Japan Ocean Currents and the Nuclear Crisis

March 31, 2011; 8:07 AM ET
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Ocean currents off eastern Japan could hold the key to the spread of major leak of radioactive water or airborne fallout.

Reports have told of greatly elevated levels of radiation in sea water at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Others have spoken of detectable traces of radioactive isotopes near the plant, but also as far south as greater Tokyo, home to about 35 million residents.

While the exact nature of the cause of the radioactive releases, as discussed in the international news media, seems unclear, it has raised fears of a breach in containment at one or more of the six Fukushima reactors.

Any radioactive matter finding its way into waters off northeastern Honshu would be subject to local sea currents.


The most important current off Fukushima is known as the Oyashio, a chilly current that drifts southward from the Sea of Okhotsk to waters east of Hokkaido and northern Honshu, two of the main land masses of Japan. This current ends its southward journey off Cape Inubo, east of Tokyo, whereupon it veers sharply eastward--out to sea.

Nuclear contamination released at the power plant would tend to be diluted by the vast volume of the ocean. Greatest impact from such contamination would most likely be felt near the site. However, measurable contamination, depending upon the amount released, could ride the Oyashio southward off the shore of Fukushima, Ibaraki and northern Chiba prefectures.

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