Dec. 4, 2018

#46: Is There Nuclear Waste in the Ocean (& Can We Become Super Heroes if There Is)?

#46: Is There Nuclear Waste in the Ocean (& Can We Become Super Heroes if There Is)?
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Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson is an Associate Dean and Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of South Carolina, and today she schools us on radioactivity in the ocean. Want to send us feedback? Tweet us, email us, or leave us a voice message!


Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.

Brian: And my name is Brian Colbert Kennedy.

Quinn: Are you mocking me?

Brian: No.

Quinn: Okay. Today's question: "Hey, Brian. Is there nuclear waste in the ocean?" And two, "Can I become a superhero if there is?" Then, just, "We should talk about the pros and cons of both of those things."

Brian: I will swim in so much ocean for so long, if it's a possibility of me becoming a super hero. You have no idea.

Quinn: Oh, god. Jesus, please.

Quinn: Our guest is the esteemed Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson. She is the distinguished professor of Earth Ocean and Environment at the University of South Carolina, where she researches one thing. I'm kidding.

Brian: Kidding!

Quinn: Kidding! She researches biogeochemistry and geochemistry, because obviously she couldn't do just one of those.

Brian: No. She's not a slacker.

Quinn: Kidding again. Also climate change, coastal processes, oceanography, policy, water resources and hydrology.

Brian: I studied theater for one year.

Quinn: Dr. Benitez-Nelson is the co-author of a paper last year on the fallout from the Fukushima disaster and how it affected the Pacific Ocean and everything we're in seven years later.

Quinn: Holy cow! Did I learn some shit today?

Brian: Yeah. I was pretty surprised and …

Quinn: Excited and …

Brian: Excited.

Quinn: … terrified and … Yeah, pretty awesome.

Brian: Yeah. Yes.

Quinn: She's very kind to slow things down for us at times.

Brian: Yeah. We had to take a few steps back, a few, "Hey. What does that mean?" She was so sweet about it and helpful.

Quinn: I will say, again, without giving too much into it, a goal of these things, as always, is to inform better conversations. I feel 10,000% better informed on nuclear power and the pros and cons than ever prior before, which I guess, I think prior and before are the same words.

Brian: Prior and before. It's a little bit redundant, but we all get it.

Quinn: Great. Let's go ahead with this conversation with the smartest person on the planet.

Brian: Let's go talk to Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson.

Quinn: Okay. Our guest today is Dr. Claudia Benitez-Nelson and together, we're going to discuss … Brian, true or false, there is nuclear waste in the ocean? Get excited. Dr. Benitez-Nelson, welcome.

Claudia: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here.

Brian: Can't wait to get the answer to that question as we dig into this conversation.

Brian: Doctor, if you wouldn't mind just starting off by telling us all who you are and what you do.

Claudia: Sure. I'm a professor in the School of the Earth Ocean and Environment in the University of South Carolina. I am an oceanographer. I use natural and artificially occurring radionuclides to look at a variety of processes in the ocean, how material makes its way into the ocean and how it mixes around and then what happens to it once it gets here. That's what I tell my parents.

Brian: Perfect!

Quinn: Got it. My parents just shake their heads at me at this point. They're very …

Brian: You stop that.

Quinn: … They're very patient.

Brian: They're very proud.

Quinn: Awesome!

Brian: I come into these podcasts knowing not a ton so that I can be a voice for our listeners and ask lots of questions.

Brian: I can only assume that there is some bad stuff going on with the ocean so we're going to get into that and we're going to, by the end of this or throughout it, come up with some action steps that our listeners can take to help support you and help clean up this dang ocean.

Quinn: Yeah, yeah.

Claudia: Sounds great.

Brian: Good. Good. We're really glad because that's why you're here.

Quinn: Yeah. Let's fix this thing, especially with some of that ocean news that's come out this week. Good times.

Quinn: Doctor, we start with one important question. Something to set the tone a little bit. Instead of saying, "Tell us your whole life story," as fascinating as I'm sure that is, we like to ask, Doctor, why are you vital to the survival of the species?

Claudia: Oh, my goodness. I'm speechless. That's a rare event for me. In terms of my research, I guess I don't feel like I'm all that vital to the survival of the species.

Quinn: Be bold!

Claudia: I do good work. I think I contribute. I doubt that I will ever win a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur Fellowship, although I wouldn't turn them down. I think that I'm probably the most vital in that … I think it's really important to bring people together who have very different views and to teach and communicate the work I do and this amazing Earth we live on to the next generation. I think that's where I'm really making my mark at this point in time. I think everybody should know how the world works and what an amazing place it is. I think that's how I'm contributing, I think, to our future and our, hopefully, very positive and optimistic future on this planet.

Brian: I love that. That's …

Quinn: Yeah. I've said it before and I'll say it again. We always get that initial, like, "Oh, I don't know." Then, this great answer follows.

Claudia: Oh, good! I'm glad it's a great answer.

Quinn: Oh, hell, yeah, man. It is so vital what you are doing, both in your research and your daily life passing it onto the next generation, who, if we haven't made clear enough on our podcast, is going to have to save us all. People like you are pretty essential.

Claudia: I am very confident that they are going to. Let me tell you. I teach such amazingly smart and innovative and just thought-provoking students. It really just gives me such great pleasure to think about our future in a very positive way.

Brian: That is so incredible to hear.

Quinn: I'll take it. I'll take it.

Brian: Holy cow.

Quinn: Awesome. All right. Let's dig into this a little bit. We're here on the West Coast of the United States, Los Angeles to be specific. About seven and a half years ago, something went down in Japan that scared a lot of people in a lot of places. The Fukushima nuclear power plant went boom, boom and that was for a very specific "Act of god."

Brian: "Boom, boom." I like that.

Quinn: Yeah. The plant or I guess what's left of it is, for reference, is located on the East Coast of Japan, a little bit north of Tokyo. It was commissioned in 1971, is one of the 15 most powerful nuclear stations on the planet. Sadly, on March 11th, 2011, Japan was crushed by a 9.0 earthquake and a subsequent tsunami.

Quinn: I'm going to parse what Wikipedia has here about what happened. "The active reactors automatically shut down their sustained fission reactions. However, the tsunami disabled the emergency generators that would have provided power to control and operate the pumps necessary to cool," them down. "The insufficient cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material … Loss of cooling also raised concerns over the recently loaded spent fuel pool," which is not helpful.

Quinn: Clearly a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami are nothing to fuck with. God knows what they would do to Los Angeles or anywhere on the East Coast.

Brian: Oh, my god.

Quinn: Yet, further, the operator was found later to have failed to meet a variety of basic safety requirements.

Quinn: The Fukushima disaster is called the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Bad news for sure, but here's the thing. There's only been one reported fatality on account of the disaster. "The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and the World Health Organization report that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident."

Quinn: Of course, nuclear waste has quite the shelf life and we're just seven years later so who knows? Why is this all important? Because the word nuclear scares a shitload of people and it excites-

Claudia: It absolutely does.

Quinn: You know what? It excites just as many, depending on whichever way you see it. Nuclear power is either a temporary stepping stone to a much cleaner energy future, a hiccup we've had along the way, an abomination, a relic of the past, or actually significant piece of our clean energy future.

Quinn: I got to tell you, among those disparate groups, there's not a lot of middle ground that I have seen, which is unfortunate, but also not surprising in 2018 and because of mostly relatively unwarranted fears, we've done a pretty shit job across the world of developing, standardizing, and commercializing the next generation of nuclear plants.

Quinn: Again, Fukushima was commission in '71. That was a 40 year old plant. Most of the currents ones are like that. They're pretty old. All that said, perspective is important. Coal is a health nightmare on the mining and production fronts on a day-to-day fucking basis. Fracking causes earthquakes, which is not great.

Brian: No.

Quinn: You can ask the folks in Boston, it can help cause gas lines to explode, but people get worried again. For the past seven years, West Coasters have been pretty terrified about nuclear waste washing up in their water and on the beach.

Quinn: We would like to dig in and set the record straight or at least use our podcast as a vessel of sorts for our esteemed guest to set the record straight while we stand by and let her do her thing.

Quinn: Doctor, with that for some context, let's focus on our topic. True or false, there's nuclear waste in the ocean. Good or bad? Let's find out. If we can cut to it real quick, the question everybody wants answered. We've been waiting almost a decade. In all your research, all your travels and trials, the tribulations, the late nights. The papers, the revelations, the setbacks, have you found any evidence whatsoever that I can go swimming in the Pacific and become a superhero?

Claudia: Unfortunately, not. As much as I would love for all of us to go swimming in the ocean and become superheroes …

Quinn: I'm so cool!

Claudia: … that is … Yeah, yeah.

Brian: Fine.

Claudia: You've raised a lot of really good points. I agree with you. You say the words radioactivity or radiation and it just provokes this real visceral response about just fear and angst. That is an issue. We have radioactivity all around us. We consume radioactivity on a daily basis. We are exposed …

Brian: Damn!

Claudia: … to radiation when we fly in planes or we sleep next to our loved ones and so that does not mean that is in all cases, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much exposure can certainly lead to lots and lots of bad health effects, but I think trying to understand and just have some baseline knowledge of what radioactivity is, what radiation is is really important if you even want to start the conversation.

Claudia: I live here in South Carolina. I live very close to a number of nuclear power plant that have been decommissioned. There's always concerns about leaks and big waste sites and what happens with that radioactivity. I just have to say, "Well, I'm actually not so worried about the radioactivity. I'm worried about all those organic pollutants and all those other things that they've been putting into the groundwater that I think is going to get me first."

Brian: Whoa!

Claudia: Yeah. Again, I think there's just a lot of misinformation about radioactivity that just makes it difficult to talk about.

Brian: Okay. Wow!

Quinn: That's, I think, a very important start.

Quinn: Are there any other misunderstandings, myths, conspiracies that you'd like to correct off the bat so that we can get off on the right foot here?

Claudia: Yes.

Quinn: Please.

Claudia: What do you think is the number one cause of death from radioactivity? What do you think is the highest exposure to radioactivity in the world, where you're at, anything like that? Can you make some guesses?

Quinn: You said we couldn't become a superhero or super villain so it's not that.

Brian: Correct.

Claudia: Can't. You can't.

Brian: How many people die of skin cancer? Not that many?

Quinn: Skin cancer, microwaves …

Claudia: Microwaves, right? Right? Maybe if you live near Chernobyl, you can.

Quinn: Sure. Yeah. Maybe. I don't know. It just hit me. What do we got?

Claudia: Smoking. If you're a smoker, you get the highest dose of radiation than anyone, relatively speaking, because … I know. I know. They get the highest dose of ionizing radiation.

Brian: I still don't understand why people are smoking cigarettes anymore, but-

Claudia: Yeah, you worry about the tar and all the toxins, et cetera, but there is naturally occurring radioactivity that accumulates in tobacco products. When you smoke, you're inhaling those radioactive elements into your lungs. They're just radiating the crap out of it.

Quinn: It's in the tobacco?

Claudia: Yeah. When you're smoking it, the polonium, it's radioactive polonium and lead. It literally, the smoke gets into your lungs. You're just getting exposed to huge amounts of ionizing radiation.

Brian: Have you seen how cool people look, though, when they smoke?

Claudia: They do …

Quinn: Pretty good argument, huh?

Claudia: Maybe.

Quinn: Oh, my god. That's really wild.

Brian: Okay. Holy cow!

Claudia: You think about, "Oh, my gosh. I'm worried about living near my nuclear power plant. I'm worried about nuclear waste." I'll just say to you, "Hey, don't smoke." That would be a good start.

Quinn: An older friend went to a doctor once some time in the past few years and came home and humbly told me the story about going in. It's Los Angeles. They went in there like, "Oh, okay. Got a list of … I heard I should follow this diet and I should do this thing and I should eat this specific thing and I gluten and this and this." The doctor is like, "Maybe just stop fucking smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Why don't we start there, champ?"

Brian: Wow!

Claudia: Right?

Quinn: That is without me knowing about the radioactivity, which is …

Brian: Yeah. It was already terrible.

Quinn: All right. What else you got? Blow some more minds here.

Claudia: Okay. We are naturally exposed to radiation all the time. We get some from the sun's rays, right?

Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: That's why you put on sun screen, but you know that our exposure to radioactivity has actually increased over the last several decades? Can you guess as to why?

Quinn: Now, no.

Brian: No.

Quinn: No.

Brian: Is it cigarettes?

Quinn: Yeah.

Claudia: No, actually it's not. It's because we go in for more medical testing.

Quinn: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Claudia: Right?

Quinn: Yeah.

Claudia: When you go into get radiation therapy or X-rays, just X-rays. That's where we're getting a lot more of our exposure to radiation these days as opposed to nuclear fallout, swimming in the ocean. Yeah. It's medical. Hmm. Who knew?

Quinn: All right. Yeah. Wow!

Brian: Not us.

Claudia: It's still low. Let me just say it's still low, right?

Brian: Sure.

Claudia: We're talking …

Brian: It's all relative, yeah.

Claudia: Yeah, it's all relative, but that's where we get our biggest exposure to radiation and that's why it's increased so the more industrialized nations, you get higher exposures to radiation. You have more access to better health care.

Quinn: Sure. Sure. Theoretically better health care.

Claudia: Theoretically. Right, right. You know.

Quinn: Now that that's in context, which is crazy, talk to us about what happened after the disaster with the ocean because, again, obviously Japan is an island nation and what it looks like because I know you put together some papers on the subject and what's going on there, so just if we can set everyone's mind straight on that front.

Claudia: That's great. I have a wonderful colleague, who's really been leading the way in a lot of this work and that's Ken Buesseler and he's at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Essentially, what happened was we had this enormous earthquake, this huge tsunami that came and killed actually quite a number, I think over 15,000 people, but in the process of that tsunami and that earthquake hitting the coast of Japan, it essentially broke, for lack of a better word, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plants. They had a meltdown. They had a semi-meltdown. They released a lot of radiation into the atmosphere and into the coastal ocean.

Claudia: When we talk about radioactivity, there's a lot of different kinds of radiation and so that can be confusing, but the big three that we're really concerned with that was released from Fukushima are iodine-131 and then caesium-134 and caesium-137. They're two elements and so they have very different reactivities in how they enter into the oceans and then what happens to them.

Claudia: Iodine-131 really only lasts about 17, 18 days. It degrades really quickly. It decays with an eight day half-life. By 16 days after that initial explosion, you were down to 25% of the iodine-131 that was released. It went away really quickly.

Quinn: Can I ask a dumb question …

Claudia: Sure.

Quinn: … and we try to ask a lot of these. Where does it go? You're saying it decays and the half-life is, I'm sorry, eight days or 16 days because I know a lot of people talk about the enormously long shelf life of variations on nuclear waste, which, as you say, is pretty complicated terminology, but where is it decaying to and what is it become once it's in the ocean, I guess, after that half-life?

Claudia: Okay. I think we should just take a step back …

Quinn: Please.

Claudia: … and think about what is radiation.

Quinn: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Let's do it.

Brian: Perfect.

Quinn: Do it.

Claudia: What is it? When we talk about radioactivity in the simplest sense, it is like alchemy, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: It's the spontaneous change of one element into another, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay.

Brian: Okay.

Claudia: It's spontaneously doing this because it has all of this excess energy that makes it unstable. It wants to get down to that stable place, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: It wants to get as stable as it can possibly be. When it does that instantaneous transformation, it emits energy or radiation. That's in the form of these particles.

Claudia: When we talk about decay, we're talking about the emission of this radiation and it can be a bunch of different types of radiation and this spontaneous change from one element into another. They can be very different elements with regards to their reactivities, how they react in an ecosystem, et cetera.

Claudia: So, when iodine-131 decays, it decays through several pathways, but it decays to xenon. Xenon is pretty unreactive. It decays to xenon and then xenon hangs around and that's okay.

Quinn: Okay. That's what we're looking for.

Claudia: That's what you [inaudible 00:20:59]. It's my long-winded answer, but …

Brian: No, no. That's good.

Claudia: … that's what I-

Quinn: No, no. That's important. Everybody is riding around on their public transportation, is like, "When is she going to say it's okay?"

Brian: Right.

Claudia: It's okay. It's okay.

Quinn: Okay. Got it.

Brian: All right. I have just a short follow-up. In those 16 days when 75% of the iodine-131 decayed and disappeared into xenon or whatever, did it fuck shit up in those 16 days?

Quinn: That's the technical question.

Brian: Oh, yes. That's-

Claudia: Did it screw stuff up?

Brian: Did it screw stuff up, yes, ma'am.

Claudia: Not that we know of. It looks like it went in and it dispersed really quickly.

Brian: Huh. Okay.

Quinn: Fascinating.

Claudia: There's two others. There's two other radioactive elements. There's caesium and there's two different ones. There's some caesium-134 and caesium-137. They exist in the oceans for very different amounts of time. One is for two years and the other is for 30 years.

Brian: Whoa!

Quinn: Okay. That's different.

Claudia: I know so the 30 year one, you're like, "Whoa. Okay." That could be pretty big, but it turns out that once it entered into the ocean, I hate to use this terminology, but we talk a lot about the answer to pollution is dilution.

Claudia: For a lot of the radioactivity that came out of Fukushima into the oceans, it got diluted fairly quickly. It got diluted to levels that are just relatively quickly far below what we even worry about in terms of nuclear regulatory standards. By that, I mean is, it's so low that they don't even measure it and we don't care about it and there are no impacts that we are aware of at all.

Claudia: There might have been some detrimental effects that we think that were in fish because fish can actually take up caesium and fish may have been exposed to some type of detrimental impact as long as maybe two or even three years after the radiation was emitted, but there's no evidence whatsoever that it has had any impact on humans who consume the fish, the fish themselves, we think they could have had an impact on them, but we don't have any real evidence that there was that much impact on them.

Quinn: That's fascinating because I just finished digging through Paul Greenberg. He wrote Four Fish, American Catch, and a new one about the omega-3 economy, basically. He enlightened me. I did not realize that the US imports about 80% of our sea food, which is insane. We export about the same percent.

Brian: 80%?

Quinn: With a lot of things like the shrimp coming from Thailand and things like that, that was my next question is, "Okay, so if it dissipated in the ocean, what about the marine life and further the marine life that we consume?"

Claudia: Yeah. That's the amazing thing is even though this radiation was emitted into the atmosphere and into the oceans, what actually went into the oceans was diluted. If you get really, really close to the plant, you saw much higher levels, relative to what you typically find in sea water, but those levels with regards to their impact on us, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: Or, you know, it was surprising. It was low. We're just really good at measuring radiation and anthropogenic radiation because we worry about it a lot, right?

Brian: Sure.

Claudia: We can detect really, really, really small quantities, but just because we can detect it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be harmful to us as we consume it or stand next to it or et cetera. In fact, that's actually a really tough thing to do is figure out what those impacts really are on a long-term.

Brian: Yeah. That's interesting. I'm curious where everyone stands now because it sounds like the mantra isn't like, "Hey, turns out everything is fine." I'm sure it's much more complicated than that, but considering the long term, what is the outlook going forward on this particular disaster?

Claudia: Actually, it's pretty positive. The good news is that these are what we call short-lived radioactive elements. The iodine is already gone. 131, it's already gone. It's been five years. It's long gone. Caesium-134 has a half-life of two years. It means that every two years, about half of what you started with is gone. Caesium-134, it's pretty low at this point. Then, there's caesium-137. That has a half-life of 30 years. Every 30 years about half of what you started with disappears.

Claudia: Again, the activities that were released into the ocean got diluted relatively quickly or many of them, some of that got picked onto particles and sank to the really deep sea floor where it's gotten buried.

Claudia: It's possible that as it gets buried, it can get mixed and it can maybe make its way into the organisms that live on the sea floor, but the activities that's we're measuring or has been measured, again, are relatively low. There's no indication that these organisms have detrimental effects from it.

Claudia: The short answer is, if I went to Japan and somebody offered me seafood, would I eat it, the answer would be absolutely.

Brian: Clearly there are other radioactive elements. Did this end up not being so bad just because what ended up getting spilled in the ocean just didn't happen to be that bad? It could have been much worse, right?

Quinn: That's a great question.

Claudia: Yeah.

Quinn: I think that's where I want to talk about assumptions.

Brian: Okay, yeah. Sorry. It's been seven years. Where does this disaster rank on assumptions? You know, Japan's an island nation. It's got a 40-year-old, top 15 most powerful nuclear power plant. It gets just destroyed by an earthquake and a tsunami. What was everybody's initial assumption?

Quinn: Professional, not Brian.

Brian: Not me. No, no. Not me, but professional assumptions on how bad it could be specifically?

Claudia: There are concerns, right?

Brian: Right.

Claudia: We went there right away and everyone was wearing dosimetry badges which measures radiation pretty quickly because there was a lot of concern. "Wow! How much was released? What was this? Where did it go?" In many ways, having it go into the oceans was probably the best place where it could have gone because it can get diluted and mixed out relatively quickly. We can compare it to, for example, Chernobyl.

Claudia: Chernobyl, when that nuclear accident happened, it happened on land and a lot of the radioactivity settled right there. That made it a much more impactful radioactive event specifically to us who live on land. That was kind of a big deal, whereas-

Brian: Sure. It had nowhere to go.

Claudia: It had nowhere to go whereas Fukushima, in perspective, it got into the oceans and it diluted away. We've had a number of accidents over the history of radioactivity in the environment. Everything from the accidents that we hear a lot about. Chernobyl, it released 5,000 petabecquerels of radioactivity into the environment. Fukushima released 500. It's an order of magnitude lower just to put things in perspective, but we've had planned releases from nuclear fuel reprocessing plants that we've let go into the ocean.

Quinn: Oh, oh!

Brian: Right.

Claudia: Yeah. We've done that. I know. I know. In fact, in fact, from what we know, there are nuclear fuel reprocessing plants. There's two, the Sellafield and the COGEMA La Hague, which are in the United Kingdom and France. It's released about 40 petabecquerels to the oceans over its time both what they did on purpose and maybe what they kind of did and shouldn't have. That's actually more than what we think the same among of becquerels were released by Fukushima into the oceans.

Quinn: Could you just do me a quick favor and define becquerel? Is that like a … For everybody-

Claudia: I'm so sorry. I totally nerded-

Quinn: No. It's fine. Is that like a backpack full or …

Claudia: Becquerel.

Quinn: … a large suitcase? What are we …

Claudia: Oh, my gosh!

Brian: Also, was there another one? A petabecquerel? There was two forms of …

Claudia: I know. I totally nerded out on you. You should have stop-

Quinn: No.

Brian: It was awesome.

Quinn: Look. Nerding out's great. We're going to let you go with it, but then, occasionally, we need to step back and say, "It's clear that you're just making up words at this point." If you could just detail them out for us, that'd be great.

Claudia: Okay. Those of us who live and breathe radioactivity, we don't like to talk in terms of grams of material. We tend to talk things of atoms of material. We're really small. Then, when we talk about radioactive substances, we like to talk about their existence in the environment and the radioactivity that they emit. We'll talk about them in terms of disintegrations or radioactive events per second or per minute or how per year. This is our language.

Claudia: A becquerel is a disintegration per second so how much radiation is being emitted disintegrations per second, how it's decaying. A petabecquerel is one million billion becquerels. It's 10 to the 15th becquerels.

Quinn: Brian is furiously scribbling on a cocktail napkin.

Claudia: It's 15 zeroes af-

Quinn: Zero, zero, zero, zero-

Claudia: But this is, again, this is, it seems like a lot. You're like, "Oh, my gosh, it's one million billion becquerels ," but we're talking atoms. It is a much smaller scale because that's how we measure it.

Brian: Or on a super tiny scale.

Claudia: Super tiny scale. I know.

Brian: Hi. It's Brian. Quinn's making Earl Grey tea. I got a quick favor. Every podcast you listen to begs for a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. Here's why. Not everybody listens on Apple Podcasts like you might not be doing right now, but 70% of our listeners and most podcast listeners are on Apple Podcasts. The top charts are a huge source of even more new listeners.

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Brian: Now, back to the episode.

Quinn: Okay. This is interesting so basically we went in, fearing, as Brian said, all those factors. "Oh, my god. They get crushed by earthquake and tsunami. It's on the coast. It's an old one, but it's very powerful. Everything is spilling into the ocean, into the water and the foot, on a city that relies on seafood and into our biggest ocean and the currents," and all this, and yet it seems like it went okay.

Quinn: I guess two questions, which is one, going back to Brian's question, which is did it come down to what actually went into the ocean? Was that everything or was that just a part of it or did we get lucky that X didn't go into the ocean? Could you just clarify that bigger picture a little bit? Was this the whole of a nuclear disaster went into the ocean. It turned it didn't went bad or was it just like, "Oh, my god. We got lucky. These three pieces were the only thing"?

Claudia: No. I mean, we did get lucky. It didn't fully go into full meltdown mode. There was a release. There was explosions and it could have been much worse. I can't tell you the absolutely magnitude, but we were just lucky in that's what was released. We're able to shut it down. It released material into the atmosphere. That actually all settled down on Japan. They've been working to clean it up, but it's been very low, low levels. Yes, we're lucky and the oceans are good.

Brian: Fascinating.

Claudia: Yeah. Yeah. It's an interesting question. The oceans are naturally radioactive because we have all these naturally-occurring radioactive elements that just exist in our oceans all the time.

Quinn: I think that's a really important point to make. Could you just clarify that a little bit because I think …

Claudia: Yes.

Quinn: … people see oceans, which I love, and should remain this way as these pristine things, but they're very complicated. If you could just explain …

Claudia: They are.

Quinn: … that quickly, I'd really appreciate it.

Claudia: We have naturally-occurring radioactive elements on this planet. We do. Potassium. You eat radioactivity when you have a banana.

Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love bananas.

Claudia: You do?

Brian: I have one every day.

Claudia: I love bananas. We eat it. In the oceans, we have naturally occurring radioactivity. It's just part of the chemistry of the ocean. It's from erosion or rocks, et cetera. The average radioactivity you might find in the ocean is on the order of one becquerel per 1,000 liters. One to two becquerels per 1,000 liters. That's what we typically exist in in the ocean. if you're looking at caesium for an example.

Claudia: But if you go to, say, remember I was talking about up to Sellafield or the North Sea and you look at that radioactivity, it could be as high at 60 becquerels per 1,000 liters.

Brian: Why is that?

Claudia: Because they were releasing nuclear fuel into …

Brian: Oh, right. Yeah. The thing you just told us about. Yes.

Quinn: Got it. Got it. Got it. Got it.

Brian: Right.

Claudia: You go to Japan. At one point, they were as high as about two to three becquerels per 1,000 liters. Now, it declines every day, gets lower every day because of that anthropogenic impacts.

Claudia: I just want to put that in perspective in terms of what naturally exists. If you were to look at all of the caesium in the ocean, you would have about, let's see. Let's use that petabecquerel number that one million billion …

Brian: One million billion, sure.

Claudia: … becquerels. From uranium that just naturally exists in the ocean, nobody did anything to the ocean. That's where it is. We have about 37,000 petabecquerels that just exists in the ocean of uranium. That's uranium itself.

Quinn: Wow! Man!

Claudia: I know.

Quinn: Today is a master class.

Brian: It's crazy.

Quinn: This is crazy.

Claudia: Potassium 40, potassium is that radioactive element that exists in bananas and we eat it. Yeah. That's 15 million petabecquerels.

Quinn: Ugh!

Claudia: I know. I'm blowing your mind. Keep in mind that, you know, radiation is different. All elements give off different types of radiation, but I just want to, you know, if you were to do all of the global nuclear weapons testing that happens throughout the 1950s and the 1960s and you're like, "Okay, how much did it add to the oceans," you're at 1,000 petabecquerels.

Brian: Fascinating.

Claudia: Yeah, so way lower. Way lower. Chernobyl, about 85 petabecquerels and Fukushima, yeah, maybe about 40, 50 petabecquerels. That's really 10 to 60, depending on who you believe, you know?

Brian: Right. Sure.

Quinn: Looks like a really bad number for … How many petabecquerels is just like lights out, nightmare scenario? I'm just curious.

Claudia: Okay. I'm going to nerd out just a little bit more for you.

Quinn: We like that.

Brian: Perfect.

Claudia: Okay. When I said becquerels, it disintegrates per second, right?

Quinn: Right.

Claudia: I'm like, "Whatever." The question, though, is what kind of radiation is it releasing?

Claudia: Right, right. Okay. Yeah. It's not so much just the quantity, but what is the … Right.

Brian: It's not just the quantity, but what is the … Right.

Claudia: It's not just the quantity, but what's actually being released. That's really important because if it's something like an alpha particle and these are really high energy particles that get released for radiation, but it won't penetrate your skin, right?

Brian: Right.

Claudia: You're like, "Oh, yeah. I'm good.", But if you were to inhale it and get it into your lungs, that's the smokers, that's really bad.

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Brian: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.

Claudia: Okay? We tend to talk about radiation and radiation exposure and we take into account how it impacts the human body, the type of radiation that's occurring because we know that, depending on your exposure, you'll get different types. We'll tend to use a different kind of terminology and one that might be a little bit more familiar if you just care about radiation exposure. That's what's called a sievert.

Claudia: The average person gets about three to six millisieverts a year. What is it from? It's because they're getting X-rays. They're flying on planes. They're drinking food. They eat lots of bananas, you know?

Brian: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: Maybe they live in a building that has lots of concrete, right?

Brian: Uh (affirmative).

Claudia: That's kind of the average person's exposure. If you worked in a nuclear power plant, you're a radiation worker, work with CTs and all that stuff, 50 millisieverts for your whole body is about 50 millisieverts a year, that's the regulatory limit. Okay. 100 millisieverts a year, that's pretty much the lowest level that we know of that you have a documented increase in cancer risk.

Quinn: How does one get to a hundred when it normally happens?

Claudia: Right. A hundred millisieverts a year, you're talking about pretty much direct exposure to radioactivity like on the order of Fukushima, when it had the accident, you were right there.

Quinn: Got you.

Claudia: You got that direct exposure. When you talk about how many people died from radiation exposure in Fukushima, it was really one.

Brian: Crazy.

Claudia: Right?

Brian: Yes. It's [crosstalk 00:41:35].

Claudia: Because, it released how many petabecquerels into the environment? That's exactly right.

Brian: Well, that's …

Quinn: That's wild.

Brian: … good to hear.

Brian: All right. What have we really learned? What went well and what could we have done better? What could have gone worse and how do we apply all these learnings going forward in disaster planning around nuclear faculties to make sure that it hadn't been some other radioactive element that didn't disappear in three days or whatever.

Claudia: That's okay. Many of the power plants are similar in the composition of the elements that they have in terms of radioactivity. There's a lot of similarities amongst these types of plants. There's some differences, but that's a starting place. I would guess number one is follow the safety rules.

Quinn: Good.

Claudia: Follow the safety rules. Make sure that your plants are getting inspected. Spend the money when you need to spend the money. Keep your workers well-trained. That's clear, right?

Quinn: Sure.

Brian: Good thing.

Claudia: Where do you build nuclear power plants, right?

Brian: Sure.

Claudia: That's a really tough question because you're like, "How could you have built nuclear power in Japan when we know you have so many earthquakes?", But it wasn't the earthquake that really took it out, right?

Brian: Right.

Claudia: It was the tsunami that came in and really damaged that power plant. Those are hard to predict.

Quinn: Yeah. Yeah. That's a gentle way of putting it. Right.

Claudia: Yeah. Yeah.

Quinn: But I think these are important questions because of what we've been working towards a little bit is this question of and this is a broader question we can talk about more another time which is the broader question of where does nuclear fit into our clean energy future? This is a really fascinating test case of literally geographically where does it fit in, but also as both as the pros and cons of the completely clean energy yet the disaster potential and also, of course, the bigger question of where and how we store the waste that has a much longer shelf life. That's where I'm really interested in the best practices we've learned. How do you feel like this has affected nuclear's reputation as a power source and do you have any sort of position on nuclear energy, being so close to it?

Claudia: I mean, I think it's set back anyone who wanted to build a nuclear power plant decades.

Brian: Oh, yeah? Decades? Wow!

Claudia: Yeah. After Chernobyl, there was a big, "Oh, you know."

Brian: Right.

Claudia: "We don't want to do this." And, certainly after Fukushima, it's the same response and [crosstalk 00:44:50]-

Quinn: Sound like nothing bad even happened.

Claudia: You got radiation released. A few people died. It wasn't great. A lot of fear. A lot of concern. I think there's a lot of concern. I think there's a lot of mental health effects from just fear of what the radioactivity could do to you.

Quinn: But doesn't that compare … Again, this is a really simple, stupid analogy, but I was listening to Yuval Harari's new book and people have made this point a thousand times, but fear is so important. We look at how much we spend on the "War on terror," and how many lives it's taken versus the fact that in 2017, 33,000 Americans died in car crashes or what obesity does or sepsis or things like that and just putting everything in perspective. The pros and cons of these things. Yes, it was a disaster. Yet, what it could do to us so quickly to help bring down the carbon and the atmosphere.

Claudia: But I think it's also control. When you're driving, there's some type of control. You're in the driver's seat and the accident's not going to happen to you whereas-

Quinn: It turns out statistically it fucking is, you know?

Claudia: I know, but I think there's, you know …

Quinn: Sure.

Claudia: … a psychological-

Quinn: It's the same thing as flying. I'm terrified of flying. I honestly think most of it is because I'm not in control.

Claudia: Yeah, yeah, but in terms of nuclear energy, there's a lot of pros and there's a lot of cons. I'll just be flat out with you. The biggest kind of con for nuclear energy is we don't know what to do with the spent fuel rods.

Quinn: Yeah. I would love to have another conversation with you, a longer one about that.

Claudia: Many people are worried about, "Oh, there's going to be an accident." I'm like, "Yeah. You know, you want to …" Because when a nuclear power plant has an accident, that's a very different level of accident then when your coal plant has an accident, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: I get that, but I would just say right up front is, "What do we do with the waste?" Because nobody wants it. What do we do with it? How do we deal with it? Yeah.

Quinn: There's been some interesting journalism recently and Brian will love this being from Chicago. I was doing some preliminary reading, talking about how there's 60,000 tons of radioactive waste on the Great Lakes shores because America's done such a poor job of developing much less facilities, but even a plan of what to do with this stuff. That is a fundamental question of how and what, where do we do with this.

Claudia: Yeah. No one wants a nuclear power plant in their back yard. Nobody wants the waste in their back yard, but I'm like, "Do you know where the waste is?" It's pretty much in everyone's back yard right now because nobody knows what to do with it. Yeah, it's a big deal, a big problem. We have ways to reprocess it, put it into forms that make it certainly less reactive and put it and hidden away, but we have very, very few facilities that are capable of doing that process.

Claudia: The Savannah River Site, that's just really an hour and a half down the road from me. They're one of the main sites for this. They're working non-stop and it's going to take them decades to just deal …

Quinn: Jesus!

Claudia: … with the waste that they have on site. They're just storing it because they don't know what to actually do with it.

Quinn: I feel like we need to have another conversation about that because again, what we try to do is we'll have, this is our, I don't know, 13th conversation on the ocean. We're trying to attack it from different perspectives so when people are like, "Save the oceans [inaudible 00:48:46]." It's pretty fucking complicated. There's a lot going on from warming and lobsters to radioactive waste to yada, yada to salinity. I want to do the same thing for nuclear because it is such an important question from the past [crosstalk 00:49:01].

Claudia: Yeah, but I will say I am not concerned about radioactivity at this time in harming our oceans.

Quinn: Rock on.

Brian: That's great to hear.

Claudia: Not to say that things may not happen in the future, but right now, there are other really bad things that we have to worry about in our oceans and not radioactivity, right?

Brian: I say, it has enough … It's good that we don't have to worry about this, too.

Claudia: It's got enough. It's not Fukushima. It's not Chernobyl. It's not even the material that's being dumped up there, that was dumped into the oceans from releases or submarines that have never been recovered, those kind of things. That's good news. Is that good news?

Quinn: Oh, god. Thank, god.

Claudia: I know.

Quinn: Let me pivot a little bit to how we culminate this main part which is, again, as I tried to paint earlier, I'm not going to begin to pretend that our listeners, despite how nerdy and progressive they are, all feel the same way about nuclear power. Let's do, though, finish up with our bread and butter and action-oriented question. One of our overarching goals is to shine a light on where we need to go as a people. This is where we try to differentiate ourselves a little bit from a traditional journalist who says, "Here's the facts. Do what you will." What do you feel like are the big actionable questions the rest of us should be asking of our representatives both current and incoming as we try to plan a cleaner energy future like tomorrow?

Claudia: I think there's a lot of excitement and a lot of technological development in renewable resources. I think there's a lot of opportunities to do those renewable resources along our coasts. If you want to bring the oceans into it, putting out wind farms, right?

Quinn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: Along our coastline, ways that we can take advantage of the natural energy of our planet and translate it into energy that we can then use because we all like our phones and our cars and other things. I guess that to me is really, is write your centers about supporting innovation and technology in these areas. It is so much that we can do and so much exciting basic research that it's like every day, we're getting closer and closer, better batteries, better energy transmission, and we just need to support it and not think that it's not important or pull away from it because we think, because there's a political, you shouldn't do it because there's no such thing as climate. That's always such an interesting dynamic to me. No, you should do it because this is technology, this is workforce development. You are solving problems in ways that you can't solve. If you just focus only on one aspect. That's my high horse.

Quinn: I love it. No. I think that's great. Quick answer, do you see nuclear as part of that future?

Claudia: I don't think we need it. I think there's a lot of pros to nuclear energy. I think if you had asked me 25 or even 30 years ago, I would have been like, "Yeah, I think maybe we should do nuclear energy." Now, I'm like, "No. Uh-huh (negative). By the time we get that next plant built, we're going to already made such huge strides in the next few fuel cell, in the next wind farm energy transmission and the next solar panel. Forget it.

Brian: Nice. I'm into that. There's no spent fuel rods to worry about.

Quinn: [inaudible 00:53:00], we have a shitload to still deal with.

Brian: No, no. No more.

Quinn: At least no new ones.

Claudia: You still got to worry about it.

Brian: No nukes.

Quinn: All right. awesome. We're getting pretty close here. We've had you for a while and we cannot thank you enough for being here. It's been mind blowing, Doctor. I really appreciate it.

Quinn: Yes, seriously. Plus, I learned so many new words.

Claudia: Oh, I'm so embarrassed.

Quinn: I'm going to quiz you on all those words. I'm going to make you spell them.

Claudia: I should have really thought about it.

Quinn: No, no, no. It's awesome. This is [crosstalk 00:53:23].

Brian: Becquerel's got a Q in it. I wasn't expecting that.

Quinn: Didn't see that coming.

Brian: Doctor, who else, if you can think of anybody off the bat or not. That's fine. You can email us later, but who else should we talk to? People like you, world changers in the areas that are affecting all of us today into the next 10 or 20 years?

Claudia: Oh, my gosh. There's so many really great people out there. There's someone who I really admire and I really like to read what they talk about. His name is Bill Schlesinger. He's from the Cary Institute. He actually is super, super smart guy. He's a professor emeritus at Duke. He thinks a lot about environmental questions and biogeochemistry and how do we build a sustainable Earth? He's a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He's really, really cool.

Quinn: Awesome.

Brian: Nice. That's a great one.

Claudia: I think he's a really interesting person to talk to and think about that.

Claudia: There's a few others that I think is pretty cool. One of them actually is my colleague. Her name is Lori Ziolkowski. She spends way too much time in Antarctica [crosstalk 00:54:45]-

Quinn: Wait. Can anybody spend way too much …

Claudia: You can.

Quinn: She didn't happen to just stab somebody for spoiling the ending of books, did she?

Claudia: No, no, but this idea of doing science and being in this really small group of people and this kind of environment and … Oh!

Brian: I think we've had at least two podcast guests on in the past that were about to go to Antarctica or recently gotten back from Antarctica.

Quinn: People tend to record with us and then go into the wilderness for a while, which is fair.

Claudia: [inaudible 00:55:18].

Quinn: I'd love to get all those names from you and hit these people up. Obviously, of course, the more ladies and people of color we can get on the line to help get their voices out there the better. Doctor …

Brian: Now, it's lighting round time.

Quinn: Lightning round time. Two things, then we're going to get you out of here to keep making sure we're still alive in the ocean.

Quinn: Doctor, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?

Claudia: I think it was probably pretty late. I was already probably in graduate school and I started interacting and working with students of color. I, in trying to get them excited about science, and I realized that I could do great research, but I could really make a difference in students' lives by getting them excited, particularly students who traditionally don't get that access into about science and how cool and awesome it is.

Quinn: I love that.

Brian: Very good.

Quinn: I love that.

Quinn: Okay. Who is someone in your life that has positively impacted your work in the past six months?

Claudia: Probably someone who I think about a lot who's always been very impactful besides my husband, who is super smart and always tells me when I'm full of crap, is a gentleman by that name of Robert Thunell, who was a professor here, who recently passed away, but he was always just so good at … I would tell him all my ideas and he would say, "Okay," and walk through them and calm me down and just a wonderful, wonderful sounding board. I'm sorry he's gone but he … Very impactful on my development.

Quinn: That's awesome. We are thankful for him, then. That sounds pretty important to have somebody like that in your life.

Quinn: Doctor, things are complicated out there these days. What do you do specifically when you feel overwhelmed by everything?

Claudia: I do athletic activities.

Quinn: What athletic activities?

Brian: Oh, yeah. What do you have?

Claudia: I like to play soccer or I bike to work or get rid of excess energy by making my body really tired. I have a wonderful group that I work out with because that just releases my stress so I need to do something like that or I will probably kill people and [crosstalk 00:57:53] people at jail.

Quinn: I know the feeling. I know the feeling.

Claudia: [crosstalk 00:57:57].

Brian: That's such a good one. I had such a shitty day of work the other night. All I could think about was going to the gym the next morning because I knew that was going to help and I did and it was so wonderful. So much better than doing something stupid and not helpful. Such a great stress reliever.

Claudia: It is. You're like, "Oh, I can't believe I got to go work out, I got to change, I got to get there." Then, you do it, you're like, "Oh, yeah."

Quinn: I know. "That was the best."

Quinn: Doctor, how do you consume the news?

Claudia: This is going to sound silly, but my parents always listened to NPR, even when I was really young. I have taken on that and I listen to NPR quite a bit and all of the associated podcasts.

Quinn: That's great. That's wonderful. That's not silly.

Claudia: Yeah, yeah. Then, I'll read the BBC News if I want the external view of our nation from outside, an outside viewpoint.

Quinn: Yeah. Oh, that's great.

Brian: That's so well-rounded.

Quinn: All right. This is a fun one. If you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would that book be?

Claudia: He doesn't read.

Quinn: Yes, I know. We've dealt with that question.

Claudia: Oh, I'm sorry. Okay, okay.

Quinn: No, no, no. It's a very fair assessment. Just for context, we have an Amazon wish list that our listeners, we put every one of these recommendations on and our listeners can go on there and order the books our guests recommend and they get sent straight to the White House. We've had everything from cartoons to the constitution so hit us.

Claudia: I was talking about this gentleman, Bill Schlesinger. He has a book called Collected Writings on Contemporary Environmental Issues and I just love reading his books. They're very thoughtful. They're on general interest. They're written in ways that I think the general public can understand on a variety of topics and I think that would be such a wonderful book if …

Brian: Is there a scratch and sniff version of this or does it come with crayons?

Claudia: Yeah. I know. If it came with crayons or fill in the dots or connect the numbers, connect, it'd be great.

Claudia: Actually, but maybe related to this, I've been really thinking a lot about immigration and about the diversity of our workforce. I just think it's so important that if we are going to really solve the Earth problems, we have to bring together people who just think about things differently from one another.

Claudia: I think a good book on immigration and First Nations and who was really here first and how we've changed the landscape of this country that we've grown up in. For me, I'm of Puerto Rican and German descent. I think it's interesting being Hispanic and people always talk to me about being Hispanic is being an immigrant, but really it's my German side that was immigration most recent. I just think that, yeah, we can do so much and really just know we can solve problems better when we bring different viewpoints and different experiences to the table so something on that. I don' know what the right book is. Maybe you could ask some other guests about what that book might be.

Quinn: Yeah. No, we'll get on it.

Claudia: You could then recommend it back to me to really just think about this on a broader scale.

Quinn: I love it.

Claudia: It's totally unrelated to science.

Quinn: Nope, nope, nope. It's still related to science. It's amazing. It is so vital to get more voices involved in science because we have no idea what's going to come of it that is … Yeah, it's a fundamental way of looking at the world.

Quinn: Awesome. Doctor, where can our listeners follow you on the internet?

Claudia: They can't.

Quinn: Hey, that's a hell of an answer, too. Can they follow your work or your workplace or something in that nature?

Claudia: They can follow my work on a website I do keep my website up to date. If you just Googled my last name, Benitez-Nelson, because there's just not many of us in the world.

Quinn: Yeah, there's not. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Claudia: You'll find me and you'll find my website and I'll talk about all the latest and greatest research that I'm doing.

Brian: Perfect. Awesome.

Quinn: Works for me. I'm getting close to downgrading to that, myself.

Quinn: Doctor, thank you so much for your time today. That was such an enlightening experience and I think will help clarify for so many people the issues at hand and the history and also how to have productive conversations going forward, which I know seems crazy, but I think those are so essential. We thank you for help illustrating that for us.

Claudia: You're very welcome. It's been my pleasure.

Quinn: Awesome. Maybe we'll all get to hang out with [Don Right 01:03:10] one day.

Brian: One day.

Claudia: Oh, my goodness.

Quinn: One day.

Claudia: Isn't she just the coolest?

Brian: I don't know if we're able to find a hall big enough for all the members of the fan club, though.

Quinn: I know.

Claudia: I know.

Brian: She's wonderful.

Claudia: I know. Just sign her up and … Yeah.

Quinn: Love it. All right, Doctor. We'll let you get out of here.

Brian: Thank you so much.

Quinn: Thank you so much. Keep kicking ass out there and we will talk to you soon.

Claudia: You're very welcome.

Brian: All right. Thank you.

Quinn: Thanks, Doctor.

Claudia: Have a great rest of your day. Bye.

Quinn: Bye.

Brian: Bye.

Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today and thanks to all of you tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.

Brian: You can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter at Importantnotimp. Just so weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram at importantnotimportant, Pinterest and Tumbler, the same thing. Check us out, follow us, share us, like us. You know the deal. Please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this. If you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcast. Keep the lights on. Thanks.

Quinn: Please.

Brian: You can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website,

Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jamming music, to all of you to listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.

Brian: Thanks, guys.