Fukushima Radiation on its Way to California, Scientists Say it Poses No Threat

, KQED Science | February 24, 2014 | 4 Comments
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The California coast is -- so far -- free of Cesium-134, the radioactive isotope traveling across the ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. (Damian Gadal/Flickr)

The California coast is — so far — free of Cesium-134, the radioactive isotope traveling across the Pacific from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. (Damian Gadal/Flickr)

Radiation in the ocean from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in 2011 in Japan has yet to reach the California coast, scientists said Monday.

Researchers have detected miniscule amounts of the radioactive isotope cesium-134 in the ocean off Vancouver, Canada, as John Norton Smith, a senior research scientist at Canada’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography, said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Hawaii. It’s at levels lower than naturally occurring radiation, like polonium-210, which is already in the ocean, he said.

Scientists are testing samples and using models to try to zero in on when it will reach the California coast — they say they expect it this spring — and how much there will be when it does, said Ken Buesseler, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Researchers have also detected radioactive cesium-137 in the ocean. This is not a surprise, said Buesseler.  It’s been around since the nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s. With a half-life of 30 years, it’s going away, but still around in trace amounts.

‘It’s clearly not an environmental or human health radiological threat.’

One of the outstanding questions now is, how much cesium-134 — the stuff from Fukushima — will eventually make it to our coast?

The data collected by scientists at the Bedford Institute fits into two different models — one predicting that it could reach levels comparable to the levels of cesium-137 when weapons testing was still going on, the other that it would be closer to cesium-137 levels in the 1990s.

“It’s really a little hard to predict at this moment which model is correct, said Smith. Either outcome, he emphasizes, is not dangerous to humans because the levels are so low.

“It’s clearly not an environmental or human health radiological threat,” he said Monday.

Once it does start arriving researchers will know, said Buesseler. He’s organizing a citizen science project, in which volunteers all over the West Coast collect ocean water samples to test for radioactivity. Collection points in California include Point Reyes, Pacifica and Santa Cruz.

“It’s not here yet,” Buesseler said. “When we’re talking about the arrival of the plume — and, you know, I’m the first person to say radioactivity can be quite dangerous, we should be concerned — but maybe not at the levels we’re going to expect coming across from Japan.”

Another radiation-detecting project underway in California is Kelp Watch 2014, a program to monitor kelp forests on the coast for cesium-134.


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Category: Chemistry, Environment, News

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

    This is Surfrider Foundation’s summary of the Fukushima Radiation situation:

  • CSM
  • Thomas Schoenberger

    I would be very careful declaring everything safe. There has been little testing of sea biota, soil or crops since 2012, and TEPCO has woefully under reported the extend of weaponized isotopes released daily from the plant.Secondly, we are starting to see massive fish die off’s, as evidenced by a stunning 95% depletion in sea star populations ( very fragile strontium 90 sensitive creatures) 74% of the sardines are now gone, and Krill and herring also experiencing rapid population die off or depletion. I do like Molly. She is interesting and writes well. I hope she will look at the die off’s in sea biota to see the link other scientists are now seeing..

  • tnafam

    human mutation is going to be so messed up in a couple of generations. It’s just nothing now. Nothing quickly becomes something. Have people seen the tumors in the fish that are being caught right now?