tracking the nuclear power industry form some 37 years. Coverup and deception have been a hallmark of the industry and the federal regulators. About two years ago the Wall St. Journal ran a piece on the number of serious fires at U.S. nuclear plants that were never reported to the NRC. The history is rife with examples of undiscovered or unreported leaks, cracks, errosions, etc. It’s an industry that has hung on by a thin financial thread and seems to make decisions based mostly on its own survival and bottom line. Notice that when one airplane has a problem, we ground the entire fleet for inspection of that same model of plane. But when on nuclear plant goes bad the industry and regulators immediately assure us that all other plants of the same model and design are safe and there is nothing about which we should be concerned. Finally, there are better and safer ways to boil water as well as other available means of generating electicity that don’t require boiling water.