March 12, 2011

Where would the radioactivity go?

Although any injections of radioactivity for the damaged Japanese reactors would be highly diffused, with very low concentrations, by the time it got to us, I did a trajectory analysis using the NOAA Hysplit Model. I first released the trajectories in the general region of damaged region at 10, 1000, and 5000 meters. Here is what I got:And there I tried some higher levels: here are trajectories released more at jet stream level (7000 and 9000 meters):I tried several levels because it is uncertain to what level the radioactive materials will rise. It would injected by an explosion, diffuse vertically by turbulence in the atmosphere, be pushed aloft by atmospheric convection or rise with the vertical motion associated with weather systems (like fronts and cyclones)

But there is a bottom line: what does gets injected is generally heading our way...particularly at jet stream level (9000 m) and near the surface.

You may not believe this, but some of the survivalist and anti-nuclear web sites are already going nuts about the "threat." On CNN right now they are talking about the potential for a melt down of at least one of the Japanese reactors, but it is clear that this will not be a Chernobyl level release in any case.

But taking a more philosophical angle, it is clear that both the ability to a Japanese tsunami to influence our coast, and the threat of radioactivity injected into the atmosphere there to move our way on the jet stream shows that we cannot consider our environment in isolation from the rest of the world.

PS: Here is a good editorial on the Common Core math standards


  1. Cliff, are you basing this on high-altitude injection? that is, would this require material from the plants to get high up into the atmosphere at the plant site?

    I ask because my current understanding is that won't happen unless there is a breach and meltdown.

    Can you clarify if this modeling is based on that assumption, or based on low-altitude dispersal at the site?

    Thanks very much.

  2. Thanks for keeping it real, Cliff! Much appreciated. I learned about Gaussian Plumes in Environmental Science class. This does NOT have me worried :)

  3. Thanks, Cliff, I knew it was smart to see what you had to say. The site I found had this disclaimer about one of the more popular radiation maps:

    "CAVEATS ABOUT THIS MAP : Beyond Nuclear is unable to reach the Australian Radiation Service (as of 10 AM Sat Mar 12) who apparently released this map, to verify the radiation levels given or to understand how they are derived. This map shows an large-scale weather pattern which is verifiable by a weather site [Japan Meteorological Socity] in Japan. This map below will not represent local or regional weather patterns for Japan itself. The weather site shows more local weather effects."

  4. 2 questions:

    What would the time frame be (time from a significant meltdown)? and Is it worth having potassium iodide on hand?

  5. Oh, never mind I see the time frame in your graph, from today to the 22nd. Just my second question then. :)

  6. Thanks for the maps! Things don't sound nearly as good as they did a few hours ago...serious problems at a second reactor now being reported on BBC and CNN.

  7. These radioactive particles are heavy elements. They would have to catch the jet stream in order to spread between continents. The intentional release and the outer pressure explosion of the building around reactor 1 was not enough to gain much altitude. This isn't a nuclear explosion like from a weapon.

  8. Thanks Cliff, for remaining calm while also showing the global effects. I think most Americans think the Pacific stops at the far left of the country, like a U.S. map, and newsreaders think a nuclear emergency might "ruin your whole day" (like they say on the T-shirt).
    I hope that scientists & engineers will continue to discuss this - otherwise we have to choose between confused officials or dire survivalists for information.

  9. Jen, no. Look at the map, and the altitudes. The only line to cross WA is the blue one, second map. The third square is the one that hits WA. Look below to the altitude chart - this would be at 8000m altitude.

    I would posit that if you're out sniffing air at over 26,000 feet, you're going to have bigger problems such as hypoxia, not to mention frostbite and trauma from sticking your head out of a moving jet. :)

  10. aha, I see that altitude is explicitly called out in the graphs. Never mind.

  11. @Jason - You might not be up at those altitudes, but the rain will bring it down into our water and food growing in our soil.

  12. Why is it that whenever I click on the image of your model it crashes my browser (Safari running on Mac OS X)?

  13. Like izzit, I really appreciate the information on this site Cliff, as well as that from other scientists and smart people in the community. After watching the BP debacle unfold, nothing the government says about an environmental disaster is going to be all that reassuring. I want facts and educated opinions, not spin. This was one of the first sites I went to when I heard there would be radiation released into the atmosphere. Thanks to everyone for their helpful comments.

  14. Jen, there are three major contaminants in a nuke reactor meltdown: isotopes of Cesium, Iodine and the fuel (Uranium) are the main ones. You CAN protect yourself for a short while with the iodide pills, but you have to take them at the right time to saturate your thyroid (the idea is to saturate your thyroid, which will then reject the radioactive iodides as excess), and keep it saturated. You can't take the iodides if you have ANY thyroid difficulties, and if you have them but don't know about it, you could be dead far quicker from the thyroid issues than from the radiation.

    In any case, you don't get any protection from the other isotopes, so you MAY do yourself a very small favor, may not.

    I'm an old Cold War nuke warrior, and had all this stuff drilled into me so it's rote memory.

  15. Love your blog and enjoyed reading your book too.

    On a quiet weather day it would be interesting if you wrote about some of the typical drivers of NW weather. One topic would be the source of the lows that pass near Vancouver island and create strong south winds (I live in Bellingham and we have been hammered this year). Another topic would be distinctive cloud formation.

    Thank you!


  16. Thanks for the info! Can you please update with your thoughts now that multiple reactors do appear to be in meltdown.( I am concerned about radioactive material in the steam released from the seawater being swept up to the higher altitudes and comming down on Seattle if the jet stream rises and cools as it passes over the land. Thanks again. Yours is the only blog I have found on the subject that is not full of wild speculation.

  17. Japanese science is extraordinarily good. I have no doubt they will handle this issue.

    However, This rain and gloom is tuning me into some kind of wacko. If one were looking for warm and dry how far does one have to go? Utah? Navada? Costa Rica?


  18. @Thomas:

    Dry is easy. Head East to Salmon la Sac or Vantage on I-90. Go West to Sequim. Go North to Bellingham or San Juan Island. The mountains mean that there are rain shadows EVERYWHERE!

    Warm is tougher. I see Baja California in your future this week. ¡Viva México!

  19. "Japanese science is extraordinarily good. I have no doubt they will handle this issue."

    There was no science here, it's called the Nuclear Industry for a reason.


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