When the roof blew off reactor building No. 3 at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011 releasing toxic amounts of radioactivity into the environment, Californians felt safe knowing the disaster was unfolding more than 5,000 miles away across the Pacific. However, the same ocean that separates us from Japan also connects us and the radioactive waters that have been riding a current for more than three years are expected to wash ashore some time this year.
While scientists anticipate substantial dilution of the radiation in the world’s largest body of water, the potential health effects cut to the heart of the contemporary scientific debate on the biological consequences of low-level radiation.
“(The radiation) is still a small number, whether you multiply it by 10 or by 100, at levels we expect, though,” said Dr. Ken Buesseler, senior scientist with the Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“A lot of people are dismissive of it because it’s so low, and that’s not a good thing to do because radiation can kill,” Buesseler said, although adding, “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s at harmful levels because I can measure these very, very small amounts.”
Buesseler is leading an effort to collect and analyze water samples at 36 beach sites along the West Coast from Alaska down to Scripps Pier in La Jolla. Samples are collected quarterly and Buesseler will know exactly when the irradiated waters from Fukushima hit the coast by the type of radiation emitting element — or radioactive isotope — found.
While some reports place their arrival to Southern California this summer, Buesseler said all estimates are based on computer models that can’t pinpoint details.
“These models are designed to look at the entire Pacific — 5,000 miles — not about specific conditions at La Jolla or Black’s Beach,” he said. “It’s a little harder to predict right at the beach exactly when we’ll see it. We know it’s out there and we know it’s moving slowly across ... I tell people by the end of the year we should start to see it along the coastline, at least in the San Francisco area and up.”
Professor Kai Vetter of UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department has been monitoring radiation levels in the air and rainwater around Berkeley as well as in soil, milk, cheeses and animal feed from nearby farms since the onset of the disaster in 2011.
With numerous sources of daily radiation in the natural environment already, Vetter expects the concentration of radiation in the tainted Pacific Ocean waters to be 1,000 to 10,000 times less than the radioactive isotope (Potassium-40) found in kelp or bananas.
“People don’t understand nuclear radiation and the impact,” said Vetter. “Everyone is really scared of it even though it’s part of the world we’re living in. The bottom line is the concentration we expect to see here in the ocean water in California is extremely small. It should not pose any health risk on swimmers, divers, people on the beach.”