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Boardman writes: "It's true that the most intensely radioactive part of the Pacific Ocean currently is the area closest to Fukushima, Japan, where the destroyed nuclear power plant continuously adds to the radiation burden in the aquatic food chain."

An aerial view of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 03/24/11. (photo: Reuters)
An aerial view of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 03/24/11. (photo: Reuters)

Fukushima Fish Story

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

15 January 14


eassuring the public about something dangerous is tricky

It's true that the most intensely radioactive part of the Pacific Ocean currently is the area closest to Fukushima, Japan, where the destroyed nuclear power plant continuously adds to the radiation burden in the aquatic food chain. It's equally true - and somewhat less scary - that Fukushima is but the most recent, best known source of radioactive pollution in a body of water that had a natural, low level of radioactivity long before any human started making it worse.

The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has an elaborate sea area monitoring program around Fukushima and publishes the results of its findings in detailed charts that are likely opaque to most people (and offer data that was collected months ago). Looks like the water has plenty of Cesium-134, Cesium-137, and Strontium-90, but not so much Plutonium-238, Plutonium-239, or Plutonium-240. How bad that is is hard to tell, in part because Fukushima's operator, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), withheld 140 of their measurements of Strontium-90 and other radioactive substances for most of late 2013, TEPCO admitted in early January.

When the available information is either withheld or hard to understand, it's little wonder there's almost no public trust in the people in charge. When unofficial information is also unreliable, it gets harder and harder to get a handle on what's real, other than the fact it's not good.

"Fish with very high levels of Cesium"

Here's an example of the problem: A story from Japan on January 11 featured a worrisome headline: "Fish with very high levels of cesium found near Fukushima." Of course that's also reassuring for most of us: the fish was found, and it was near Fukushima, not California. But still, radioactive fish – that's scary isn't it? Yes and no, actually.

No, not so scary: Turns out the headline meant only "a fish," a black sea bream in fact, one of 37 black sea bream that scientific researchers caught in October-November 2013. Oh, but actually, the story mentions, there were two other fish with elevated radiation, while 34 "were within the safety limits, according to the Fisheries Research Agency." The story doesn't report the actual "safe" level, but says "the black sea bream had 12,400 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium, 124 times the safety standards for foodstuffs," which supports a calculation that 100 Bq per kg is the "safe" level. The other two unsafe fish were measured with 426 and 197 Bq per kg respectively. The fish were caught within 22 miles of Fukushima, in water where commercial fishing is restricted.

Looked at from the official American perspective, this story gets even less scary. The black sea bream with 12,400 Bq per kg of radiation is still too hot to eat safely, but the other two over the Japanese limit are well within the American safety level of 1,200 Bq per kg. Equally casually, the U.S. Dept. of Energy website for "the situation in Japan" was last updated about a year ago.

Yes, it's a little scary, or at least cautionary: Any fish that radioactively hot certainly poses some small threat to its handlers, but the greater threat is the potential damage it could do to a diner. External exposure to even the highest of these levels of radiation for brief periods of time is pretty close to harmless under most circumstances, especially the older you are. But someone who eats a hot fish risks internal exposure for a much longer time, with a much greater risk of harm – though there might not be, for any given person, any consequential damage.

Looked at from the official South Korean perspective, this story gets even more scary. In September 2013, South Korea banned the import of all Japanese fish caught within about 200 miles of Fukushima. "The South Korean government made the move because of insufficient information from Tokyo about what steps will be taken to address the leakage of contaminated water from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, according to a statement by the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries," CBS News reported September 6.

A month later, the Japanese government appealed to the supra-national World Trade Organization (WTO) "to intervene on South Korea's atomic fish ban" (as headlined in the South China Morning Post). Japanese officials said that South Korea was the only country with such an expansive ban on Japanese fish. They said they were hoping that discussion in the WTO would persuade South Korea to withdraw the ban voluntarily, since a WTO lawsuit would likely take years to conclude. As of January 2014, the South Korean ban apparently remains in effect.

Is it a scare story if it's rational to be scared?

Despite its somewhat misleading headline, the story from Asahi Shimbun did not seem designed to be a scare story. It didn't even mention the danger from consuming radioactive food, or define a Becquerel of radiation.

The World Nuclear Association, an industry group, offers this definition: "Apart from the normal measures of mass and volume, the amount of radioactive material is given in becquerel (Bq), a measure which enables us to compare the typical radioactivity of some natural and other materials. A becquerel is one atomic decay per second, and each disintegration produces some ionising radiation."

A chart that follows this, which is apparently intended to be reassuring, compares the amount of radioactivity in a variety other substances (uranium ore, smoke detector, coal ash) with the amount of radioactivity in "1 adult human," which is pegged at 7,000 Bq, or 100 Bq per kg. That's also the "safe" limit for eating radioactive black sea bream in Japan – and it is enough to temporarily double a person's radiation load, which doesn't seem like a naturally good idea, but perhaps it's a better than multiplying your normal radiation load by 12 as allowed by American safe fish standards. Not surprisingly, those are questions that neither the newspaper nor the nuclear folks chose to explore.

That certainly seems to be the preference of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, 59 – not exploring nuclear questions. The prime minister, an avid nuclear booster, recently injected himself into the current race for Tokyo governor, suggesting that the candidates not focus on nuclear issues, but have a "balanced" debate.

The next day, January 14, a former prime minister and opponent of a nuclear Japan entered the race: Morihiro Hosokawa, 76, who announced that his candidacy would focus on creating a nuclear-free Japan. Hosokawa had resigned as prime minister in April 1994, after less than a year in office, amidst bribery charges that were never resolved. Hosokawa's candidacy was encouraged by another former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who has emerged as one of Japan's leading nuclear-free advocates and who promises to campaign actively for Hosokawa.

The Tokyo prefecture includes the capital city as well as 39 other municipalities and a total population of 35 million people, all under the administration of the Tokyo governor. Tokyo's government is also the biggest shareholder in Tokyo Electric Power, operator of the Fukushima plant. The former governor resigned in December in the midst of a political funds scandal. The election campaign officially begins on January 23, with the election scheduled for February 9.

With the candidacy of Hosokawa, the race takes on increased national significance since, as Hosokawa said, "I have a sense of crisis myself that the country's various problems, especially nuclear power plants, are matters of survival for the country." Hosokawa and Koizumi are trying to make the Tokyo election a referendum on nuclear power for the country.

Meanwhile, the Fukushima site continues to leak radioactive groundwater into the Pacific, it continues to leak radioactive water from damaged containment tanks, Fukushima Unit #3 continues to belch radioactive steam periodically, and the level of radioactivity at the perimeter of the plant has risen to 8 times the officially "safe" level. The Nuclear Regulation Authority has increased the number of monitoring stations around Fukushima from 446 to 815. And the Japanese government is saying food produced in the Fukushima region is safe to eat, but neither consumers nor food producers trust the government's assurances.

And the Fukushima Fish Story continues to circulate on the Internet, getting a little scarier, if not more accurate, all the time.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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-12 # David Heizer 2014-01-15 19:18
"...enough to temporarily double a person's radiation load..."

That would imply eating 70 kg of black sea bream in one meal.

If humans contain 100 Bq/kg, it stands to reason that most anything else we might eat would be in the same ballpark, and in fact, this is the case.
+5 # WBoardman 2014-01-16 10:16
Quoting David Heizer:

Interesting link.

The first table of NCRP data indicates that
the "average annual effective dose equivalent"
from 1987 to 2006 of natural background radiation
remained essentially constant,
while manmade radiation exposure
increased by a factor of 5 -- how good is that?

It also implies that the period 1945-1987
has been counted as "background," which seems
neither good nor intellectually honest.

The numbers come from the NCRP -- the
National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements,
which was created by the U.S. Congress in 1964
(Public Law 88-376), when the Congress was still
busily promoting nuclear activities of all sorts.

The NCRP's primary mission, by law, is to disseminate,
in the public interest, information and recommendations
about radiation protection and measurement.

Given the apparent widespread public confusion about
and lack of protection from radiation, this quasi-governmen t
entity seems to be an abject failure in its stated mission.

As a boondoggle designed to further insulate the
nuclear industry from serious scrutiny and control,
it looks like another obfuscating success.
+2 # AndreM5 2014-01-17 11:20
The bulk of the estimated annual average increase due to "man-made" effective dose equivalent is due to growth in medical/dental exposures.

The bulk of the increase the estimate in recent decades for background dose is due to the underappreciate d contribution of Radon decay in our living environment.
0 # David Heizer 2014-01-17 20:23
Quoting WBoardman:
...while manmade radiation exposure
increased by a factor of 5 -- how good is that?

Not sure I get your point... I was commenting on the suggestion that a food safety standard of 100 Bq/kg is too high, by pointing out that a hamburger contains 111 Bq/kg and lima beans contain 171 Bq/kg (a fact that seems politically offensive to this crowd, judging by the number of negatives that fact earned).

Quoting WBoardman:
It also implies that the period 1945-1987 has been counted as "background," which seems neither good nor intellectually honest.

Again, I'm afraid I'm not following your argument here...
+25 # Paul Scott 2014-01-15 23:37
In another couple of years the nuke industery will have pumped enough BS into the media that folks will be begging to by the hot fish.
+2 # jwb110 2014-01-16 13:33
Quoting Paul Scott:
In another couple of years the nuke industery will have pumped enough BS into the media that folks will be begging to by the hot fish.

BS for Bqs!!!!!
+25 # Marxian 2014-01-16 01:00
Maybe they could use all the BS to fertilize their gardens and become vegetarians… if it will be possible to grow anything after all the oil and chemical spills and fracking.
+15 # RODNOX 2014-01-16 06:02
dont understand why they keep lying to us--radiation affects all of us---including them----they must believe their own lies
+13 # oakes721 2014-01-16 08:27
They have to be in DENIAL. The nuclear industry has been caught red-handed. A liar and a thief always points elsewhere. The crime is anti-social, against humanity and life on Earth. Who can shoulder such responsibility as that without also cursing their accusers?
+26 # scottlamb 2014-01-16 08:27
The ironic thing is that none of these giant power companies are willing to admit that that the Earth is still a 'closed loop', environmentally speaking. Any power co. exec or representative that lies to the public needs to be prosecuted as we would prosecute a war criminal.
+6 # JetpackAngel 2014-01-16 15:43
This is still the only life-supporting mudball within our reach. You'd think people would recognize that we kinda have to keep it alive.
-5 # linkedout 2014-01-16 09:56
David Heizer is - of course - correct. Y'all sound like a bunch of tea partiers denying evolution or something.

I know the arithmetics are hard, but you can do it. I know you can!!
+15 # Johnny 2014-01-16 10:31
Actually, David Heizer is not correct. The effects of ionizing radiation on human cells is cumulative. The damage from eating 70 kg at one sitting is the same as the damage from eating 1/4 kg at 280 sittings, and is especially harmful to young people, since the effects of genetic damage may take many years to manifest themselves. I bet David Heizer and Mr. Linkedout would not knowingly feed even one small portion of 12,400 Bq fish to their own children. But who knows what nuke industry flacks will do? I can remember when tobacco company flacks appeared on television, chain smoking to prove that tobacco smoke was harmless.
0 # David Heizer 2014-01-17 20:48
I was referring to 100 Bq/kg, the Japanese standard called into question by the author, and pointing out that if that's unsafe, then we'd better not eat potatoes, bananas, lima beans, and for God's sake stay away from Brazil Nuts! Better stick to a diet of nothing but beer.

I think the U.S. standard of twelve times that level is decidedly something I would not consider at all safe.

And linkedout is right; really, folks, Google will even do the math for you; you don't even need to learn how to use that calculator app.
+4 # Walter J Smith 2014-01-16 12:50
Obama likes this sort of activity: "...the U.S. Dept. of Energy website for "the situation in Japan" was last updated about a year ago."

And he Drones truth tellers.

No wonder the underling bureaucrats are afraid of what they know, and refuse to perform their duties to publish it for us to know.

They are cowards by profession, and they are too incompetent to find decent work outside the official gravy train's kitchen, so they cling to their paralysis and hope they make it to retirement payouts and Social Security.

Yes, another of Uncle Sam's skin spots turning carcinogenic.

Is there an official or unofficial website that keeps tally on those cancerous spots on his rapidly wrinkling body politic?
-3 # StrangerInAStrangeLand 2014-01-16 15:39
The only problem with this fairy tale, err story, is that there is no acceptable amount of radioactive stuff you can INJEST/EAT that is safe. Does everybody not remember the Russian guy that was offed in a cafe in England when somebody put some radioactive stuff in his coffee or something ... - he died 3 weeks later. Capiche?
+1 # WBoardman 2014-01-17 09:36
Stranger misapprehends what I wrote and
draws a false inference.

Of course there is no inherently "safe" level
of radiation, and internal radiation is less"safe"
than external -- a point I've made many times.

That said, not all radiation is lethal, either. It requires
some effort to sort out the impact of more than 100 radionuclides some of which are in your body from birth to death (and may not be relevant to either event) from
something like Polonium which can be an effective tool of assassination (as in the example cited).

The spectrum of impacts is wide, varied, and affected by circumstances.

Smoking introduces alpha emitters into your lungs, but they're nowhere near as efficient as a bit of Polonium (also an alpha emitter).

+2 # PABLO DIABLO 2014-01-17 18:50
What are we arguing over? Whether you were run over by a bus or run over by a truck. Wake up .
+1 # John S. Browne 2014-01-21 08:17
+2 # John S. Browne 2014-01-23 02:07
Barry McGuire

The eastern world, it is explodin'
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'

But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction.

Don't you understand what I'm tryin' to say
Can't you feel the fears I'm feelin' today?
If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away
There'll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
[Take a look around ya boy, it's bound to scare ya boy]

And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction.

Yeah, my blood's so mad feels like coagulatin'
I'm sitting here just contemplatin'
I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation.
Handful of senators don't pass legislation
And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin'
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'

And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction.

0 # John S. Browne 2014-01-23 02:08
Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for 4 days in space
But when you return, it's the same old place
The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace

And, tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
You don't believe
We're on the eve
Of destruction
Mm, no no, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction.

And here's my "Fukushima verse" contribution to this great song,
updating it to the present day:

Now we have Fukushima to get your body boilin'
Plumes in air and water of deadly radioactive toxins
Most walk around like everything's just dandy
But when they get cancer, they won't be so randy
As inside their guts increasingly fail
The aftermath and coverup continues to exhale
While the U.S. government throughout prevails

And you tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don't believe
We're on the eve
Of destruction
Mm, no no no, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.
0 # M.Olson 2014-02-02 22:44
Discussing "becquerel" per pound is buying into a redirection maneuver by the industry. It is a measure of radioactive disintegration rate, or in other words persistence in the environment. The dangers of radiation are more complex and can not be reduced to only comparisons by weight; this will not produce a meaningful characterizatio n of radiation risk, so it is rather pointless in isolation. More pertinent is ionization measures, such as REM. This wiki paragraph summarizes the problem.

"The human body cannot sense ionizing radiation except in very high doses, but the effects of ionization can be used to characterize the radiation. Parameters of interest include disintegration rate, particle flux, particle type, beam energy, kerma, dose rate and cumulative dose received by a target. Particle type is determined by differential measurements in the presence of electrical fields, magnetic fields, or varying amounts of shielding. Dose values may represent absorbed, equivalent, effective, or committed dose. The monitoring and calculation of doses to safeguard human health is called dosimetry."

My guess would be that becquerel has been turned into a focal point because it is the easiest "fact" to throw up a smokescreen around. Because of that, I would hypothesize that the situation is exponentially more dangerous than official sources want to disclose.

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