The reach of atmospheric winds is long. The latest demonstration of this comes from the ruined Japanese power plant Fukushima. Sea water around Fukushima, rich in neutrons from the nuclear matter, was causing a spike in the amount of atmospheric sulfur over the Californian coast. Sulfur is a toxic element in itself and forms oxides which are just as toxic. It is also a major contributor of acid rain.
This is what was happening at Fukushima. On 13th March, 2011, two days after the deadly tsunami wrecked Fukushima, engineers began pumping seawater into the power plant, so as to keep the nuclear core cool, since the cooling system was not functioning due to loss of power. Lightly radioactive seawater was drained out of the power plant. Neutrons streamed out of the water, knocking against chlorine atoms, converting them into a radioactive isotope of sulfur. The sulfur combined with oxygen in seawater, especially since the warm water provided enough thermal energy for the chemical reaction. A part of this sulfur dioxide bubbled through the water and entered the atmosphere as a gas and another part dissolved in the sea water. Further, when the water hit the hot core, it instantly vaporized, again releasing large amounts of hot elemental sulfur into the atmosphere. Both air currents and ocean currents carried the sulfur rich air or water to the western shores of America.
The observed data and extrapolation
The sulphur peak in the atmosphere was noticed on March 28, 2011, 15 days after the pumping started. According to a study conducted by chemists at the University of California, San Diego, – the first quantitative study of the disaster – about 400 billion neutrons were released per square meter of the cooling pools of liquid in the power plant. This rate stayed constant from 13th March to 20th March. The mechanism of producing radioactive sulphur is well understood from cosmic ray studies, but this is the first time such a process is being noticed near the surface. The study measured 1501 atoms of radioactive sulfur in sulfate particles per cubic meter of air, much much higher than normal levels.
For the levels of sulphur noticed at California to be correctly correlated with sulphur levels over Fukushima, the team calculated that the levels of sulfur ought to be 365 times that over California.
As always, even disasters provide opportunity for science to study different processes. Thiemens, the Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at UC San Diego, says
We’ve really used the injection of a radioactive element to an environment to be a tracer of a very important process in nature for which there are some big gaps in understanding.
Maybe in this case, it’s just too inhumane to say that every cloud has a silver lining.
News via UCSanDiego