Has the truth about radiation arriving on the California coast been muddled amidst mounting concern?
When the Japanese coastline where the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant sits was pummeled with a massive tsunami and earthquake in March 2011, three of the site’s nuclear reactors melted down. Unprecedented quantities of radioactive materials—coolant, mostly—began seeping into the Pacific Ocean.
Almost three years later, that radioactive contamination is the source of widespread concern around the world, including in Santa Cruz County.
“The Fukushima disaster was just horrendous,” says Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz. “We’ve never had a nuclear accident before that released this amount [of radiation] into the sea.”
Hirsch, who has followed the Daiichi disaster’s developments closely, says that it is not yet clear what effects radiation from Fukushima could have on the California coast. The most immediate issues, he says, have to do with a lack of government monitoring and response, and the confusion that ensues when untrained citizens take it upon themselves to test for radiation.
In recent months, a number of area residents have attempted to gather their own data on the levels of radioactivity in coastal waters using handheld meters called Geiger counters. One Half Moon Bay resident, who made a video of the device picking up elevated radioactive readings on a beach and posted it to YouTube in December, prompted the California Department of Public Health (CDHP) to assess the danger. A subsequent report declared that the readings came from Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) that were unrelated to the Fukushima incident.
On Friday, Jan. 10, the CDHP Radiologic Health Branch issued a statement that there are no public health risks at California beaches due to radiation originating from Fukushima.
According to the EPA, their air monitoring data, which is gathered using the agency’s national RadNet radiation-monitoring system, has not shown any radioactive elements associated with the damaged Japanese reactors since late 2011, “and even then, the levels found were very low—always well below any level of public health concern.”
EPA Press Officer David Yogi relayed the statement in an email to Good Times, adding, “With respect to the local beach monitoring by Geiger counters, background radiation varies from place to place and is often quite variable, especially on a beach.”
However, Hirsch expresses concern that the EPA has not monitored domestic radiation levels to an adequate degree, citing news in April 2012 that a number of the RadNet sensors—25 of the total 124—were out of operation at the time of the meltdown. The lapse was met with a scolding from the U.S. Office of the Inspector General, who Forbes magazine says described the EPA’s system as “vulnerable and managed with less urgency and priority than it deserves.”
“The EPA has fallen on the job with any serious post-Fukushima monitoring,” Hirsch says.
Following the disaster, Hirsch says the EPA refrained from deploying mobile radiation sensors and was very slow to publish data indicating higher than normal levels of radioactive iodine in rainwater throughout the United States.
“[It is] very troubling,” he says. “Much of the monitoring just didn’t happen.”
Hirsch says this failure on the government’s part has led to the flood of citizens taking matters into their own hands. This poses a problem because these handheld devices do not provide the necessary context of a radiation source’s signal, he says.
“There’s a vacuum that’s been created by the government agencies doing a very poor job at monitoring, so you end up having people using digital equipment they don’t entirely understand and don’t really show what you want to look for, and getting results that scare people,” Hirsch says.
To get the appropriate data, Hirsch says scientists need to test samples in areas where the normal, or “background,” level of radiation is known, and use equipment that can determine what kinds of radiation are registering. He would want to know if the monitor is picking up cesium-137—one of the most abundant and hazardous radioactive isotopes released from Fukushima—or something that occurs naturally in the sand, like radium.
Meanwhile, many are still concerned about the ways radiation from Japan may have already, and could continue to, harm the environment.
In January, Robin Brune organized the local Meetup.com group Save Our Surfers (S.O.S.), a new chapter of the regional group Fukushima Response Bay Area. There are currently 10 to 15 members, she says.
The group’s aims are to educate themselves on the issues, compile educational materials, build community support, and bring attention to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown. Eventually, Brune says, they plan to appeal for political action, starting with local government.
“If our local governments take action, hopefully we can build some strength,” she says. “We want them to join in that voice” pushing for an international response.
“This is a huge nuclear accident that is impacting our entire ecosystem,” Brune goes on. “It is an ongoing disaster and we don’t think there are sufficient resources [being designated to addressing it].”
S.O.S. is currently fundraising to send local water samples to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts for radiation tests. However, if possible, she says they hope to get the testing done locally instead of sending it the approximate 2,600 miles across the country.
For his part, Hirsch would like to see the EPA send water samples to their labs where their “radiological fingerprint” can be tested, which—if cesium were detected—would allow scientists to know whether it originated from nuclear weapons testing fallout from decades past, or if it came more recently from Fukushima.
Additionally, Hirsch says he is worried about the EPA’s heightened standards for permissible radiation levels, which were revised in April of last year. The new guidelines for radiological incidents make cleanup standards much more lax. “This would, in effect, increase a longstanding one-in-10,000-person cancer rate to a rate of one-in-23 persons exposed over a 30-year period,” according to an April 8 press release from the national alliance Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“They’ve tried to relax these permissible levels over the last year in a very controversial fashion,” Hirsch says. “They’re trying to reassure people that there’s no problem, and now people are going out with handheld Geiger counters, and the truth is getting lost, but the truth is subtle.”
Hirsch says that the danger that radiation quantities pose are significant even at tiny margins. With the standards even lower, there could be significant health effects even though radiation levels are below the government’s permissible level.
“There is no threshold below which there is no harm caused by radiation,” he says. “The theory is called the ‘linear no-threshold model,’ which means risk increases linearly with the dose. Small amounts of radioactivity produce small increases in cancer risk; larger amounts produce larger degrees of cancer risk.”
On Feb. 5, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) of Japan provided the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with an update on radiation levels near the meltdown site, which are being monitored by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). This is the same organization that was managing the power plant’s operation at the time of the meltdown and admitted—more than a year after the disaster—that they had “failed to take stronger measures to prevent disasters for fear of inviting lawsuits or protests against its nuclear plants,” as was reported in the New York Times on Oct. 12, 2012.
In the update, Japan’s NRA stated that the concentrations of all radionuclides were “relatively stable” from Jan. 27 through Feb. 2, though Brune says she is concerned that TEPCO is permitted to run lead on the cleanup and monitoring efforts. She says the United Nations should be involved.
Brune, whose husband surfs, says surfing and an appreciation for the ocean defines Santa Cruz’s identity as a city. She asks herself if, due to radiation contamination, there could come a day when being in the ocean is no longer safe.
“I feel that if this isn’t stopped, if this radioactive material continues to pour into our oceans unchecked, there will be a time when it’s not safe,” she says.
“Radioactivity is invisible,” Brune continues, “but our concerns are not. We need to cry out. There are so many issues facing us, but I think this one needs to move to the frontburner.”
S.O.S. Fukushima Response Santa Cruz (which is online at meetup.com/SOSFRSC) will hold its next meeting on Saturday, March 1.
For a detailed breakdown of what researchers and government officials know about the current and eventual repercussions of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant’s nuclear disaster, check out this blog: Radiation Rundown