Talk in the Oregon coast town of Bandon often turns to the approaching plume of sea-borne radiation from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
“We’ve been worried about it and worried about it,” said Zac Adams, owner of Bandon Designs construction company. “We’re really concerned about it affecting the fisheries, the wildlife, the tourism, and most importantly our health.”
In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and knocking out power to cooling pumps at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex, causing meltdowns at three reactors.
Massive amounts of contaminated water were released to the sea and continue to build up at the plant.
The radiation is expected to hit the U.S. this year at very low levels that wouldn’t harm humans or the environment. But no federal agency is monitoring it.
So Adams joined a citizen-science project, crowd-sourcing funds in his community to test a sample of seawater that he will soon collect.
Four hours north, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership has funded two collection sites, in Tillamook and Pacific City.
“Over the last year-and-a-half, it’s been an issue that’s been raising in prominence along the coastline,” said Lisa Phipps, executive director of the partnership. “In our area, there have been groups that have been coming together to talk about what is happening in the ocean.”
And fund-raising is underway for two more sites, in Newport and Winchester Bay.
Altogether about 30 sites, from Alaska to Baja, Calif., have been funded, said Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who put together the project, called “How Radioactive is Our Ocean?”
It uses crowd-sourced money and volunteers to collect water samples along the Pacific Coast, then ship them to Buesseler in Massachusetts to be analyzed on an $80,000 instrument.
Each sample costs $550 to $600, depending on location.
“I really hope everybody gets together so we can fund Woods Hole to do more of these,” Adams said. “There’s a big black hole where information should be.”
Buesseler is looking for increased levels of Cesium-137, which already is in all oceans from previous nuclear testing and accidents; and for Cesium-134, a “fingerprint” of Fukushima.
Because of its short, two-year half-life, any Cesium-134 could only have come from the plant, he said.
So far, Buesseler said, no samples have indicated that the plume has reached the West Coast.
“We know it’s out there,” Buesseler said. “We’ve seen it more than halfway across the Pacific.”
Northwest of Hawaii, for example, Buesseler has found Cesium-134 at concentrations as high as 3.8 becquerels per cubic meter.
But to put that in context, he said, the U.S. drinking water limit is 7,400 of those units.
“Every additional radiation exposure causes additional risks for cancer,” he said. “But when the numbers are in the one to 10 range, that’s a very small additional risk.”
That’s the range that is expected to hit our shores, with lower levels coming first.
“As the contamination arrives, we expect the concentrations to go up over the next two years,” Buesseler said.
Buesseler launched the project in frustration after discovering that federal officials weren’t doing any testing.
The Oregon Health Authority takes quarterly samples of surf and sand at three locations, but is not looking for cesium-134, the “fingerprint” of radiation from Fukushima. Its most recent samples, taken May 15, detected no cesium-137.
“There’s a dismissive argument that well, the levels are pretty low, so why bother,” Buesseler said. “The counter to that is it’s good to confirm low numbers. You build public confidence. And we can use the data to model ocean currents for the next time.”
What next time? Well, Buesseler said, there are currently 1,000 tanks of radioactive water on the Fukushima site, containing the more persistent isotope strontium-90. If a major earthquake were to hit the site, that water would be released to the sea.
“We would see it in three years,” he said. “That’s reason enough to be improving our models.”
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