Ever since the partial meltdown of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant last month, there's been a steady barrage of hand-wringing media reports speculating about the threat of radioactivity in our seafood. And most have gone a little something like this: Japanese and American authorities say they're closely monitoring the situation and that there's no radioactive seafood entering the food supply, but we're going to go ahead and scare people anyway.
While it's normal, and probably advisable, to take government assurances of safety with a grain of salt, in this case the authorities are actually worth paying attention to. Yes, Japan's Fisheries Ministry last week found fish with high levels of iodine and cesium about 50 miles from the destroyed electric plant, but there's no reason to believe that these contaminated fish will ever be served up on anyone's sushi plate.
There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that the Japanese government is doing rigorous testing of its seafood and the FDA, which usually tests a miniscule amount of imports, is on high alert for all seafood coming in from Japan.
And this isn't a BP limitless-gusher type of situation. The amount of radiation going into the Pacific Ocean is finite. First radiation was leaking from a hole that's now been plugged and then Tepco, the company that owns the Fukushima facility, dumped roughly 3 million gallons of low-level radioactive water into the sea to make room in a storage tank for more highly contaminated water. And that's it. Of course, if a new disaster unfolds at Fukushima and sends heaps of additional radiation sloshing into the Pacific, the story changes.
No, your sushi won't glow in the dark
But for now, there's no point in Japanese consumers or anyone else worrying about their fish glowing in the dark. The Pacific's sheer volume of water and fast moving currents serve to dilute the radioactive molecules that have entered the ocean. The marine species most likely to become contaminated are those that spend most of their lives near the Fukushima power plant. And nobody is harvesting those fish or shellfish because the area's fishing industry was completely decimated and no outside boats are being allowed in.
Then there's the issue of the radiation source itself. Most of it is iodine-131, which has a half life of eight days, meaning that it loses half its potency in a little over a week. Cesium-134 (half life of 2 years) and cesium-137 (half life 30 years) are more concerning, but they've been released into the water in much smaller quantities.
And although large amounts of radiation can create huge health problems -- like it undoubtedly will for the unfortunate souls who worked inside the plant after the tsunami -- small amounts of it are typically harmless. As Mother Jones notes, Fiestaware bowls and plates, smoke detectors, and bananas all emit low levels of radiation. As do the granite countertops now ubiquitous in America's McMansions.
And yet nuclear paranoia is spreading
But this hasn't prevented fears from spreading. At the famed Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, prices have cratered. Restaurants around the world have stopped buying all Japanese fish and celebrity chefs in the U.S. are using radiation detectors, even after they've banned Japanese seafood. "Nobody knows how the currents will carry the contaminated water," Le Bernadin chef Eric Ripert dimly told the New York Times.
In South Korea, some customers are shunning all seafood, both Japanese and domestically caught varieties. This despite the fact that it would take nearly five years for ocean currents near Fukushima to come to South Korea after circling the North Pacific Ocean and despite the fact that the Korean government says it's screening all seafood from Japan for radiation.
None of this is good news for Japan's financially and culturally important $16.5 billion fishing industry, $2.3 billion of which is exports. The loss of livelihood for fisherman in Japan's northeastern provinces was inevitable, but all the other fishing and seafood-related jobs that will be jettisoned are not.
Image by Flickr user libraryman