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The release of radioactivity from Fukushima—both as atmospheric fallout and direct discharges to the ocean—represent the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history. Concentrations of cesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half life, at the plants’s discharge point to the ocean, peaked at over 50 million times normal/previous levels.
A latest analysis, reported in the December 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, indicates that the concentration in ocean water poses no direct threat to humans or marine life, partly because ocean currents moved the contaminants away from shore, however, coastal accumulation in marine sediment could be of concern for decades, says Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole who was involved in the research.
“While concentrations of some radionuclides continued to decrease, by July they were still 10,000 times higher than levels measured in 2010 off the coast of Japan. This indicates the plants “remain a significant source of contamination to the coastal waters off Japan.”
“There is currently no data that allow us to distinguish between several possible sources of continued releases, but these most likely include some combination of direct releases from the reactors or storage tanks, or indirect releases from groundwater beneath the reactors or coastal sediments, both of which are likely contaminated from the period of maximum releases.”
Buesseler says there could be concern if the source remains high and radiation accumulates in marine sediments. “We don’t know how this might impact benthic marine life, and with a half-life of 30 years, any cesium-137 accumulating in sediments or groundwater could be a concern for decades to come…”