Radioactive sea spray is dosing communities

Governments want to cover it up

By Tim Deere-Jones

I am taking a walk along the path at Manorbier on the south Pembrokeshire coast in Wales. The tomb of King’s Quoit is still in its midwinter shadow. It gets no direct sunlight for 28 days either side of the solstice. And yet the first daffodils and pink campions are already in bloom.

A visit to the tomb on the first day when light returns is a truly amazing sight. It is perched by fresh running water, on the edge of cliffs, just above the sea. You can smell the salt in the air, and feel the mist of sea spray blown in by the prevailing onshore winds.

king's quoit by andrew

The idyllic King’s Quoit on the Welsh coast may hide something more sinister. (Photo: Andrew for Creative Commons/Flickr)

And yet in some coastal areas such a moment may not be as idyllic as it seems.

It is clear from the available empirical data that coastal populations impacted by prevailing onshore winds and living next to sea areas contaminated with liquid radioactive effluents from nuclear sites, are annually exposed to dietary and inhalation doses of man-made marine radioactivity.

Effluents discharged to the sea by nuclear power stations, fuel fabrication sites and reprocessing facilities are transferred from sea to land in airborne sea spray and marine aerosols (micro-droplets). They come in also during episodes of coastal flooding.

sellafield shirokazan

Radioactive sea spray on the beaches near the UK Sellafield reprocessing site has been tied to leukemia clusters among local children. (Photo: Shirokazan for Creative Commons/Flickr)

This problem has been particularly pronounced around the UK Sellafield reprocessing and plutonium production site in Cumbria. In 1988, independent empirical research commissioned by a west Wales local authority reported that Sellafield-derived, sea-discharged cesium had been found in pasture grass up to 10 miles inland of the Ceredigion coast.

Clearly, this contributes to human dietary doses via the dairy and beef food chain. The research also implies the inevitability of further dietary doses via arable and horticultural crops. Given that airborne radioactivity is driven at least 10 miles inland, it should be assumed that coastal populations are exposed, on a repeated annual basis, to inhalation doses.

Independent, empirical field research by a team of doctors (general practitioners) in the Hebrides off the Scottish coast, has shown broadly similar, but more detailed results and demonstrated that island and coastal environments are saturated with sea-borne cesium from distant sources.

The GP’s research demonstrated that those who ate more “local” terrestrial produce had higher doses of Sellafield sea discharged cesium-137 than those who ate “non-local” produce.

Some island residents received higher doses of Sellafield derived, sea discharged cesium, from their locally grown terrestrial produce, than from sea foods. The same residents received higher doses from their terrestrial produce than some sea food-eating populations living adjacent to nuclear pipelines discharging liquid waste to the sea. 

Given the available evidence of the West Wales study, it is logical to propose that the same would apply in that case.

Early research on this in the UK was initiated by the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear governments, acting through the UK Atomic Energy Agency (UKAEA). In the late 1970s and early ‘80s the agency researched the sea to land transfer of the alpha emitting plutoniums (Pu) 238, 239, and 240 and americium (Am) 241, and the beta emitting cesiums (Cs) 134 and 137, across the Cumbrian coast near Sellafield.

The UKAEA work confirmed that all five radionuclides studied transferred readily from the sea to the land in onshore winds. In wind speeds of less than 10 metres per sec (22 mph) cesium was enriched in spray and marine aerosols with enrichment factors (EFs) of around 2.

sea spray terry robinson

Radioactive effluents from nuclear plants are transferred from sea to land in airborne sea spray and marine aerosols. (Photo: Terry Robinson.)

However, the alpha emitting plutonium and americium were shown to have EFs, relative to filtered ambient seawater, of up to 800. The alpha emitters were found to be associated (by Ad-sorbtion) with micro particles of sedimentary and organic material suspended in the marine water column and ejected into the atmosphere, as aerosols, by bursting bubbles at sea and at the surf line.

However, once the sea to land transfer of alpha emitters with massive enrichments was confirmed, such studies were rapidly abandoned and virtually no empirical field work on the extent of the inland penetration of spray and aerosols and human doses and exposure pathways has been completed by “official” sources.

Furthermore, of the 70 + radionuclides known to be discharged to sea from UK nuclear sites, only the five named radionuclides have ever been researched for their sea to land transfer potential.

I have no doubt that this is a global phenomenon and that the various mechanisms of sea to land transfer are not unique to the UK. However, I have observed that the scientific literature on the subject appears to be restricted to the output of UK official (pro-nuclear) and independent (non-aligned) researchers and that, to date, no other sources of such research have been identified.

The UK Government and a number of its departments and its environmental regulatory agencies are aware of the concerns discussed above, but appear to prefer a cover-up rather than an open discussion. The UK research itself was terminated within a few years of its inception and, coupled with the absence of any similar research in other “nuclear states”, it is my assumption that the international nuclear community has no interest in promoting such work and is happy to see the whole issue sidelined and downplayed.

Tim Deere-Jones was educated at the Cardiff University (Wales): Department of Maritime Studies, where his research dissertation was on the Sea to Land Transfer of Marine Pollutants. He has been working as a “non-aligned” marine pollution researcher and consultant since 1983 and has worked with major NGOs and campaign groups in the UK, Europe, the US and Australia. Tim has a particular field and research interest in the behavior and fate of anthropogenic radioactivity released/spilled into marine environments.

Read Tim’s full report with citations here.

Headline photo by Les Chatfield for Creative Commons/Flickr

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