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Unexpected observation must be borne in mind with all coastal nuke plants

Unexpected source of Fukushima-derived radiocesium to the coastal ocean of Japan

  1. Virginie Saniala,1,
  2. Ken O. Buesselera,1,
  3. Matthew A. Charettea, and
  4. Seiya Nagaob

Author Affiliations

  1. Edited by David M. Karl, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI, and approved August 28, 2017 (received for review May 24, 2017)



Five years after the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant accident, the highest radiocesium (137Cs) activities outside of the power plant site were observed in brackish groundwater underneath sand beaches. We hypothesize that the radiocesium was deposited on mineral surfaces in the days and weeks after the accident through wave- and tide-driven exchange of seawater through the beach face. As seawater radiocesium concentrations decreased, this radiocesium reentered the ocean via submarine groundwater discharge, at a rate on par with direct discharge from the power plant and river runoff. This new unanticipated pathway for the storage and release of radionuclides to ocean should be taken into account in the management of coastal areas where nuclear power plants are situated.




There are 440 operational nuclear reactors in the world, with approximately one-half situated along the coastline. This includes the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP), which experienced multiple reactor meltdowns in March 2011 followed by the release of radioactivity to the marine environment. While surface inputs to the ocean via atmospheric deposition and rivers are usually well monitored after a nuclear accident, no study has focused on subterranean pathways. During our study period, we found the highest cesium-137 (137Cs) levels (up to 23,000 Bqm−3) outside of the FDNPP site not in the ocean, rivers, or potable groundwater, but in groundwater beneath sand beaches over tens of kilometers away from the FDNPP. Here, we present evidence of a previously unknown, ongoing source of Fukushima-derived 137Cs to the coastal ocean. We postulate that these beach sands were contaminated in 2011 through wave- and tide-driven exchange and sorption of highly radioactive Cs from seawater. Subsequent desorption of 137Cs and fluid exchange from the beach sands was quantified using naturally occurring radium isotopes. This estimated ocean 137Cs source (0.6 TBqy−1) is of similar magnitude as the ongoing releases of 137Cs from the FDNPP site for 2013–2016, as well as the input of Fukushima-derived dissolved 137Cs via rivers. Although this ongoing source is not at present a public health issue for Japan, the release of Cs of this type and scale needs to be considered in nuclear power plant monitoring and scenarios involving future accidents.


  • Author contributions: K.O.B. and M.A.C. designed research; V.S., K.O.B., M.A.C., and S.N. performed research; V.S., K.O.B., M.A.C., and S.N. analyzed data; and V.S., K.O.B., M.A.C., and S.N. wrote the paper.
  • Conflict of interest statement: K.O.B. has served in a consulting capacity related to radionuclides in Japanese fisheries products.
  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
  • This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1708659114/-/DCSupplemental.

Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.

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