This story has an Alice in Wonderland dimension to it that has made it very difficult to write, and what started out to be a short comparison between an event with unknown consequences (the Japan nuclear crisis) and a similar well-studied event (the nuclear pollution of coastal Ireland) soon took on a life of its own.
To make it more readable, I thought I’d try something a little different from the usual and present the story twice – the first to explain the situation and the second to give the supporting facts.
It really did start simply enough – the idea was that by finding a past situation similar to Japan’s present nuclear crisis I might be able to get a better idea of how the radioactive contamination is likely to affect the whales and dolphins in the area, and what that might mean for the people of Japan. But the more I looked into it, the more complicated it got. I chose to use the Sellafield nuclear processing plant on the coast of Ireland because of the similar oceanographic features – although different in many respects,both areas have strong currents.
What I learned is a bit dismal and frightening, yet is not news to much of the scientific community. Since there is no real starting point, and the end point is somewhere in the distant future when the last half-life of the last nuclear experiment has come (hundreds of thousands of years from now), I’ll just jump in.
The whales of the northern hemisphere probably all carry radioactive isotopes, some going back to our earliest nuclear tests of the 40’s and 50’s. Add in the deliberate dumping of nuclear waste into sensitive marine areas by the nation that was the Soviet Union. Toss in a few accidents, a fallen satellite, lost nuclear submarine, and constant nuclear effluent from present day reactors and you have an ocean that is quickly becoming a toxic soup. Some of the isotopes persist basically forever, passing from one organism to another – for instance the Atlantic salmon that carries nuclear material from the Irish Sea to Canada.
With each link of the food chain the material gets more concentrated, because remember, some radioactive particles break down in days, but others take basically forever to reach their half-life state. We know that some whales live for hundreds of years, and by now must have retained a significant dose, but the small dolphins and porpoises that share our harbors and coasts seem to be the worst off.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. Recently, a study by a doctor on the Faroe Islands (near Iceland) has resulted in his telling the people there that eating whale meat is so toxic with PCBs alone (a type of chemical, not nuclear material) that it compromises their children’s immune systems, interferes with innoculation effectiveness, and may be the cause of Parkinson’s disease, heart problems, and diabetes in adults. He did not measure radioactive isotopes, but neighboring indigenous peoples carry a significant amount as well.
How did the Faroe Islanders react? They accused the doctor of caving into whale activists – and he responded by telling them he didn’t care if they killed the whales, just don’t eat them.
This attitude is typical – people hold on to their way of life even in the face of indisputable evidence that it is harmful to themselves as well as to the sustainablility of life on our planet. We have seen this with the lumber industry and spotted owls, with dams and salmon, with forests and development. The power companies wring every dollar they can from us while they destroy the environment and attempt to cover-up.
That we are constantly recycling nuclear waste every time we eat certain marine animals is known to science, but there is nothing to be done other than to choose things low on the food chain that don’t carry much risk, and avoid eating the marine mammals which are slowly becoming nuclear repositories.
And Japan? Unfortunately that small, battered country, so reliant upon the seas for their fish-based diet has been assaulted with contamination of the Sea of Japan by the Soviet’s nuclear dumping practices over several decades, even before problems at the Fukushima reactor arose. As long as they stick to the fish they should be okay though. It is the practice of eating whales that is going to cause them health problems.
One last point to think about: the Southern hemisphere is relatively clean and has little radioactive material at this point. I wonder if that is part of why Japan goes to the expense of whaling a world away.
The article version, with links:
The whales that call the northern oceans home are most likely contaminated from decades of exposure to radioactive isotopes as well as by the more garden variety toxins – the radioactive pollution is the result of decades of atmospheric testing, nuclear accidents, and purposeful dumping of nuclear waste at sea*. Scientists are able to trace nuclear contamination through the food chain as it becomes more concentrated into the apex predators of the sea, the marine mammals, and what they are discovering is appalling.
Worldwide marine radioactivity studies (WOMARS) Radionuclide levels in oceans and seas
Reprocessing is carried out to recover U and Pu from spent fuel for reuse in reactors.
The major reprocessing plants are in the United Kingdom (Sellafield), France (Cap de La Hague) and Japan (Tokai). Sellafield has been the major source of radioactive contamination of the marine environment. In the 1970s British Nuclear Fuel Ltd., Sellafield (earlier Windscale), began to substantially increase its authorized water-borne radioactive discharges to the Irish Sea.
These discharges, first of all of 137Cs, but also other radionuclides, notably plutonium isotopes, americium and technetium, have become measurable in most parts of the NE Atlantic and to a large extent in the Arctic Ocean.
As the graphic of radioactive effluent from the Sellafield processing plant in Ireland above shows, toxins are readily transported by ocean circulation to the North Sea and Arctic Ocean by strong currents. Although the Sellafield processing plant has eliminated many of it’s earlier practices, the initial contamination was severe and persistent:
Living in the Shadow of Sellafield
Environmental and Health Effects
By Janine Allis-Smith
“As a result of its operations the Irish Sea has become the most radioactively contaminated sea in the world and its discharges have travelled around the globe. Seashore radiation levels around the plant are higher than would be allowed inside Sellafield, at levels which would be illegal in customer countries. Selected soil samples are higher than some of those in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
In Cumbria, radiation from Sellafield can be measured in house dust, our bodies, our children’s teeth, local seafood, seaweed, vegetables and drinking water. It has also been detected in our wildlife, seagulls and feral pigeons.
In 1983 a TV company discovered a childhood leukaemia rate of 10 times the national average in the village of Seascale near Sellafield as well as a 2-6 times higher rate of childhood cancers along the Irish Sea coastal strip. The 1990 Gardner report linked a Sellafield fathers’ preconceptional radiation dose (PPI) to an 8 times higher risk of their child developing leukaemia. A 1993 Government Health and Safety study found that the incidence of leukaemia and NHL in Seascale (village nearest to Sellafield) was 14 times the national average, particularly for children born to fathers who started work at the plant before 1965.
BNG has always denied that radiation from the plant is responsible and continues to promote the theory that ‘Population Mixing’ (construction workers brought to the area) together with an as yet unidentified virus are to blame, even though there were no childhood cancers before Sellafield started operations.
West Cumbria has been declared a Health Action Zone because of the high incidence of heart disease, cancers and thyroid disorders in the general public. Sellafield operates a radiation scheme, compensating workers on a 20% probability that their cancers have been caused by working at the plant and which has paid out nearly £5 million over the last 20 years. Yet outside the plant, the public get nothing.”
Typically, contaminants enter the food chain through direct exposure and move up through, magnifying the amount of radioactive isotopes as it goes in a process called biomagnification, and “the biomagnification of 137Cs in marine predatory fishes is largely caused by the extremely high 137Cs assimilation from ingested prey“. A study of the migratory patterns of salmon (Detecting pan-Atlantic migration in salmon (Salmo salar) using 137Cs) found that “ 137Cs concentrations in adult salmon, which had returned to the Ste. Marguerite River, Canada, reflected the entire range of values seen previously across the North Atlantic. In fact, 43% of fish had concentrations characteristic of the Faroe, Norwegian, North, and Irish seas.”
But even the content of PCB’s alone should make anyone reconsider consuming whale meat, as the people of the Faroe Islands are now being forced to do.
NEWS: Around the Arctic May 02, 2011
Pál Weihe, a doctor in the Faroe Islands [lower right corner of the map] has hunted pilot whales, but now he’s told his fellow Faroese not to eat the meat and blubber from these traditionally-hunted whales because his research shows they’re heavily contaminated with health-damaging PCBs.
…Weihe’s ban on eating pilot whale blubber and meat came after a set of new research findings on a group of 2,300 children he’s followed from birth.
He found exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic chemicals used in industry, is linked to deficient immune function in children.
He found these children reacted more poorly to tetanus and diptheria immunizations — commonly given to infants in Canada — in addition to subtle effects on other systems in their bodies.
These tests on the children in the Faroes showed that the early postnatal exposure to PCBs led to this decreased vaccination response.
This could become more important when combined with other diseases, Weihe’s research found.
And even a “slight impairment” to the immune system could lead to more respiratory tract infections.
But that’s not all.
Contaminants in pilot whales also appear to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, hypertension and hardening of the arteries in adults who eat pilot whale regularly.
Marine food pollutants also contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes among elderly Faroese residents.
*Marine radioactivity in the Arctic: a retrospect of environmental studies in Greenland waters with emphasis on transport of 90Sr and 137Cs with the East Greenland Current The waters around Greenland have received radioactive contamination from three major sources: Global fallout, discharges from the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Sellafield in the UK, and the Chernobyl accident in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The global fallout peaked in the early 1960s. The radiologically most important radionuclides from this source are 90Sr and 137Cs. The input of global fallout to arctic waters was direct deposition from the atmosphere and indirect delivery through river run off and advection from the Atlantic Ocean via the north-east Atlantic current system. The waterborne discharges from Sellafield which were at their peak between 1974 and 1981 contributed primarily 137Cs, although some 90Sr was also discharged.
Samples of total diet from Uummannaq indicate that annual radiation doses by ingestion could approach 1 mSv from 210Po possibly due to a high proportion of seal flesh and liver in the diet.