How Might Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Affect the Oceans?


Date: April 4, 2011



Many of you have inquired via Twitter, Facebook and e-mail about how the Japanese nuclear crisis is affecting the oceans and marine life. There are still a lot of question marks, but here’s what our scientists have to say.

How it could affect marine life in general:

The greatest concern for marine life comes from the radiation from cesium, strontium and radioactive iodine entering the oceans via the smoke and water runoff from the damaged facilities. Small doses of radiation will be spread out over the Pacific Ocean, and monitors on the U.S. West Coast have even picked up slight traces of radiation from the smoke.

Although the levels of cesium and radioactive iodine in the immediate vicinity of the plant have increased and very small amounts of radiation have even been detected in local anchovies (1 percent of acceptable levels), it is not clear whether there will be any long-term or significant impacts on marine life off the coast of Japan or out to sea, according to researchers who studied the marine effects of fallout from nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Still, the radiation can be seen in the oceans for 50 to 60 years later in some cases, and we may not see the true impacts to marine life and fisheries for years to come.

How it could affect seafood:

The fishing industry in Japan has come to a standstill and exports have been shut off to several countries. Japanese officials are conducting tests to determine the safety of Japanese seafood, one of Japan’s most robust economic drivers.

How it should affect our energy choices:

More than anything, the crisis in Japan illustrates how our energy choices impact marine life. We take for granted the ocean's amazing ability to absorb many of the pollutants we put into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels (25 million tons of carbon dioxide into the oceans every single day!) and how this is causing long-term changes, such as ocean acidification, that often go overlooked.

The nuclear situation in Japan and the threats to large populations of people, fisheries and marine life shows the increasing need to enhance energy efficiency and transition to clean, renewable energy sources like offshore wind that mitigate climate change and pose no serious threats to the oceans and society.