From Reactor to Plate

“Japan’s PM vows to win battle against nuke plant” reads one recent headline.

It is unclear which possibility is worse, that Naoto Kan has failed to grasp the plant at Fukushima Dai-ichi has already defeated Japan, or that he knows full well and broadcasts a ‘necessary lie’ protecting an industry at the expense of his country’s people and perhaps all humanity.

High levels of such isotopes as iodine-131 have been detected in the ocean at surprising distances from the disaster site. As dangerous are the plumes of disinformation, which can produce a complacency as deadly as any panic.

From the disaster’s beginning, information and analyses have been censored first by the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the reactor’s utility company, followed by the Japanese government, and finally, isotopes drizzling stateside, the U.S. government.

The tautological justification here–power legitimizing itself–is reminiscent of the way U.S. officials handled the environmental health impacts of the World Trade Center attack and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases data acquisition was hampered by federal agencies, which instead released calming disinformation.

A grave potential exists for a widespread radioactive smear across the Pacific. Its intensity will depend on how long the emissions occur, their concentration, and the currents. Indeed, the result of an unfortunate not-so-natural experiment, our understanding of the system of currents through the world’s oceans is partly based on Wallace Broecker’s analysis of the oceanic distribution of radioisotopes from atom bomb testing at the Pacific atolls.

We need a set of scenarios and projections ASAP. But such risk assessments are structurally frustrated by the ties government and some environmental groups share with the nuclear industry.

In 2006 the nuclear industry tellingly hired Christie Whitman to lead a public relations campaign for new reactors. A federal judge ruled that year that as head of the Environmental Protection Agency Whitman lied to the public about the safety of New York air after the 9/11 attacks. The nuclear industry also hired Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, to help with efforts at  ”grass-roots advocacy” for nuclear power.

If Fukushima Dai-ichi’s emission into the ocean continues long enough, vast areas of biome will be contaminated. Radioactives can make their way into the food supply very rapidly, and, as reported, contamination appears already underway.

Although the iodine isotopes have relatively short half-lives, fresh fin fish, shellfish and algae could retain biologically important concentrations. The iodine isotopes are not the only radionuclides present in the emissions. They are among the most dangerous because of the vulnerability of the thyroid, but over large enough contaminations other radiochemicals can also pose risks.

Monitoring of our food supply has long been weakened by the interests and interference of the food industry, resulting in repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness. Radiological monitoring of our food is worse, even post-9/11. Governmental surveillance of and standards for animal feed are even less stringent than that of human food. Dioxins and PCBs sporadically show up in meat from animals that were fed odd, cheap diets. Bait fish and seaweed are also sources of animal feed.

So there are several routes from the reactor to our plates. Even vegans may be under some risk: some farmers, particularly in Asia and South America, use seaweed as part of their natural fertilizer mix.

Of course, it is possible, and one hopes even likely, that the disaster will not mushroom into a global crisis. It is not impossible, however, and planning must proceed accordingly. We need to learn more, including the probabilities of various levels of contamination in different parts of the ocean and the magnitudes of impact on wildlife, livestock and humans alike across those levels.

Crises force innovations beyond—we should hope—managing public perception. In the spirit of Wallace Broecker the public health and food safety communities must begin to collaborate with oceanographic scientists, suddenly our new colleagues.

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