Fukushima: A Woods Hole Marine Chemist Explains Why the Eastern Pacific Is No More Radioactive Now Than It Was 50 Years Ago

by Owen James Burke

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Above: Satellite measurements (displaying ocean temperatures and cesium-134 levels based on radioactivity per second) between July 28th and August 4th help show where radionuclides (or atomic species with radioactive elements) from Fukushima are transported. (Image: WHOI)

Radioactive waters carried across the north Pacific by the Kuroshio Current from along the Pacific Coast of the United States, were predicted to make U.S. landfall this year. While mainstream media showered the public, conjuring doom and gloom through imagery of glow-in-the-dark three-eyed fish, only a few scientists have actually been taking measurements of the radioactive isotopes (nuclides) which have been thumb-printed and traced from Fukushima–namely, cesium-134.

One such scientist is Dr. Ken Buesseler, a Senior Scientist of Marine and Geo Chemistry at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the absence of government funding, he has taken it upon himself, along with colleagues and volunteers from research scientists, commercial fishermen, and even the general public, to take samples and measurements of one isolated isotope which can be directly attributed to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant disaster of 2011. His findings? We’ve got nothing to worry about – no more than normal, that is.

If you thought your tuna was just becoming radioactive because of a nuclear meltdown that occurred 3 and a half years ago, the fish you, your parents or your grandparents have been consuming for the past 50 years has all been far more contaminated. Residual cesium-137, left over from The United States Military’s weapon testing during the 1960s, still shows in much higher traces.

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The U.S. Military’s Baker Test, Bikini Atoll, 1946. Many more such tests would follow. Image: Wikipedia.

If you’re concerned about health risks around eating larger pelagic fish like tuna, which live longer and are therefore more susceptible to acquiring higher levels of radioactivity throughout their lives, you might consider eating smaller fish. If you’d like to help collect water samples to test for radioactivity levels in waters near you, contact Dr. Buesseler and his program, Our Radioactive Oceans, through their website.


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A surfer at Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz, California prepares his surfboard to conduct scientific research led by Dr. Buesseler. (Photo courtesy of Robin Brune via WHOI)

How did you go about your research, and how did you come about your findings? It’s interesting that someone has a brighter take on what’s coming.

There’s been a lot of hype on both sides—people dismissing it or saying that we’re all going to die. I tend to be in the middle, which is interesting because of the crowd funding.

What we’ve been trying to do since the accident in March of 2011 is look at the radioactive materials that went into the ocean. Over 90% of Fukushima Daiichi’s radioactive fallout we call direct discharge—water that went into the ocean. Three and a half years later, the ocean currents are carrying a small amount of that to the west coast of North America. We had predictions about when that might arrive—sometime this year, and how much. But they ranged by factors of ten.

About a year ago, when I kept getting asked by many people, all I could say was, “Well, we think it will be…” So we went ahead, and in January of this year, we launched a crowd funding campaign, OurRadioactiveOcean.org. If you want to collect samples, that’s an easy thing, but we’ll need $550 to run the analyses—which are quite labor intensive and use expensive instrumentation to detect what’s in the ocean.

What we’re putting on this week are some analyses with detectable levels of cesium-134, an isotope that’s a unique fingerprint of a Fukushima source for cesium. It was one hundred miles off the coast of Eureka, California. That was the first number that was detectable—we had been measuring a lot of samples, about fifty, up and down the coast from San Diego to Alaska, and had not seen any of that isotope in any of those samples yet.

What about the fish? Do you have any information about that? A lot of people are talking about the tuna populations that may be carrying this radiation.

I work with several scientists up in Japan and in the U.S. who are doing radio-ecology—the uptake by marine organisms. I’ve looked at the fishery data from Japan, but stepping back a bit, the unit we measure cesium in, is called a Becquerel. It means nothing to most people, but it’s indicated in per second, and that’s per volume of water, per cubic meter. It’s a concentration of cesium measured by its radioactivity. We’re measuring a couple of those units off California, in this one Eureka sample. You’re allowed to drink 7,400 units, so this is a very small number compared to drinking water standards.

When the numbers were in the thousands and the tens of thousands in the waters near Japan, that’s when they actually closed the fisheries—we’re never going to see numbers that high here from what happened in 2011. And in fact, they were in the tens of millions—in the same units—right after the accident, and at that level, you can actually have direct effects on the fish themselves, like reproductive effects and mortality. One thing about radioactivity is that there’s no threshold, so any additional dose can be somewhat of a concern, but there’s a huge difference between fifty million becquerels per cubic meter at the peak of the accident off Japan, and two becquerels per cubic meter we measured here. In terms of relative risk, it’s very, very low.

There are very few fish that migrate that far, but bluefin tuna can feed off Japan and be on our coastline in about two to four months. In 2011, Nick Fisher and Dan Madigan published some numbers where they found that same isotope, cesium-134, in a tuna sample off San Diego. What they could do with that, though, is see how high it was. Again, people don’t realize that there’s cesium in every fish sample because of 137, an isotope delivered in the 1960s from weapons testing in large amounts that’s still here—it has a thirty year half life and will be here for decades, centuries. What they saw was not just 137, but a little bit of 134. They made a case that if you ate only contaminated tuna for an entire year, the dose would add an additional two cancers to a population of ten million people—you’d never see that.

You’d get mercury poisoning before cancer.

And, yeah, you’d probably get mercury poisoning if you ate that tuna every day. So there’s another thing about fish that’s interesting—things that occur from uranium decay in the ocean. One is Polonium-210—it’s kind of the same chain that gets radon in the basement—it’s actually quite concentrated in the fish but alpha-emitted, so dose-wise it has a big effect. That dose is many times higher than the cesium—I think it was over a hundred (becquerels) in that particular publication. Fish, I think, are a healthy source of protein. I’m always concerned about overfishing and bad fishing practices harming marine ecology, but I’m less concerned about a trace amount of these isotopes today.

So is there any reason to panic?

People should be concerned about radioactivity, but not at the level we’re measuring off of the west coast of North America, or off Hawaii, by the way. Hawaii is a little south of the main Kuroshio current, and the extension thereof, so the isotopes will actually reach our coasts first, and with the return flow, go back to Hawaii in a year or two. The Hawaiian Islands will actually see less radioactivity–and later–than the west coast here.

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(Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Company/HO/Reuters)

What do you think might be the best approach for managing this radiation? Those tanks sitting by the water seem irresponsible, on the one hand, but on the other, it seems like the more realistic question is, ‘what else could you do?’

I am concerned, on the Japanese side, about the tanks that are sitting there holding radioactive waste in Fukushima Daiichi. There have been a couple leaks and there’s hundreds of times more radioactivity for some isotopes in the tanks than the accident three years ago. Strontium-90 is a case in point. That’s an isotope that’s in some ways more dangerous because it ends up in fish bones and our bones with calcium equivalents—it replaces calcium and stays in your system for years. There are a thousand places through which it could leak, and if there was an earthquake or something today, chances are we could have larger spills. That’s a motivation for doing this work off our coast right now—if we can learn a bit more about transport and fate of cesium by ocean currents today, even when levels are low, if something were to happen in Japan today, in three years that plume of radioactivity would reach our coastline. And I’d like to tell people something better than, “Well, sometime this year it might show up,” or “Given a factor of ten, this is what the numbers could be.” I think it really behooves us to measure these low numbers, not only for public health and safety, but to learn a lot more about radioactivity and transport.

It’s a necessary evil. I have this image of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, trying to clean up with the buckets the mess he caused. Every day they fill up part of a tank. They have to build two tanks a week just to manage some of the groundwater that’s now getting into some of these cracked, broken buildings. That water becomes contaminated—highly radioactive. The levels of Strontium-90 are in the billions of becquerels per cubic meter.

The tsunami’s actual impact on the power plant is about two minutes into this video.

What they’re building—they’re trying very hard, this is an engineering problem on a scale that’s not been done before—is a decontamination system so that over the next few years, they could handle not only the several hundred tons per day of new water that they have to collect, but also the five hundred thousand tons that’s already there in these tanks. They’re trying—they haven’t shown that they can do this yet, and they have a big backlog. But they have to do something, and they’re literally running out of space to put another tank within the confines of the nuclear power site. They’re aware of it, but they’ve been having a lot of human errors on-site, a lot of problems—that I read about in the papers—being able to clean up something on this scale. At a minimum, I hear things like forty years, and ninety billion dollars. It’s a large cleanup effort that will be going on for decades. And as that happens, it will still be leaking. We measure, we go to Japan still and can see maybe not thousands of becquerels per cubic meter, but fifty to a hundred—a number that means it’s safe for me to be there, but they’re still keeping some of the fisheries closed. Particularly for bottom-dwelling fish.

If you think about cesium–think of it like salt—it dissolves in the ocean and moves mostly with the ocean’s current; that’s what we’re measuring here. But a little bit does end up in the food chain—and I’m not being dismissive by saying it’s a little bit, a little bit of a large number is still a lot of cesium that’s now buried in the sea floor off Japan because as these organisms grow and die and sink to the bottom, you end up building up some of the isotopes near Japan that won’t be moving with the ocean currents. There’s actually more cesium in the sea floor just off Japan today than there is in the water above. That’s simply because a small amount of a very big release three years ago ended up in the sea floor.

Now, our levels that we’re coming across are so low that we’re not going to see that huge build up on the sea floor—it’s impossible right now to measure any of these isotopes in sea floor samples off our coastline. People are looking hard in kelp—there’s this group called Kelp Watch that’s actively trying to use kelp as an indicator to see if there’s any cesium along the coastline, and they have not found it either. I don’t know how recent their last sample is. It’s similar to OurRadioactiveOcean.org, but it’s more like an integrated sampler using kelp as a way to see what’s in the water.

Do you have any comments on the absence of interest in radiation monitoring on the part of the U.S. government?

I’ve got a lot of comments—I really think it’s a problem. We need a responsible agency. It’s not good enough for our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to say, “We look at oceans but not radioactivity.” And then point to the Department of Energy that looks at radioactivity in very substantive ways—their abilities are quite high, but they don’t look at the oceans for radioactivity for something like this. The EPA studies drinking water and air, and that makes sense, but it kind of falls between the cracks because of the way things have been set up. And yet, every time I go and make presentations to them, or to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, we hear, “Yes, this work is in the national interest, but we don’t have a national home or agency that’s responsible.” To ask an agency to do more, especially when funding is tight, is a very difficult task.

I couldn’t wait for that, and so started crowd funding instead—which doesn’t replace the research at all—in fact we had the lucky fortune to get someone, a captain from the Moss Landing Marine Labs (R/V) Point Sur to say, ‘I’m already going between Dutch Harbor, Alaska and Eureka, California, can I get samples for you?’ We gave him the containers, he filled them up voluntarily, using very good techniques—basically research level, quality techniques to get deep samples as well as surface samples. We had a donor here in Vancouver—Luxe Cosmetics has their North American headquarters here—and they gave us enough money to analyze twenty samples. So we’re not fully funded yet, even for these fifty, but it gave us a view of what’s offshore. It’s harder to use crowd funding to get people to analyze something that’s a thousand miles away.

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The research vessel Point Sur volunteered to collect water samples while sailing between Dutch Harbor, Alaska and Eureka, California. Fortunately, these waters are heavily chartered by fishing boats, too, many of whom are more than happy to contribute to Dr. Buesseler’s research. (Photo courtesy of Curtis Colins via WHOI)

It works well along the coastline and along the beaches; some groups have really come through. At Point Reyes they fundraised well into the future, so we can go back every few months—that’s important data. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography Pier has raised funds into the future. But we need the offshore work, so we need larger amounts of funding to do that. That’s a big disappointment, but I can’t get the research grants to do the kind of monitoring that the public demands. We should know! Whether you’re for or against nuclear power; this is something we have to deal with. There are a lot of sources, potentially—other reactors in different parts of the world along different coastlines, and along our coastlines and rivers. Part of one the missions I try to do is not only talk to the public about this, but to find resources to train people like myself. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. Who’s going to be doing this thirty years from now? We need to have graduate programs in marine radiochemistry and things like that.

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Above: Dr. Ken Buesseler (left) helps two citizens collect water samples from a British Columbia Beach earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Griffin via WHOI)

It has been an interesting experience—it’s new to me. I’m an academic—I’m a research scientist in a lot of ways, but it seems to be a great match between the public concerns. It’s a little different from some models where you just need to reach a goal and then you’re done. This is an ongoing thing, so we want people to keep sampling this winter and into the next couple years because the concentrations will change. We will want to look at that, so we want to sustain this effort a bit into the future—so it’s not a typical crowd funding model. It doesn’t fully cover all of the costs—an example is the eighty thousand dollar detectors that I happen to have because of prior federal research funding. So without having built up those resources, I’d have to charge three to four times more if they’d had to pay for new detectors for each sample. We’re fortunate in some ways to be able to blend the research support we already have with this crowd funding to get some numbers out there.

It was interesting, too, and kind of satisfying in Vancouver where I’m going to be now, to show the coastline of North America with all these dots on it—we have twenty locations between Alaska and California, and there were no dots on that map nine months ago, there were no data from those locations. We have had some help with the Canadian scientist John Smith who had done some sampling on a line from Vancouver out. He had detected radiation offshore, so we weren’t that surprised, in a way, but this is woefully under-sampled. It’s a big part of the ocean that has not been sampled, and there’s a big part of the population that wants to know more. We just try to provide that information, and they can make up their own minds about how worried they should be or whether or not to go in the ocean—I’m not concerned, but people can decide that now based on data, not just on hyperbole, exaggerations, or a dismissive attitude that goes both ways. I’ve seen bad behavior on the nuclear power side, being dismissive of people’s concerns, to people attributing health effects or starfish die-offs and things on stuff that’s not even here yet. I think this really helps to get some numbers out there, and then we can all start talking about what it means.

Crowd funding is very good at reaching out to people and getting them engaged. If you go to OurRadioactiveOcean.org, there’s a lot of information we’d been collecting and providing about radioactivity and what it means, should you be worried, and questions like that. We try to address that on the website and provide links to other resources.

Who predicted the west coast landfall of the contamination for this year? Where did that model come from?

There were about three publications. The scientist most often quoted is Rossi. He was running physical models—he’s a scientist who studies ocean currents, and they can make predictions based on those models. It’s hard, though, when you think about the scales and timescales, looking at something that’s five thousand miles away—that moves in squiggles, squirts, jets and eddies. It’s nothing like a very even distribution. The effect of changing winds on that, and seasonality—those are really hard things to catch. And then you get to the coastline and the exchange with water a hundred miles offshore—and the beaches are very difficult to predict. A lot of that’s due to the difficulties or nuances of upwelling or cold water that we have along the beaches in the west—how that changes with seasons, changing wind patterns, and coastal currents. What we see right now, one reason I think we haven’t yet detected any cesium-134 in the fifty or so samples that were just along the beaches is that that’s in cold water—that’s deeper water that’s brought up. What we’re seeing is some warmer water offshore where the cesium is detectable right now. When you get to a situation where you get downwelling – or winds bringing offshore waters onshore – is when you’re going to see that. That’s the type of thing we’d like to know more about and predict better than we can today. There are good signs here too, among the message of what are the levels and should we be concerned, that we’re trying to address.

What extent of sampling do you think would be sufficient?

In most of these locations, we’re trying to build up enough support to do quarterly samples. What we can do in places like San Francisco or Vancouver, where there are big groups, is that one group can go out one month, and we can tell the other group to hold off for two months—you can get a sample then. On the scale of what we’re doing, that’s probably good enough resolution. But what this week really showed is the value of this offshore—the line of samples straight from the coast on out. It provides a lot of information on what’s coming. That should be done at least at many different locations up and down the coast. Our research ships, fishery ships and others go out there, and if we could get the resources to go on those boats, and collect those samples, that would be great. That would take either foundations or agencies.

There’s certainly enough traffic out there. How can people help your research?

If anyone is interested in putting some money on the table and funding a new site or donating to another one, just come to our website—there’s a lot of information on there on ocean radioactivity. We want people to have access to it and learn more about how much cesium there was in the ocean before Fukushima. They shouldn’t panic, but they should compare it to what’s already in the ocean. The lesson here is to get a little more educated about both the human-made radionuclides from things like Fukushima and weapons testing, and from natural sources like radon in basements and stuff like that—naturally occurring. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe, either. Radioactivity from uranium and decay products is a concern too, on land.

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Dr. Ken Buesseler is a Senior Scientist and Marine Chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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