In the past few days, both ad-supported commercial media and the social media universe have been filled with stories about how scientists on the US West coast were able to find traces of radioactive cesium and could conclusively link that cesium to the material released from the Fukushima nuclear power plants.
Just in case you have been playing Rip Van Winkle for the past 15 months, the Fukushima nuclear power plants are the ones that released about 100 (corrected from 11 in original post) kilograms of radioactive cesium starting about a day after all of their emergency power supplies were heavily damaged by a 45 foot high tsunami. That enormous wall of water was initiated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurring off of Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11. 2011. Nearly all of the people in the area around the Fukushima power station had been evacuated before any releases were allowed. No member of the public was exposed to any significant level of radiation.
The scientists who measured the cesium and performed the isotopic analysis to conclusively prove that the cesium came from the Fukushima power plants were justifiably proud of their skilled use of sensitive scientific tools and analytical methods. They published their peer-reviewed paper in a reputable journal; you can find the abstract at Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California. The authors did a good job of selecting their paper’s title; it has garnered vastly more attention than most articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Unfortunately, it seems that most media sources did not bother to read the paper closely enough to find out that the radiation dose rate delivered by the cesium in the tuna was 30 times less than the radiation dose rate from potassium 40 that is a natural part of the tuna and 200 times less than the radiation dose rate that comes from polonium-210 in normal tuna. Fortunately, Richard Harris from NPR read enough of the paper to carefully provide that information to his generally more thoughtful and curious audience.
Instead, sources like Fox News focused on the fact that the radioactive cesium levels were 10 times higher than the normally minute levels of radioactive cesium found in nature.
It is a little disheartening to see that a Google News search using the term “radioactive tuna” returns 40,000 hits and a Google Web search with that same search term returns nearly 24 million hits. I guess that is more interesting news – or more interesting news to the real customers of the media, the people who pay for advertising, than information about the Chemical Aftermath of the tsunami.
This morning, one of my friends forwarded a link to another carefully researched, peer-reviewed paper published about the effects of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. That paper, titled Chemical Aftermath: Contamination and Cleanup Following the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami was published in Environmental Health Perspectives and has been available online since July 1, 2011. The paper was written by Winifred A. Bird and Elizabeth Grossman. It has numerous references and includes a number of dramatic photos. It has attracted exactly one comment.
Bird and Grossman’s paper was not buried; I did a Google search with the full title of the paper and came up with more than 600,000 hits. I understand that the search results may be inflated by the large number of words in the search term, but I checked the first sixty entries (six pages). Most of them specifically reference Bird and Grossman’s Environmental Health Perspectives article. A Google News search with the paper title provided zero matches, but since the article has been online for nearly a year, I would not expect any current news about it.
The question I have for you is this – do you remember many mentions or discussion about the chemical aftermath of the tsunami in the popular press?