Foundation Helps WHOI Analyze the Impact of Japan's Nuclear Crisis on the Ocean
On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake 80 miles off the northeast coast of Japan triggered a series of tsunamis that devastated nearby shorelines with only a few minutes’ warning. The waves, some of which measured more than 40 feet, struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 150 miles north of Tokyo, disabling the plant’s emergency systems and, over the following weeks, resulted in the largest accidental release of radiation to the ocean in history. Much of this contamination washed into the Pacific.
Thanks to a $3,675,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Chemist Ken Buesseler led the first multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research cruise in June 2011 to understand the amount, type and fate of radioactive materials released into the ocean.
“It was critical to gather early observations of the radioactive contaminants, or radionuclides, in the water and marine biota so we can establish a baseline,” said Buesseler, a Senior Scientist and a recognized expert in the study of radioisotope geochemistry.
In a study published in December 2011 by Buesseler and two Japanese colleagues, the researchers reported that discharges from the power plants peaked one month after the earthquake and tsunami, and continued through at least July. Their study finds the levels of radioactivity, while quite elevated, are not a direct exposure threat to humans or marine life, but cautions that the impact of accumulated radionuclides in marine sediments is poorly known.
The team’s next steps are to continue analysis of the data they collected, as it will help give a clearer idea of how much radiation is out there, where it’s going, how quickly it’s mixing into the ocean, and to what extent it is working its way through the marine food chain via physical and biological processes.
“This project addressed fundamental questions about the impact of this release of radiation to the ocean, and enhanced international collaboration and sharing of scientific data,” said Vicki Chandler, Chief Program Officer, Science, at the Foundation, which seeks to advance environmental conservation and scientific research around the world.
This research expedition would not have been undertaken without Moore funding, added WHOI President and Director Susan Avery. “Private support can be key to enabling an immediate, urgent response due to the independence and nimble nature of this source of funding. The Foundation made a decision to step in when no one else could.”