Radiation Rundown

fukushima-blogWhat we know about the current and eventual repercussions of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant’s nuclear disaster

Radiation released into the environment following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown has many people around the world worried, prompting regional groups such as S.O.S. Fukushima Response Santa Cruz to rally for international action in the ongoing cleanup process. While the prospect of increased, dangerous levels of radiation contaminating the world’s oceans is terrifying, experts say determining the immediate and long-term consequences of the disaster is difficult to estimate, and that there is not enough evidence of danger on California’s coastline to warrant mass hysteria, but that the incident demands close attention by government authorities. Here is what researchers and government officials know so far:

Some people have used hand-held radiation monitoring devices, called Geiger Counters, on California beaches and picked up radiation readings. Does that mean Fukushima’s radiation has reached the California coastline?

No. Normal levels of radiation, called “background,” vary from place to place, especially on beaches, according to Bill Keener, a public affairs official for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) San Francisco region. Radium, thorium and uranium often concentrate on beaches because waves and wind remove lighter weight particles, leaving these heavier radioactive particles behind for short amounts of time before they too are moved by wind and water. There is no reason to immediately associate changing radiation levels on the beach with radioactive contamination from Japan.

How does the EPA monitor domestic radiation levels and track whether levels may be increasing due to contamination from Fukushima?

The EPA’s RadNet system monitors radiation levels in the air throughout the U.S. constantly. They test samples of precipitation, drinking water, and milk in order to provide a baseline for the data on radiation background levels in the environment, allowing them to detect any increases due to radiological incidents.

RadNet has not found any radioactive elements associated with the damaged Japanese reactors since late 2011, according to the EPA’s website. However, according to Daniel Hirsch—a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz on nuclear policy—RadNet’s sensors are unable to detect most radioactive iodine, which is one of the two types of radiation predominantly released from the Fukushima reactors. The RadNet system pumps air through filters and then sends them to a lab in Alabama for analysis, but because radioactive iodine is a gas, it passes through the sensors, Hirsch says.

While the EPA does not monitor or sample ocean waters outside of U.S. territories, they do work with other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to follow the Fukushima ocean leak. The state of Oregon tests drinking water, rain water and sea water for radionuclides that could be associated with Fukushima on an ongoing basis.

Is ongoing radiation leakage from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant something to worry about?

While the Daiichi Power Plant continues to be a source of radionuclides along Japan’s coastline, the majority of the radiation levels are diluted in the ocean as they spread offshore and lose their potential to cause harm. Workers at the site of the meltdown, where they have direct exposure to the concentrated sources of radioactive materials, face a much higher risk of having health problems, according to a report by Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For people further away from the incident, where direct exposure is not an issue, the bigger concern is potential uptake of radiation through consumption of contaminated fish.

Is seafood no longer safe to eat in California?

Radioactive isotopes originating from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor were found in marine animals in Japanese waters, as well as in migratory Pacific bluefin tuna, according to a report called “Evaluation of Radiation Doses And Associated Risk From The Fukushima Nuclear Accident To Marine Biota And Human Consumers of Seafood,” by the National Academies of Science (NAS). Although Pacific bluefin tuna captured off California in August 2011 did contain levels of radiation associated with the Fukushima meltdown, the concentrations were less than the amount that is often detected from naturally occurring radionuclides. Such doses, according to the report, are comparable to or less than the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources. Hirsch says that while these levels are very low, any level of radioactivity poses some risk.

Is the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant disaster causing harm to sea life along the California coast?

Sea lions in Southern California have been sick and dying off at such an unusually high rate that, beginning in January 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared an “Unusual Mortality Event,” which continues today. No link has been established at this time between the sea lions’ increased mortality rate and any potential seafood safety issues,” NOAA said in a statement. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that because the ocean is so large and any contamination is so diluted by the time it reaches this part of the world, that there is no realistic threat and therefore no need to monitor radiation levels in fish—sea lion food—on the West Coast, according to a statement made by FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey to the Anchorage Daily News on April 16, 2011. On Jan. 16, 2012, the Vancouver Sun reported that 94 percent of the anchovies and 92 percent of the sardines exported to Canada contained radioactive cesium. Some of the fish were caught in Japanese coastal waters but others were caught hundreds of miles away in the open ocean.

Is there a new wave of radioactive materials moving toward the West Coast from Japan this year?

In recent months, some news outlets have published information suggesting that a second “plume” of radioactivity is making its way across the Pacific Ocean and could be arriving along the Canadian and California coastline this year. Bill Keener, with the EPA, says there is no reason to believe a second plume is coming. “The event in March of 2011 released the accumulated gases in the reactors,” he says. “No such accumulation should be occurring today.”

What is the bigger picture on nuclear power according to Hirsch?

Hirsch believes that, while nuclear power, theoretically, is an exceedingly attractive energy source—“it does not produce a lot of global warming gas and effectively taxes the energy of the atom for human benefit”—the reality is not so sweet. He says that on the safety side of things, the threat of something going wrong at a nuclear power plant, like it did in Fukushima, is just too big of a threat. In the event of a terrorist attack, an earthquake, or an on-site accident, the stakes are just too high when working with nuclear power, he says.

He cites a parallel problem as a correlation between the spread of nuclear power and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which he says has been made evident in the past year by the U.S. negotiations with Iran. Hirsch says that because of the potential for accidents, nuclear weapons proliferation, and the issue of nuclear waste—all of which pose an “existential threat to humanity”—society needs to be moving more in the direction of renewable energy sources and away from the nuclear one.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that our human institutions are not able to handle this extraordinarily dangerous [power source],” he says. “I’ve had too many decades of dealing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear power industry to have any confidence that they will regulate this technology safely. Nuclear power might be safe, but not in the hands of the human race,” he says. “We are just too prone to error.”

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