20 May 2009

Nuclear fallout could poison food supply

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In a potential nuclear conflict, fallout could contaminate fisheries and poison food supplies, according to formerly classified British military documents.
Atomic bomb

The mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in August 1945. A British military investigation found that nuclear fallout could widely contaminate fisheries. Credit: U.S. National Archives

OREGON, U.S.: In a potential nuclear conflict, fallout could contaminate fisheries and poison food supplies, according to formerly classified British military documents.

Although the threat of global nuclear warfare has declined since the end of the Cold War, there is no reason, said science historians, that a regional conflict between countries such as India and Pakistan might not have similar effects.

The research was presented on Saturday at an ocean science conference at Oregon State University (OSU) in the USA.

The earliest studies of the effect of fallout on fisheries were completed by the U.S. in the 1950s, but these focussed on the Pacific Ocean, said Jacob Darwin Hamblin, a historian at OSU who presented the findings.

“[At the time] marine scientists believed that the ocean wouldn’t be tainted by nuclear contamination… they saw the ocean as an absorbent, resilient medium,” he said.

Shallow waters concentrate fallout

But the British government became concerned that the shallow waters around the islands would concentrate radioactive fallout far more dangerously than the deeper waters of the Pacific and commissioned scientists at the Lowestoft fisheries laboratory, in England, to look into it.

Because it was a military investigation the documents were classified, and were only declassified about 10 years ago.

The Lowestoft team found that even a relatively small war could have significant impacts on local fisheries. “Fish is not as reliable a resource as previously thought,” said Hamblin, who recently rediscovered the document and is now studying it among others.

In one scenario, the effects of only two large bombs were modelled, one in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow. The scientists found that fish would be dangerously contaminated throughout the North Sea from Scotland to Scandinavia.

A full-scale war, Hamblin said, would have even larger effects.

India and Pakistan conflict

Although the Lowestoft studies focussed solely on the ability of the U.K. to survive World War III, they also reveal little-recognised dangers from smaller potential conflicts, such as one between India and Pakistan. “I wouldn’t want to fish around there if there was a nuclear conflict,” Hamblin said.

Tim Mousseau, a biologist at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, commented that this is a “very interesting” issue and not one that has drawn a lot of recent attention.

Although the most devastating effects of a regional conflict between countries such as India and Pakistan would be direct casualties, “radioactive fallout from a nuclear interaction between [them] could have significant impacts on the marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

“Both countries are thought to have fission devices that would generate radioactive caesium and strontium, two isotopes that are water soluble, long lived, and that are known to accumulate in the food chain,” he said.

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