Nuclear Plume Migrates From Japan to U.S.

On Friday March 18, 2011, European officials released information that the nuclear plume from Japan was detected in Sacramento California.  This fact has been confirmed by the Department of Energy.  The nuclear plume was detected by equipment at a California Air Force base.  The equipment station is part of the detection system set up by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). The CTBTO is an arm of the Unite Nations created to help monitor the global ban on the testing of nuclear arms.  However, since the recent Japanese nuclear plant catastrophes, the 60 CTBTO monitoring stations situated around the world have become invaluable in tracking the nuclear plume.

The plume is currently being carried across the Pacific Ocean by prevailing winds and is expected to reach the New York area by next week.  Luckily the amount of Iodine -131 and Cesium-137, the contaminants in the plume, are in rather minuscule amounts and experts state that the amounts currently reaching the United States are too low to effect human health.  The amount needed to cause cancer in humans is millions of times more than what is currently reaching our shores.   Health experts also explained in a recent New York Times article that the nuclear material migrated to the United States from Japan after the Chernobyl disaster and even then only miniscule concentrations of contamination were detected in the U.S.

Throughout the past week, the U.S. has accused Japan of withholding information and now domestic environmental and watchdog groups fear that the U.S. government is doing the same.  The unique international aspect of this nuclear disaster has brought to light the need for a global system of monitoring nuclear emergencies that would also make the results public.  The CTBTO has come to the rescue but was not created to service this need. In fact, they have been monitoring the releases and tracking the plume since its initial stages, but have only recently released this information.

How could an organization or system be set up to monitor these types of emergencies?  Does it seem appropriate to fall under the purview of the UN?  Should the role of this international organization be simply to monitor, or to regulate or secure, as well?  Do you think that this disaster will change domestic or international energy policy or emergency planning?


  1. I think it might be hard to set up a single international organization to monitor nuclear sites on a global scale. No doubt, states would engage in political fighting over whose personnel would run the organization, where it would be located, etc.

    It might be feasible, however, for states to draft and enter into a treaty whereby their own national nuclear monitoring facilities could share information internationally. Such an arrangement is not unprecedented. Under Article 206 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, “[w]hen States have reasonable grounds for believing that planned activities under their jurisdiction or control may cause substantial pollution of or significant and harmful changes to the marine environment, they [are obligated to], as far as practicable, assess the potential effects of such activities . . . and [] communicate reports of the results.” This kind of legal scheme, in short, could apply to nuclear facilities and help prevent states from withholding information on the radiation that they produce.

    Furthermore, if states could agree by treaty to conduct shared yearly reports on their nuclear facilities’ environmental effects, a more holistic picture of the potential threats posed by disasters like the one in Japan would emerge. Contingencies could be better assessed and planned for.

  2. If states entered into a treaty that obligated them to release information regarding nuclear environmental effects- this may be a viable solution for these nuclear emergencies. The UN could provide the states with minimum regulations on environmental guidelines and what information should be revealed. The problem with having a committee in the UN that regulates and secures these standards is the politics that gets involved. The UN Security Council who is responsible for maintaining international peace and security has five permanent member states and additional rotating members. Although their decisions are binding any of the permanent members can use their veto power and an authorization cannot be passed. I predict that a UN body that is responsible for regualting nuclear sites may run into the same political battles that the Security Council has faced.

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