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By Russ Finley on Jun 4, 2012 with 21 responses

Will Fukushima Save the Bluefin Tuna?

From a story in Forbes titled Fukushima Radiation May Actually Save Bluefin Tuna:

If the governments can’t help, maybe bad publicity will [save the bluefin tuna]. Nicholas Fisher, the study’s co-author and a marine biologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says when he first saw the levels of radiation in the fish, caught off of San Diego, “my first thought was ‘this will do more for the conservation of this endangered animal than nearly anything else could.’”

Which is also the first thing I thought when this story broke. And yes, I know that isn’t a picture of a bluefin tuna.

 There are natural levels of radioactivity in the tuna, and Fukushima has only added the slightest amount more. (The report can be found here.) “But people are often anxious about radioactivity,” says Fisher.

And this may be what ultimately benefits the Bluefin. The fish, Madigan points out, is not harmed by the radiation that they collected while swimming through the spill waters off the coast of Japan after the tsunami.

But the public perception of the fish may be contaminated for good. And that may keep it out of restaurants.

I listened to a story called “Radioactive tuna!” on NPR a few days ago. They had also interviewed the head of the research team that identified Fukushima as the source of ceisum-134 and cesium-137 in Tuna caught off the coast of California. To be fair, they also mentioned that you would have to eat thousands of pounds of this tuna in one year to exceed a safe dose. They also mentioned that pregnant women have been warned for decades not to eat tuna because it contains elevated levels of mercury. Not mentioned was the source of much of that mercury–coal-fired power plants.

The researcher said that he’d been getting a phone call (including one from Al Jazeera) about every thirty seconds or so from media outlets looking for a story.

The NPR story elicited a very short retort titled Nuclear Tuna and Media Trivialization by a relatively high profile anti-nuclear activist. It’s only a few hundred words long, conflates nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, contains numerous out of context quotes, and is devoid of a single source (not worth a read if you’re considering it).

Radiation stories attract readership. I suspect that we’re attracted to stories about danger and mayhem because at some level of consciousness, we are looking for information that may help protect ourselves and our loved ones from potential harm. This proclivity has no doubt served our species well for millennia, but in today’s hopelessly complex technological world we are barraged with this kind of information and are often unable to sift the wheat from the chaff.

On the other hand, just last week a man went on a shooting spree and killed several innocent people a few blocks from my home, one of which was the mother of one of my daughters’ classmates. Two years ago a man was murdered with an ax on the street one block from where my daughter was sitting in a classroom. Several years ago a bus driver was shot dead causing the bus to careen off a bridge, landing on the street I live on, just three blocks away. I could see why someone might develop a fear of going outside, sometimes called agoraphobia, but to get a case of radiophobia, you would need a lot of help from the media.

A lot of Americans have an excessive fear of flying, bugs, snakes, radiation, you name it, anyone one of which can kill you but the odds of any of them killing you are vanishingly low. How is it that we come to fear some things more than others? Fear is easily teachable. Parents can pass on a fear to their children, or not. My children have no fear of snakes, although they certainly know better than to handle a venomous one. I know people who are terrified of insects. My daughters love insects.

I suspect that the excessive fear of radiation started with nuclear weapons and was parlayed into a fear of nuclear energy by association thanks to anti-nuclear activists, some of which are likely motivated by personal phobias (an excessive, irrational fear).

Before the nuclear test ban treaty the United States alone detonated over 330 nuclear weapons (submerged in the ocean, buried underground, shot from canons, launched into space, you name it). The realization that all of the nuclear powers were repeatedly releasing all of that radiation into the environment is sobering but at the same time it puts into perspective just how out of perspective the public’s concerns are over radiation from nuclear power plants.

We’ve all read about the effects of massive doses of radiation on the victims of nuclear weapons on Japanese citizens. I recall reading the book Hiroshima by John Hersey when I was in grade school. After being told that the gods would favor anyone who made a thousand of origami cranes, a little girl (just my age at the time of the reading) who was dying of leukemia made 600 of them before succumbing.

People have been taught to fear it by decades of post-apocalyptic science fiction (books and movies). My favorite (among many) post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories is A Canticle for Lebowitz. Anyone remember the movie On the Beach (1959 or 2000 versions)?

Note at this point that we’re talking about radiation effects from nuclear weapons and other than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s all fiction. Anti-nuclear activists learned early on the effectiveness of conflating nuclear weapons with nuclear energy. That’s why just about every anti-nuclear article you read will mention nuclear weapons.

But then Chernobyl happened. The amount of concentrated radiation released by that accident dwarfed that released by a nuclear bomb, yet in the end it created Europe’s largest nature preserve. Wildlife in the exclusion zone is thriving quite simply because the radiation is keeping people away.

I thought what biologists learned from Chernobyl was going to be the death knell for stories about mutants. However, the latest mutant horror flick, Chernobyl Diaries, has just been released.

It has been proposed by some (but not by me) that we could use this fear to keep humanity out of critical ecosystems by sewing them with low levels of radiation and posting warning signs around their periphery. Not a good idea. Profit motive will trump fear in this case and poor workers will be the ones used to exploit these areas, radiation or no radiation.

There are many carcinogens in our environment that can increase the incidence of cancers, including many viruses. Click here and scroll down to see the very extensive list.

When the quake hit Japan there was a virtual eruption of carcinogens into their environment from fires, exploding chemical plants, failed dams, polluted ocean sediments heaved up on the land, radiation from the stricken power plant, and on and on. Fukushima was just one of the thousands of sources. There may very well be a modest uptick in cancer rates from this quake from the many sources of carcinogens, but the latest research suggests that the contribution from Fukushima alone will be too small to detect.

(Photo credit via the Flickr Creative Commons license)

  1. By Phil on June 4, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Why didn’t you use a photo of an actual Bluefin Tuna?

    • By Russ Finley on June 4, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      I like the solemn, no nonsense look on this fish, which I suspect is a cod?

  2. By voices for safe energy on June 4, 2012 at 11:17 am

    Important book for all in the wake of Fukushima — newly released — Radiation Protective Foods by Sara Shannon (available at amazon). Also excellent website to learn all about nuclear power is We must arm ourselves with education. 

    • By Russ Finley on June 5, 2012 at 7:00 pm

      “We must arm ourselves with education,” said the creationist to the school board.

      I browsed the link you provided. Not much substance there. Yeah, nuclear is capital intensive, but not nearly as expensive as solar, of which I’m a big fan. The subsidies for wind and solar per unit energy produced dwarf those for nuclear. Renewables cannot replace fossil fuels without help from nuclear. What little waste is generated is stored on site …thanks to anti-nuclear activists interfering with efforts to create better storage sites and on and on and on.



  3. By notKit P on June 5, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Levels of radioactive isotopes from the nuke plant are barely detectable at 4 Bq/kg in the Tuna. This compared to naturally radioactive isotopes of potassium in the same fish at about 400 Bq/kg.


    While checking out the concept that eating certain foods could block uptake of radioactive isotopes in contaminated foods, I found a website with recommendation dated several days after the meltdowns. To block cesium the recommendation was to eat lots of food high in potassium without understand this is one of the main sources of natural background radiation. I thought I would see what this nice scientist has to say lately. She has some very interesting recommendations for this week based on the position of the stars and plants this week.


    Russ provided a list of things that increase the incidence of cancer. Many of them are also toxic and natural. I sure that few will disagree that excessive consumption of ethanol and tobacco are the largest preventable contributor of cancer and other untimely ends.


    It is like mercury in fish. Natural sources like volcanoes account for 90%. Warning about eating fish caught in Washington State lakes was blamed on coal plants but the actual sources were long closed smelter in Canada and pulp mills.


    The bottom line is that we have acquired the knowledge to protect both the public and workers from harmful levels of bad things. If we could get now get people to not smoke and drink in excess.

  4. By OD on June 7, 2012 at 12:56 am

    Very sorry to hear about the shooting Russ. Hope your daughter is coping ok. 

    • By Russ Finley on June 17, 2012 at 10:47 pm

      Thanks, OD

      The school has counseling for kids having trouble coping. My daughter is fine.

  5. By William Hayden Smith on June 9, 2012 at 10:25 am

    The thousands of tons of Bluefin cold-stored by Mitsubishi just got more valuable.

    The sales pitch:

    “Pre-Fukushima  Low Radiation Tuna for Sale!”

  6. By mac on June 12, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Salvation of the Bluefin Tuna:


  7. By mac on June 12, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I thought the problem with nuclear was that no one will indemnify it except National Governments.


    i.e.  …………………………………..SOCIALISM

  8. By mac on June 12, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Nuclear ???

    With nuclear you take the heat from fissionable materials and turn it into steam to drive steam turbines.

    OOps,     Just like Geothermal but without the radiation hazards of nuclear.


  9. By mac on June 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Despite all the non-sense surrounding nuclear power, it is still just one of many solutions to “boil water” for steam turbines to make electricity.

  10. By mac on June 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Our nuclear submarines are in effect hybrids that run off the steam created through controlled fission.

    Oh. my goodness ,    ……………….. I thought they were “nuclear”

    A common mis-conception….

  11. By mac on June 13, 2012 at 12:56 am


    Nuclear makes hot water.

    Next  ????

  12. By mac on June 13, 2012 at 1:19 am


    You are an engineer. 

    Surely,  you must admit that the fate of nuclear rests on the old time Rankine steam cycle.

    That’s what Nuclear does ……. it makes hot water/steam.

  13. By notKit P on June 13, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Considering Russ’s background he might see the even older Brayton cycle as the future for nukes. Gas cooled reactors use gas turbines to generate electricity.


    When we run out of cheap natural gas, future generations will see high temperature gas cooled reactors popping up at refineries, chemical plants, and ammonia plants to provide process heat and hydrogen. HTGCR have the advantage of passive safety on loss of power but there are limitations on the output of the reactor to achieve passive cooling.


    When it comes to making electricity in stationary power plants water/steam is a very practical heat transfer fluid. With light water reactors, water is also the moderator of neutrons. LWR produce most of the fissions with thermal fission caused by absorbing neutrons at thermal equilibrium. One of the properties of water is that it is less dense at higher temperatures. This results in a negative temperature coefficient of reactivity which facilitates stable control of reactor power.


    The disadvantage is that a break LWR releases a large amount of steam. This is why we have containment buildings. If there is a loss of coolant accident, workers at the plant are protected from harmful levels of radiation.

  14. By Samuel on June 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    The next thing you know you will be able to have an underwater light show. You people that believe that radioactive fish is a good thing, are just flat stupid. It’s just been a little over year since the disaster started it’s going to be 150,000 years before the fuel rods die out enough to quit killing people of over exposure. I guess that it is a good thing though. Maybe we can create the three eyed Bluefin. Lord Above please forgive thes idiots.

    • By Russ Finley on June 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm

      You people that believe that radioactive fish is a good thing, are just flat stupid.

       Radioactive is a matter of degree. Bananas are radioactive. Define stupid …and idiot while you’re at it. Excessive fear of radiation is largely a matter of (in the age of the internet, willful) ignorance.

      It’s just been a little over year since the disaster started it’s going to be 150,000 years before the fuel rods die out enough to quit killing people of over exposure.

      Nobody is being killed by fuel rods.


    • By tennie davis on June 19, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      Samuel, the top three naturally radioactive foods are bananas, lima beans, and brazil nuts.

      If you wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and notice a third eye in the middle of your forehead, you should definitely lay off the brazil nuts.

  15. By notKit P on June 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    No one is even being hurt by fuel rods from any LWR.  Spent fuel rods are not a radiological hazard after 300 years.  Like most heavy metals, spent fuel is still toxic but I can not think of a reason to eat metal tubes.  


    It is a simple fact of physics that radioactive isotopes with a long half life are not very radioactive.  When spent fuel is removed from the reactor shortly after shut down, 7 feet is all that is needed to protect operators moving the fuel to the spent fuel pool.


    After about 5 years, the shielding provided by dry cask storage units protects any one even if they stand next to it. 


    In the USSR, they did demonstrate how to kill with spent fuel.  First you cause a power excursion that results in a steam explosion that blows the core apart and sets the building on fire.  Then you send firefighter to fight the fire while standing near spent fuel that had been ejected.  About 30 died as a result of radiation poisoning.  They were kill by radiation.  


    LWR are different.  First, fission products in the fuel rods must be released to the reactor coolant system.  Then the fission products must be released from the reactor coolant system.  Then the fission products must leak out of the thick containment building and finally be carried by the wind to where people are to expose the fission products.   


    So while conservative computer models paint a scary picture when the artist is scare mongering, the real life picture is boring.  Not even animals that were not evacuated were hurt. 


    Where are the stray dogs with radiation poisoning and hair falling out?  


    The key number is not some scary sounding ‘150,000 years’ but a short number like one hour or 12 hours.  Do people who work at the plant have one hour to walk away?  Do people who live within 10 miles have at 12 hours to leave?  


    The answer is yes toi both question but what about the food chain; can we detect isotopes that might concentrate in the food chain at a safe level?   Since the tuna has 1/100th of the natural background level but we still detected it, the answer is yes. 


    The lesson from Japan is that all of our models were very conservative when it comes to protecting the public and workers.  


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