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FISH

The  Nuclear  Accident  in  Japan:  


Impacts  on  Fish
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W hen an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan’s northeastern


coast on March 11, 2011, a nuclear crisis began unfolding at the Tokyo Electric
Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi plant.1 The Japanese government
estimates it could be several months before the cooling systems, damaged by the
natural disasters, are fully functional.2 In an effort to thwart a nuclear meltdown at
the plant while the cooling system is damaged, hundreds of tons of water has been
sprayed into four of the six reactors to cool fuel rods and spent fuel.3 The radioactive
water is pooling in various locations around the plant, inhibiting work to bring the
damaged cooling systems back into operation.4

Releases to the Environment


As explained by the Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio
Edano, “…the longer this continues, the more radioactive
particles will be released and the greater the impact on the

photo courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, SeaWiFS Project and ORBIMAGE
ocean.”5

To clear the way for workers and create more storage


room for highly radioactive water, TEPCO pumped ap-
proximately 3 million gallons of water contaminated with
SV^SL]LSYHKPH[PVUPU[V[OL7HJPÄJ6JLHU6 The water that
was dumped contains about 100 times the legal limit of
radiation, while the highly contaminated water remaining
in the plant contains 10,000 times the legal limit.7

On April 2, 2011 workers discovered a nearly eight-inch-


long crack in the side of a pit holding water in reactor two
at the plant8 and found that radioactive water leaking from
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It is estimated that 1,680 gallons of highly radioactive
water rushed out of the crack every hour, directly into the
ocean.10 On April 5, 2011 attempts to plug the leak were
reported to be successful.11

Several types of radioactive materials are being released


into the environment from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi
plant. The different types of radioactive material degrade at
various rates; some persist in the environment longer than
others.12 Degradation of radioactive material is measured
using its half-life, which is the time it takes for half of the
material to degrade.13 Radioactive iodine (iodine-131) has
a half-life of eight days.14 Radioactive cesium (cesium-137) least six months.29 Knowing this biological half-life, re-
has a half-life of 30 years.15 searchers are able to determine where an individual animal
has traveled and eaten prey from contaminated waters.30
Scientists are voicing concern about the potential long-
term impacts from the cesium-137 being released from the
plant, as well as the risk that contact with the most con- Food Chain Accumulation
taminated water would lead to “immediate injury.”16 One Direct contact with water is a factor in the uptake of radio-
expert, Kenya Mizuguchi, professor emeritus of Maritime active material for all seafood. But in addition to taking up
Science and Technology at Tokyo University, said, “We’re YHKPVHJ[P]P[`MYVT[OL^H[LYJHYUP]VYV\ZÄZOHSZVPUNLZ[[OL
seeing the levels of radioactive materials in the water in- YHKPVHJ[P]P[`MYVT[OLIVKPLZVM[OLZTHSSLYWYL`ÄZO[OL`
crease, which means this problem is going to continue LH[;OLOPNOLY\WVU[OLMVVKJOHPUHÄZOPZ[OLTVYL
to get worse and worse.”17 [OLZLJVU[HTPUH[LKWYL`ÄZOJHUPUJYLHZL[OLYHKPVHJ[P]L
material in its body.31 The discovery of radioactive material
No Safe Level PUWYL`ÄZOZ\JOHZ[OLZHUKSHUJLPU^H[LYZULHY[OLHJ-
JPKLU[ZP[LHSZVYHPZLZJVUJLYUHIV\[ZWLJPLZVMÄZO[OH[HYL
While much of the coverage of the impacts from the higher up the food chain, like tuna.32
nuclear disaster are accompanied by reassurances about
low levels of exposure, there is no “safe” level of radiation (Z[\K`PU]LZ[PNH[PUNTHUNYV]LZUHWWLYHMVVKÄZO
exposure. The full impact of the Japanese nuclear crisis re- native to Japan that is high on the food chain33) showed
mains to be seen, but the health risks posed by radioactive that cesium-137 could be accumulated up the food chain,
contamination are well-documented. In 2006, the National resulting in higher concentration of cesium-137 in the
(JHKLTPLZVM:JPLUJLPZZ\LKHKLÄUP[P]LYLWVY[VUYHKPH- WYLKH[VYÄZO[OHUPU[OLZ\YYV\UKPUN^H[LYZ34
tion exposure that concluded that even low levels of radia-
tion can cause human health problems, including cancer, Fish can expel radioactive material over time.35 Ce-
and called for further investigation on potential links be- sium-137 can be retained in the muscle tissue of a living
tween low-level radiation exposure and heart disease and THYPULÄZOMVY[VKH`Z"[OPZPZYLMLYYLK[VHZ[OL
immune disorders.18 Children are especially susceptible to biological retention half-life.36 The range in biological
the impact of foodborne exposure to radioactive materials, retention half-life may be attributed to the temperature of
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making safeguards for food and water particularly critical.19
killed for market, it will not be able to expel the radioac-
tive materials in the biological half-life timeframe and the
Radiation in Fish cesium will break down as it would in the environment,
(UVÄZOPUNaVULOHZILLULZ[HISPZOLKMVYTPSLZHYV\UK with a 30-year half-life.
the plant.20*VU[HTPUH[LKÄZOOH]LILLUMV\UKHIV\[
miles from the plant.21 On March 29, 2011, a low level of Standards
JLZP\T^HZKL[LJ[LKPUÄZOJH\NO[MYVTHWVY[PU[OL
Chiba prefecture, south of Fukushima.22 On April 1, 2011, On April 5, 2011, the Japanese government established
before the proposed 3 million gallons of low-level radioac- YHKPH[PVUZ[HUKHYKZMVYÄZOMVY[OLÄYZ[[PTL The new
38

[P]L^H[LY^HZK\TWLKPU[V[OL7HJPÄJ6JLHUHZTHSSÄZO SPTP[ZMVYÄZOHYL[OLZHTLHZ[OLSPTP[ZLZ[HISPZOLKMVY
was caught approximately 40 miles from the plant with vegetables.39;OLNV]LYUTLU[ZL[[OLZLSPTP[ZHM[LYÄZO
unsafe levels of iodine-131 and cesium-137.23 from several locations were found to have detectable
levels of radiation.40;OLÄZO[OH[^LYLJH\NO[VU(WYPS
2011, before the new regulations were established, would
Radiation and Marine Life OH]LX\HSPÄLKHZ\UZHMLMVYJVUZ\TW[PVU\UKLY[OLUL^
0UHKKP[PVU[VÄZOV[OLYTHYPULSPMLJHUILHMMLJ[LKI` standard.41
radiation. A 2000 study investigating radioactive material
in seaweed found traces of cesium-137 in two samples — The U.S. Response
one from Norway and the other from Japan.24 The authors
of this study indicated that these levels might be a product In 2010, the United States imported 35.5 million pounds
of the radiation discharged from Chernobyl, 14 years after of seafood from Japan.42 On March 22, 2011, the Food and
the accident.25 Some algae have been shown to accumu- Drug Administration (FDA) issued an import alert regarding
late radioactive iodine and technetium,26 a metal that is a all milk, milk products, fresh vegetables and fruits pro-
byproduct of nuclear reactors. The United States imported duced or manufactured from the region near the nuclear
over 1.2 million pounds of seaweed and algae from Japan plant, which means these products cannot enter the United
in 2010.27 States.43 The FDA has said it will test seafood from the
region near the plant, but has not barred seafood from
The accumulated level of cesium-137 in muscle tissue of entering the country.44 Unfortunately, the FDA inspects 2
whales has been used to trace the migratory patterns of percent of imported seafood on average every year,45 call-
individual animals.28 In an animal weighing six tons, ce- ing into question how thorough the agency’s checks for
sium-137 is likely to have a biological half-life of at radiation can be.
Recommendations 24 Netten, C van et al. “Elemental and radioactive analysis of commercially
available seaweed.” The Science of the Total Environment. vol. 255. 2000 at
The FDA should immediately ban all food (including 173-174.
25 Netten, C van et al. “Elemental and radioactive analysis of commercially
seafood) and water imports from Japan, expanding on the available seaweed.” The Science of the Total Environment. vol. 255 2000 at
FDA’s original step of restricting imports of milk and pro- 173-174.
26 Updates of 29 March 2011 at International Atomic Energy Agency “Fukushima
duce from the region near the accident site. Nuclear Accident Update Log.” Available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/
news/tsunamiupdate01.html
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 27 U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foreign Agriculture Service. Available at www.
fas.usda.gov accessed March 2011.
and FDA work together to be sure that seafood caught in
28 Born, Erik, et al. “Regional variation of caesium-137 in minke whales Balae-
United States and international waters is free of radioactive noptera acutorostrata from West Greenland, the Northeast Atlantic and the
contamination. Data generated by any monitoring program North Sea.” Polar Biology. vol. 25, 2000 at 908.
29 Born, Erik et al. “Regional variation of caesium-137 in minke whales Balaenop-
should be made public. tera acutorostrata from West Greenland, the Northeast Atlantic and the North
Sea.” Polar Biology. vol. 25, 2000 at 909.
Congress should provide adequate funding for the seafood 30 Born, Erik et al. “Regional variation of caesium-137 in minke whales Balaenop-
tera acutorostrata from West Greenland, the Northeast Atlantic and the North
inspection, both at home and abroad, instead of attempting Sea.” Polar Biology. vol. 25, 2000 at 907.
to cut funding to both the United States Department of Ag-  AOHV?PN\HUNL[HS¸)PVTHNUPÄJH[PVUVMYHKPVJLZP\TPUHTHYPULWPZJP]VYV\Z
riculture and the FDA, which would weaken their ability to ÄZO¹ Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 222, November 5, 2001 at 227.
32 “Fishermen wary of rumor mill / Worry lack of information could lead to
meet their current obligations, even without the additional doubts about seafood safety.” The Daily Yomiuri. April 4, 2011.
burden posed by this nuclear accident.   ¸9HKPVHJ[P]LPVKPULMV\UKPUZVTL1HWHULZLÄZO¹Seafood Source. April 5,
2011.
  AOHV?PN\HUNL[HS¸)PVTHNUPÄJH[PVUVMYHKPVJLZP\TPUHTHYPULWPZJP]VYV\Z
Endnotes ÄZO¹Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 222, November 5, 2001 at 227.
“Japan Nuke Crisis: Is Our Seafood Safe?” [Television broadcast] Good Morn-
1 Foster, Malcolm and Nakashima, Ryan. “Sea radiation is another blow to ing America. ABC. April 6, 2011.
1HWHU»ZÄZOLYTLU¹Associated Press. April 5, 2011.
33 “Lutjanus argentimaculatus, Mangrove red snapper.” FishBase. Available at
2 Yamaguchi, Mari and Kageyama, Yuri. “Search for radiation leak desperate in O[[W!ÄZOIHZLVYNZLHYJOWOW Accessed April 1, 2011.
Japan.” Associated Press. April 4, 2011.
 AOHV?PN\HUNL[HS¸)PVTHNUPÄJH[PVUVMYHKPVJLZP\TPUHTHYPULWPZJP]VYV\Z
3 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Belson, Ken. “Japan Releases Low-Level Radioactive ÄZO¹Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 222, November 5, 2001 at 227-228
Water Into Ocean.” The New York Times. April 4, 2011. and 235.
4 Yamaguchi, Mari and Kageyama, Yuri. “Search for radiation leak turns desper-  AOHV?PN\HUNL[HS¸)PVTHNUPÄJH[PVUVMYHKPVJLZP\TPUHTHYPULWPZJP]VYV\Z
ate in Japan.” Associated Press. April 4, 2011. ÄZO¹Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 222, November 5, 2001 at 227-
5 Yamaguchi, Mari and Kageyama, Yuri. “Search for radiation leak turns desper- 228.
ate in Japan.” Associated Press. April 4, 2011.  AOHV?PN\HUNL[HS¸)PVTHNUPÄJH[PVUVMYHKPVJLZP\TPUHTHYPULWPZJP]VYV\Z
6 Dorell, Oren. “Japan plant pumps radioactive water into ocean.” USA TODAY. ÄZO¹Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 222, November 5, 2001 at 234.
April 5, 2011. 37 Kasamatsu, Fuijio and Ishikawa, Yusuke. “Natural variation of radionuclide 137
7 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Belson, Ken. “Japan Releases Low-Level Radioactive Cs concentration in marine organisms with special reference to the effect of
Water Into Ocean.” The New York Times. April 4, 2011. food habits and trophic level.” Marine Ecology Progress Series. vol. 160. 1997
8 Updates of 2 April 2011 at International Atomic Energy Agency “Fukushima at 118.
Nuclear Accident Update Log.” Available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/ 38 “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5,
news/tsunamiupdate01.html 2011.
9 Updates of 2 April 2011 at International Atomic Energy Agency “Fukushima 39 “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5,
Nuclear Accident Update Log.” Available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/ 2011.
news/tsunamiupdate01.html  ¸9HKPVHJ[P]LPVKPULMV\UKPUZVTL1HWHULZLÄZO¹Seafood Source. April 5,
10 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Belson, Ken. “Japan Releases Low-Level Radioactive 2011.
Water Into Ocean.” The New York Times. April 4, 2011. “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5,
11 “Japan nuke plant plugs highly radioactive leak.” Associated Press. April 5, 2011.
2011. 41 “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5,
12 EPA. “Radiation Protection – Half-Life.” Available at http://www.epa.gov/ 2011.
YWK^LI\UKLYZ[HUKOHSÅPMLO[TS Accessed April 2, 2011. 42 U.S. Department of Agriculture. Foreign Agriculture Service. Available at www.
13 EPA. “Radiation Protection – Half-Life.” Available at http://www.epa.gov/ fas.usda.gov accessed March 2011.
YWK^LI\UKLYZ[HUKOHSÅPMLO[TS Accessed April 2, 2011. 43 Food and Drug Administration. “News & Events - Radiation Safety.” Updates
14 EPA. “Radiation Protection – Iodine.” Available at http://www.epa.gov/rpd- April 2, 2011. Available at http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/
web00/radionuclides/iodine.html Accessed April 2, 2011. ucm247403.htm
44 Food and Drug Administration. “News & Events - Radiation Safety.” Updates
15 EPA. “Radiation Protection – Cesium.” Available at http://www.epa.gov/rpd- April 2, 2011. Available at http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/
web00/radionuclides/cesium.html Accessed April 2, 2011. ucm247403.htm
16 “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5,  <UP[LK:[H[LZ.V]LYUTLU[(JJV\U[HIPSP[`6MÄJL-+(7YVNYHT*OHUNLZHUK
2011. Better Collaboration among Key Federal Agencies Could Improve Detection
17 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Belson, Ken. “Japan Releases Low-Level Radioactive and Prevention.” (GAO-09-258). February 2009 at 19.
Water Into Ocean.” The New York Times. April 4, 2011.
18 National Academies of Science. Board on Radiation Effects Research. “Health
Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: BEIR VII Phase 2.
2006 at 6, 8, 10 and 151.
  <UP[LK5H[PVUZ:JPLU[PÄJ*VTTP[[LLVU[OL,MMLJ[ZVM([VTPJ9HKPH[PVU¸;OL
Chernobyl accident, UNSCEAR’s assessment of the radiation effects.” Available
at http://www.unscear.org/unscear/en/chernobyl.htmlHUKVUÄSL(JJLZZLK
March 31, 2011.
20 “Radiation levels in seawater off Japan plant spike to all-time highs.” CNN.
March 31, 2011. For more information:
21 “Japan sets new radiation safety level for seafood.” Associated Press. April 5, web: www.foodandwaterwatch.org
2011.
22 Updates of 29 March 2011 at International Atomic Energy Agency “Fukushima
email: info@fwwatch.org
Nuclear Accident Update Log.” Available at http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/ WOVUL!+*‹  *(
news/tsunamiupdate01.html
23 Pollack, Andrew et al. “Company Says Radioactive Water Leak at Japan Plant Is
Plugged.” The New York Times. April 5, 2011. Copyright © April 2011 Food & Water Watch