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Empire Editorial: Is Fukushima tainting one of Alaska's most valuable resources?

Posted: August 25, 2013 - 12:07am

This week, contaminated water leaking from Japan’s still-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant made headlines. One of the containment tanks sprang a leak and was spilling tons of hazardous waste water onto the surrounding area, about a football field’s length from the Pacific Ocean.

Now, Japanese officials said, the situation is too big. They need international assistance.

There is speculation the tanks have been leaking, little by little, continuously since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami more than two years ago. It’s never been 100 percent confirmed; many said evidence is as yet inconclusive.

Still, it’s concerning.

While researching for this piece, we stumbled upon a graphic taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July of 2011. It was a radioactive seawater impact map showing Japan and the adjacent waters of the Pacific. The spread of nuclear waste materials can be seen extending from the Fukushima site westward into the Pacific like a forest fire plume lying on its side. A second map was generated by NOAA nearly a year later showing the plume had expanded by nearly twice its original size.

We are concerned this hazardous material is hitching a ride on marine life and making its way to Alaska.

Currents of the world’s oceans are complex. But, generally speaking, two surface currents — one from the south, called the Kuroshio, and one from the north, called the Oyashio — meet just off the coast of Japan at about 40 degrees north latitude. The currents merge to form the North Pacific current and surge eastward. Fukushima lies at 37 degrees north latitude. Thousands of miles later, the currents hit an upwelling just off the western coast of the United States and split. One, the Alaska current, turns north up the coast toward British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. The other, the California current, turns south and heads down the western seaboard of the U.S.

The migration patterns of Pacific salmon should also be taken into consideration. In a nutshell, our salmon ride the Alaska current and follow its curve past Sitka, Yakutat, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. Most often, it’s the chinook, coho and sockeye salmon migration patterns that range farthest. Chum and pink salmon seem to stay closer to home. Regardless of how far out each salmon species ventures into the Pacific, each fish hitches a ride back to its home rivers and spawning grounds on the North Pacific current, the same one pulling the nuclear waste eastward.

We all know too much exposure to nuclear waste can cause cancer. And many understand that certain chemicals, such as cesium-137 and strontium-9, contained in said waste products can accumulate in fish by being deposited in bones and muscle permanently.

We are concerned our Alaska salmon are being slowly tainted with nuclear waste. We are worried about the impact this waste could have on our resources, and especially the people who consume them.

And we are not alone. Other scientists, such as Dr. Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and a world expert in marine radioactivity, are taking a closer look at impacts of Fukushima on fish. His team has tracked radioactive material up to 400 miles off Japan’s coastline. The amount they’ve found so far does not pose a risk to humans or marine life, they’ve said.

That’s good news. But that’s what scientists said about Chernobyl before later finding they had gravely underestimated its negative effects.

What does concern Buesseler, who wrote on this for CNN recently, is that levels coming from the damaged nuclear plant are not decreasing. Instead, they are increasing. In that piece, he urged world leaders to come together to ensure a solid plan of action to resolve this problem.

It’s good news Japan is seeking help. And it’s good this issue is again making headlines.

We urge scientists in Alaska to be proactive about conducting research and monitoring our salmon species. And we urge them to be vocal about their findings. Let’s be 100 percent sure our Alaska salmon are safe to eat. Once we know for certain, it will only strengthen the importance and high regard of this valuable resource.

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