The New York Whale and Dolphin Action League

Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Disaster
and the Fate of Whales in the Sea of Japan

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake struck the western Pacific Ocean off the northeast coast of Japan, creating havoc and sending a devastating tsunami onshore to the coastal region. While destroying entire cities and towns and wiping rescue-dependent infrastructure and transportation, the tragedy left 12,000 Japanese dead, with 16,500 still missing. The tsunami, with waves as high as 12 meters, breached the concrete seawall at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, flooding the complex of six onshore reactors. The reactors' cooling systems and backup diesel power generators were disabled, leading to a buildup of hydrogen gas which caused explosions at three reactors. As a result, plumes of radiation were released into the air.

The triple meltdown has many debating whether Fukushima is worse than the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, where a reactor core exploded leaving an uninhabitable "dead zone" about 30 meters around the plant. Until now, Chernobyl has been considered the world's "worst" nuclear accident, causing 31 deaths and spewing radioactive fallout over much of the Northern Hemisphere. Fukushima has had no core explosions (which are considered worse than hydrogen explosions), but scientists are concerned the situation at the plant is being downplayed. There is evidence that uncontrolled fission is still occurring within the reactors. Accordingly, Fukushima, like Chernobyl, has recently been classified as a Level 7 (the worst) event on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Energy expert Terry Tyler says the situation is "very dire".

When a uranium atom is split in the fission process, "a whole spectrum of radioactive elements" is formed, including iodine-131, Tyler explained. "But you've (also) got strontiums and cesiums (and nitrogens and oxygens and argons). And all of these radioactive elements are released the minute that this (fission) transpires...."

Tyler noted that iodine-131 is only created during fission, and the radioactive isotope has an eight-day half-life. "If it's got an eight-day half life, it's been one month since the event, and I'm seeing iodine-131 levels today that are 10,000 times higher than they were a week ago, you've got to have a nuclear chain reaction taking place."

Contrary to some news reports, the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility "isn't under control," Tyler added. The only rationale for officials describing the situation as "stable" is because they know that fission is still taking place. This means at least one reactor unit's melting core of fuel "is just sitting there, slowly eating its way into the ground." (

Plant operators are now hauling in millions of gallons of seawater from the nearby Sea of Japan and on April 4, emergency operators began deliberate discharges of low-level radioactive water. Not only is the water contaminated with radioactive isotopes, there is a thermal heat burden as well. The plant is still producing eight megawatts of heat and "superheated" water when released into nearby bodies of water, can kill marine life.

Officials have condemned Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for its "deplorable failure" to keep radioactive substances inside the plant. Contamination has been detected in seawater one mile away from the plant to the north and south. Tests have confirmed radioactive iodine-131 in the sea near Fukushima is 3,000 times above normal. (Levels of radioactive iodine are 10 million times normal in the water at Reactor 2.) ( Plutonium, a dangerous radioactive substance, is now leaking into the environment around the plant as well.

Unfortunately, the runoff of millions of gallons of contaminated water cannot be scrubbed before it flows back into the ocean, and what happens to that water is very complex - as reassuring as it may be to think that the radioactive waste is immediately diluted in the vast seas, that is really not what happens. Instead, much of the contamination is likely to be deposited in the sediment of the shoreline, and to be transported along the coast. Depending upon how warm and salty the runoff is, masses of the water may be able to travel huge distances relatively undiluted and unmixed, to be absorbed by tiny planktonic creatures before working its way up the food chain to whales and dolphins. Calloway Whiting. How Japan's Nuclear Crisis Might Affect Whales and Dolphins.

Unfortunately, the Sea of Japan is no stranger to nuclear waste contamination. In February, 1993, Russian authorities admitted they'd been dumping radioactive waste in Far East waters since the 1950's. This means that apex predators (whales and sharks) would have bioaccumulated radioactive isotopes in their tissues as well as standard pollutants like mercury and other contaminants. Some speculate this accounts for the move from Japanese waters to the Southern Ocean for annual so-called "scientific whaling" expeditions, because of the realization that cetacean meat in the Sea of Japan was likely toxic from Russia's radioactive waste! There is actually little to justify trips to the Southern Ocean to kill whales for "research" except for the quest for a cleaner food source. After all, there are in fact 21 species of cetaceans right there in the Sea of Japan. Why haven't the Japanese taken their expeditions to their own back yard, where the habits and health of cetaceans under assault by radioactive waste would be new and welcomed legitimate research? (There are few who believe Japan's scientific whaling program was anything more than a front for commercial whaling.)

The tsunami also struck the city of Ishinomaki, one of Japan's four remaining whaling bases, where 10 meter waves swallowed about 80 percent of the residences. The Ayukawa district's whaling storage facility was destroyed as well as a fleet of three whaling vessels, which today lie impotent after being carried a hundred meters inland. Facing a crippled industry and new regulations that prohibit the factory ship (with its heavy grade fuel oil) from entering the Southern Ocean, Japan has resumed local whaling, even amidst heightened concerns for the toxic load of radioactivity in the marine life of the Sea of Japan. Minke whales, the announced target of this year's local hunt, consume a diet that reflects various levels of the food chain including plankton, anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, and even benthic, or bottom dwelling, crustaceans. Many of these prey species are likely to pick up radioactive elements immediately, transferring them where they can wreak havoc throughout the food chain. It is believed that grey whales, because of their practice of sifting through bottom sediments for prey, will be the hardest hit by the contamination, although dolphins with their opportunistic foraging are expected to fare poorly as well. Over 500 miles from the epicenter, Taiji, notorious for its dolphin drive hunts, was also hit by tsunami waves. Twenty four dolphins left caged by fishermen in a sea pen were killed as they were hurled against rocks when the waves hit.

While the thermal pollution from the runoff may kill significant numbers of prey species for whales, the uptake of toxic isotopes will present their own challenges to survival. Marine mammals, like humans, may suffer from many forms of radiation-induced illness. Effects include cell and DNA damage, shock, convulsions, sterilization, internal bleeding, cancers and of course death with acute exposure. Indeed, if the consumption of cetacean meat was unwise before Japan's nuclear disaster, it is certain folly today. Hopefully sound reasoning will help avert the impacts of diet-sourced radiation sickness and lead to a complete rejection of the consumption of dolphin and whale meat in Japan.

TEPCO plans to permanently close the plant, inducing a state of "cold shutdown" in six to nine months (early in 2012). Meanwhile, seawater is still being pumped into three reactors to keep them cool and then flushed back out to sea, carrying radioactive isotopes and thermal pollution with it. As the seasons progress and testing and observation continues, more of the grim short and long-term impacts of this disaster on marine life will be revealed.

The New York Whale and Dolphin Action League
PO Box 273, Yonkers, NY 10707 USA
Phone: 914-793-9186
Fax: 914-395-0017
Cell Phone: 407-404-2046
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A Project of Cetacean Society International

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