Radioecologists Developing Japan-Response Recommendations

Two months ago, to little fanfare, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a new research center at its Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) in Georgia. Now, thanks to the ongoing troubles at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the fledgling National Center for Radioecology (NCoRE) suddenly finds itself with a lot more work to do.

Radioecology is the science of how radiation affects ecosystems, and on Tuesday, NCoRE’s group of experts in this field, drawn from six U.S. universities, France, Ukraine, and SRNL, held a teleconference to discuss how best to respond to the emerging radiation situation in Japan. They decided to begin drafting recommendations for a plan to aid Japan in collecting ecological samples and testing current models of radiation’s effects on ecosystems. After the situation in Japan stabilizes, NCoRE hopes to bring Japanese radioecology experts on board as well and ultimately craft a white paper to present to the U.S. government and other relevant groups.

Inspired by the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, NCoRE was founded in January 2011 as a way to collect various types of expertise in radioecology and study the environmental impacts of a growing number of nuclear power plants. The group also plans to test models that would assist in the preparation for nuclear attacks, as well as offer training for potential radioecologists. The latter task is seen as crucial because no formal graduate program in radioecology currently exists. “It’s very clear there’s a paucity of expertise in this area,” says radioecologist Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, Columbia.

The end of the nuclear testing era brought a gradual decline in funding for radioecology; investment in the field following Chernobyl proved to be only temporary. But Mousseau, who researches the long-term ecological effects of Chernobyl, expects that Japan’s current nuclear troubles will trigger “renewed interest in what we’ve learned.”

Timothy Jannik of SRNL, who specializes in risk modeling, says that because Japan is still beset with earthquake and tsunami damage, it will be difficult to quickly and accurately take current samples of any potential radiation across the country’s many ecosystems. Much of what radioecologists will be able to learn about exposure doses and how the radiation was dispersed will come from retroactive modeling, which will be more difficult but could result in improved dispersion models applicable to future radiation leaks.

Ideally, NCoRE will work with groups in Japan to track the future impact of any released radiation. “We would like to help develop an intensive monitoring mechanism to track deposition of radionuclides and how they are transported,” Mousseau says. One of NCoRE’s recommendations will be to test and reassess models of how radiation is spread through the food chain: in addition to direct fallout onto crops and agricultural soil, radionuclides in the water could have widespread effects. Cesium-137 in particular is known to accumulate in freshwater fish—a mainstay of the Japanese diet. “I’m assuming if [radiation has] spread on the ground, it also dispersed into lakes,” Jannik says. “The key is getting samples in the emerging situation.”

For our complete coverage of the crisis in Japan, see our Japan Earthquake page.  For Science's answers to reader questions about the crisis, see our Quake Questions page.