Is Fukushima already poisoning hundreds of seafood consumers?


The news out of Fukushima just keeps getting worse and worse. It’s been more than two years since a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami triggered a nuclear emergency at the massive seaside power plant, operated by TEPCO. It’s hard to know which is more problematic — the frequent human errors, such as a accidental power failure last week that nearly caused cooling water to stop flowing to the damaged reactors, or the more systemic failures, such as the recent announcement that 300 tons of radioactive water has already spilled into the Pacific.

Only now, after some 30 months, are TEPCO and the Japanese government acknowledging that it will need major international help to get a handle on the crisis. Even the best estimates say that it will take decades for the plant and for the contaminated lands around Fukushima to be restored to normal. The most frustrating part is that both the utility and Japanese authorities have continually downplayed the radioactive threat to the Pacific and to the fish who live there — insisting that the leaks are relatively small and are quickly diluted by the massive ocean.

But now there’s a growing body of science that suggests otherwise. In fact, there are two new reports out this week arguing that ocean pollution from the Fukushima accident is more extensive, and that seafood contamination is a more serious problem, than conceded by local officials.

One American researcher says that TEPCO’s claim that pollution is only hugging a small area of the Japanese coastline is, in his words, “silly”:

Japan’s government has supported the utility’s statement that the irradiated groundwater flowing into the Pacific Ocean at a rate of some 400 tons a day remains in an area of 0.3 square kilometers (0.12 square miles) within the bay fronting the atomic station.

“These statements like a 0.3 square-kilometer zone are silly,” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution senior scientist Ken Buesseler said in an interview. “It’s not true to the science,” said Buesseler, who was on a Japanese research vessel 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) off Fukushima from Sept. 8 to Sept. 14.

The scientist later adds:

“One hundred kilometers away I can measure isotopes of cesium that are coming from the reactor” in Fukushima, Buesseler said. “They’re not at dangerous levels. The scientific question is are they at levels high enough to accumulate in the food chain and a cause for some of the fish to be above the legal limit.”

Buesseler’s research raises the question, of course, of whether the ocean contamination is already affecting Pacific seafood. Another new report tackles that part of the equation:

About 800 people worldwide will get cancer from radiation due to Fukushima in fish eaten to date, according to Georgia Straight calculations. The Straight results relied on a widely used cancer-risk formula developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as radiation levels in 33,000 fish tested by the Japanese Fisheries Agency.

Half the cancers will be fatal. About 500 will be in Japan; 75 will be due to Japanese fish exports to other countries; and 225 will be from fishing in the Pacific by nations other than Japan.

And that’s likely only a small part of the actual long-term cancer impacts from eating the fish. Two nuclear experts who saw the Straight’s figures said the real cancer toll could be 100 times higher—or 80,000 cancers.

“The potential numbers could be two orders of magnitude [100 times] higher than your numbers,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear-policy lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in a phone interview. “Hundreds of cancers are nothing to sneeze at, and it is a fraction of what I suspect the total will be.”

In addition, Marco Kaltofen of the Boston Chemical Group, who has worked closely with me and my law firm since the start of the BP spill, reports that Japanese seawood used for food is also a concern. He said his lab at Worcester Polytechnic Institute already has positive samples of radioactive Japanese nori sold in U.S. stores.

Another alarming fact from the study is that Canadian officials — that’s where this report originated — tested Japanese seafood for a few months in mid-2011, then stopped. This despite growing evidence that the threat of radioactive contamination from Fukushima is only increasing. As is so often the case, the only dependable information is coming from independent researchers — and that information is alarming. As Japan steps up its effort to contain leaks from Fukushima, there is also a need for increased testing of the nearby seafood. People shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette by eating Japanese fish.

For more information about last week’s power failure at Fukushima, please read:

To read the report about more extensive radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean, check out:

For more information about possible contamination of Japanese seafood, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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