Waves for Worry? Scientists weigh-in on status of radioactive waters from Fukushima reaching California coast


By Steven Mihailovich

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.”

Experts project the radioactivity will be very low, about two-to-20 times greater than the residual radiation already in the Pacific from the nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s and ’60s. Yet in the same way no doctor recommends smoking even though a lone cigarette never killed anyone, no scientist suggests that more radiation is good for you.

Cumulative effects

Dr. Herbert Abrams of Stanford University’s School of Medicine was a principal in the six-year Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) VII study for the National Research Council released in 2005 and testified before Congress about its conclusions.

Abrams says any additional radiation, even at low doses, comes on top of the radiation people receive from natural background and from the more than 550 million medical and dental radiological exams given annually in the United States.

“The underlying premise that has to be considered as you talk about radioactivity, the water and people being exposed to it, is that the effects of radiation are cumulative,” Abrams said. “They add up over time. The question is, what is the turning point? And that’s why the common sense is to avoid radiation as much as you can.”

The effective dose of radiation on living tissue is a function of the strength of the radiation and the duration of the exposure. Even at the anticipated strength a thousandth of an airport X-ray, the accumulated exposure will be greater if one is in the water longer than the few seconds it takes to get X-rayed.

With the radiation from Fukushima predicted to peak a year after its arrival and to stick around for a year after that, Abrams said the potential dose should not be dismissed as negligible.

“Am I concerned? Yes I am,” said Abrams. “And that’s because I know radiation pretty well. I’ve been training (medical) residents for 60 years and part of that training is a respect for the effects. It shakes up the cell and it goes after the genetic material ... The bottom line is that (radiation) is a carcinogenic agent.”

Most at-risk

Women, children, and particularly fetuses, are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation. However, should anyone get cancer from the coming radioactive waters, everyone agrees that we’ll never know definitively. That’s because three in 10 Americans will develop cancer over their lifetime anyway.

It would take a massive epidemiologic study, requiring years of research and millions of dollars, to trace any cancer back to the low-level radioactive waters from Fukushima.

And none are being proposed.

“Any additional radioactivity can cause an increase in risk,” said Buesseler. “It’s there, we just can’t measure it. When I say can’t measure this, partly because (there are) so many causes of cancer, you can’t be very specific. If a kid gets thyroid cancer and is exposed to high levels of Iodine-131 (a radioactive isotope), you could make a connection. But you can’t put these smaller risks and doses and make the connection to anyone’s specific cancer and what they were exposed to.”

Bottom line?

So what is the risk of swimming, surfing and splashing about in the low-level radioactive waters for the next two years? Abrams has more than a passing familiarity with much of the scientific literature on the subject comprised since the advent of atomic energy in 1945.

“There’s been so much done in this area that has produced some acceptable conclusions, but they’re population conclusions and it’s very hard to bring them down to the level of an individual,” he said. “I mean you can just say there is increased risk. But how do you translate that into an understandable discussion of what’s going to happen to guys on their surfboards? I don’t know.”

Buesseler notes that higher levels of radioactivity than expected here are still being measured in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in the Baltic Sea, where millions live, work and play. “It’s very, very difficult to see the effects of low-level radioactivity,” he said. “Now, you could switch that around and say, because it’s so hard, it can’t be a million times worse, right? We can’t be hiding something from the public that this is a thousand times worse than we’re telling you because you would see it then. You’d see it in populations.”

With uncorroborated claims and preposterous predictions floating around the Internet and elsewhere, the coming radioactive waters still might produce health problems unrelated to the radiation, Vetter warns.

“The psychological stress and psychological impact which might actually cause health effects, we should never underestimate that,” Vetter said. “And that’s really what the big problem is, because there’s a lot of fear. There are a lot claims out there to increase the fear. From my perspective, it is completely unjustified and irresponsible to claim all the effects because that will just cause more and more fear in the public, which is probably the biggest impact.”

However, Abrams issues his own warning about those scientists declaring the low-level radiation to be absolutely “safe” based on a viewpoint that he says isn’t completely science. “Physicists, or at least some of them, are the people in the nuclear industry itself,” said Abrams. “They play down (the risks) at such low doses, but they never talk about it as being cumulative.”

With risks that can’t be quantified and consequences that won’t be verified, the radioactive waters coming to the coast this year seem to fit in the category of activities, products and habits no one can label “healthy.”

“Keep the exposure to radiation down,” Abrams said. “But you’ve got to go on living and doing your thing and if that thing is just riding the waves, the joy and the pleasure probably exceed the risk.”

Want to Know More?

: Dr. Ken Buesseler was part of the team of scientists that measured radiation levels in the waters off of Japan during the early stages of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. It was Buesseler’s assessments, among others, that exposed the Japanese government’s claims that radiation was no longer leaking out of Fukushima a few weeks after the onset as false. So Buesseler knows better than anyone why it was vital to establish 36 sites along the entire West Coast to search for radioactive isotopes in the Pacific Ocean waters along the shore.

“Because when no one makes measurements, then people will get more worried,” he said. “My take is let’s just get some numbers out there and talk about them. We can disagree on what they mean. We can get have arguments about what level’s considered acceptable in seafood or in the ocean. But let’s just be open with the results and talk about them.”

Some radioactive isotopes take decades and even centuries to decay, while others decompose in a matter of a few years. So the presence of the latter (in this case, Cesium-134) will indicate the arrival of radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the water, Buesseler said.

The results of each test from each site are posted on the Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) website.

Of the 36 sites, only 25 have produced data thus far because funding the project is an ongoing endeavor. Buesseler said 320 private individuals and organization have contributed to date since government agencies have refused to provide any assistance.

“We’re looking for agencies to step up and help us do that and we’re not getting any success with places like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or the Department of Energy and that’s too bad,” Buesseler said. “I think they have some responsibility to look at these types of things. They say if (the radiation) is so low, why bother? But there’s still reason to do it.”

To help fund the three-year project, suggest another site or learn more, visit the website or contact WHOI by e-mail at

: Professor Kai Vetter began collecting samples from a variety of substances to monitor the release of radioactive emissions in the greater biosphere soon after the Fukushima disaster. The effort included the placement of an $80,000 radiation detection device on the rooftop of a University of California building at Berkeley. The real-time results can be seen at

Vetter volunteers his time, along with some students, to run the monitoring station and maintain the website. “In a way, we feel as a journalist,” said Vetter. “We see ourselves really as [doing a] service to the community.”

Vetter encourages teachers and students as well as individuals to do research and science projects based on the information from the website. He believes such hands-on experience with actual data will go a long way to alleviate public anxieties about radiation.

“If nothing else, (you’ll learn) about the radiation in the world we’re living in,” said Vetter. “You’ll get the real-time monitoring system and you’ll see large variations of radiation (levels) in our environment. Just to recognize this large variation, which is natural, I think it’s already 90 percent of the way toward addressing the concerns by the public.” —

Steven Mihailovich