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Radionuclides from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in terrestrial systems

An Author Correction to this article was published on 29 June 2021

An Author Correction to this article was published on 11 November 2020

This article has been updated


The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (FDNPP) accident, Japan, released the largest quantity of radionuclides into the terrestrial environment since the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. This accident resulted in 2.7 PBq of radiocaesium (137Cs) contaminated forests, agricultural lands, grasslands and urban areas, which subsequently migrated through soil and waterways in the Fukushima Prefecture. In this Review, we synthesize knowledge regarding the deposition, distribution and transport of fallout radionuclides, especially 137Cs, in the terrestrial environment after the FDNPP accident, which were revealed by extensive and continuous environmental monitoring. Anthropogenic activities, high run-off and steep topography led to a rapid decline in the activity concentration of 137Cs in soils and rivers, especially in the first year after the accident. The decline in exposed radioactivity was notably faster than that seen after the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident, likely related to differences in geography and climate, and the intensive remediation activities in Fukushima. However, forests in Fukushima have retained a notable amount of 137Cs in the upper centimetres of soil and could persist as a source of 137Cs into rivers. For continued understanding of both natural and fallout radionuclide behaviour in the environment, there must be long-term accessibility of the data collected in response to the FDNPP accident.

Key points

  • Intensive monitoring after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in Japan revealed radionuclide, including radiocaesium (137Cs), contamination in the terrestrial environment, in forests, soils, cropland, paddy fields, urban areas and rivers.

  • After deposition, fallout radionuclides migrated through soil and water into rivers. Some radionuclides were eventually washed into the ocean, though most of the 137Cs in forests remains in the soil.

  • The 137Cs activity concentration declined quickly during the first year after the accident, though the rates of decline varied between land uses. Subsequently, 137Cs activity concentrations continued to decline, but the rates became more similar between land uses.

  • Due to the combination of active land use and decontamination efforts, the fallout 137Cs activity concentration in terrestrial environments declined quickly relative to expectations.

  • Continued accessibility of data collected post-accident is crucial, as nuclear power is a prevalent energy source.

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Fig. 1: 137Cs deposition and land-use type in the 80-km radius from the FDNPP.
Fig. 2: Migration and monitoring of 137Cs in the terrestrial environment.
Fig. 3: 137Cs distribution and transfer in forests.
Fig. 4: Temporal changes in the vertical distributions and relaxation mass depth of 137Cs activity concentrations.
Fig. 5: Temporal trends in 137Cs Sc values.
Fig. 6: 137Cs activity concentrations in rivers impacted by the FDNPP accident.

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This work was supported by the commission study from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) FY2011–2012, Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) FY2013–2014, Japan Atomic Energy Agency-funded FY2015–2020, Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Innovative Areas grant number 24110005, Agence Nationale de la Recherche, ANR-11-RSNR-0002, and JST-JICA, Japan SATREPS, JPMJSA1603.

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Y.O. led the writing and revision of the manuscript, with input and contributions from K.T., K.Y., H.K., J.T., Y.W., F.C. and H.S.. All authors made substantial contributions to the discussion of content.

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Correspondence to Yuichi Onda.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Georg Steinhauser and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Atmospherically deposited radionuclides or atmospheric deposition of radionuclides onto the Earth surface.


Rainfall passing through tree crowns.


Rainwater flowing down along tree trunks.


Plant material such as foliage, twigs and branches falling to the ground.

Radioactive decay

When an unstable nucleus changes into a stable nucleus by emitting radiation.


Reduction of radioactivity concentration in plants due to environmental processes.

Relaxation mass depth

Parameter quantifying the exponential penetration distribution of radionuclides in the soil profile, defined as the mass depth at which the activity concentration or inventory at the soil surface decreases to 1/e.

Air-dose rate

The amount of radiation energy in the air per unit time or the converted value to evaluate the health effect on the human body.

Suspended particles

Small particles in water; the average diameter is several tens of micrometres in rivers around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

K d

Solid–liquid distribution coefficient; the ratio of the concentration of radionuclides sorbed on a specified solid phase to the radionuclide concentration in a specified liquid phase.

Effective half-lives

The time interval required for radioactivity in an environment to decrease to half its original value due to radioactive decay and biogeochemical processes.

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Onda, Y., Taniguchi, K., Yoshimura, K. et al. Radionuclides from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in terrestrial systems. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 644–660 (2020).

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