There was no background radioactive cesium before above-ground nuclear testing and nuclear accidents started.

Wikipedia provides some details on the distribution of cesium-137 due to human activities:

Small amounts of caesium-134 and caesium-137 were released into the environment during nearly all nuclear weapon tests and some nuclear accidents, most notably the Chernobyl disaster.


Caesium-137 is unique in that it is totally anthropogenic. Unlike most other radioisotopes, caesium-137 is not produced from its non-radioactive isotope, but from uranium. It did not occur in nature before nuclear weapons testing began. By observing the characteristic gamma rays emitted by this isotope, it is possible to determine whether the contents of a given sealed container were made before or after the advent of atomic bomb explosions. This procedure has been used by researchers to check the authenticity of certain rare wines, most notably the purported “Jefferson bottles”.

As the EPA notes:

Cesium-133 is the only naturally occurring isotope and is non-radioactive; all other isotopes, including cesium-137, are produced by human activity.

What people call “background” radiation is really the amount of radiation deposited into the environment within the last 100 years from nuclear tests and nuclear accidents (and naturally-occurring substances, such as radon).

2,053 nuclear tests occurred between 1945 and 1998:

Above-ground nuclear tests – which caused numerous cancers to the “downwinders” – were covered up by the American, French and other governments for decades. See this, this, this, this, this and this.

But the amount of radiation pumped out by Fukushima dwarfs the amount released by the nuclear tests.

As nuclear engineer and former nuclear executive Arnie Gundersen notes, the wave of radioactive cesium from Fukushima which is going to hit the West Coast of North America will be 10 times greater than from the nuclear tests (starting at 55:00).

This graphic from Woods Hole in Massachusetts – one of the world’s top ocean science institutions – shows how much more cesium was dumped into the sea off Japan from Fukushima as compared to nuclear testing and Chernobyl:

(And Fukushima radiation has arrived on the West Coast years earlier than predicted.)

The Canadian government has confirmed in October that Fukushima radiation will exceed “levels higher than maximum fallout” from the nuclear tests.

The party line from the Japanese, Canadian and American governments are that these are safe levels of radiation.   Given that those countries have tried to ban investigative journalism and have tried to cover up the scope of the Fukushima disaster, people may want to investigate for ourselves.

For example, Gundersen notes that the U.S. government flew helicopters with special radiation testing equipment 90 days after the Fukushima meltdown happened.  The government said it was just doing a routine “background radiation” check, but that it was really measuring the amount of “hot particles” in the Seattle area (starting at 27:00). Hot particles are inhaled and become very dangerous “internal emitters”. The government then covered up the results on the basis of “national security”.

As the Washington Department of Health noted at the time:

A helicopter flying over some urban areas of King and Pierce counties will gather radiological readings July 11-28, 2011. [Seattle is in King County.] The U.S. Department of Energy’s Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measurement System will collect baseline levels of radioactive materials.


Some of the data may be withheld for national security purposes.

Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security and National Nuclear Security Administration sent low-flying helicopters over the San Francisco Bay Area in 2012 to test for radiation. But they have not released the results.

Indeed, residents of Seattle breathed in 5 hot particles each day in April of 2011 … a full 50% of what Tokyo residents were breathing at the time:


(the video is from June 2011.)

After all, the reactors at Fukushima literally exploded … and ejected cladding from the reactors and fuel particles. And see this.

Gundersen says that geiger counters don’t measure hot particles. Unless the government or nuclear scientists measure and share their data, we are in the dark as to what’s really going on.

Category: Energy, Really, really bad calls, Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

9 Responses to “Putting Fukushima In Perspective”

  1. fgw says:

    “This graphic from Woods Hole in Massachusetts – one of the world’s top ocean science institutions – shows how much more cesium was dumped into the sea off Japan from Fukushima as compared to nuclear testing and Chernobyl:”
    The graph, or more precisely your use of it, is highly misleading. First of all, you are confusing amounts and concentrations as shown in the charts. Your statement may or may not be true, it is impossible to tell from the chart. Even so, it can’t be surprising that Fukushima released more radioactivity to the ocean than Chernobyl. Just look at a map. Since all things being equal the concentration of any emission declines with the third power of distance to the source, as is clear from the next graph of the Woods Hole source you cite, using that graph to incite fear as you do is deeply irresponsible. If Mr Ritholz analyzes market data the way you present this data, he and his clients would be poorly off.

  2. johnl says:

    Re: the chart of contamination to the ocean.
    The qualifiers in the side notes seem to indicate that the chart is really kind of useless at comparing the different events.
    Atmospheric measurements from set locations around the globe may be more informative.
    There seems to be a lot of hyperbola in media about this event. It is a news story, for sure. But maybe not quit as exciting as it’s being made out to be.
    Also a fairly well footnoted wikipedia article on hot particles can be found here,
    The author of this seems to think hot particles can be me measured with geiger tube devices, unlike what Mr. Gundersen has suggested above.

  3. KevinM says:

    I agree with fgw. The units, measurement sites and techniques are all arranged to maximaze the apparent magnitude of the disaster. Statements like “the amount of radiation pumped out by Fukushima dwarfs the amount released by the nuclear tests” are possibly true, but should make a scientific literate cringe.

    Radiation is energy released by radioactive material. Each unit of radiation is a one time event. It happens then it’s gone, just like light from a flashlight. You flip off the switch and within an imperceptible time it does not exist in that space.

    Radioactive material is something that gives off radiation. It is like the flashlight, except it has no off button. You have to wait for the battery to run out, or destroy it. The best place to destroy it is in another nuclear reactor, where it can be made into things more or less radioactive.

    These comparisons between events (Test, Chern, Fuk) contain that and other errors that the writer may or may not have understood. It’s not like the article needed to be rushed, it’s been a while since the incident. They needed a science editor.

    I would not support the statement that Fuk was no big deal, it was a very big deal. But this desperate attempt to say something like “this gunshot would was worse than every other gunshot wound” cheapens it. Stick to objective comparison or risk being an echo puppet.

  4. JesseLivermore says:

    This is some alarmist BS. Sure, you can see the spike in cesium because the background is so low. It’s like how you can see when you turn on a flashlight in a dark room, but it’s not going to give you a sunburn. Why not compare the total increase in environmental radioactivity in the US before and after Fukushima? I promise you, it will be too small to measure.

  5. mathman says:

    Some of you continue to deny what’s going on around you so you can continue your economic rape of the environment without a worry in the world. Don’t be an idiot Jesse – there IS NO SAFE DOSE of radiation! It’s cumulative and Fukushima has been spewing out ungodly amounts of this crap for about 3 years now – into both the ocean currents (where, if you’re paying any attention at all, it’s having devastating impacts on marine life in the Pacific, so far, but this will spread by ocean currents) and the atmosphere (like all the other nuke plants do, on a regular basis it turns out. So add that to the radiation from Chernobyl and all the atomic bomb testing around the globe and the dumping that’s been going on for about 60 years now, and it doesn’t bode well for food production, plant health (mutations are rising) or animal (and human) reproduction. This toxic crap has half-lives WAY beyond anything we can conceive (like in the millions of years) – so after that incredible amount of time still half of it remains (and the other half has transformed into other radionuclides with half-lives). And it’s being added to DAILY Jesse! Your analogy with the flashlight is so full of bullshit and stupidity it’s on the same level as the comparison of bananas and radiation that the completely clueless Republitards continue to profess. Try reading a little science once in a while. You might learn how bad it really is.

    Nuclear Waste Sits on Ocean Floor
    U.S. Has Few Answers on How to Handle Atomic Waste It Dumped in the Sea

    Just keep ignoring the obvious so you can keep up your profits. Yay, capitalism!

  6. DeDude says:

    This over the top hyperbole does not fly well with a critically thinking audience (as in this blog). Misrepresenting data to hype a specific conclusion just lose you credibility – as does attempts to hide data (by whatever excuse) from the public (followed by statements that there is not problem).

    It is actually possible to detect safety/danger of radiation by fairly simple experiments. Doses can be related to frequency of mutation inductions in single cell culture and in mammals. Those frequencies of specific doses from specific substances can then be compared to more familiar dangers such as sunlight and grilled meat. Then the dangers of specific radionuclides at specific doses can be expressed in terms that are easier to understand (as the increase in mutations is similar to eating one more grilled steak per year of x minutes of additional exposure to sunlight at the beach. We really do need a fact-based quantitative debate of this issue rather than factless denial and hyperbole.

  7. jaysan says:

    Another comment from my friend the atomic physicist:

    “Re mathman, it is not known where low doses of radiation are harmful, helpful, or whatever, as there are no data, since we are all exposed to background radiation (which comes from more sources than nuclear tests btw).”

    Earlier, he had said to me, re. mathman: “Everything he or she said is simply incorrect.”

  8. Scott Basinger says:

    mathman: ” Don’t be an idiot Jesse – there IS NO SAFE DOSE of radiation! ”

    I doubt that you fear plane rides, X-rays at the dentist’s, bananas in the store, walking outside in the sun or tanning on the beach, or lounging in your basement playing XBox which you’ve neglected getting a radon test for – as much as you fear this distant disaster that has much less of a personal effect on you than the small risks that I’ve mentioned. The problem with people like you is that you have no concept of what the actual risk is, yet you continue to babble.

    • The concern about this distant disaster is that it was was man-made — poor planning, terrible facilities location, and an endless stream of nonsense from the Japanese authorities.

      You are focusing on the minutia of people’s fears — you are ignoring what is in no uncertain terms a giant clusterfuck.