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Something Fishy

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JAPAN NUCLEAR
AP

A major sushi restaurant chain's refusal to buy Japanese-caught fish because of fear of radioactive pollution is an overreaction. There has been no demonstrable evidence of lethal marine life contamination from the radioactive plume being emitted by Japan's damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. The plume dissipates as it is blown out to sea.

But that doesn't mean the toxic residue of a substantial radioactive release from a major nuclear event should be taken lightly. In an extreme case, radioactive fallout's effect on marine life can be a legitimate cause for concern, especially in close proximity to the release. For example, in the aftermath of the United States' 1954 thermo-nuclear bomb test in South Pacific waters, dangerous radiation levels were detected in some tuna frequenting the area. The discovery created sufficient panic to temporarily close Tokyo's central fish market and bar deliveries of South Pacific catches to Europe.

Even though the plume emanating from the Fukushima reactors is diluted dramatically as it crosses the Pacific, low levels of radioactive fallout have already been recorded on the West Coast of the United States. That won't be the end of it either, since radiation from the crippled Japanese nuclear facility is expected to leak for many more days.

Although authorities across the international spectrum assure us that the plume poses no health problem except possibly in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima reactors, there are solid grounds for reflection. Attention is called to the observation of University of Hong Kong chemical pathology professor Lam Ching-Wan. "The likelihood of fish absorbing sufficiently large quantities of radioactive fallout from the ocean is negligible," Lam says, "except for larger fish, who live long enough to accumulate large amounts."

He is talking about bioaccumulation, which over time causes hazardous radioactive particles deposited into the environment by human activity (with the help of wind and precipitation) to infiltrate marine life, soil, and crops. The absorbed particles travel up the food chain, insidiously concentrating at the top where we reside. Bioaccumulation of radioactive particles is the proverbial "genie in a bottle". It is a genie that occasionally breaks loose when it reaches levels that place exposed human beings at greatly increased risk of contracting cancer.

It is reassuring that our own federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expresses confidence that the Fukushima radioactive fallout poses no risk to our food supply. Just in case their word is not convincing enough, FDA officials pledge to continue intensive monitoring of imports of Japanese origin. They point out that although not all food imports are physically inspected, one hundred percent are electronically screened. To further assuage anyone worried about seafood, the FDA reminds us that no fishing has been taking place near the recently damaged Japanese reactors due to the devastation in the region.

However apprehensive one might be about the safety of nuclear power, the widely used technology appears destined to be around for the foreseeable future. Even if we wanted to, existing plants could not be shut down over night, especially since no acceptable readily available substitute of that magnitude exists to take their place. Until we have one, we can't afford to rule out nuclear as a significant source of future energy, despite its shortcomings.

That doesn't mean we can't redouble efforts to improve safety while working towards making nuclear power generation with its potential catastrophic risk superfluous. The key is developing the mass application of clean renewable energy. Along with that is overcoming the so far intractable scientific challenge of harnessing viable nuclear fusion, a source that theoretically could provide an infinite supply of energy from sea water with a waste product composed of harmless helium gas.

Edward Flattau's fourth book Green Morality is now available.

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