Chasing Down The Muse: Japan disaster reminds us to protect the ocean

Living next to a large body of water creates an intimacy that is impossible to deny, and an innate awareness of the need for conscientious protection. As coastal dwellers, we are on the frontlines as caregivers and safe guarders.

We acknowledge the value of the Pacific as she laps at the sandy edge of Laguna's shoreline. Her beauty, her intrinsic value to our spiritual lives, and her role in the sustainable economics of our city.

Down the road sits a power plant. A nuclear power plant. I surf next to it.

My friends SUP (Stand Up and Paddle) and kayak there. A white shark named Snowball swims near the San Onofre plant. We acknowledge it, wonder about it, don't think much about our electric bills; mostly, we just surf.

Until something horrific happens.

The tsunami that swept through coastal regions of Japan stunned us all. The power of water — that same ocean in which we surf, swim and snorkel — shoved up from the sea floor, raced toward land and washed away everything in its path. It literally tore apart the shore. Towns disappeared. People vanished under the rolling force of wave after wave.

As we tried to come to grips with the scope of the tragedy, and crafted scenarios as to the probability of a similar scenario occurring on the West Coast of North America, another disaster was unfolding.

The tsunami knocked out all power and crippled their nuclear power plant's ability to cool its reactors — something that had never been planned for. Subsequent attempts to prevent full-scale core meltdowns have caused the release (as of this writing) of 11,500 tons of radioactively contaminated water into the sea. The Japanese government said that the disposal would not pose a major health risk, yet officials remain uncertain as to how the marine life will be affected.

Seawater samples found near the facility had iodine-131 at 7.5 million times the legal limit, or about 300,000 becquerels per cubic centimeter. Seven and a half million times the legal limit! Other samples were found to contain radioactive cesium at 1.1 million times the legal limit.

Government officials instituted a health limit for radioactivity in fish — not a moment too soon. Fish caught less than three miles offshore and 50 miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi plant had more than 4,000 becquerels of iodine-131 per kilogram in a fish called sand lance. The fish also contained 447 becquerels of cesium-137, considered more problematic because it has a much longer half-life.

This means the fish cannot be eaten or sold. The Japanese government instituted a standard of 2,000 becquerels of radioactive iodine per kilogram of fish — the same level it allows in vegetables. Previously, there was no specific limit for fish.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has detected radiation 18 miles out to sea, but states that the main transport of contamination across long distances will be the air. Radioactive rain has most certainly been falling into the ocean. The dispersion of radioactivity through the ocean will take months — or even years — to reach other Pacific countries, but already, iodine 131 — a by product of nuclear fission — has been found in southern British Columbia.

Scientists persist in saying that the current levels seen in North America are not harmful to humans, but what do we really know? We are in uncharted territory.

In our race to keep up with our global appetites for fuel and electrical power, we continue to explore options. Nuclear was once the darling, a substitute and "cleaner" solution than coal. Now, it is once again the demon.

That large body of water, that ocean that sits just outside our door, has been the dumping ground of man's trash for as long as we have been walking on the planet. Oil spills, plastic islands, mercury poisoning — now radiation and items like cesium-137 and iodine-131, whatever they are. We expect the water to clean up our mess over and over and over again.

It's time to expand our oversight of the seas globally. Those fish swimming out of Japan may not reach our shores, but a bigger fish that eats them might. As to shelf life, who really knows how long radioactive poisons last?

As Earth Day approaches, and we plan with our communities to focus on cleanup, it seems a good time to focus on prevention. What can each of us do individually that can make a difference on the quality of our seas?

Write me your thoughts — ccooper@cooperdesign.net. I'll collect them and publish them here and on my blog, bajadreaming.wordpress.com. It's our planet, and it's up to us.

CATHARINE COOPER loves and works to protect wild places.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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