Scripps Researchers Track Radioactive Debris From Japan

Philip Jia/UCSD Guardian

Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography are tracking and modeling radioactive debris released from Japanese nuclear power plants to determine when they will reach U.S coasts.

Associate Project Scientist and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Global Drifter Program Principal Investigator Luca Centurioni will look at ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean to predict movement of the debris caused by the March 11 earthquake that hit Japan.

Working with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center, researchers predict that it will take two to three years for the debris to reach Hawaii and the West Coast.

To see how much radioactive debris entered the ocean and where it is heading, researchers will deploy 60 drifters — buoy devices that measure ocean currents and are capable of transmitting data  — from U.S. Coast Guard aircraft this summer

“These drifters will be placed off the coast of Japan in the Northeast Pacific, as close to concentrated piles of debris as possible,” Centurioni said.

According to Centurioni, researchers are not using satellite tracking because the surface debris are too small and current models of ocean circulation will not accurately show where it’s heading.

Centurioni said tracking nuclear debris will not be an easy task. In the months since the earthquake, satellite evidence has shown patches of concentrated debris dispersed because of wind and ocean currents.

“The dispersion effect is great,” Centurioni said. “At first, the debris collected in patches, but now a lot of the material — and I’m not sure how much — has been broken up by the waves. Plastic, for example, can be degraded by UV radiation and broken into small pieces by waves.”

Along with other 900 drifters worldwide, Centurioni also deployed some fake debris to help better observe and model the movement of ocean pollution. Researchers plan to coordinate debris sightings with ships crossing the ocean.

Centurioni does not believe that frequent beachgoers and surfers should worry about the radioactivity.

“We should be worried in the sense that it is a large amount of pollution that is not good for the ocean and has an impact on the environment,” Centurioni said. “But people should not be any more worried than they currently are about the pollution in the ocean.”

Currently, Centurioni is trying to work with the Japanese government and funding agencies to raise funds for the planes needed to deploy drifters.

“We are trying to work with Japan, but it is difficult because of the different policies,” Centurioni said. “When instruments involve satellites, we need permits and have to pay for permit fees.”

When the debris hits, it is expected to enter a swirling ocean current called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which rotates and sometimes dumps floating trash onto beaches in Hawaii and the northwest coast.

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