Mother Fukushima

by Mike Misselwitz, Editor of Sea Kayaker Magazine (December 17 2013)

Curious anomalies are taking place in the Pacific Ocean. Shark attacks in Hawaii are at a record setting high – thirteen this year and two fatal – more than three times the annual average for the area. Marine life along California’s shores has increased to an unprecedented presence in recent months, with sightings in Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz of more than 200 humpback whales, a pod of nineteen orcas, countless sea lions, and so many anchovies corralled into Santa Cruz Harbor that the water ran out of oxygen and caused a massive anchovy die-off, as reported by the New York Times. In even weirder news, sea stars off the North American coastline, healthy to the point of overpopulation a few months ago, are currently suffering from a wasting-syndrome of unidentified origins, causing them to mutilate and melt in masses from Canada to Mexico in the largest and least explainable sea star die-off in history.

As of now, these incidents are generally unexplained and unconnected in public claims of the scientific community. But there’s one underlying precedent that might explain them all. Fukushima Daiichi.

Nearly three years ago now, on March 11 2011, the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Oki Earthquake rocked Japan and wiped out power sources for the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. After a first, second, and then third failure of backup coolant systems caused by the earthquake’s subsequent tsunami that easily overwhelmed the plant’s sea walls, fuel rods melted in their reactors, the buildings that housed those reactors were crippled by massive explosions, and by March 15 2011, unknown amounts of radioactive matter flooded irrepressibly into the surrounding environment. It is the largest nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl incident of 1986. Possibly larger. For two months after the earthquake, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the operators of Fukushima I, denied that any meltdowns had occurred at the plant.

Fast forward two years and change to July 22 2013 to when Tepco finally announced its estimation that 400 tons of radioactive wastewater have been draining into the Pacific Ocean each day since the incident. The Japanese government took hold of the situation upon this announcement, and later revealed that an additional 300 metric tons of highly contaminated radioactive wastewater had spilled from a storage tank into the groundwater, and in turn, into the Pacific.

A team at the Radioisotope Center at the University of Tokyo, lead by Dr Tatsuhiko Kodama, recently conducted a study to measure the amount of radioactive contamination caused by the meltdown at Fukushima I. They concluded,

The total amount of leakage to be about 29.6 times the amount of radiation caused by the nuclear bomb drop ped on Hiroshima. Assuming the source material to be Uranium, we think the total amount of leakage is about twenty times the contamination caused by the Hiroshima bomb.

So, where’s the connection to the anomalies of sea life, and why such a delayed reaction?

A few variables appear to be at hand. First, the reaction of the ocean hasn’t been delayed. It’s public acknowledgement that’s been slow to catch up. In the summer of 2012, scientists at Stanford University caught fifteen Pacific Bluefin tuna off the California coast for research. Of those fifteen tuna, 100 percent tested positive for the radioisotopes cesium-137 and cesium-134, the same toxic matter found in fish from Swedish lakes following the Chernobyl disaster. Follow-up research from the study reveals that Pacific Bluefin tuna, which are born many miles offshore from Japan and surrounding areas and migrate eastward toward California, continue to show up on the North American coastline with traceable amounts of the radioactive byproducts. Yet the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) refuses to test fish on the West Coast for radiation.

In August 2013, an independent fisheries scientist in British Columbia, Alexandra Morton, discovered fish off the west coast of British Columbia [Canada] suffering from a mysterious disease that’s causing them to hemorrhage. Of the herring she encountered during a beach seine on Malcolm Island, north of Vancouver Island, Morton noted,

I’ve never seen fish looking this bad […] These little herring […] were not only bleeding from their fins, but from their bellies, their chins, their eyeballs […] It was 100 percent. I couldn’t find any that weren’t bleeding to some degree. And they were schooling with young sockeye salmon.

Four months later, sea stars along the North American coastline are being wiped out by similar, unexplainable symptoms. Radiation poisoning is a viable cause, though its relation hasn’t been confirmed publicly.

For nuclear water from the Fukushima Daiichi event to reach the North American Pacific coast, it needs to travel along the ocean’s currents. Scientists liken ocean currents to a giant conveyor belt. In the case of the Pacific, major ocean currents cycle from deep water along the coast of Japan eastward through the North Pacific Current, then split off into shallower waters between the Alaska Current, which travels north along the Pacific Northwest, and the California Current, which runs south along the west coast of the lower 48 and Mexico. Multiple projections have been made to estimate the time-frame of dispersal for radioactive matter through the ocean currents following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Researchers from the Center of Excellence for Climate System Science (CECSS) expect the radioactive plume to hit the US in 2014. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) anticipates that the brunt of radioactive pollution released into the Pacific
will not reac h the North American Pacific Coast until 2016 or 2017. Any effects we might be seeing now are literally the very beginning.

As for the other anomalies in sea life occurring in recent months – increased shark attacks and a major spike in sightings of sea life along the North American coastline – one possible explanation is that in visiting Pacific shorelines in abnormal numbers, the animals are fleeing their usual open-water habitats. As the impeding sprawl of radiation makes its way across the Pacific, it may be uprooting the open-ocean inhabitants and sending them south or east ahead of the plume. 200 humpbacks, hundreds of dolphins, a pod of nineteen orcas, excessive amounts of sea lions, countless anchovies sighted in Monterey Bay. Thirteen shark attacks off the Hawaiian coast this year. Such interaction between open-ocean animals and humans has seldom been so profuse in these areas. The animals appear to be straying from their traditional environments.

Let’s revisit our friend the sea star. Affectionately known as starfish, science retired the early pet-name after reasoning that it’s an echinoderms, a marine invertebrate rather than a “fish”. Sea stars are tokens of a healthy ocean, resilient and iconic, normally found in tide pools, around reefs and on pylons all along North American shores, among many other places in the sea. Sea stars of varying species, and particularly Sunflower sea stars, have suffered die-offs from climatic conditions and disease in the past, but typically rejuvenate and proliferate back to a healthy population. Until a few months ago, they thrived in amounts of up to twelve-per-square-meter in areas along the Pacific Northwest and California.

Now, it’s difficult to find even one healthy sea star off the North American West Coast. A more common sight might be white goo, disintegrating limbs from what once may have been a sea star, and sprawling sea-floor graveyards of barely recognizable star-shaped corp ses melting into the local current. Laura James, a videographer and underwater explorer in Seattle, Wash. recently dove into Puget Sound near West Seattle to investigate the die-off.

“I’d heard that the sea stars were dying en mass but this was beyond my imagination”, James said. “It was like carnage or a mass grave. Dead and dying sea stars, body on top of body.” Her video displays the drastic difference between the life she found last year and the death found today.

The onslaught of sea stars is presumed to have begun less than six months ago in June 2013. Accounts detail horrifying death – lesions forming on limbs, body parts twisting and writhing in apparent agony and limbs tearing from bodies and wandering in opposite directions until halted by lifelessness.

“They can go from great – to pieces – in twelve hours”, said Pete Raimondi, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Santa Cruz in an interview with FO X News in November. “We’ve never seen it at this scale up and down the coast […] We are at the onset of the outbreak”.

Where previous sea star die-offs have affected one or two species of sea star, typically in warmer climates, the current devastation is now documented to be afflicting up to ten species including the Sunflower sea star, in both cold and warmer water stretching the breadth of the North American West Coast. Reports of the wasting-syndrome are beginning to permeate popular media, but any connection between Fukushima Daiichi and the die-off is still being purported as speculation.

What’s puzzling is similar sea star die-offs are now occurring on the Atlantic Coast in areas from Maine through New Jersey, rendering the Fukushima Daiichi correlation seemingly far fetched. “There is no direct route to get from Providence to Seattle”, noted Gary Wessel, a molecular biologist at Brown University How could radiation be affecting animals on th e opposite coast?

Maybe it’s because currents don’t stop in the ocean. Water evaporates and is carried inland from the Pacific by weather systems. Along the way some falls on land, but much of it gets picked up by the jet stream and carried to the East Coast, where it deposits into the Atlantic Ocean. The radioactive sprawl dissipates and dilutes as it spreads across the atmosphere, and its potency in rainfall is questionable. Some believe the levels won’t rise into harmful territory.

In November 2013 reporters for, an investigative environmental blog that analyzes research from independent testing, conducted a series of tests on rainwater during winter storm Boreas in Death Valley, California. A few samples displayed standard background levels of radioactive activity, while other samples taken from various areas in Death Valley National Park tested positive for extreme amounts of beta radiation – the type of radiation that carries toxic isotopes cesi um-137 and cesium-134, which are majorly associated with nuclear disasters. One rainwater sample from the aptly named Badwater area showed results of 26.7 times normal background levels. Another sample, taken from Stovepipe Wells forty miles to the north, showed 29.7 times normal background levels. The most extreme result, which came from samples near Furnace Creek on November 23, showed a radioactive presence of 31.5 times normal background levels. The effects of such a presence of beta ra!
diation on
wildlife are reportedly unidentified.

“There is a general consensus among scientists that we are seeing more disease”, said Jonathan Sleeman, director of the US Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisonsin. “So many diseases afflicting such a wide variety of animals […] A study is being conducted in northwestern Montana to examine the possible causes”.

In Minnesota, moose are dying at a rate of up to 25 percent a yea r, which prompted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to call off the 2013 moose-hunting season. In British Columbia, recent years have seen the moose population decline between twenty and seventy percent. “The fact that you’ve got different proximate causes killing off the moose suggests there’s an underlying ultimate cause”, said Dennis Murray, a population ecologist at Trent University in Canada.

Montana’s animals are also suffering from inexplicable die-offs. In mid-November the Billings [Montana] Gazette published an evaluation of the die-off of Montana’s normally flourishing deer population. “I’ve only seen three does this year”, said Jared Jansen, a Montana resident from the Musselshell River area. “It used to be when I was haying along the river, early in the morning, I’d see 200 to 500 head in the meadows”. Causes for the die-offs have been attributed to epizootic hemorrhagic disease, sylvatic plague, bluetongue, brucellosis, ch ytrid, and chronic wasting disease. What’s causing such inflation of these diseases is still unclear.

Back in Fukushima, on November 18 2013, Tepco began the high-stakes, decades-long process of removing the remaining 1,500+ spent fuel rods from the only reactor that hasn’t completely melted down already, damaged Reactor Unit Four. Tepco released an animated video to explain the process of removal, which has since become extremely controversial due to public claims that the simplistic, cartoon video downplays the criticality of the operation. The video is viewable here.

The reactor’s spent rods contain Uranium and Plutonium, among other radioactive materials. During the removal process, if a rod were to snap and these materials were to fall from the rods to the bottom of the reactor pools, they could interact to ignite and cause the remaining fuel rods to melt down, releasing toxic byproducts like hydrogen gas into the temporary enclosure that houses the facility. If th is happens, the gas will be trapped and eventually pressurized in the enclosure, turning it into the equivalent of a atomic bomb surrounded by nuclear reactors.

Arnie Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator, former nuclear industry senior vice president and chief engineer at Fairwinds Energy Education, put the removal process like this:

It’s like a pack of cigarettes. And if it’s a fresh pack, you can pull the cigarettes out. But if it’s a crushed pack, the cigarettes get stuck. So the first problem is that these things have been beat up by the earthquake … But then on top of that, here at Fukushima Daiichi Unit Four, the roof collapsed on top and damaged the racks with the girders falling on it. I built these racks when I was a senior vice president in the industry, and the tolerances are very, very high tolerance. So they have to pull these things out now. And with the roof rubble in it, the friction to try to pull these out is going to be hard. And I’m afraid they m ight snap one.

Media reports from the first day announced the successful removal of the first few rods. Tepco calls the early removal’s success “a milestone”, albeit the first successful milestone of a tedious decades-long process.

The United Nations has assigned the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to oversee the removal operation, but doubts of the IAEA’s motives and transparency are raising critical skepticism.

Said Gundersen:

The International Atomic Energy Agency is chartered by the United Nations to promote nuclear power. It’s Article II of the IAEA’s charter, and it’s crystal clear that their job is to promote … What we think of as the guard dog going to show up and make sure the Japanese do it right, in fact it’s the lapdog going to show up. And they have never, you know, for the forty years Tokyo Electric was mismanaging this project, they never slapped Tokyo Electric on the wrist and told them they were doing it wrong.

Dale Klein is at the head of the IAEA task force and chairman of the Fukushima monitoring committee. Klein said in an interview with Australia’s ABC, “The best word to use with Fukushima is ‘challenging'”.

While the IAEA and Tepco work to disengage the currently dormant fuel rods from Reactor Unit Four, their real challenge is to turning off Reactors One, Two, and Three, which remain relentlessly radioactive, melting into ground and excreting radioactive matter into the groundwater of an enormous aquifer that sits below the plant.

Storing the tons of contaminated coolant that’s been used in attempt to cool the reactors is also a serious issue. Tepco is collecting 400 tons of the wastewater each day in newly built tanks for storage. Of the millions of gallons currently stored onsite at Fukushima I, the IAEA reported, “At the end of the day, when the water is discharged, it will be released in a way that it’s diluted”, referring to its deposit into th e Pacific Ocean.

Currently, popular media refrains from in-depth coverage of the removal and neglects to focus on the possibility of contamination in the Pacific. The FDA continues to refuse to test fish for radiation off the West Coast. Sea stars continue to unexplainably melt into endangerment across the ocean from the melting reactors. Meanwhile, the world has yet to discover the true effects of Fukushima Daiichi.


The original version of this article, at the URL below, contains links to further information not included here.

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