We live in a radioactive world. There are more than 1,500 radioactive isotopes (radionuclides) on Earth. Most originated from the Big Bang and are naturally occurring in rocks, water, and air. Some are human-made products of the nuclear era that were released into the environment by Cold War weapons testing and by accidents, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Radionuclides have widely varying chemical and physical properties. Some have known impacts on human health; others pose risks that are misunderstood and/or overstated. Many have been used as tracers to study environmental processes and enabled revolutionary understanding of the natural world.
In the aftermath of Fukushima—after years of relative complacency—the public and policymakers have renewed concerns about radioactive contamination. There are more than 400 nuclear power plants worldwide, a number that is growing in many countries. In addition, radioactive wastes have piled up without safe storage, nuclear-fueled ships and submarines ply our oceans, and there are concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear “dirty” bombs. Yet, at the same time, many nuclear scientists and radiochemists trained during the Cold War are retiring.
“There is a need for trained experts to respond when needed, and research from trusted, independent laboratories is essential for building public confidence,” said Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. That realization inspired him, immediately after he returned from Tokyo, to begin to establish a new Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity (CMER) in partnership with other institutions worldwide.
CMER will provide training for the next generation of radiochemists and support a critical mass of scientific capability. Its mission is to propel scientific breakthroughs and generate valuable knowledge that will inform the public and policymakers about the risks, benefits, and impacts of ionizing radiation in the environment.