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Traces Of Fukushima Radioactivity Detected In West Coast Waters

Tom Banse
File photo of Oregon coast at Lincoln City.

An oceanography institute announced Monday that trace amounts of radioactivity from Japan have been detected off the West Coast.

Radiation experts say the low levels of radioactivity measured do not pose a health threat here.

'About A Thousand Times Less Than A Drinking Water Standard'

A post-earthquake tsunami in 2011 caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to spill a large amount of radioactive contamination into the Pacific. Oceanographers projected that it would take until this year for highly diluted traces to reach the West Coast of North America.

Credit Courtesy of WHOI
In this illustration of ocean currents, white dots indicate where no cesium-134 was detected. Blue dots indicate locations were low levels of cesium-134 were detected farther offshore.

A recent research cruise from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to Eureka, California detected the front edge of the plume multiple times between 100 and 1,000 miles offshore.

"The levels offshore still are quite low,” said Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “So by that I mean they are a couple units of these Becquerels per cubic meter — something that is about a thousand times less than a drinking water standard."

Buesseler says he is reluctant to "trivialize" any amount of radiation, but says he personally has no concerns about swimming, boating or eating fish from local waters.

Results Latest In A Series Of Tests

Since the start of this year, Buesseler's lab has also tested about 50 seawater samples collected at the shore by concerned coastal residents from California to Alaska. All of those results have come up negative.

This sampling was paid for through crowdfunding as part of an ongoing "citizen science" monitoring project initiated by Buesseler. 

A parallel but independent monitoring effort run through the radiation health lab at Oregon State University found no detectable traces of Fukushima radiation in seawater samples collected earlier this year in near shore waters along the Pacific Northwest coast. 

'Much Less Than The Natural Background Radiation In Seawater'

Scientists tracking the plume from Japan look for a short-lived cesium isotope, cesium-134, that serves as the "fingerprint" of Fukushima contamination. 

For context, radioecologist Delvan Neville at OSU said it helps to know that the cesium-134 levels reported by the Woods Hole researcher are "much less than the natural background radiation in seawater." In an interview, Neville was certain the low levels of Fukushima-derived isotopes detected in the northeastern Pacific do not pose an environmental or human health radiological threat. 

Buesseler is scheduled to present his findings Thursday during the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Vancouver, Canada. 

The results Buesseler reported corroborate detections of cesium-134 in seawater far offshore from Vancouver Island starting last year.

Scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada and the University of Victoria are collaborating on a monitoring effort that also includes fish sampling. None of the salmon, halibut, sablefish and spiny dogfish they have analyzed have contained detectable levels of radiation traceable to Fukushima. 

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.