H. Buck Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Harold F. Upton Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, caused extensive
damage in northeastern Japan, including damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi
nuclear power installation, which resulted in the release of radiation.
Some have called this incident the biggest manmade release ever of
radioactive material into the oceans. Concerns arose about the potential
effects of this released radiation on the U.S. marine environment and
Both ocean currents and atmospheric winds have the potential to transport
radiation over and into marine waters under U.S. jurisdiction. It is
unknown whether marine organisms that migrate through or near Japanese
waters to locations where they might subsequently be harvested by U.S. fishermen
(possibly some albacore tuna or salmon in the North Pacific) might have been
exposed to radiation in or near Japanese waters, or might have consumed
prey with accumulated radioactive contaminants.
High levels of radioactive iodine-131 (with a half-life of about 8 days),
cesium-137 (with a halflife of about 30 years), and cesium-134 (with a
half-life of about 2 years) were measured in seawater adjacent to the
Fukushima Dai-ichi site after the March 2011 events. EPA rainfall monitors
in California, Idaho, and Minnesota detected trace amounts of radioactive
iodine, cesium, and tellurium consistent with the Japanese nuclear
incident, at concentrations below any level of concern. It is uncertain
how precipitation of radioactive elements from the atmosphere may have
affected radiation levels in the marine environment.
Scientists have stated that radiation in the ocean very quickly becomes diluted
and would not be a problem beyond the coast of Japan. The same is true of
radiation carried by winds. Barring another unanticipated release,
radioactive contaminants from Fukushima Dai-ichi should be sufficiently
dispersed over time that they will not prove to be a serious health threat
elsewhere, unless they bioaccumulate in migratory fish or find their way
directly to another part of the world through food or other commercial
Radioactive contamination of seafood from the nuclear disaster in Japan has not
emerged as a food safety problem for consumers in the United States.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the damage to
infrastructure in Japan limited food production and associated exports
from areas near the Fukushima nuclear facility. FDA and Customs and Border Protection
continue to screen imported foods from Japan, including seafood, before they
can enter the U.S. food supply.
Based on computer modeling of ocean currents, marine debris from the tsunami
produced by the Tohoku earthquake was projected to spread eastward from
Japan in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Approximately two to three
years after the event, the debris plume was projected to reach the U.S.
West Coast, dumping debris on California beaches and the beaches of British
Columbia, Alaska, and Baja California. However, initial debris is already
arriving. Although most of the radioactive release from Fukushima Dai-ichi
is believed to have occurred after the tsunami, there is a slight
possibility that some of the tsunami debris might also be contaminated with
radiation. A related concern is the transport of nonnative, and
potentially invasive, species from Japan to U.S. shores on marine debris.
Legislation (H.R. 1171, H.R. 6251, and S. 1119) has been introduced in the
112th Congress to address marine debris concerns.
Date of Report: August 17, 2012
Number of Pages: 11 Order Number: R41751 Price: $29.95
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