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Debris from Japan's Tsunami: Some Helpful Info Courtesy of NOAA

Jordan Weaver

Posted July 19, 2012

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program has provided the public with a number of educational resources regarding ocean-borne wreckage from the Japanese tsunami that might reach U.S. shores. As a result of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, large amounts of debris were washed back into the ocean as the tsunami retreated. NOAA expects some portion of this material will reach U.S. and Canadian shores over a period of several years. Some debris has already arrived and, according to NOAA models, likely began to be washed up on the U.S. West coast during the winter of 2011-2012.

As many no doubt remember, the earthquake and tsunami severely damaged the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant causing a meltdown and subsequent contamination of surrounding lands and waters. The plant was located on Japan’s Pacific coast and large quantities of radioactive materials were released into the ocean during the efforts to keep the reactor cores cool and deal with huge volumes of radioactively-contaminated water. This could lead one to believe there is a risk of encountering radioactive debris. However, NOAA states that in their view it is very unlikely any debris washing up on Pacific North American shores is radioactive.

This conclusion makes sense considering that 70% of the 5 million tons of tsunami debris is expected to have immediately sunk offshore and not to have been carried east by ocean currents. The remaining 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris is “scattered across an area off the North Pacific that is roughly three times the size of the continental United States,” according to the Marine Debris Program. Also, the debris was created and brought out to sea before any releases of radioactivity. Thus, the relatively small fraction of floating material that could possibly have originated from the nuclear plant has been dispersed over vast areas of ocean, making the odds of discovering a radioactive piece of debris extremely low. Multiple debris samples found along the West Coast have already been tested and no contamination has been found. Additionally, a small fishing boat found in the Pacific Ocean and known to be from the Fukushima region tested normal.

At the time of this post, NOAA encourages the public to continue visiting and enjoying the coasts and, when possible, aid in the clean-up efforts. Common litter items such as plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and Styrofoam should be safe to handle and the public is encouraged to remove and properly dispose of these items, if practical.

According to the Marine Debris Program website, most of the debris that is likely to be found will not be harmful but they ask that the public follow these safety guidelines if they encounter debris. Generally speaking, just be safe: if you don’t recognize an item, don’t touch it. If you do recognize it as something that could be potentially hazardous (oil/chemical drums, gas cans, propane tanks, etc.), NOAA suggests calling your appropriate state authorities.

Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program

You can also help NOAA in their tracking efforts: any marine debris items or significant accumulations related to the tsunami may be reported to and be sure to include the location, date and time of discovery, photos, and descriptions. Because not all debris found is from Japan, NOAA asks the public to use discretion when reporting items.

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