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04:36 GMT +3 hours23 December 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

Radioactive rain over Pacific will save lives

Analysis & Opinion
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Japan's neighbors are worried that the radioactive clouds released by explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant could reach their territory.

Japan's neighbors are worried that the radioactive clouds released by explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant could reach their territory. In the best-case scenario, the clouds will be blown out over the Pacific Ocean, where chemical reagents could be used to force the radioactive particles to fall to the ocean in rain. While this would impact fish and other sea animals, it would also save human lives.

Resilient ocean

Alexander Kislov, head of the weather and climate department at Moscow State University's Geography Faculty, said that the weather forecast through March 25 shows that "there is no direct threat to Russia," and that prevailing winds are blowing the clouds out over the Pacific toward the United States.

The relative calm of scientists in the face of this looming nuclear disaster could be explained by lack of reliable information coming out of Japan. So far, there is not enough information to sound the alarm. But Japanese exerts have been providing only limited data on the composition and altitude of the emissions, Kislov said.

Many environmental scientists agree that there is not enough data to make long-term forecasts.

At this point, there is no threat to sea life in the Pacific, says Sergei Dobrolyubov, head of the oceanography department at Moscow State University's Geography Faculty. Water absorbs radiation quite well, so sea animals and plants should not be seriously affected.

"Water moves around like crazy in the Pacific, so any particles that get into the water will be spread around quickly," says Antonina Polyakova, an assistant professor of the Geography Faculty. Moreover, the radioactive decay half-life of nuclides like iodine-131 is only eight days.

Fish are generally more resistant to radiation than mammals.

"A lethal dose of radiation for a human is around 500 rem; it is twice as high for fish," Polyakova said. "This means that the fish life in the region will survive."

There is background radiation in the ocean, in particular micro-doses of radioactive isotopes of potassium (40K) and strontium (Strontium-90).

But Polyakova warns against eating fish and mollusks caught in the contaminated area. Mollusks accumulate heavy metals, such as mercury and cadmium, and can also absorb radioactive particles.

Environmental expert Alexei Yablokov said that numerous studies of the effects of radiation on organisms in fresh water show that it causes damage to chromosomes and alters cells in crustaceans.

Radioactive fallout is unlikely to seriously affect the chemical composition of the ocean, Dobrolyubov said. A greater threat to sea life is posed by water acidification due to global warming. When dissolved in water, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere turns into carbonic acid, making the water more acidic. Corals are the first victims of acidification.

Tsunami

The tsunami that followed the massive earthquake in Japan damaged industrial plants, which could increase pollution, environmental scientists say. Many organic and inorganic substances have been washed into the sea, and the coastal area is heavily polluted, Polyakova said.

The consequences of pollution are also unclear, but the churning of the ocean will mitigate the effects, the scientist said.

Worst-case scenario

In the worst-case scenario, nuclides with a long radioactive decay half-life, like cesium-137 and strontium-90, will pollute the ocean, Polyakova said. The half-life of strontium-90 is about 30 years. This would pose a much greater threat to humans.

But Polyakova says there is no cause for panic. The U.S. scientists who studied the Black Sea several months after the Chernobyl explosion in April 1986 found strontium-90 and cesium-137 in the water but not in concentrations that are hazardous. The natural mixing of the sea cleans the water.

Radioactive rain

However, this is the first time in human history that several reactors have been damaged simultaneously, Yablokov said. As such, no one can say for sure what will happen to people in the contaminated zone in five or ten years, or what diseases they may get.

He believes aircraft should be used to release reagents over the radioactive clouds, causing radionuclides to fall into the ocean in rain.

The deadly clouds released by the explosion at Chernobyl could have reached Moscow and other large industrial centers otherwise, but reagents were used to stimulate rain near Tula, Ryazan, Bryansk and Kaluga.

The current situation is simpler in one way: The ocean is much better at neutralizing radioactive particles than the soil.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.